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How to Paint a Ceiling: Tips & Tutorial

We put together a detailed guide on how to paint a ceiling. Our professionals share the most efficient tips and video resources to do the best job possible when painting a ceiling.

Every room has a ceiling and it needs decorating just like the walls do. The trouble is that it is probably the most difficult part of the house to access. It is just too high to paint while standing on the floor. And if you are on a ladder then it is difficult to hold the paint can and brushes or roller and paint. So what do you do?

This article is designed to teach you how to paint your ceilings. From preparation to choosing the paint to using the correct tools and the right method.
So without further ado, let us get on with it.

What is a ceiling?

This may seem like a silly question which invites an even sillier answer, but it isn’t as stupid as it first seems.

The most obvious answer is that it is part of the room that is horizontal and joins the tops of all the walls. This is true for most rooms but not all:

Attic rooms. These are rooms that are built in the roof space and follow the contours of the roof pitch (the pitch is the angle at which the roof slopes). Some pitched ceilings slope much of the way down to the floor or meet a small wall, about two or three feet high coming up from the floor. So are they classed as a ceiling or a wall? That is up to you but usually it is acceptable to decorate them as if they were a ceiling.

Window reveal. Often a window can project past the outside surface of the wall as in a Bow Window (Bay Window in the UK), or past the surface of the roof as in a Dormer window or roof light. Both of these windows have an external mini roof on them to keep them weatherproof. Under the mini roof they will also have a small horizontal surface separating the mini roof space from the room interior. Basically they have their own mini ceiling.

Above the picture rail. Some older houses have a moulded rail fitted horizontally to the wall about 12 inches or more below the ceiling. This is called the ‘picture rail’ and was used to hang heavy paintings from in the days before suitable wall fixings were invented. The point I am making is that all the wall space above the picture rail should be decorated as the ceiling is decorated. It is regarded, in decorating terms, as part of the ceiling.

So from this section we have found out that a ceiling can be more than we first thought. It can include the horizontal parts of a window alcove, the sloping parts of an attic room that would normally be classed as a wall and the parts of the wall above a picture rail.

It wasn’t such a silly question after all, was it?

Textured or smooth ceiling?

The next thing we need to talk about is whether we have a textured ceiling or a smooth ceiling. Usually ceilings are left as smooth as is possible when they are first built. This is because a new house uses gypsum plasterboard (also known as drywall) to provide a firm and stable base for a plaster skim. This goes for ceilings as well as walls. But what if you are doing a renovation on an older house and the ceiling needed a bit of renovation but not enough to require demolishing and replacing with plasterboard? The answer is to disguise the ceiling patches or changes of level by means of applying a textured finish to the surface. Another big advantage of using textured ceilings is that you do not need plastering skills to apply it.

The commonest type of textured ceiling you will find (apart from textured paint) is the ‘popcorn ceiling’ also known in the UK as an Artex ceiling (although Artex is a company name, the word became a generic description of any type of textured ceiling surface). These were very popular in the 1970s but they contained white asbestos so eventually became less popular before finally having all asbestos content removed in 1985. Artex or popcorn ceilings are less popular now owing to changes in fashion, problems with seamlessly patching up or repairing the texture pattern, and the difficulty in removing the texture from the ceiling surface. However there are still many thousands of textured ceilings present in homes around the country that are perfectly safe to paint over as long as the texture is not damaged in any way.

Textured finish

Textured ceilings have the big disadvantage that it is difficult to paint all the crevices, mounds and spikes. If you use a roller then the paint will tend to splatter and not cover easily. You will use more paint than you expect because of the greater surface area of a textured ceiling as well as the need to roller in multiple directions to ensure all the surfaces are painted. Modern popcorn ceilings use cellulose rather than asbestos to provide the structure of the texture but it is a fact that a textured ceiling will only look right in a certain style of room.

Textured paint is an option if you need to disguise irregularities in the ceiling finish. You can achieve the textured finish by using:

Textured paint. Textured paint comes in different grades from very fine to coarse. Although most textured paints can be used on either walls or ceilings there are some which are designed specifically for wall or ceiling.

Faux finish. This is a generic term for a range of common techniques designed to simulate a textured effect. Faux finishes start by adding a base coat then building up additional layers to provide accent colours with different types of paint.

