How to Cover or Insulate Over a Popcorn Ceiling

Popcorn Ceiling
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Textured ceilings, commonly called "popcorn" or "cottage cheese" ceilings, are often the target of many homeowners' displeasure. The texture is said to have acoustical benefits, but mostly these old textures were favored by builders because they reduced the amount of finishing work the drywaller had to do.

For the homeowner, textured ceilings come with many drawbacks. They are cobweb magnets and are hard to clean and difficult to paint, and they reduce the ambient natural light in a room. Also, the textured material in many areas contains asbestos, making removal of the texture or the ceiling problematic and costly. That's why covering up a popcorn ceiling may be the best option. Consider the pros and cons of several DIY-friendly methods to determine the best fit for you.

Covering a Popcorn Ceiling With Drywall

This method involves installing a complete layer of 1/4-, 3/8-, or 1/2-inch drywall over the popcorn ceiling, screwing the drywall into the ceiling joists above the original ceiling. Adding a new drywall layer also gives you the option of insulating directly over the old ceiling before adding the new drywall (see Instructions below).

Pros

  • Inexpensive, as drywall materials and tools are cheap and available everywhere
  • Creates a smooth surface that is ideal for paint
  • Can be textured if desired
  • More "neutral" than most other options, an important consideration if you're fixing up your house for resale

Cons

  • Increases the total weight of ceiling—usually this is not a problem because you're fastening into the ceiling joists, but it is an important consideration if the joists are small or are undersized for their span
  • Difficult to install alone without a drywall lift as drywall is heavy and unwieldy when working overhead
  • Labor-intensive and time-consuming—once the drywall panels are installed, the joints must be taped and finished with at least three coats of drywall compound ("mud")
  • Drywall finishing takes practice; it can be difficult for beginners to create a perfectly smooth, flat surface

Covering a Popcorn Ceiling With Prepared Ceiling Planks

Prepared ceiling planks are fiberboard planks made especially for this purpose. The planks are installed onto metal channels that are placed over the old ceiling and screwed to the ceiling joists. One well-known product is Armstrong's Easy Up grid system.

Pros

  • Perfectly uniform so planks fit nicely together
  • Channels can be leveled during installation to compensate for dips and humps in the ceiling
  • Planks are prefinished, eliminating the need for staining or painting
  • Faster and much less messy than new drywall installation

Cons

  • High cost
  • Limited plank styles
  • Planks have a man-made look, somewhat like laminate wood flooring
  • May require special-ordering, unlike an "off-the-shelf" material at your local lumberyard or home center

Covering a Popcorn Ceiling With Tongue-and-Groove Paneling

This is the "old-school" option: Covering the ceiling with traditional tongue-and-groove wood planks or beadboard paneling that you can buy through any quality lumber supplier. If the old ceiling is reliably flat, you can install the paneling right over the old drywall. But if the ceiling is wavy, start with furring strips of 1x2 lumber, and level the strips with shims to create a flat nailing surface for the planks.

Pros

  • Natural wood look that you can't replicate with other materials
  • Faster and less messy than drywall installation
  • Offers the greatest variety of styles as real wood planks come in different types of wood and can be finished as you like
  • Less expensive than manufactured systems

Cons

  • Installation requires some carpentry skill and attention to detail
  • More expensive than drywall
  • Wood ceilings can be busy or dark in rooms with low ceilings (painting or whitewashing the paneling can help)

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

Insulating over a popcorn ceiling helps to stop airflow between living space and an unheated attic space or roof above and can significantly boost the thermal performance of the ceiling. The best material for this application is rigid foam insulation, which comes in several different types and a range of thicknesses. For the highest R-value (insulating value) per inch of thickness, use polyisocyanurate (polyiso, or ISO) rigid panels. Choose polyiso panels without a foil facing, which is designed as an exterior vapor barrier and can create problems in some situations.

  • Stud finder
  • Pencil
  • Rigid foam insulation panels (1/2 inch to 2 inches thick, as desired)
  • Insulation board adhesive
  • Insulation knife
  • Drywall screws
  • Drill-driver
  • Scrap plywood and lumber (optional)
  • Spray foam insulation (as needed)
  • Insulation board seam tape
  • Chalk line

Instructions

Mark the Joist Locations

Use a studfinder to locate each ceiling joist. Mark the center of each joist at opposing sides of the room. Mark the ceiling first, then transfer the marks onto the adjacent wall, a few inches down from the ceiling. This ensures the marks will be visible after the insulation is installed.

Plan the Panel Layout

Measure the width of the room, measuring parallel to the joist direction. Divide the measurement by 48 inches (the width of an insulation panel) to determine how many full panel rows there will be. If the remainder is less than about 6 inches, plan to trim at least 6 inches from the first row of panels, so you'll have full-width (or nearly full-width) panels in the last row.

Install the First Insulation Panel

Trim the first panel to width, if necessary, using an insulation knife. Apply a wavy bead of insulation board adhesive to the backside of the panel and press the panel onto the ceiling at the beginning of the first row. Tack the panel in place with a few drywall screws driven into the ceiling joists, using a drill-driver. Alternatively, you can use scrap plywood and 2x4 boards (used like poles) to press the panel against the ceiling until the adhesive sets up.

Install the Remaining Panels

Repeat the same process to install the remaining panels. Push the panels tightly together and snugly against the walls on all sides. If there are gaps, you can fill them with low-expanding spray foam insulation (such as Great Stuff).

Tape the Panel Seams

Cover the joints between panels with a panel insulation tape recommended by the manufacturer. This is to create an air seal between the panels; it is not needed to create a vapor barrier.

Snap Chalk Lines

Snap chalk lines across the installed panels to mark the centers of the ceiling joists. You will use these as guides for driving screws when installing the new ceiling drywall. With a helper, stretch the chalk line between opposing marks on the side walls, then snap the line over the paneled surface to create continuous reference lines.

Note: When installing the drywall, fasten the drywall panels with long drywall screws (or deck screws) driven through the insulation panels and old ceiling and into the ceiling joists.