interiors & styling

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting

This post was actually requested from a reader and it left me pondering, “Why didn’t I think to share this info sooner?!” Lighting plans can be tricky to nail, especially if you’re mixing recessed (aka, can lights) with regular fixtures. I’m breaking it all down… where you need recessed lights, what kind you need, how to create a smart (and visually appealing) lighting plan, and more! The goal for recessed lighting is to add visibility, but also ambiance to your space. Click through for the details… 

P L A C E M E N T

In terms of lighting, a basic rectangular room with zero architectural features obstructing the ceiling is super easy to plan. A minimal grid typically does the trick. Things get more difficult in kitchens or areas that have cabinets or built-ins that meet the ceiling. A basic recessed grid doesn’t exactly work as well in those types of spaces- from a functional or design perspective.

My biggest piece of advice is to be intentional when specifying the position of a recessed light. It should be functional, but also balanced visually. Take for instance, my pantry (shown above)… the light illuminates the pantry area, making it easier to find what I’m looking for, and it’s centered with the two cabinet doors- which makes the designer in me very happy.

Instead of blanketing a space with a grid of lighting, introduce a recessed light (or two) to frame a vignette. This will not only provide lighting in key areas, but it will also draw your attention to a specific moment within a room. For example, installing a light over my coffee bar (pictured above), emphasizes the niche and adds more light for morning coffee making. Another win / win.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comIf you’re renovating and taking a space down to the studs (like we did), it’s easiest to make the recessed lighting plan while electrical is being ran. It can sometimes be tricky to plan lights that perfectly align with cabinetry or certain areas in a room, and this is where specific measurements are a must. I always make a lighting plan. Sometimes it’s as simple as marking in red where I want the lights positioned, and other times I’ll make a fancy elevation with measurements.

See how I marked can lights to be installed above the pantry, kitchen sink, oven, and coffee bar? I highlight those four vignettes, bringing them out slightly to also light the center of the room. They stair step each other, creating a nice balanced grid.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comHere’s a peek at the process, in case you missed that earlier this year…

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comIf you aren’t doing a total renovation, not to worry! I’ll usually just mark the ceiling with a sharpie, indicating where the light should be positioned (and pray there isn’t a stud there, ha).

C O L O R

When discussing recessed lighting, there are two color elements that need to be decided on: the surround color and the bulb color. Let’s dive into the surround color first. Most people prefer their can lights to blend in with the ceiling and disappear when not in use. If that’s the case, definitely buy a recessed light with a white surround. Most of them are standard “ceiling” white and will match most any ceiling paint.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comOn the contrary, emphasis on your can lights can sometimes be a good thing- feel free to creative with the surround color. In our previous kitchen, I opted for a brass surround to tie in our cabinetry hardware. In an all white kitchen, it ended up being a welcomed addition and added the perfect amount of warmth.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comHere is a close up to give you a better visual of what the brass looked liked…

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comAfter deciding on the surround color, next you’ll want to choose the bulb. I like to aim for warmth when selecting bulbs for can lights. For a home or residential setting, I recommend using the warmest LED available (typically +/- 2700k). Luckily, these days- the lighting aisle is getting easier to navigate and there are plenty of displays to help you choose a nice, warm bulb. You can also check out this post for detailed help! Regardless, make sure the recessed bulbs throughout your home are consistent and you’re using the same one.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comLastly, I wanted to share my personal list of five rules for recessed lighting…

R U L E S

Emmett would literally go crazy with can lights if I would let him. He LOVES installing them and thinks they’re the best thing ever. What is it with guys and lighting? I’ll admit, they’re great- but in moderation. Luckily by now, he knows “my rules” and asks prior to cutting a hole in the ceiling.

  • ALWAYS install can lights on a dimmer // being able to adjust the intensity is key.
  • DO NOT get carried away // unless you want a ceiling that looks like swiss cheese and shines like the sun.
  • Be INTENTIONAL about placement // frame vignettes in a functional way.
  • DO NOT rely on recessed lighting alone // combine can lights with a variety of other fixtures for the best, balanced look.
  • STAY AWAY from cool bulbs // because nobody wants a kitchen that feels like a doctor’s office- clinical is not a good look.

Your Guide to Recessed Lighting - roomfortuesday.comI hope this post helped shed some light (see what I did there?) on recessed fixtures! Please leave any additional questions in the comments below. Lighting can really make or break a space, and these little details are more important than they seem. I promise you’ll be happy you spent the extra time creating a lighting plan!