Textured additives. This involves mixing additives such as different grade sand or similar to standard smooth paint to give a textured effect.

Smooth ceilings

Smooth ceilings are normally skimmed with gypsum plaster to provide a highly polished, smooth surface. Application of the plaster skim will require advanced plastering skills to ensure a good finish and can be quite expensive but if done well, a professionally plastered ceiling will be an object of pride.

Small repairs are easily sorted as well by the use of normal hole filler and sandpaper. When newly plastered ceilings (and walls) are painted for the first time, it is good practice to dilute the first coat of latex paint (in the UK this is known as emulsion paint) to ensure the paint is absorbed into the structure of the plaster to provide a well adhering application. If you don’t follow this simple practice and the paint sticks to the surface of the ceiling only, then you can be sure that after a few months the ceiling paint will start to flake and peel off leaving unsightly patches of bare plaster.

Wallpaper

Another way to prepare an old and damaged ceiling for paint or to provide a textured surface is to use:

Lining paper. This is a smooth paper designed to be used as a backing to lighter wallpapers.

Woodchip paper. This is a paper with small lumps incorporated within the weave of the paper to resemble tiny chips of wood.

Embossed paper. There are many types of embossed wall papers with various grades of patterns from small fine ‘bumps’ to deeper and larger patterns or stripes.

These three types of wallpapers all have the advantage of covering up extensive surface damage to the ceiling plaster as well as looking more ‘in period’ in older houses than popcorn texture does. Papering a ceiling requires skill in order to get the covering looking good as a poorly applied ceiling paper will draw the eye to the mistakes. Any patterns in the paper will require matching up with the pattern in adjacent strips of paper, for this reason, the finer and more random patterns are more popular when using embossed paper.

Painting paper on the ceiling will need the paper adhesive to be completely dry before application of the paint, this is because the first coat of paint needs to be diluted like the first coat on bare plaster to ensure proper adhesion but at the same time the extra water must not activate the wallpaper adhesive and make the paper peel away from the ceiling’s surface.

Colour

The commonest colour to paint a ceiling is white, but really any colour would do. Or would it?

When choosing the paint colour for your ceiling you also have to take into account the colours of various other features in the room.

Ceiling. You should choose a light colour to make the room seem larger. A dark coloured ceiling makes the room feel oppressive and brings the height down.

Wall colour. You need the ceiling colour lighter than the wall colour. You also need a colour that will either complement or contrast the wall colour.

Crown moulding colour. Choose the same colour for the ceiling as you choose for the crown moulding (in the UK this would be known as the coving). This makes the crown moulding part of the ceiling and seems to increase the height of the room.

Trim colour. The trim (if you are in the UK we are talking about the architrave around the door frame) colour should be the same colour as the ceiling to provide a link between the ceiling at the top and the baseboard at the bottom of the room.

Baseboard. The baseboard (in the UK this would be the skirting board) should be the same colour as the trim, crown moulding and the ceiling. The presence of the same colours at top and bottom provides the effect of a frame to the colour on the walls.

Adaptable colour. Choose a colour that will look right with more than one colour. The ceiling is a difficult area to paint so it would be good to choose a colour that doesn’t need to be changed every time you decide to change the wall colour.

Low maintenance colour. As already stated, the ceiling is one of the most inaccessible areas to paint so it would make sense to choose a colour that doesn’t need regular touching up or washing.

At first thought, it does make sense to choose a brilliant white paint for the ceiling. Its properties fulfill all the requirements we have stated in the bullet points. However if you really want to be different there is no reason why you cannot choose a pale yellow or very light blue along with a corresponding colour for the walls. As well as being light colours in their own right, these two are also reminiscent of the natural sky colours and would give an impression of airiness and space. You must make sure however that the shade you choose is very pale.

Types of paint

Although most latex paints (in UK this would be known as emulsion paints) would be ok for applying to a ceiling, the best type to buy are those specially formulated for ceilings.

Specialised ceiling paint is designed to provide paint that:

Covers with the minimum of splatter. Rollers which are the commonest tools to use when applying paint to the ceiling tend to splatter. Overloaded brushes also have a bad habit of forming runs and drips which under the action of gravity will fall from the ceiling.

