How to paint a ceiling: 5 essential steps for a pro finish on your 5th wall

Learn how to paint a ceiling using the right tools and technique for smooth, pro results. This DIY can be done in five simple steps

How to paint a ceiling
(Image credit: Future)

Painting a ceiling is definitely a job you can do yourself and is a huge money-saver vs paying a professional. Ceilings can get overlooked in lieu of seemingly more important projects, but a freshly painted ceiling can really brighten your space. 

Think of your ceiling as a 5th wall to either lighten the room, give it a pop of color or add some drama. It’s a great opportunity to help your space shine! And the great news is that with the right tools and paint you’ll be on your way to beautiful ceilings in no time. It's an essential part of painting a room after all, so it's worth doing the job well.

How to paint a ceiling step-by-step

Using a high-quality ceiling paint like Behr (opens in new tab) will get the job done in two coats and ensure a lasting finish for years to come. Ceiling paint typically comes in a flat or matte finish unlike wall paint that comes in eggshell, satin, or semi-gloss for ease of cleaning. The flat finish of the ceiling paint helps to hide imperfections as it does not reflect light as much as a higher sheen. 

Choosing a lighter color for the ceiling will make it feel lighter and brighter. But if your walls are already a light color, you may choose to paint the ceiling a bright color to add more personality. If creating a moody space is your goal, painting the ceiling a darker color is a great option. There is no right or wrong color to paint your ceiling, it’s really about the look and feel you’re going for. 

Before purchasing supplies you need to consider the texture of your ceiling. If your ceiling is flat then using a roller pad with a smaller nap will work best. If your ceilings are textured you will need a thicker nap to get into the nooks and ensure a flawless finish.

Note: In the video they use Dulux Magic White paint (opens in new tab) from UK B&Q as it paints on pink then dries white so that if you're painting on an already white ceiling, you'll know which areas you've covered and which you'll still need to get to. Benjamin Moore's Waterborne Ceiling Paint (opens in new tab) is another good option too.

Safety painting at heights

Painting a ceiling can be tricky and even dangerous if done hastily and without proper safety measures in place – especially if you have a particularly high ceiling. Make sure that your ladder is steady at all times; clear the area immediately around it of anything that might be a trip hazard and ensure your space is well lit, wear a head torch if needed.  Most importantly, be patient: move your ladder along after finishing a section, rather than over-stretching. (Even if you don’t fall, you may end up pulling a muscle.) We also recommend using safety glasses to protect your eyes from spilling paint, dirt, and debris. 

Painting a ceiling white

(Image credit: Dori Turner)
You will need:

1. Old bed sheets or dust sheets

2. Screwdriver

3. Sugar soap (opens in new tab) for cleaning

4. Bucket & mop

5. Decorator's tape

6. Ladder

7. Small to medium-sized paint brush, Wooster’s short angle sash brush (opens in new tab) is what I used

8. A paint roller, with handle

9. A paint edger (opens in new tab)

10. Ceiling paint like Behr (opens in new tab) which I found at the Home Depot but it's on Amazon (opens in new tab) also

11. Extension pole 

12. Safety glasses

1. Prep the ceiling and protect your room

Before you begin painting you’ll need to protect your flooring with a drop cloth or old sheet. You’ll also want to cover any furniture or move it out of the way when possible to keep from getting any paint on those surfaces. Moving the furniture out of the way will also make it easier to move throughout as you paint. 

If you have crown molding you may choose to tape off the perimeter of the room. You will also want to tape off any light fixtures in the ceiling. 

2. Remove any debris

If you're painting onto already painted plaster ensure you remove any dust and crumbling debris from the surface before you paint. Scrape away any loose areas with a screwdriver or hard-bristled brush.

Zoe Warren, an interior expert at PriceYourJob.co.uk (opens in new tab) actually recommends sanding if your ceiling is not textured but not completely smooth. 'Sanding is of the most important things you need to do before painting an untextured ceiling, as it will help smooth out any bumps and get rid of crud stuck on the ceiling. When sanding, you should use a 100-grit drywall sanding paper to create a smooth surface that is perfect for painting.'

It's best to use a sugar soap (opens in new tab) solution with a long-handled sponge mop to clean your ceiling at this stage also, as using a handheld sponge will be hard on your shoulders.

The final thing to consider before beginning is whether you need to prime your ceiling first. If you’re going from a dark color to a light color, you will want to invest in a high-quality coat of flat primer before going back with the ceiling paint.

