LESLIE: Well, if you would like to add a touch of the baroque to your home without going broke, consider putting up a ceiling medallion. It’s a decorative disk that’s centered on your ceiling.
TOM: Now, traditionally, medallions were paired with a chandelier and that’s because their original purpose was to protect the ceiling from candle burns. Today, though, you can pair one with a lighting fixture or let it stand alone. Here to tell us more about these embellishments is the host of This Old House: Kevin O’Connor.
KEVIN: Hi, guys. Great to be here.
TOM: Now, ceiling medallions really had a very practical purpose in old homes. Let’s start there.
KEVIN: Yeah. I mean imagine this: you had a chandelier in the middle of your living room and it was either burning candles or there was a gas pipe coming through the ceiling and you had a gas lamp. Well, both of those things actually give off soot. And that’s a problem in a house, right? And that was a big thing that they were struggling with – was sort of how to contain that soot, how to make sure that the entire ceiling didn’t turn black. And so the ceiling medallions’ first role was to actually try to contain that soot right above where the chandelier was.
TOM: And I imagine it also added a layer of fire protection, as well, since it was heavy plaster.
KEVIN: Much thicker than the actual ceiling itself. So it has this kind of vestige of a different purpose. But nowadays, we love them because it reminds of old houses, because we think they’re beautiful and ornate and they are. So a lot of people will actually want to either restore the medallions that they have in the house or add them back to rooms.
LESLIE: You know, I think it’s interesting. If you head to any sort of lighting or design center, you’ll find a whole bunch of sort of lightweight foam models or PVC models that are super-ornate or really simple, something with just like a little egg-and-dart detail or a little beaded detail and then some that are just so almost gaudy but beautiful in their own sense.
LESLIE: I think it’s interesting, because it can be overwhelming if you’re not choosing the right size for the space.
LESLIE: But is there a rule or do you just willy-nilly pick one?
KEVIN: Well, I don’t know if there’s a rule but there’s definitely a good way to think about it. And that is – everything you put into – your house has a style, right? And so it’s got sort of a vernacular to it. And so the things that you do to your house, you’re going to be better served if you stay within that vernacular, stay within that style.
KEVIN: So if you’ve got yourself a nice colonial house, use a ceiling medallion with a pattern that would be appropriate for that style. If you’ve got a simpler type of house, use a simpler medallion. And that’s a pretty easy correlation that you can make between the style of your house and the style of medallion that you’re adding.
LESLIE: Yeah. But is it the chandelier size or the light-fixture size that determines the diameter of the medallion or do you just kind of go by …?
KEVIN: Again, I don’t think there’s necessarily hard and fast rules but there are a couple good guidelines. One of the guidelines that I’ve heard is take the square footage of your room, divide it by seven and that will give you an approximation for the diameter of the medallion. So, just roughly speaking, a 10x10 room is 100 square feet. Divide that by 7 and you’re talking about a 14-inch diameter medallion. That’s a good rule of thumb.
If the ceilings are higher, you can probably stand a larger medallion, because it won’t look as big to you. But also, the chandelier can be a good guide. The medallion can be as wide as the diameter of the chandelier. It probably shouldn’t be as big as, say, a ceiling fan that’s underneath it because that’s got a really big diameter. That might be a little bit too robust. But those are some pretty good rules to live by in terms of choosing both style and sizes.
TOM: Whenever it comes to something like that, I think it’s always a good idea maybe to cut one out of cardboard or something like that, tape it up on the ceiling, stare at it for a couple of days, see how it feels.
KEVIN: That’s a great piece of advice. There’s nothing like actually seeing it, laying eyes on it to get comfortable with it.
TOM: Now, what are medallions made out of? Are they – they used to be plaster but now they come in a variety of materials.
KEVIN: Yeah, a lot of lightweight materials: polyurethane and foam and such because, obviously, we’ve got to affix these things to the ceiling. But we don’t actually need them to be made out of plaster, because it’s rare that anybody will ever touch them once they’re installed. They’re sort of out of reach and out of the way.
So we’ve actually worked them on the show and in the houses that Tommy is renovating. We’ve actually worked with lots of foam medallions. And in that case, the installation is a piece of cake. You can actually use construction adhesive and put them up on the ceiling. There’s not a lot of weight to support. That’s going to pretty much put them up there and hold them up there forever.
Now, if you use plaster – and you can get plaster medallions –you’re going to want to use something more aggressive than just a regular construction adhesive. You’re going to want to …
LESLIE: Because they’re going to be heavy.
KEVIN: They are going to be heavy. You’re going to want to have joint compound up there. That sets up nice and strong, at least.
TOM: And what if you’ve got an old house that maybe was covered with a drop ceiling and you take the drop down and you find this beautiful medallion that’s missing a chunk or something like that? Is there a way to repair those old plaster medallions?
KEVIN: Oh, boy, is there. And in fact, we had that identical situation on a recent project that we were working on. Those drop ceilings came down and there they were: those medallions that had been hidden for 20 or 30 years. And what a find. Now, of course, we had one that was damaged and there are a couple ways that you can fix it.
We were working with a plasterer who did it the old-fashioned way. He actually took a two-part putty. He made a mold where he actually pressed that soft putty into a good part of the medallion so that he could create a negative.
KEVIN: And then we were able to pour the plaster into the negative, wait for it to set up, peel the mold away. Because it’s still flexible; it’s kind of like rubber.
KEVIN: And then you can take that new piece and you can actually get it into the medallion, where it’s broken. Take your oscillating saw, cut it away, get it in there. And then a good craftsman can actually feather it and make it look like it’s always been there.
TOM: So that’s great if you actually uncover a real plaster medallion and you want to repair it. But let’s say you have a more modern house – one built in the last 20 or 30 years – and you want to have that appearance but maybe you don’t want to go with the foam, you don’t want to go, obviously, with the plaster. Any other options?
KEVIN: Yeah. I mean think about painting something up there, right? Sort of a stencil. It’s really just an aesthetic decision at this point, right? And so you’re just suggesting that there was a medallion there. It’s not as complex, it’s not as complicated. You can actually go and paint that design right where the medallion otherwise would’ve been.
TOM: Great tip. Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
KEVIN: My pleasure, guys.