Has a long open time. This means that the paint takes a long time to dry allowing you to cover a reasonably large area before having to worry about feathering in the edges to prevent dried paint edge effects. As warm air rises, the top of a room near the ceiling will always be warmer than the rest of the room. Because of this paint will usually dry faster than elsewhere.

The surface sheen is ‘flat’. This means that there are no light reflections that would be present if the paint was a gloss finish. The light effects on the ceiling need to be diffused rather than actual reflections so that the eye is not drawn to the ceiling by reflections of the lighting system.

Repairing a ceiling

Before the ceiling can be prepared for painting it must be repaired and any holes or imperfections made good. The method of repair depends on how large the imperfection is. If you have removed a light fitting from the ceiling then this could be classed as a large hole whereas a hole caused by a nail or screw would be a small hole.

There are two rules you have to remember here;

  1. If the ceiling is smooth then you need to have the repair smooth.
  2. If the ceiling is textured then you need to apply the filler and dab it with a damp cloth or wet paint brush to try to replicate the texture pattern.

Large hole

As we just said, suppose you need to remove a light fitting from the ceiling and fill the hole.

✓ First thing is to remove the fitting and look inside the hole to see what the fitting was fixed to. You will probably find that a piece of wood was there to take the fixing screws.

✓ Measure the diameter and depth of the hole to see what we need to use as infill.

✓ If the depth of hole is greater than half an inch (the thickness of gypsum plasterboard) then you will need to prepare a packing piece to bring the finished plasterboard surface flush with the existing ceiling. You can use scraps of plywood or offcuts of plasterboard depending on the depth you need to fill. Let us assume we are using plywood.

✓ Shape the plywood slightly smaller than the hole and screw it to the supporting wood above the ceiling. If you wish you can use adhesive to fix the plywood packing piece, it is up to you.

✓ Using an offcut of gypsum plasterboard, cut it to shape to fit inside the hole. Screw the plasterboard to the plywood backing making sure the screw head is countersunk beneath the surface level. Try not to break the paper when countersinking the screw head.

✓ The surface of the plasterboard is now flush with or just below the level of the ceiling. Mix up enough drywall compound or hole filler to fill all the gaps and smooth over the plasterboard infill.

✓ When the filler is dry, sand the surface lightly.

✓ Add another coat of filler and feather it into the surrounding ceiling surface. Allow to dry.

✓ Sand the surface to ensure a smooth finish. Prime the new patch and paint.

Small hole

✓ Clean the hole of any loose debris. If the surrounding plasterboard is standing proud of the surface then push the edges into the hole using a blunt surface such as the end of a screwdriver handle.

✓ Mix up some hole filler and push the mix into the hole ensuring it makes contact with the edge of the hole. Push enough filler into the hole to completely fill all nooks and crannies. Make sure the surface is slightly above the level of the ceiling. Allow to dry.

✓ Using a pallet knife or paint scraper apply some more filler across the hole to bring the dried filler level down to and flush with the existing ceiling surface.

✓ Allow to dry.

✓ Rub some sandpaper across the repaired hole to ensure the filler is smooth and the edges are feathered into the surrounding ceiling.

✓ Prime and paint.

Preparation of ceiling

After all the holes have been repaired you need to give the ceiling’s surface a good finish before painting. When painting anything it is vitally important to spend a lot of time and effort on good preparation.

Stains

Ceilings seem to be more prone to stains than walls and this is probably to do with its location in the room.

Cooking fumes, cigarette smoke, smoke from the fireplace all float up towards the top of the room because they are warmer than the surrounding air. When they reach the ceiling they condense and adhere to the cooler surface forming a stain.

Roof leaks can cause stains on the upstairs room ceilings. Even when the leak has been mended and the ceiling dried out, the stain still remains as a reminder.

Overflowing sinks and shower trays from upstairs bathrooms can allow water to travel through the upstairs flooring and soak into the ceiling causing stains even when the water has dried out.

Nails that were driven through the gypsum plasterboard ceiling when it was built can become rusty and start to show through the paint covering.

Inaccessible areas like ceilings do not get the regular cleaning like other household surfaces so grime and dust floating in the air becomes attached to the ceiling surface causing marks.

