Recessed Light Perfection: Ideal Placement in Tray Ceilings

Hey friends! I’m excited to share this lighting feature that can seriously upgrade your home’s style. I’m talking tray ceilings with recessed lighting – an elegant detail that adds architectural interest, dimension, and gorgeous illumination. 

As you know, I’m all about finding budget-friendly ways to make my 1910s bungalow feel luxe. I’ve tackled many DIY projects over the years but finally wanted to invest in a bigger renovation to create a showstopping ceiling focal point. Enter the tray ceiling! Paired with strategic recessed lighting, this ceiling design has entirely transformed my living room. 

Keep reading as I break down everything you need about tray ceilings, recessed lighting options, installation tips, and more. I’ll also share before-and-after photos from my stunning tray ceiling transformation on a budget. Let’s get illuminating!

Understanding Tray Ceilings

For the uninitiated, a tray ceiling (a recessed, coffered, or inverted ceiling) is an architectural ceiling treatment characterized by a central section higher than the surrounding edges. Imagine a recessed center that looks like an upside-down tray! 

The Perfect Placement for Recessed Lights in a Tray Ceiling

Tray ceilings date back centuries and were inspired by the ornate coffered ceilings of French Renaissance architecture. But while coffered ceilings have sunken panels, tray ceilings have one recessed section. 

Why Add a Tray Ceiling?

Beyond looking incredibly elegant, tray ceilings offer some excellent practical benefits:

  • Height Illusion: By raising the center portion of the ceiling, tray ceilings can make rooms feel taller and more spacious. This makes them a smart choice for rooms with low ceilings.
  • Focal Point: Tray ceilings naturally draw the eye upwards and become a decorative focal point. You can play up the design with lighting, color, trim details, etc. 
  • Versatile Design: Get creative with different tray ceiling shapes like rectangular, curved, stepped, or layered. They work in most rooms, including kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and more!

Tray Ceiling Design Ideas

When designing your tray ceiling, consider the overall style you want to achieve. Here are some inspiring ideas:

  • Contemporary: For a clean, modern look, opt for a simple rectangular tray painted to match the walls. Add recessed lighting evenly throughout for bright, even illumination. 
  • Farmhouse: In a rustic space, keep the tray ceiling detail subtle with similar wall colors—accent with exposed wood and wrought iron light fixtures.
  • Transitional: For an elegant but approachable style, layer the ceiling with a geometric design. Paint the inside a deeper color and the outside trim in a light neutral. 
  • Industrial: Exposed metals like steel or copper work ideally in an industrial space. Add Edison bulb pendants around the tray ceiling perimeter. 

No matter your personal style, tray ceilings can be customized to your home’s aesthetic!

Choose the Right Light Fixture to Fit Your Budget 1 1

The Basics of Recessed Lighting 

Now that you know all about tray ceilings, let’s get into the illumination side of things. Recessed lighting (also called downlights or can lights) refers to light fixtures installed into a hollow opening in the ceiling. They create the illusion of light shining from a hole in the top, directing light in a downward beam. 

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Recessed lighting consists of housing (installed inside the ceiling), trim (the visible lining around the light), and the lamp or bulb itself.

Types of Recessed Lighting 

The four main types of lighting used for recessed fixtures include:

  • Incandescent: The traditional bulb option provides warm light. Less energy-efficient with a shorter lifespan.
  • Halogen: Smaller incandescent bulbs with halogen gas. Brighter light than incandescent with a longer lifespan.  
  • CFL: Compact fluorescent bulbs. Energy efficient but contains mercury.
  • LED: A light-emitting diode. Most energy efficient and long-lasting bulb option, also compatible with dimmers.

Recessed Lighting Placement 

Correctly placing recessed lighting is critical for the most attractive and functional illumination. Some general guidelines:

  • Space lights about half the ceiling height apart for 8-foot ceilings, space 4 feet apart.
  • Carefully plan the layout based on room use. Light seating areas, counters, or architectural details. 
  • Avoid uneven spacing or placing lights too close together, which causes unflattering shadows.

Recessed lighting comes in all different beam spreads, from narrow spotlights to wide floodlights. Consider the lighting purpose, like general ambient light, focused task lighting, or accent lighting. Mix different beam spreads to achieve the perfect balance of practical and decorative illumination in a space.

Combining Tray Ceilings and Recessed Lighting

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s discuss how to combine tray ceilings and recessed lighting perfectly. These two elements truly create a spectacular, illuminated focal point.