3. Start painting with a brush

Painting a ceiling white

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Cutting in with paint will give you the best finish. Use a high quality trim brush like Wooster’s short angle sash brush (opens in new tab) to cut in around the edges of the ceiling where it meets the wall and around light fixtures. Using an angled brush can eliminate the need to tape off the ceiling, you just need a steady hand as you go. You can also use a paint edger (opens in new tab) to make quick work of the perimeter. You will likely need to do two coats so allow the first coat to fully dry before doing a second application. 

Anna Franklin, interior designer and founder of Stone House Collective (opens in new tab) adds 'When it is time to begin painting the ceiling, start with a brush in a corner. Your aim is to paint the hard-to-reach areas with a paintbrush, that a roller will not be easy to get to – such as the corners and edges of the ceiling. When painting, be sure to hold the brush like a pen, load it with paint, and then tap the brush on the side of the bucket to remove any excess paint that may drip off while painting (you don’t want to have too much paint on the brush at a time).'

If you wanted to paint trim or molding also, now is the time to do it.

Using a paint edger to neaten up ceiling

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

4. Finish the rest of the ceiling using a roller

'Once you’re done getting all of the tight spots covered, you are ready to use the paint roller. For a flat ceiling without texture, use a 9 inch roller and 3/8 inch nap; For a textured ceiling, use a 9 inch roller with a 1/2 inch nap.' Continues Franklin.

An extension pole is a must when you’re ready to start rolling the ceiling. This will enable you to move quicker and avoid having to climb repeatedly up and down a ladder to refill the paint or move to a different area.

Using a roller on an extension pole to paint the ceiling

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Work in small areas, painting in a zig-zag shape, carefully overlapping the last stroke with each movement. Use light strokes to ensure an even, professional-looking finish. Work across the entire ceiling until it's fully covered and don't worry if it looks a little patchy as the second coat will sort this out.

Allow drying time before moving on, this is usually a couple of hours but do double-check the paint tin.

'Once you cover the ceiling to the best of your ability, let the paint dry as long as possible. Paint curing times can vary, so I recommend checking with the paint brand to ensure it is given ample time to dry.' Notes Franklin.

Painting a ceiling white using a roller on an extension pole

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

5. Use a paint brush for touch ups

It's likely that you might just need a few touch-ups. 'After your paint has dried completely, carefully remove your tape and coverings, double-checking for any inconsistent areas of paint coverage as you go. If you missed any covered spots, use a paintbrush for touch-ups.' Says Franklin.

If you actually need a second coat as you'd usually need when painting a wall, repeat the last step once the first coat is dry. There's no need to brush the coving this time. When all the paint is dry, remove the painter's tape, dust sheets and admire your work.

The results:

Finished painted ceiling in bathroom with circular mirror and gilded trim

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

Is it okay to cut in the ceiling one day and paint the next?

We would recommend that you paint the rest of your ceiling while the cutting in paint is still wet as they will blend better and give your room a more professional finish.

Corner of white painted bathroom with circular mirror in gold trim and towel hanger

(Image credit: Dori Turner)

What is the best color to paint a ceiling?

White is popular and a go-to color for ceilings to make your space look brighter and appear bigger. Not forgetting, however, that there are plenty of colorful painted ceiling ideas to try out too if you want to make more of a design statement.

Franklin says, 'Although there is no “right” color, there is a way to guide yourself when selecting a color. Most people use white on a ceiling, because it reflects light and brightens up a room, and can often help make the space feel bigger. If you want the space to feel less traditional and multi-dimensional, opt for a color that is a few shades lighter or darker than the wall color.'

'First, pick the right type of paint. Many people don’t realize that there is a difference between wall paint and ceiling paint, and make the mistake of using wall paint on the ceiling. It is important to use ceiling paint because wall paint is thin with low viscosity, meaning it can easily drip from the ceiling when applied. Instead, make sure you use ceiling paint since it’s durable, low-sheen, and requires little to no maintenance.' Benjamin Moore's Waterborne Ceiling Paint (opens in new tab) is a good option.

Franklin continues: 'Second, educate yourself on the type of ceiling you have. If it has a heavy texture or is a “popcorn” ceiling, be mindful of the amount of paint you are applying. If you saturate a popcorn ceiling too much, it can cause damage to the texture and potentially make the ceiling fall. Although a thick layer of paint will be needed, practice before starting to get a good feel of how much paint is on your roller or paintbrush. With preparation beforehand, you can ensure that you apply the correct amount of paint and don’t cause long-term damage.'

Zig-zag for a pro finish 👌

Dori Turner
Dori Turner

Dori Turner writes blog posts and feature articles on affordable design and DIY from her home in the heart of Oklahoma. She has a passion for teaching others how they can transform their home on a budget.

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