Taming the Tray Ceiling

It’s an age old-question:  how do you properly paint out a tray ceiling?



This is how some people think you should paint out a tray ceiling:

One Word:  YIKES!

That kind of multi-color chaos draws TOO much attention to the ceiling, and NOT in a good way. Looks like it’s time for The Decorologist to tame that tray!  Hopefully, you’ll see the virtue of a different tactic:

decorologist dining room

Another Tray Tamed!

Note the four colors in the initial scheme:  dark green, dark pink, light pink, and white.  It’s important to be judicious when deciding what architecture to accent, how to accent it, and with what colors.  Dated color placement is a thing, too (not just dated colors or color combos).  Here’s another look at the “before”:

bad tray trey ceiling colors

Tray Ceiling Colors “Before”

Below is the way I chose to paint out this tray my client’s Nashville home.   It’s a bit hard to tell from the photograph, but the wall is a gray with a few drops of green, while the ceiling is a darker color that is more of a grayed green-blue.  The darker color sits on the flat part of the upper ceiling ONLY – the ceiling color reads darker when the chandelier is off, but I didn’t snap a picture of that.

New Color Scheme for Dining Room

The room has undergone quite a transformation, but notice that new paint color is one of the only changes!  We painted the oak stair bannister black to update it as well, but the neither the light fixture, furnishings, or accessories are new. The other change made was the addition of hardwood floors, which is always an upgrade!

black bannister

If you need help choosing the RIGHT colors for your home and making decisions about WHERE those colors should be applied, check out my Just the Right Paint Color instructional video before you get out your paintbrush!

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38 thoughts on “Taming the Tray Ceiling

  1. Jean Molesworth Kee says:

    Hi Christie!

    Yikes is right. Great “taming'”. I had an interesting quandary recently with a trey ceiling that had recessed lighting behind the molding. SUCH a difference in daytime with natural light and night with lights on. Lights totally washed the color out. Had to go bolder which wasn’t an ideal look during day. Clients spent time in the room mostly at night, so we optimized that look.

    Have you had that experience?

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      This dining room is definitely an example of how I had intended for the ceiling to read a bit darker – which is does when the light is off. My client loves it, so it’s all good – but if I could make it a shade darker, I would! I have to continually remind my clients that the dark color I pick out for a ceiling will be really be more subtle than it seems it would – I’ve never regretted going darker.

      • Sunny Penner Cox says:

        Are you working with premixed colors in a color family, or mixing your own? The wall color is wonderful, (is it custom?) and the blend as the eye moves up is just superb – especially, I think, as the light changes throughout the day. I’ve been tempted, in rooms with plenty of angles, just to paint it all one solid color first – just to see how different it looks in all kinds of light. The effect here is marvelous, as my little boys would say, “You biggered the room, just with painting!”

        • Kristie Barnett says:

          “Biggered the room” – I love it!!! No doubt, the room feels larger. As for the colors: the wall color is Ben Moore’s Winterwood and the topmost ceiling color is Greyhound. I think we did Cloud White on the trim.

  2. Colleen says:

    Oh wow, the before was definitely a YIKES! I love the colors you chose, they are soothing and everything looks beautiful now! What a difference paint can make! The hardwood flooring also makes a major difference to that room, it’s warm and inviting now, another job well done!

  3. Holly says:

    Thank you for this lesson on trey ceilings and I learned a new spelling lesson too – had no idea! I always thought it was all about the blending. I have to go look those colors up now to see where they sit with each other.

    • Will Jordan says:

      Actually, she is wrong about the spelling. “Tray” is the correct spelling. Do a little searching in some online dictionaries and you will find that there is no such thing as a “trey ceiling”.

  4. Kathy says:

    You did a very nice job! I have to be honest, I’ve never cared for trey ceilings. I look at that as a huge item that down the road everyone will be saying how dated they are. Remember the days of the dreadful sunburst people were having made on their ceilings? It has an office feel to me. But I’m not a fan of the huge jet tubs either. What some people consider “it” I just see an elephant in the room. I also love that you painted the railing black. You’re right that small change really improved the entire look.

  5. Paula Van Hoogen says:

    AHHH, what a soothing change Kristie. And the black on the railings! How did you ever convince the man of the house to let that be done!!! YAY! The “sacred” oak has been banished!
    Am I being a brat here or shouldn’t the wood floor have run parallel with the dining table??

  6. Cris Angsten says:

    No kidding! I always cringe when I see a trey ceiling painted the way the one in the “before” photo was. I also agree with Kathy – never have liked a trey ceiling either.

  7. Colleen says:

    Hi Kristie, just popping in again to let you know that I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award, check out my April 18th post for info.

  8. Linda Beam says:

    Wow, what a difference paintint the stair railing black makes!! I will definintely borrow that idea from you! Awesome change and update. Also, love the dining room and trey ceiling. Paint is such an wonderful, inexpensive update. Great job, Kristie.

  9. Tennessee Girl says:

    Love the new look of this room. The before and after is unreal and the painted handrail just makes the room. Great job!

  10. Patsy Oveton says:

    Very pretty! The “before” was truly frightening. I like the way you used a slightly darker color on the upper ceiling only. That seems to work well when there is no crown molding at the top of the walls, as is the case here.