The Ideal Location for Recessed Lights in a Tray Ceiling

Why Recessed Lighting Works With Tray Ceilings

Recessed downlighting seamlessly blends into the architecture of a tray ceiling. The lights provide perfect illumination without the need for any unsightly large fixtures. Recessed lighting highlights the unique stepped layers and dimensions of the architectural design. 

Plus, the centralized ceiling recess allows recessed lighting to be installed in creative new ways. Lights can be placed around the sunken perimeter, within the tray itself, or a mix of both. This lighting versatility and seamless integration is exactly why recessed lighting pairs so perfectly with tray ceilings of any design.

Design Considerations 

When designing a tray ceiling lighting layout, keep these tips in mind:

  • Symmetry: Place lights evenly around the tray ceiling perimeter for a cohesive, balanced look.
  • Spotlighting: Focused lights in the recessed portion can spotlight artwork or architectural details.
  • Ambiance: For a soft glow, use more diffuse lights like LED tape lighting concealed under cove molding. 
  • Layers: Vary lighting within the different sections and levels of a tiered or stepped tray ceiling.

Take time planning the lighting layout and selecting fixtures to highlight the gorgeous architectural details and dimensions of your custom tray ceiling design. The results will definitely wow!

Enhancing Depth and Dimensions  

Strategic lighting transforms a bare tray ceiling into a showstopping sculptural element. Combining color, concealment, contrast, and creative fixtures can make a recessed ceiling appear more profound and dimensional.

Create a Dramatic Look with Recessed Lighting in Your Tray Ceiling

Color and Contrast: Paint the recessed portion a deep, contrasting color to add perceived depth and make it appear farther away.

Cove Lighting: Concealed rope lighting creates a magical floating glow from under cove molding.

Directional Light: Spotlights angled to graze the stepped ceiling tiers accentuate the dimensional layers.

Diffused Light: Soft tube lighting around the perimeter makes the whole tray ceiling really pop.

Lighting is the essential ingredient that takes your tray ceiling design to the next level. Use it creatively to enhance the architectural dimensions and transform the space.

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Tray Ceiling Recessed Lighting Installation Tips

Hiring a professional is often the best option for installation. Tray ceiling recessed lighting can be tackled as a DIY project if you’re up for the challenge. Here are my best tips for a smooth install.

Planning the Layout

Careful planning is crucial before cutting into your ceiling! Measure the room and furniture placement to map out your lighting layout. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Space lights evenly around the perimeter and interior of the tray ceiling recess.
  • Focus extra lighting above seating areas, counters, or other frequently used spots. 
  • Account for all architectural details you wish to highlight with directional accent lights.

Take time to perfect your lighting plan on paper first. This will help avoid costly layout mistakes down the line.

Get the Most Out of Your Recessed Lights with the Proper Type of Light Bulb

Choosing Fixtures and Finishes  

Selecting the right mix of lighting fixtures and finishes results in gorgeous illumination:

  • Housing Size: For tray ceilings, 4 to 5-inch housings tend to be ideal. Larger accommodations can overwhelm.
  • Trim Style: Flush mounts blend seamlessly into tray ceiling versus baffle trims which direct light. 
  • Lamp Type: Stick with energy-efficient LED lighting for affordability and longevity.
  • Beam Spread: Use a mix of narrow spot and wide flood lights for balanced illumination.

Again, select fixtures best suited for your unique tray ceiling design. The options are endless!

DIY Installation Considerations

Installing recessed lighting involves cutting accurate openings for light housings, which can be tricky. Here are some things to keep in mind if tackling this as a DIY project: 

  • Having access above the ceiling makes wiring much easier. Attic space allows you to position housings exactly where needed.
  • Sound masking speakers or fire sprinklers in the ceiling require special considerations to avoid. 
  • Hiring an electrician just for the electrical work while you focus on the basic installation can be helpful.
  • Acquiring the proper safety equipment like eye protection, gloves, masks, and ladders is a must!

For beginners, smaller tray ceiling lighting projects are best to start. But with careful planning and some courage, installing recessed lighting in your tray ceiling DIY is undoubtedly doable!

How do you build a tray ceiling with lights

Creative Lighting Ideas for Tray Ceilings

Beyond basic downlighting, get creative with your tray ceiling lighting design! Here are some unique lighting techniques to try:

Ambient Ceiling Washes

Low-profile LED tape lighting around the entire tray ceiling perimeter creates a gorgeous, warm glow. This ambient lighting makes the whole ceiling a luminous feature.

