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

  • Can be textured, if desired

  • Creates a smooth surface that is ideal for paint

  • Inexpensive, as drywall materials and tools are cheap and available everywhere

  • More "neutral" than most other options, an important consideration if you're fixing up your house for resale

Cons

  • Requires finishing skills; difficult for beginners to create a perfectly smooth, flat surface

  • Difficult to install alone without a drywall lift, as drywall is heavy and unwieldy when working overhead

  • Labor-intensive and time-consuming, including taping and finishing the drywall joints with at least three coats of drywall compound ("mud")

  • Increases the total weight of ceiling—usually not a problem because you're fastening into the ceiling joists, but an important consideration if the joists are small or are undersized for their span

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

  • Faster and much less messy than new drywall installation

  • Prefinished planks, eliminating the need for staining or painting

  • Easy leveling of channels during installation to compensate for dips and humps in the ceiling

Cons

  • High cost

  • Limited plank styles

  • Man-made look of planks, 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

  • Less expensive than manufactured systems

  • Faster and less messy than drywall installation

  • Natural wood look that you can't replicate with other materials

  • Offers the greatest variety of styles, as real wood planks come in different types of wood and can be finished as you like

Cons

  • More expensive than drywall

  • Carpentry skill and attention to detail required for installation

  • 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 stud finder 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.