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How to Paint a Ceiling

A professional home painter shares his tips for painting both smooth and textured ceilings, with equipment recommendations and tricks of the trade.

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Use a Stain-Blocking Primer to Cover FlawsFamily Handyman

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.

The traditional favorite is white pigmented shellac. You can buy spray cans of pigmented shellac, but usually it's easier to brush 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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Sand Before You PaintFamily Handyman

Sand 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, it's a good idea to start 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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Rules for Painting Ceilings: Cut in Before You RollFamily Handyman

Rules for Painting Ceilings: Cut in Before You Roll

Cutting in before you roll allows you to cover most of the brush marks with the roller. Carefully brush paint along the edge of the ceiling a section at a time. 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. Also, it's simply less boring to alternate between cutting in and rolling.

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Rules for Painting Ceilings: Roll Both DirectionsFamily Handyman

Rules for Painting Ceilings: 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. You'll get the best coverage by immediately rerolling each section at a right angle to your first roller direction as you go.

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Buy Special Ceiling PaintFamily Handyman

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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Lap Your Cut-In Onto the WallsFamily Handyman

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, but this method is 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 ColorFamily Handyman

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. 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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You Don't Need an Expensive PoleFamily Handyman

You Don't Need an Expensive Pole

You can buy all kinds of fancy—and expensive—extendable paint poles, but a simple wooden broom handle usually works just as well. The reasons are simple. They're cheap and light and do the job.

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Use a Thick, Premium CoverFamily Handyman

Use a Thick, Premium 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. The best choice is 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.

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Roll Gently on Textured CeilingsFamily Handyman

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.

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. 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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Feather Out the Paint Where You Can't Keep a Wet Edge

Feather Out the Paint Where You Can't Keep a Wet Edge

You can't cover large areas like ceilings, extra-tall walls or stairwells in single, continuous strokes, so the best way to minimize lap marks on these areas is to feather out the paint along the edges that you can't keep wet. The thinner, feathered coat of paint will avoid the buildup that causes the lap mark.

To paint a large section without leaving lap marks, roll the nearly dry roller in different directions along the dry edge, feathering out the paint as you go. After completing the entire length of the wall or ceiling, move to the next section and paint over the feathered edges. For the second coat, apply the paint in the opposite direction. This crisscrossing paint application sharply reduces (if not eliminates) lap marks.

Check out other awesome paint rolling tools in the video below.

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Groove Textured CeilingsFamily Handyman

Groove Textured Ceilings

It's almost impossible to paint right next to rough-textured ceilings (a process called “cutting in”) without getting paint on the ceiling. Taping off the ceiling doesn't work either. The solution? Knock off the texture at the edge with a putty knife. Hold the knife at a 45-degree angle to the wall and run the blade along the edge of the ceiling. The blade scrapes away the texture and leaves a small groove in the ceiling. Clean out the groove with a duster or a dry paintbrush.

Now when you cut in along the top of the wall, the paintbrush bristles will slide into the groove, giving you a crisp paint line without getting paint on the ceiling. And you'll never notice the thin line of missing texture.

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Avoid Paint FrecklesFamily Handyman

Avoid Paint Freckles

Rolling paint on the ceiling showers you with a fine mist. A baseball cap is essential, and safety glasses let you watch your work without squinting. To make skin cleanup easier, rub lotion on your face, arms and hands. At the end of the day, your paint freckles will wash right off.