Specialty Accent Lighting 

Go beyond standard recessed lights with directional specialty fixtures. Wall wash lights behind shelving or grazing linear fixtures to accentuate ceiling contours add a serious wow factor.

Dimmer Controls 

Put your lighting on dimmers to set the perfect ambiance for any occasion! Dimmers give you lighting control from soft and subtle to bright and lively.


Uplights installed on top of upper cabinets point up and cast a glow from under the ceiling recess. This makes the architectural detail pop.

A beautiful example of a tray ceiling with perimeter recessed lighting

With the proper creative lighting techniques, your custom tray ceiling installation will illuminate any space elegantly.

Real-Life Tray Ceiling Transformations

The proof is in the photos! Here are some fantastic before-and-after tray ceiling lighting installation projects:

Bright and Airy Kitchen Makeover

This dated kitchen with a flat ceiling underwent a complete transformation with the addition of a rectangular tray ceiling. Perimeter recessed lighting makes the white shiplap pop and keeps the space bright and cheery. Stunning!

Rustic Dining Room Upgrade 

The wood-clad tray ceiling takes this rustic dining space to the next level! Iron pendant lights draw the eye up, while recessed lighting provides perfect task and accent illumination. Dramatic yet warm lighting makes this a gorgeous gathering spot.

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Bedroom Ceiling Focal Point

This bedroom originally had bare drywall ceilings. Adding a rectangular tray ceiling with recessed perimeter lighting makes all the difference. The lighting accentuates the clean lines while giving off a pleasant ambient glow. Beautiful! 

A modern kitchen featuring a tray ceiling enhanced by recessed lighting adding a touch of elegance

Lighting truly takes tray ceilings to the next level. Hopefully, these fantastic before-and-after project photos have you dreaming up your spectacular installation!

Tray Ceiling Recessed Lighting Maintenance Tips

Once your gorgeous tray ceiling lighting installation is complete, you’ll want to keep it looking its best. Here are my top maintenance tips:

  • Clean fixtures regularly. Dust buildup reduces light quality. Wipe down trim rings and bulb exteriors.
  • Replace defective lamps. Take your time replacing burnt-out lights to avoid damage.
  • Fix any electrical issues. Correct minor problems like loose light housings right away before they worsen.
  • Use LED lighting. Long-lasting LEDs need replacing less often than traditional bulbs.
  • Consider a dimmer switch. Dimmer controls extend bulb lifespan by reducing electrical load.
  • Group lights on separate circuits. This prevents overloading and allows you to control lighting zones.
A cozy bedroom with a tray ceiling illuminated by recessed lighting

With just simple periodic cleaning and replacing defective bulbs as needed, your tray ceiling recessed lighting can provide many years of spectacular illumination!

Cost Breakdown for a Tray Ceiling Lighting Installation

Are you curious about what transforming your ceiling will cost? Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Tray ceiling installation: $3,000 to $4,500, depending on the complexity of the design. Materials like drywall, wood, or plaster add cost.
  • Recessed lighting: $300 to $500 per light on average, including labor for a basic retrofit installation. More complex new construction installations run $500 to $800 per light. 
  • Electrician fees: Expect to pay $40 to $100 per hour for electrical work like installing wiring and lighting controls.
  • Total budget: For a 10′ x 10′ living room with eight recessed lights, budget $7,000 to $12,000 for a complete tray ceiling lighting installation.

Prices vary based on your ceiling design, home layout, and geographic location. Luxury enhancements like crown molding or indirect cove lights also add cost. Carefully planning your lighting layout helps avoid any budget surprises down the line.

A luxurious bathroom showcasing a tray ceiling complemented by recessed lighting

I saved big on my project by tackling the standard drywall tray ceiling and hiring an electrician for the recessed lighting electrical work. Let me know if you need any tips!

The Takeaway

All this info helps explain why tray ceilings and recessed lighting are the ultimate dream team for creating a spectacular illuminated ceiling focal point. 

This winning combination offers superior versatility and visual elegance. With creative lighting techniques, you can enhance the dimensions of your tray ceiling to make it pop.

While hiring pros streamlines the installation, DIY projects are possible for the ambitious! Just plan thoroughly and exercise safety precautions when cutting openings and wiring. 

The result will be a stunning architectural lighting feature that illuminates your space in style. No home design is complete without gorgeous lighting, so let your tray ceiling shine bright!

Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m happy to help you design your dream ceiling. Now, get ready to illuminate some elegance in your home!