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  • Reply
    Peggi
    October 24, 2018 at 4:27 am

    So helpful! The placement of the cans in my kitchen (a previous owner’s DIY) has always bothered me, but I never thought about why. I think the phrase “lighting plan”, in general, is above my pay grade. And I’m supposed to have all the same bulbs throughout my house?! Gads.

    • Reply
      Sarah
      October 25, 2018 at 10:12 am

      Haha! Lighting plans are easy… it’s basically my fancy term for sketching out where I want the lights to live :) For the consistent bulbs… I just like all of my can lights to match throughout the entire house. That’s pretty easy in this home because we only have them in the kitchen.

  • Reply
    Kat
    October 24, 2018 at 8:21 am

    Sarah, you are reading my mind and inspiring me yet again! I’m having an electrician come next month to remove our old florescent kitchen lights and put in recessed lights! Can you talk sources? I’m interested in both the white ones you have in your current kitchen and the brass ones in your old kitchen – where did you get them?

    My kitchen is a galley with a peninsula, and it’s open to the living room. There are ZERO architectural features (working on that!), so at this point I guess I’m just going for functionality. Would you recommend a grid? It’s fairly small, or narrow rather – about 12′ x 6′, with a bar on the far side of the peninsula. I’m thinking 6 can lights – or would you recommend 8? Thank you in advance!

    • Reply
      Sarah
      October 25, 2018 at 10:11 am

      Yay!! So happy this is a timely post for you. We buy all of our recessed lights from Lowes…. they’re nothing fancy! Just their standard options. The brass ones were also from Lowes (5 or 6 years ago). You might try stair stepping the lights instead of an aligned grid, that way it feels less crowded in a galley kitchen! Does that make sense? Two rows, one aligning with the center of the opposing two. I’d either install 4 or 6. That’s a really small space. Be sure to put them on dimmers and use other light sources as well :) Hope this helps! xo

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    October 24, 2018 at 10:41 am

    I’m currently on the hunt for can light housing that blends in with the dark color I intend to paint our bathroom ceiling. It’s tough to find!

    • Reply
      Sarah
      October 25, 2018 at 10:06 am

      That is really tough! I haven’t come across any dark options- I’m sorry! Maybe you could try to find a moisture resistant paint that would work well in a bathroom setting? That might be your only option. Sorry I don’t have a better solution or link for you Jennifer! xo

  • Reply
    Abby Blass
    October 24, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    Like Kat’s comment above, I’m wondering about a rule of thumb for the number of lights that are appropriate for the space. We recently moved into a home with three rooms that need a lighting update: kitchen, family room, and formal living room. The kitchen always feels a little under-lit with the existing number of cans (plus one pendant over the breakfast nook) despite the bulbs being 2700 and a normal brightness). In the family room, which has a couple cans already that accent above the mantle, we’d like to replace the ceiling fan with a can and then add a few (to replace the brightness currently offered by the fan lights). The living room has just a single can in one corner (!) and no other lights apart from our floor lamp, so we’d like to add a few. How many? Would room dimensions determine that? And how do you choose the more open housing (like the brass in your old kitchen) versus the thicker trim with no recessed gap (in your current kitchen)? Many thanks, this is a very timely post for me!

    • Reply
      Sarah
      October 25, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Great question, Abby! There are formulas online to calculate the specific number lights you need in a space based on the square footage of a ceiling (the common rule of thumb is that you use 1 recessed light for every 4 – 6 square feet of ceiling space), but I don’t like to rely on the formulas. They typically don’t take other lighting sources into consideration and assume you’re using only can lights. I like to visualize the space and think of function to determine the amount instead. My starting number is usually 4 cans for a smaller kitchen (like either of mine) and then work up from there with larger rooms, but I also use sconces, pendants, flush mounts, etc. in a space alongside them. I will say- I think one can light feels lonely… if you’re going to add them, I’d recommend adding a minimum of 3 (unless it’s a tiny tiny room).

      Did that help or confuse the matter? Hopefully it was helpful! In regards to choosing the surround or trim… that’s purely an aesthetic preference. Although I liked the brass reveal in our previous kitchen, I think in terms of general recessed lighting- I’d choose the current white trim lights we have installed. They’re a more common solution that can work in any room or home. Whereas the brass is very specific and wouldn’t work everywhere. Hope this was useful! xox

  • Reply
    Kirsten
    October 25, 2018 at 8:31 am

    THANK you for this!!!! This is super helpful. The one thing that leaves me scratching my head on is size. What diameter did you go with? Or what’s your rule of thumb?

    • Reply
      Sarah
      October 25, 2018 at 9:42 am

      So happy it was helpful! I typically like to keep them between 4 – 6″ not too large or too small. xox

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