The easiest and aesthetically safest way to dress out ceilings is with flat white paint. It's also the most boring, and does nothing to hide plaster ridges and other imperfections in older homes. You can always install a drop ceiling, but that's even more boring. Other alternatives include wood, metal and stucco. Whatever you choose, it's important that you patch any loose plaster or scrape off any peeling paint before you start.
Modern tongue-and-groove wood-ceiling systems generally work the same way as tongue-and-groove floors: the planks are milled to lock together along the edges. But unlike a floor, you don't need specialized stapling tools or underlayment, since no one will be walking on it. Use an electronic stud finder to mark the locations of all the ceiling joists, then hang your planks starting at one wall, perpendicular to the joists. Mount the planks with nails through the joists as you lock them together. Trim the edges of the room in wood ceiling trim.
Stucco is a great way to add depth to your ceiling, while hiding imperfections. Stucco is a kind of cement that's mixed with paint, so it can be textured however you want once it's on the surface. Apply a thin layer of stucco with a trowel, then fashion it into the textures you want. Options include swirling it with the trowel into conjoining circles, pressing and pulling out to create a rough landscape of peaks and valleys, or using a special textured paint roller to press designs into it.
Tin panels pressed with designs is a classic old way of covering ceilings, but pressed-tin ceilings are so rare today that putting one in your home will really stand out. Use restored old tin or new aluminum versions, and paint them (with good enamel oil paint) before you hang them. They mount to your ceiling with nails, so make sure you mark your ceiling joists and nail into them. You can also first hang thin sheets of plywood, screwing them to the joists, then nail the panels to that, which gives a more flat surface. Lay out the tiles from the middle of the ceiling and work toward the edges.
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