Helpful Tips for Painting a Ceiling

Man painting a living room ceiling
 Elisabeth Schmitt / Getty Images

If you fear painting your ceiling, you are not alone. Most painters, professional, amateur, and otherwise, dislike this uniquely awkward and messy job. Painting over your head is strenuous and full of drips making it hard to judge whether you are getting all of it covered. To add insult to injury, in most cases you are only re-painting the ceiling white again. While it is always nice to freshen up your space, this is not a change that will rock your world. With all that in mind, there are several ways to make your ceiling painting project go as smoothly as possible.

Stick With a Roller

You can paint a ceiling with a paint sprayer, but by the time you get the sprayer set up and every non-paintable item covered—which usually means every single item in the room—you could have already painted your ceiling with a roller. Paint rollers will give you the best coverage with much less splatter than paint sprayers.

Use Good Ladders

Scaffolding is certainly nice to work from, but it takes forever to build up a room's worth of scaffolding, or you have to move around a smaller portion of scaffolding to follow your painting. Plus, the only real scaffolding you should use comes at a cost from a rental yard, not from scraps of wood and cinder blocks lying around your yard.

A good stepladder is stable and easy to move around. Make sure the ladder is tall enough so that you're not going higher than two rungs from the top (your knees should be below the top of the ladder. If your ceiling isn't very tall, you might get away with a good 4-foot ladder, which is easy to move with one hand.

Use the Right Extension Pole

For a standard 8-, 9-, or 10-foot ceiling, you can do much of the rolling from the ground, using an extension pole. Just be sure to use the shortest possible extension to minimize the weight of the pole. For example, if you have a 17-foot extension to paint an 8-foot ceiling, that means that nearly 10 feet of the aluminum pole is collapsed into the handle. This creates more weight for you and will cause strain on your shoulders, arms, and lower back.

Accept That the Ceiling Is Its Own Project

After a long weekend of painting your room's walls and trim, it is tempting to want to dash off a coat of paint on your ceiling. Bad idea. Ceilings are often called the "fifth wall." It is a saying that emphasizes the oft-forgotten design aspects of the ceiling. But it also emphasizes that ceilings are a big, gnarly project. Devote an entire weekend to a ceiling or two, and you will be happier.

Go With Flat White Ceiling Paint

Resist the temptation to paint your ceiling a funky color. If you want funk, there are lots of walls and other surfaces for adding bold colors. Accent walls are practically begging for them. Ceilings? Not so much. It is no mistake or accidental omission flat white is still the preferred finish for most ceilings. Flat white ceiling paint has the advantages of:

  1. More light: White offers a high degree of light bounce, making your entire room brighter.
  2. Infinite view: White provides a limitless vista that your eyes have a hard time focusing on. In other words, when you look at a blue surface, it appears to have a stopping point. However, when you look at a well-painted flat white surface, it appears to go on infinitely. This gives the room a feeling of more space.
  3. Flat is best: A flat or matte sheen—as opposed to satin, eggshell, glossy, or otherwise—further enhances the appearance of a limitless vista. Reflections of light on a ceiling, due to any type of gloss, will tell the eye that this is where the surface "stops." Flat paint also hides imperfections much better than glossy paint.

Prepare for Inevitable Drips

Just try painting a ceiling without creating drips. This will not work. Even the most fastidious professional will create drips when painting ceilings. Yes, you might get by without drop cloths (if you want) for walls and other vertical areas, but this is impossible to do with ceilings.

Work in Grids

Work in (imaginary) 3-by-3-foot sections. If you work in larger areas than that, you lose track of where you have painted, especially since this is a white-on-white project. One trick is to cast a laser level's light on the ceiling. The line keeps you on track, and you can move the line as you progress. To prevent permanent roller marks, start each new section by overlapping onto the wet edges of the preceding section. This is called "keeping a wet edge," and it helps to blend each section seamlessly into the next.