How to Paint a Ceiling

Man painting a living room ceiling
 Elisabeth Schmitt / Getty Images

If you fear painting your ceiling, you are not alone. Many people are reluctant to take on this apparently awkward job. Painting over your head seems like it would be strenuous and full of drips, making it hard to judge whether you are covering the entire ceiling.

But the job does not have to be like that. In many cases, you are painting the ceiling white again. Most same-color painting jobs are far simpler than laying on a new color coat. Painting over your head is made easier when you use the right type and length of an extension pole. Once you get the room entirely prepared, you will find that the job of painting your ceiling goes quickly and with only a minimum of effort.

Basics of Painting a Ceiling

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. Ceilings are often called the fifth wall, a term that emphasizes the oft-forgotten design aspects of the ceiling. But it also emphasizes that ceilings are big projects.

Will a paint sprayer make the job go faster? You can paint a ceiling with a paint sprayer. But by the time you get the paint 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.

Most of the painting will be done on the ground, with a paint roller and an extension pole. But some work will require a ladder. A good stepladder is stable and easy to move around. Make sure the ladder is tall enough so that you do not need to go higher than two rungs from the top. Your knees should be below the top of the ladder.

What Kind of Paint to Use For the Ceiling?

Flat or matte white ceiling paint is the most popular type of paint. It offers many advantages:

  • More light is reflected into the room. White offers a high degree of light bounce, making your entire room brighter.
  • White, matte paint 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.
  • 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.

When to Paint Your Ceiling

Should you paint your ceiling before or after you paint the walls? The justification can go either way. If you paint your ceiling first, then you risk slopping color paint onto it when you later paint the walls. If you paint your walls first, the same thing might happen: white paint slips onto your walls' color coat.

Generally, you will want to paint the walls first. Covering over white paint accidents on the walls is not as difficult as the reverse. Still, this is a matter of choice and convenience.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 1 hour per 200 square foot ceiling
  • Total Time: 4 hours
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Material Cost: $40 to $65

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Paint roller frame
  • Paint roller cover
  • Paint tray and liners
  • Angled paint brush
  • Drop cloth
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Painter's tape
  • Extension pole
  • Metal spiral power mixer
  • Wood paint stirring stick
  • Paint can pour spout
  • Latex or nitrile gloves

Materials

  • Flat, white ceiling paint

Instructions

Lay Out Drop Cloths

It is difficult, if not impossible, to paint a ceiling without creating drips. Even the most fastidious professional will create drips when painting ceilings. Even if you avoid actual drips, the motion of the paint roller creates a fine, invisible mist of white paint that settles on everything below it.

Anything that can reasonably be removed from the room should be removed. Everything else should be covered with drop cloths.

Prepare Your Tools

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 are collapsed into the handle. This creates more weight for you and will cause strain on your shoulders, arms, and lower back.

Set up the paint liner in the paint tray. If you can locate these items outside of the room, this will give you more room to work.

Remove Obstructions

Stand on the step ladder and remove light fixtures, smoke detectors, and any other obstruction. Electrical box solid faceplates usually can be painted over. Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors should never be painted over.

Add Painter's Tape to the Walls

If the walls have not yet been painted, you can skip this step. If the walls have been painted, run strips of painter's tape on the junction between the wall and the ceiling. This will protect the wall from ceiling paint.

Brush-Paint the Ceiling Edges

From the ladder, paint the edges of the ceiling with the ceiling paint. This band of paint should be around 2 or 3 inches wide.

Paint the Ceiling in Grids

With the roller, paint the ceiling in 3-foot by 3-foot sections. If you work in larger areas than that, you may lose track of where you have painted, especially since this is a white-on-white project.

Tip

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 practice is called keeping a wet edge. This helps to blend each section seamlessly into the next section.