No matter how many coats of latex paint you try to cover the stain with, it will always eventually work its way through. So how do you stop stains and other marks from showing?

Traditionally professional painters use white coloured shellac to cover the stain. Once this is dry you can paint the ceiling as normal using ceiling paint or latex emulsion paint. If the problem is tobacco smoke then you will have to shellac the whole ceiling. Shellac is available in cans ready to brush on the surface or in aerosol spray cans. If you choose the brushing option then don’t forget to clean your brush in ammonia or denatured alcohol.

If using shellac is a lot of hassle then try giving the ceiling two coats of a flat or matte oil based paint such as primer or undercoat before painting with the latex emulsion paint. Although not as permanent as shellac, oil based paint will do the job and prevent most stains from bleeding through.

Washing

If your ceiling is grimy or greasy then no paint will stick to the surface. In this case you need to wash the surface with sugar soap. This comes as a powder which is mixed with water or as a ready mixed liquid. Use it as stated in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Powdered sugar soap will cost you about $8 for 450g so it isn’t a big outlay. If you would rather use what you probably already have in the house then mix a couple of tablespoons of biological laundry powder in a bowl of warm water and wash the ceiling with that. Once the surface is free from grease and dry it can be painted as normal.

Sanding the surface

If you have an untextured ceiling then you should give the surface a quick sanding using 100 grit sand paper. This will remove any lumps of paint or accumulations of grime and roughen up the existing surface ready for a new coat of paint. Sanding a ceiling by hand from stepladders can be a real pain so it is best to use a sanding pole so you can do the job while standing on the floor. A sanding pole complete with head will cost you about $30 and the sanding sheets will only cost a few dollars depending on the size of pack and grade of paper. When you have finished sanding, you just remove any dust with a damp cloth and the surface is ready to paint.

If you have a textured surface then do not sand the surface as this would destroy any texture and make the area appear different from the surroundings. Sanding the surface to make it smooth is not necessary with a textured ceiling. As long as it is clean, it will accept a coat of paint.

Access

Accessing a ceiling to prepare and paint the surface will always be awkward as a normal height ceiling is just too high to be able to easily reach from the floor.

If the room is very high then it may be worthwhile hiring a scaffold tower from your local hire shop and arranging some scaffold boards into a lattice supported by the scaffolding so that you can walk along the boards and paint from there. Usually however an average height room is about eight feet from floor to ceiling so hiring a scaffold would be a bit over the top. Unless you are a professional and intend using a scaffold tower regularly, we would not buy one.

They are expensive and can be anything up to approximately $2,000 for a very basic version.

Another way to access the ceiling is by using a set of stepladders. You will probably be standing on the first or second step to be able to reach the ceiling, but this depends on how tall you are and how long your arms are.

Another useful method of accessing the ceiling is to make yourself a wooden box of the correct dimensions so you can easily reach the ceiling while standing on it. You can then easily move the box around the floor to reach anywhere on the ceiling.

Another way to access the ceiling is to use a roller on an extendible pole. That way you will be able to stand on the floor and paint most of the ceiling. You will not however be able to cut in around the edge using a brush from the floor.

Tools

The tools you will need for painting your ceiling can be broken up into categories:

  1. Protection
  2. Preparation
  3. Access
  4. Paint application
  5. Safety equipment

Protection. We mean things you need to protect the floor and any furniture you may have left in the room. Obviously it is better to remove all the furniture and roll up the carpet before attempting to work on the ceiling. Your attention is so fixated on what is happening above your head that you often forget to look where you are going. The result can be a stumble or a fall together with a serious paint spill across the floor. It is usually possible to remove most items from a room but there will always be large immovable objects that you will have to work around together with a fitted carpet that you cannot roll up.

The answer is to cover the items you don’t want damaged. The traditional method of doing this is to lay drop cloths (dust sheets in the UK) over the floor and large furniture but unfortunately fabric is not waterproof and any spilled paint will always find its way through the weave. Polythene sheet is widely used to protect surfaces with fabric laid on top to provide a slip free surface and something to soak up small spills. Use painter’s masking tape to join the polythene sheet and to keep the sheet in place. Masking tape can also be used to protect surfaces adjacent to those being painted.
The costs shown here are indicative only and will depend on the brand you buy and the quality of the products.

