Painting Tile Is One Alternative to Full Replacement?

Painting Tile - Adhesion Primer from Sherwin Williams
Painting Tile - Adhesion Primer from Sherwin Williams. © Sherwin Williams

Painting tile seems like the ultimate win-win solution for nasty--or just tired--tiles in your bathroom or kitchen.  After all, tile is permanent. Tile installed by Romans is still here 2,000 years later. Tile replacement is not an easy task. That's why many homeowners who would not ordinarily consider painting tile begin to think in that direction.

Painting surfaces which were not meant to be painted should give you some pause. 

The surface of the ceramic tile is glazed to a high sheen to repel practically anything--dirt, smudges, dust, oil, food, etc.

Have you ever dripped latex paint on the tile while painting walls?

Then you'll know how easy it is to scrape off the paint with your fingernail.

If you do successfully paint your tiles, it might:

  • Prolong the life of tiles.
  • Avoid costly and messy ripping out and re-installation of tiles.
  • Achieve exactly the color you want, rather than being limited to the "baked-in" tile colors.
  • Gives you the opportunity to patch cracks and dings (the paint will cover up the patch material).

Risks include:

  • Paint will begin to peel over time.
  • Painted tiles also mean painted grout.
  • Requires extensive tile-cleaning to prepare the surface.
  • Subsequent buyers of your home may express prejudice about painted tile.
  • At best, painting tile is a temporary fix; will not last as long as the Romans' 2,000-year-old tiles!

You need to use tile paint.

Look at tile paint as falling into 3 categories:

  1. Spray Paint: Cans of epoxy modified acrylic paint such as Valspar Terracotta (which is texturized) or Valspar Premium Enamel Spray Paint (untextured).
  1. Two-Part Paint: Mix part A with part B, resulting in a third substance which you brush or spray onto the tile. XIM Tile DOC Kit is one such example.
  2. Two-Process Paint: Rust-Oleum Tile Transformations is the best-known example of two-process tile paint. First, you apply a bonding agent. Second, you apply the top finish coat.

    You will need to prepare the surface for painting

    You probably already know that any painting job requires extensive surface preparation, such as sanding and cleaning. But when painting tile this is crucial because the margin for error is so slim.

    You can get by and forget to clean or sand the wood that you are painting. However, forget to prepare your tile surface properly, and you may find the paint peeling off six months later. One exacerbating problem is that, unlike painting a house exterior, you cannot simply hit the tile with a pressure washer. This tile is in your home interior, so you have to go easy on the water.

    The only exception is when you intend to paint a tile surround in a tub or shower. The tub or shower pan is a ready-made water collection surface (though you will not want to wash tile particles down the drain).

    1. Assess exactly where your tile is located because this makes a difference. Tile counters (around stoves) and tile backsplashes near stoves will be the hardest to clean due to years of grease build-up. Tile around bathtubs and showers have a similar problem, but in this case with soap and cleansers. Even within a single field of tile, you can have different areas, some cleaner than others. A tile surround in a bathtub/shower will undoubtedly have much soap and cleanser build-up in the lower rows of tile. The tile in the upper rows will be relatively clean.
    1. Begin by taking off the large areas of imperfection--mold, mildew, and fungus--with a commercial cleaner, rinse with clean water, and let thoroughly dry.
    2. Clean with TSP, rinse well.
    3. Use a hand-held orbital sander with fine-grit paper (400 grit or higher--remember, higher numbers mean a finer grit). Hit the tile lightly. The intention is not to completely sand off the glaze but to further remove grease, soap, and other types of build-up, and to lightly scuff the glaze.
    4. Clean thoroughly with water.
    5. Use a tack cloth. When the tack cloth comes up completely clean, the tile is ready for painting.

    Here are some alternatives if painting your tile isn't your cup of tea.

    Given the difficulties of painting your tile, it is worth looking at a couple of alternatives:

    1. Bathtub-Shower Refinishing Companies: These companies, in addition to refinishing showers and tubs with industrial-grade paints, often will paint tile. For a higher cost than DIY-painting (but a lower cost than full replacement), you can have a refinisher do your paint job.
    1. Lay New Tile Straight Over Old: No, this is not tile-painting, but we should note that you do not necessarily need to remove old tile before installing new tile. Cement backer board can be laid over old tile as a sub-surface for new tile. In some cases, if the old tile is in good enough condition, it can be the sub-surface for the new tile--no backer needed.