    Also, I heard recently that the correct spelling is “tray”, as it’s named after a “tray” you might have on your living room ottoman, only inverted.

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      I always thought it was “tray” but there seems to be conflicting opinions – I researched it a bit, and it appeared to me that “trey” was used by those in the know.

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  12. jen says:

    I love the look of the colored paint on the ceiling, but i’m curious if you have advice for me. My ceiling has a trey placed in the middle of the ceiling that doesn’t take up the entire space. I don’t know if i should paint the entire ceiling the darker color or bring the wall color up to the trey. What do you think?

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      I recommend painting the uppermost flat part of the trey in the darker color. Any lower part of the trey, either sides or underside, I would paint a flat version of the trim color. Wall color only on the upright walls and only below the trey. Hope that makes since and helps!

  13. Brenda says:

    I would like to put in a laminate wood floor in my dinning room and hallway. So many people have told me that theirs shows every little piece of dirt. Is there one you could recommend that will help solve that problem. I know the scraped wood look might be better.
    I was thinking about real wood and wanted one that would work with my chairs that are on rollers but am having trouble finding one hard enough for them.

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      The floors that will show the most dirt and dust are the very dark expresso finishes. If you stick with a medium to darker brown finish, you should be fine. Stay away from a yellow, orangey, or reddish undertone – choose as true brown of a finish as possible. Good luck!

  14. Joann Rogers says:

    Hello I am building a new house with large rooms and tall ceilings the dining room is 20×13 with 14foot tray ceil with could crown 7inch I was thinking about painting it light gray walls (Galveston )with Kendall charcoal in the flat center of the tray what do I paint the flat out side of the ceiling ? My trim is going to be decorators white. Thanks you your help!

  15. Cynthia Gadol says:

    I just wanted to point out that this type of ceiling is actually called a “tray ceiling” because it resembles an inverted tray. There is also such a thing as a tray table, usually a tray on a stand, which so far people are not spelling “trey” table. I know that “gray” can be spelled “grey,” but that does not follow here. The word “trey” comes from the same root as the word “three,” and is actually a name for the three in a deck of cards; hence, many a John Farthingsworth Doe, III is nicknamed Trey (not Tray!). The words tray and trey are homophones, but are not interchangeable. I know that many real estate agents and decorators spell the word for the ceiling”trey,” but that is just one of those cases of an error proliferating through common use.

  16. Barbara says:

    Kristie: Your taming pictures of the awful colored trey ceilings do not show the exact same angle of the trey ceiling. Without the duplication of the original photo angle shot you can’t really claim to have tamed it. It is the horrible bright contrasting colors dark aroundthe light that really makes the trey ceilings look bad. Please in your before and after shots make sure to capture the exact same subject so that people can tell you actually have or have not tamed it.

    Where did you come up with the term Decorologist? How did you and why did you come up with it?

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      I do the best I can with the before and after shots. It’s nearly impossible to get those from exactly from the same angle, especially when many months may transpire between the before and after and I photographed many dozens of houses in the interim. You have no idea how many thousands of photos I take. Many times the photos don’t begin to show to the improvement you can see in real life, standing in the room. If it makes you feel any better, that before/after was done several years ago and I since have gotten a much better camera!

      As to your other question, I was formerly a psychologist (for about a decade). When I decided to become an interior decorator, I thought that I was a completely different career path. Interestingly, I have found that I use lots of psychology and counseling even when working with clients to create their ideal home. “Home” is chocked-full of meaning and emotion, isn’t it? Anyway, several years ago I created that word and took it on as my monniker. It is now a registered trademark that only I can use. Thanks for the questions!

  17. Will Jordan says:

    I would challenge you to produce a reputable source that indicates that a tray ceiling is actually spelled “trey”. No reputable dictionary in the world contains this meaning for “trey”. How about you do a little research and then correct your web page?

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      Will, you don’t have to be a jerk. I actually did quite a bit of research on it. My understanding is that it originated from the word “trey” meaning set of 3, as there are typically 3 ceiling levels in a trey ceiling. That makes more sense to me that the idea that it kind of looks like a tray (an upside down one, at that) when you could say that any ceiling with crown molding (or “moulding” as the English would spell it) looks like an inverted tray. That being said, I am not an English professor nor do I claim to be. I’m merely an interior decorator. And you’re a big meanie.

  18. Linda Bush says:

    It’s sad that this is such a valuble post and someone has to spoil it and gripe over how the word TRAY/TREY is spelled! Who cares! We know what it is not matter how it’s spelled, I say if someone is good enought to share precious knowledge with us we need to be polite and respectful and not argue spelling!

  19. Shannon Hickman says:

    I’m always impressed with how you take a traa ceiling and make it look wonderful! Some trae ceilings are so “striped” they bring the eye upward – in confusion – because striped ceilings stand out and lack flow. Personally, I like tra ceilings that are pretty monochromatic. Anyway, every trai ceiling I’ve seen you improve upon looks fantastic! Keep up the good work on the traey ceilings. ( I bet every reader knows what “the word that begins with ‘t'” means in my sentences, despite the spelling. 😉 ) Be kind, everyone!

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