How to Tell If a Ceiling Beam Is Load Bearing (6 Steps)

I always find it fun to look at a house and work out what renovations would make it better. Maybe you do the same, or maybe you need to renovate your house and wonder if you can remove certain walls and ceiling beams. Part of the fun of renovating is seeing which parts of the house are load-bearing and what can be moved and changed.

In many cases, it is not only walls that are load-bearing but also ceiling beams. Load-bearing ceiling beams give structure to your house and keep it from caving in on itself. Be careful when working with ceiling beams: removing, notching, or boring too many holes in one of these beams may compromise your home’s structural integrity and safety.

Since safety is top of everyone’s mind, how do you tell if a ceiling beam is bearing load before removing or doing anything to it? It is always best to consult an engineer or builder before making any structural changes, but these five steps will tell if a ceiling beam is load bearing:

  1. Check the approved house plans or blueprints for indicators that a beam is load-bearing
  2. Check if the beam is made of a different material from the other beams in the ceiling
  3. Check if the beam is a different size from other beams in the ceiling
  4. Check if the beam is running in a different direction from the other beams in the ceiling
  5. Check if anything is resting on the beam or attached to it
  6. Check the ridgeline of the house; often, the beams directly under the ridge of the roof are structural

If the ceiling beam is a different material, size, runs in a different direction, or has something resting on it or attached, it is most likely load-bearing and structural. 

Below I give you all the information you need on each of these steps to do the preliminary checks yourself so that you can make all your renovation plan with peace of mind:

Check the blueprints for indicators of load-bearing beams

In many cases, the approved blueprints of a house will indicate with an “S” or some other similar marking that a beam is structural and therefore may be load-bearing. If you are unsure of the indicators or have trouble interpreting the blueprint, consult a registered building contractor or approach your local council to help make sense of it.

Is the beam made of a different material from other beams?

wooden lumber beam

When looking at a completed ceiling, the structural ceiling beams will usually be in equidistant parallel rows to support the roof and walls of the house. In most cases, the basic ceiling beams are only for structural support and will usually be hidden from view with drywall or ceiling tiles.

The most widely used ceiling beams are standard wooden lumber, but sometimes you may find composite alternatives made from plastic laminate. If one of the beams in this configuration is made of a stronger material than the rest or is visibly a different material, such as iron or steel, this may indicate a load-bearing ceiling beam. Because ceiling beams made of stronger material can carry more load than those surrounding them, they will often be used in instances where they need to be load-bearing.

The ceiling beams are usually arranged so that all heating, air conditioning, and plumbing components can run between them before being boarded up. Check to see what is attached to the ceiling beams as often builders will avoid drilling into or notching a load-bearing ceiling beam, but this is not always the case.

Is the beam a different size from other beams in the ceiling?

As is the case where a load-bearing ceiling beam is made from a different material, such as metal, where the other beams surrounding it are wood, in some cases, the load-bearing ceiling beam will be visibly different in that it is bigger and thicker than other, non-load-bearing ceiling beams around it, but is made from the same material. If all the beams in a ceiling are made of the same material, such as wood, but one is visibly bigger or thicker than the rest, it is possibly a load-bearing ceiling beam.

In some cases, you will need to remove more drywall or ceiling tiles to see the full range of beams in the ceiling, as removing only a small section may not give you the full picture. In cases where you can get into a ceiling to see them all simultaneously, you will be able to see if any of these are different quickly.

Is the beam running in a different direction from others?

In some cases, a load-bearing ceiling beam will run parallel to the other ceiling beams as structural support between two load-bearing walls or other fixed load-bearing points. These beams safely and efficiently provide a load path that distributes weight in different parts of the ceiling structure, meaning a beam may run in a different direction but provide an integral load-bearing structure. 

If a ceiling beam is running in a different direction from the other beams in the ceiling, it may be a load-bearing beam.

Is there anything resting on the beam or attached to it?

high ceiling fan

Often, when a beam runs in a different direction from the other beams in a ceiling, you will notice joists or other beams resting on the top of the beam or attached to the side(s) of it. Where a ceiling beam has joists or other beams attached to it, it may be a load-bearing ceiling beam. The beams attached to it are often perpendicular to the beam in question. It is often visible that the beam; these are being attached to is made from a different material or is a different size to the ones being attached.

Is the beam directly under the ridgeline of the roof?

ridgeline of the roof

By standing outside your home at a small distance, you can usually see the ridge of your home. The highest point on a roof is most often the ridgeline. It is the horizontal line where two roof areas intersect and run the length of where these two areas meet.

Because of the structural importance of the ridgeline, load-bearing walls and ceiling beams often run parallel to the ridge of the roof. If a ceiling beam runs parallel to the ridgeline of your roof, it may be load-bearing. Please note, however, of all these steps to tell if a ceiling beam is load-bearing, this one has been left to last as it is the least reliable. There may be many other structural details of the house that mean beams directly under the ridgeline are ordinary ceiling beams rather than load-bearing. 

Conclusion

There are many ways to tell if a ceiling beam is load-bearing, but you will have a very good indicator if a particular beam is load-bearing if you first check the blueprints for indicators of load bearing beams and then do a visual inspection of the ceiling beams while asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the beam made of a different material from other beams?
  • Is the beam a different size from other beams in the ceiling?
  • Is the beam running in a different direction from others?
  • Is there anything resting on the beam or attached to it?
  • Is the beam directly under the ridgeline of the roof?
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Barry Gray

Hi, I’m Barry. I’ve loved woodworking and bringing things back to life for more years than I care to remember. I hope my passion for tools comes across loud and clear in everything you read here on The Tool Square.