How to paint a ceiling
These tips will help you avoid a mess.
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Painting a ceiling is one of the best ways to freshen up a room. It’s also one of the more physically taxing areas inside your house to paint, and has the potential to make quite a mess. With the right equipment, a weekend or two, and some proper and careful planning, however, this is a job most homeowners should be able to take on themselves.
Pick up the right equipment
Painting equipment isn’t typically prohibitively expensive, but it’s worth getting the right equipment for the job. Specifically when painting ceilings, there are a few things that you’re going to need.
Purchase quality brushes. There’s nothing worse than having to pick bristles that a subpar brush left behind out of wet paint. I personally like nylon/polyester brushes for most applications, but make sure that your brush will work with the kind of paint and primer that you’re using. A 3-inch brush is usually a good size for “cutting” in (more on that below).
Rollers and roller trays
The type of roller that you buy depends on the texture of your ceiling. If your ceiling is smooth, go with a low nap roller. For textured ceilings, get a thicker nap. Don’t go any narrower than 9 inches wide, or painting will take forever. I prefer 12-inch rollers.
You also want to buy extensions for your rollers. Moving a step ladder around the room can be annoying and reaching up over your head with a short roller is hard on the shoulders. Having a handle that lets you paint from the ground, with your hands held at different heights, will save time and energy.
Don’t forget the roller trays that match the size of your rollers.
You’re going to need a lot of painter’s tape. (In recent tests, Frogtape Multi-Purpose Painter’s Tape was among our favorite to use.) This is what will protect your walls and fixtures from an errant roller. I like 4-inch tape, but don’t go any smaller than 2-inch.
Safety and cleanliness equipment
Because you’re going to be looking up, it’s very important that you wear safety glasses to keep paint out of your eyes. Also consider wearing a hat to keep it out of your hair. Finally, I recommend disposable shoe coverings. The drop cloth will get covered in speckles of wet paint that you don’t want to track around to the rest of the house.
Prep the space
Before opening a can of paint, take the time to prepare the space. First, remove everything you can from the room. Because you’ll need to stand and/or put a step ladder all around the room, you want it to be as clear as possible. Anything you leave behind will get in your way.
Once you’ve cleared the room, clean the ceiling. Give it a good vacuuming to get the cobwebs out of the corners and the dust out from the nooks and crannies of the texture. Any dirt, dust, or grime can prevent the paint from adhering to the surface.
The next task is to either tape off or remove anything that’s hanging from the ceiling. This includes potted plants, light fixtures, decorations, and the like. If you decide to remove the lights yourself, triple check that the power is turned off before you disconnect them. Take a picture of the connected wiring as a reference for when you hang it back up.
If you have any doubts about your ability to wire a light safely, leave it up and work around it. Also check your local building codes to find out if homeowners are allowed to remove and install fixtures.
The next step is to tape the walls along the ceiling. Use wide painters tape to maximize your wall protection, particularly if you’re not planning on painting the walls after the ceiling. If you’re painting both, always do the ceiling first. Fit the tape as tight to the ceiling as you can to minimize bleed over onto the walls.
Finally, put down a drop cloth that covers the entire floor, not just a section of it. While ceiling paint is formulated to reduce splatter, it still happens. Don’t trust a drop cloth just under the area where you’re working.
Tape the drop cloth to the walls to keep it in place and tape the overlap between cloths if you need more than one. You also need to put a drop cloth over anything that you can’t get out of the room.
What primer and paint to buy
An even coat of primer can make the difference between a good-looking paint job and one that you see the flaws in a few weeks later. Primer helps the paint stick to the ceiling and can also cover up any stains or discoloration on the old ceiling. Those stains, particularly smoke from cigarettes, candles, and fireplaces, can bleed through a new coat of paint if primer isn’t applied first.
Buy the primer that is right for both your paint and your specific needs. Oil and latex paints may require different primers, for example. If you’re trying to cover up stains, get a primer specifically made for stain blocking.
Ceilings should almost always be painted with ceiling paint. If you need to cover up stains, get a paint specifically formulated for stain blocking. Finally, decide what color you want. Most ceilings are going to be white, but a well-chosen non-white color can really change the feel of your room.
Tips for painting the ceiling
Ceilings are tricky to paint because you’re working above your head. You’re also often painting white onto white, which can make it very difficult to see where you have already painted.
The first step is to “cut” in from the edges of the wall. Cutting is when you use a brush to paint a 3- or 4-inch band around the outside edges. By cutting, you don’t need to use the roller to get close to the walls, so you run less of a risk of hitting the wall with the roller and making a mess. This is particularly important if you’re not planning to paint the walls later.
Once you’ve finished cutting in, it’s time to roll on the paint. You don’t need a lot of pressure—in fact, pushing too hard can potentially damage a textured ceiling. If you find yourself pressing to squeeze the paint out of the roller, get more paint.
Work in small areas. I try to finish a 5-by-5-foot section before moving on. That way I can double check that I’ve hit everywhere in a small area, so I’m less likely to miss something.
Another way to ensure full coverage in your working area is to alternate your roller direction. Don’t just roll on the paint in parallel stripes. Roll your section one way, then roll it again perpendicular, and then maybe again at an angle. By rolling in multiple directions and angles, you’re minimizing the chances of a missed section.
The next tip is to have a tall lamp that you can move around the room. Because the natural light changes throughout the day, the appearance of the ceiling changes and can trick you into thinking you've done certain areas when you haven’t (ask me how I know). Having that lamp to shine on each section makes it easier to locate the spots that you’ve missed.
My final tip is one no one likes to hear: Do two coats. You’re going to miss areas. Commit to two coats and try to apply the second coat in a different order/pattern than the first. This will help you ensure full coverage.
Bonus tip: Always keep track of where your paint trays are. Stepping in one makes for a very bad day.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.