Most homeowners probably don’t give much thought to the design and adornment of their ceilings. As long as water isn’t filtering in or paint isn’t chipping around your crown molding, ceilings are often an afterthought when it comes to interior design. This is unfortunate because ceiling design, when done correctly, can be the centerpiece of a home.  

Differences between Step and Tray Ceilings

What is a Tray Ceiling?

tray ceiling in a blue bedroom

A tray ceiling (also sometimes called a trey or recessed ceiling) resembles a large upside-down tray that is set into the ceiling of a room. Generally, the center part of the design is between 6 and 14 inches higher than the perimeter. This visual difference in ceiling height will naturally draw attention to a part of the room which is rarely appreciated. It adds a unique three-dimensional effect to the room and can change the feel and sensation of even small rooms. A definition of tray ceiling is “where there is more than one horizontal flat ceiling surface at different levels.”

What is a Step Ceiling?

step ceiling in a study next to bathroom

Step ceilings take the same principal a step farther through the addition of a series of trays. At the most basic level, a step ceiling will have two steps, though more elaborate designs in homes with higher ceilings can add several elevation changes for more dramatic visual effects. Obviously, the more elaborate the design and the more number of steps or recessions, the more expensive the overall project will be.

Advantages of Step and Tray Ceilings

step ceiling inside living room
  • Adds different visual feel to any room
  • Adds feeling of luxury and elegance
  • Makes room feel larger
  • unique lighting opportunities

The most obvious benefit of a tray ceiling or step ceiling is that it adds a completely different visual feel to virtually any room in the home. These types of ceilings are common in master bedrooms as they add a feeling of luxury and elegance.  According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average size master bedroom, kitchen, and living room are all around 300 square feet in size. While this isn’t necessarily a small space, step and tray ceilings, can make any room feel larger and spacious. In many homes, raising a ceiling can either be impossible or would lead to expensive renovation work. Creating a step ceiling, however, is one way to increase the perceived height and size of any room.

Step ceilings and tray ceilings also offer opportunities for unique lighting schemes. From recessed lights, to accent lights, to LED light strips placed in strategic areas, step and tray ceilings allow homeowners to experiment with different ambient lighting techniques to change the feel of any room in the home.

Tray Ceiling Ideas

One of the best aspects of tray ceilings and step ceilings is that they can be customized to fit different rooms and home designs. Different tray ceiling ideas could include:

  • Adding contrasting molding around the steps to offset the colored walls and ceilings which will help make the steps more of a focal point.
  • Stencil a design on the tray of your ceiling. The recessed ceiling of a tray ceiling can become a focal point of your room through adding some decorative artwork, such as this type of stencil design.
  • Add a chandelier. When adding a tray or step ceiling to a dining area, a chandelier hung from the middle of the tray will add a touch of glamor to the room. 
  • Recessed lighting ideas. Lastly, adding some recessed lights in strategic parts of your step or tray ceiling can add a modernist feel to your home.

Step or tray ceilings offer unique opportunities to transform an ordinary, uninspiring part of your home into a contemporary and elegant focal point of your house.