Preparation. Items needed for preparing the surface will include sandpaper, filler, plasterboard and tools. The costs shown here are indicative only and will depend on the brand you buy and the quality of the products.

Access. These include items you need to reach the ceiling. The costs shown here are indicative only and will depend on the brand you buy and the quality of the products.

Paint application. This category includes paint brushes, rollers etc. The costs shown here are indicative only and will depend on the brand you buy and the quality of the products.

Safety equipment. Paint and the solvents used to clean the brushes can be harmful if ingested or if inhaled. Choosing the correct safety equipment will ensure you remain unharmed when coming into contact with potentially harmful substances . The costs shown here are indicative only and will depend on the brand you buy and the quality of the products.

How to paint a ceiling

The best way to explain how to paint a ceiling is to lead you through the sequence step by step. If we find that on the way there is something interesting to talk about then we can stop and side-track a bit before carrying on with the original sequence.

Clear out the movables

As stated earlier it is better to paint a ceiling from an empty room. If you don’t then you run the risk of stumbling over something and either hurting yourself or spilling a load of paint or both. Move as much furniture as you can into another room and if possible roll up the carpet. Anything which is fixed in place or too heavy to move you can cover with polythene sheet and a drop cloth.

Make sure everything is covered

Lay the protective drop cloths and polythene sheet on the floor and over the furniture that was too big to move. Don’t forget to protect your carpet, they are too expensive to ruin with spilled paint. Make sure the protection goes all the way to the wall. If your drop sheets aren’t big enough to cover everything then use one that you can move around to where you are working. Just be sure to use one!

Remove fixtures from the ceiling and fill holes

You are intending to paint the ceiling so let’s make sure that you paint all of the ceiling. This means you have to remove any cupboards or shelves that obstruct your access to the ceiling as well as removing any fixtures that are fitted on the ceiling. An example of this could be pendant light fittings. In this case you don’t want to disconnect the light fixture completely otherwise you will have bare wires and no light. All you need to do is to unscrew the cover of the light fitting so that you can paint as far as you can. Any holes or repairs will need to be done at this stage too so that all sanding and other dusty work is completed before you remove the lid on the paint container. It is a good idea to get rid of any fixtures you don’t like at this stage such as the chandelier and the funny corner cupboard that is too small to keep anything in.

Get rid of stains

Use the methods mentioned earlier to cover up any stains that might be bleeding through the existing paint from beneath.

Open the paint can

At last we are at the stage when we start to paint. Presumably you have bought your latex paint (emulsion in UK) in the largest containers available which should be 1 gallon cans in US and 5 Litre cans everywhere else in the world. Unfortunately these large cans are too heavy and cumbersome for carrying for a long time so it is worthwhile pouring about one or two pints into a smaller container so you can carry it around with you.

Not only is it lighter but also it isn’t such a catastrophic occurrence when you knock the container over and spill it all over the floor. Almost forgot to say that when you decant a little of the paint into a smaller container always make sure that you wipe up any spills or any drips that run down the side of the cans.

Cut in

Using your stepladder, step stool or wooden box you can get a bit closer to the ceiling. You want to be at the edge of the ceiling where it meets the walls. Dip your paint brush, a 2” or thereabouts should be the correct size, into the paint and wipe the bristles against the side of the container to remove any excess paint. Hold the brush at the edge of the ceiling so the ends of the bristles touch the corner with the wall. Move the brush along the corner transferring the paint from the brush onto the ceiling. Although you are trying to just paint the ceiling, you will have a small amount of paint run over onto the top of the walls as well.

Don’t worry about this as long as you don’t have any drips or runs. If you do find you have drips then gently brush the paint to smooth the paint out. It doesn’t matter if you overrun onto the walls as you can cover this up when you come to paint the walls. Continue painting around the room with the brush until you have a continuous line about 2 inches wide around the edge of the ceiling. Make sure you smooth out and feather any pooling of the paint so that when it is dry you don’t have an obvious paint line.

