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The Expert’s Guide to Ceiling Painting

Learn all the best tips for painting clean and crisp-looking ceilings

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Rolling yellow paint onto a ceiling | Construction Pro Tips
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How to paint ceilings:

Ceilings present some unique painting challenges. For starters, they’re usually much larger than any single room wall and are often illuminated with raking light that accentuates even the smallest flaw in the paint. Add to that the challenge of working overhead and things can get messy in a hurry. That’s why we called in Bill Nunn, one of our favorite painting experts, to help you out with his best non-spraying ceiling painting tips.

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Covering flaws with a primer | Construction Pro Tips
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Use a stain-blocking primer to cover flaws

Roof leaks, overflowing sinks, tobacco smoke and big spills can all leave ugly ceiling stains or dinginess that is impossible to conceal with plain old paint. But cover the stain with a coat of stain-blocking primer and your troubles are over. Bill’s favorite is white pigmented shellac. You can buy spray cans of pigmented shellac, but Bill prefers brushing it on. Just don’t forget to pick up some ammonia or denatured alcohol to clean your brush. If you’re painting over a ceiling that’s yellow from smoke, roll a coat of shellac over the entire ceiling before painting with latex.

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Sanding smooth surfaces before painting ceilings | Construction Pro Tips
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Sand smooth surfaces before you paint

Over time, and as the layers of paint build up, bumps and crud can get stuck to the ceiling. On untextured ceilings, Bill starts with a quick once-over sanding with 100-grit drywall sanding paper. This helps ensure a perfectly smooth paint job and increases paint bonding. The easiest way to do this is with a sanding pole. When you’re done sanding, wipe the ceiling with a damp sponge to remove the dust.

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Cutting in before you roll | Construction Pro Tips
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Cut in before you roll

Cutting in before you roll allows you to cover most of the brush marks with the roller. Bill likes to carefully brush paint along the edge of the ceiling a section at a time. He’ll cut in about 10 linear ft. and then roll that section. This method has a couple of advantages over cutting in the entire room at once. First, the cut-in section will remain wet until you roll, so it blends in better. Bill says it’s also simply less boring to alternate between cutting in and rolling.

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Rolling in both directions while ceiling painting | Construction Pro Tips
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Roll both directions

There are a few tricks to getting a smooth, consistent coat of paint on the ceiling. First, work in sections about 5 or 6 ft. square. Move quickly from one section to the next to make sure the paint along the edge doesn’t dry before you roll the adjoining section. This is called “keeping a wet edge” and is the key to avoiding lap marks. Bill says you’ll get the best coverage by immediately re-rolling each section at a right angle to your first roller direction as you go.

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A can of special ceiling paint | Construction Pro Tips
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Buy special ceiling paint

While there are exceptions, in general you’ll get the best results with paint that’s formulated for a ceiling application. For a ceiling, you want paint that doesn’t spatter, has a long open time (dries slowly), and is flat instead of glossy. Most ceiling paints are formulated with these qualities. And of course you can have ceiling paint tinted if you want a color other than “ceiling white.”

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Lapping your cut-in onto the walls | Construction Pro Tips
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Lap your cut-in onto the walls

If you’re planning to paint the walls too, lap the paint onto the walls a little bit. Then when you paint the walls, you can err on the side of leaving a little ceiling color showing when you cut in and it won’t be noticeable. Some painters like to skip this cutting-in step and save time by mashing the roller into the corner instead. Bill objects to this method because it’s sloppy, builds up excess paint in the corner and can leave runs or a thick paint line on the wall.

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Don’t be afraid of color
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Don’t be afraid of color

You may not want to paint your ceiling yellow, but don’t be afraid to deviate from plain old white. Bill says painting the ceiling a color can make a small room seem bigger, or a room with a high ceiling seem more intimate. Plus, it’s just more interesting. Ask at any full-service paint store for help in choosing complementary wall and ceiling colors, or search online for examples of rooms you like.

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Man holding a painting pole | Construction Pro Tips
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You don’t need an expensive pole

Bill is sort of old-school when it comes to equipment and actually prefers low-tech solutions. You can buy all kinds of fancy extendable paint poles, but Bill prefers a simple wooden broom handle. His reasons are simple. They’re cheap, light, and do the job.

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Two painting roll covers | Construction Pro Tips
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Use a thick, premium roller cover

Here’s a tip that applies to most paint jobs but is even more important for ceilings. You want to get as much paint on the ceiling as you can in the shortest amount of time possible while minimizing spatters. To do this, you need the best roller cover you can buy. Bill prefers a 1/2-in.-nap lambswool cover. If you’ve never tried a lambswool roller cover, you owe it to yourself to experience the difference. And if you’re worried about the cost, keep in mind that lambswool covers are easy to clean and can last a long time if you take good care of them. Expect one to cost about $8.

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Man rolling darker paint onto a textured ceiling | Construction Pro Tips
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Roll gently on textured ceilings

Painting textured ceilings is a bit of a crapshoot. If the texture has been painted over already, it’s probably safe to paint again. If the texture has never been painted, there’s a risk the water in the paint could loosen the texture, causing it to fall off in sheets. A lot depends on the quality of the texturing job. If you have a closet or other inconspicuous area, do a test by rolling on some paint to see what happens. If the texture loosens, painting over the larger ceiling is risky.

Bill has a few tips for painting over texture. If possible, spray on the paint—it’s less likely to loosen the texture than rolling. But spraying in an occupied house is usually impractical. Bill says the best tip for rolling on paint is to avoid overworking the paint. Just roll the paint on and leave it. Don’t go back and forth with the roller, as this is likely to pull the texture from the ceiling. If the ceiling needs another coat of paint, wait for the first coat to dry completely. Then roll another coat perpendicular to the first one using the same careful technique.

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Meet the expert
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Meet the pro

Bill is the owner of William Nunn Painting, which specializes in classic old home painting. Bill has been painting for more than 35 years.