Load the roller

Pour some paint into the roller tray and dampen the roller with clean water. Don’t forget to wipe up any spills. Dip the roller into the tray to load the roller with paint. Lift the roller to the ceiling and applying firm pressure push the roller back and forwards to transfer the paint to the surface. Work on an area of about two or three feet and when you think you have covered the area turn the roller at right angles to the original direction and apply more paint in that direction.

Where the paint runs out at the edges make sure you feather the paint edge to make sure you hide any paint lines. Move onto the adjacent area and do the same procedure there, paint back and forth and then side to side. Always try to blend the overlap into each other by making sure the previous area is not dry yet. Where the roller overlaps the cutting in line, try to blend the join so no brush lines are visible. Continue like this until you have covered the whole ceiling.

Dry

Allow the paint to dry for an hour or two. Preferably two. If you roll the second coat before the first coat is dry you run the risk of lifting the first coat away from the surface.

Apply second coat

Apply the second coat exactly like the first coat. This will make sure you have covered all those little pinpricks that you missed and also will make sure the previous colour doesn’t show through. If you chose a cheap paint you might find that you have to apply a third or fourth coat. Let that be a lesson to you. An expensive paint may cost more at first but you will probably need less coats and more importantly less work to create a good job. The second coat will go on a lot more quickly than the first coat. It might be worth starting at the other end of the room when starting the second coat.

For example if on the first coat you started at the North end and moved South then on the second coat start at the East end and move West. This will ensure you get into all the little crevices and get really good coverage. Let the second coat dry thoroughly and check you don’t need to apply a third coat. You will often find that latex emulsion paint appears slightly translucent when you are applying it but as it dries it becomes opaque.

Clean your tools

As latex emulsion paint is water based there is very little problem cleaning everything. When you have finished painting wash your brushes and the roller in water mixed with a little detergent. When the bristles and fleece appear clean, rinse them in cold running water until it runs clear. Then leave the applicators to dry naturally preferably in the sun. Don’t forget to pour any unused paint back into the gallon container and replace the lid firmly to stop the leftover paint from drying out.

Video Resources

Tips

There are a number of good little tips which will make life easier for you when painting.

✓ Before you pour paint into the roller tray, lay some food film (Clingfilm or similar) in the bottom of the tray. Then when it is time to clean everything up, just fold the cling film in on itself and dispose of it. The tray will be spotless.

✓ If you have to leave the job for a break, perhaps to have a cup of coffee, then tightly wrap the brush or roller in Clingfilm to keep the air away from it. This will make sure the paint doesn’t start to dry before you get back.

✓ Avoid painting on a humid or rainy day. High humidity will mean the paint takes longer to dry and more chance of runs. If you must paint then do it slowly and make sure you brush out all those runs.

✓ If there are any lightly cracked or peeling areas that need painting, always run the sandpaper lightly over the edges to smooth them otherwise when the new paint is applied you will always see the cracks.

✓ Make sure you remove any loose paint with a scraper otherwise the new paint will lift the loose.

✓ Always make sure you wipe newly sanded surfaces with a damp cloth to get rid of any dust. New paint won’t stick to the dust.

✓ Buy good quality brushes and roller covers. Good quality will give really good coverage and you will lose less bristles from the brushes onto the paint.
Use good quality masking tape as well to seal areas from runs.

✓ If you have a textured ceiling you will need a roller with a deep nap. This will allow you to get the paint into all the crevices and holes and between the peaks. Don’t have the nap too thick however or you might start adding to the texture.

✓ Don’t forget to protect doorknobs as well as the furniture and floor. Cover the knobs with small plastic bags and masking tape otherwise you will be cleaning dried paint from them at the end of the job.

✓ If you are painting on to previously unpainted surfaces, dilute the first coat of latex emulsion paint before application. Pour about a pint of paint into a container and add a couple of tablespoons of clean water. Use this for the first coat as it will soak into the plasterboard and provide a good bond.

✓ If the surface you intend to paint hasn’t been painted for many years or if it is a gloss finish then mix a couple of tablespoons of PVA to a pint of paint to provide an adhesive primer.

To finish

We have learned a lot today about how to successfully paint a ceiling. We can see that successful coverage depends on good preparation. I hope you have come away from this article with something new and if it wasn’t new then I hope I have reminded you of something useful.

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