How to paint a ceiling step-by-step for beginners

Use the right paint, tools and technique for great results when painting a ceiling yourself. Follow our 5 simple steps to paint a textured or smooth 5th wall like a pro.

How to paint a ceiling
(Image credit: Future)

Often, learning how to paint a ceiling and refinishing that 5th wall can make a dramatic difference to a room. Whether you're painting a smooth, textured or popcorn ceiling, ensuring you have ceiling paint and the right tools to hand will ensure you get the best professional-looking results, even if you are a complete beginner.

You have to start somewhere right, and tackling your 5th wall is an essential part of painting a room from top to bottom, so it's worth getting the technique right.

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.

We spoke with Anna Franklin, interior designer and founder of Stone House Collective (opens in new tab), about the best ways to go about painting a ceiling and choosing the perfect shade, '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.' She comments.

How to paint a ceiling step-by-step

Franklin shares her expertise on how to achieve a professional finish when painting a ceiling yourself, even if you're a total novice. Her top tips for beginners are:

'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.

'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.'

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. 

DIY supplies

Painting a ceiling step by step

(Image credit: Future)

As mentioned, choosing the best paint for the job is where to start. We used Dulux Magic White paint (opens in new tab) in this DIY as it paints on pink and 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 go-to as mentioned.

You'll then need a good brush and the best paint rollers for the job also, there are lots of good contenders on Amazon (opens in new tab). Note that if your ceiling is flat, a short-haired or sponge roller will be fine and if you're painting a textured ceiling, you will need a roller with a longer pile. 

Top tip: Don’t scrimp on ceiling paint: the lower the quality, the more coats you’ll need. With high-quality paint, two coats should be enough. 

1. Prep the ceiling and protect your room

'First, prep your ceiling! Protect the rest of the surfaces in your space by using painter's tape, plastic coverings and drop cloths to cover the floor and any furniture in the room. This will prevent messes as well as any accidental damage to your furniture.' Comments Franklin.

Start by moving furniture into the center of the room so that you can cover it and your floor. Remove any light shades and fittings also to help you have better access, right up to the edges which will give you that pro finish you want.

Mask off the areas around any lights and above and below your cornices. If you want to paint molding or coving at the same time, simply mask off the area where it meets the wall leaving the area to paint exposed.

'I recommend adding as much protection as you can, as more coverage won’t hurt and will save you from the trouble of getting paint on anything. If you have a ceiling fan, tape it off at the base.' She continues.

Painting a ceiling step by step

(Image credit: Future)

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 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.

3. Start painting with a brush

Cutting in with paint will give you the best finish. To follow our DIY video, fill a small painting pail with a little paint, ensuring you mix it well before pouring. Paint an area 1-2" wide around the perimeter of the taped-off ceiling. This will mean that later you won't need to roller right to the edge, which can get messy. Cut in around light fixtures also.

Franklin recommends, '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.

Painting a ceiling step by step

(Image credit: Future)

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.

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 step by step

(Image credit: Future)

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.

Painting a ceiling step by step

(Image credit: Future)

Painting a popcorn ceiling

If you'd rather not remove a popcorn ceiling and simply paint over your textured 5th wall, you'll need to tackle it slightly differently to a smooth surface

Franklin comments 'If you have a heavily textured, popcorn ceiling, extra precautions will need to be taken when preparing to paint. Before painting, make sure you are mindful of the amount of paint on the paint roller, and practice on a test board, etc. to ensure you know how much paint you are adding to a roller before starting. These types of ceilings require a thick coat of paint, but if you use too much and soak the ceiling “popcorn,” the texture can weaken and potentially fall.'

Real Homes' blogger and DIY expert Carol J Alexander adds, 'If you opt to leave the popcorn ceiling, you can paint it or cover it with another material. Before painting, vacuum well with a brush attachment to remove dust and cobwebs. Next, choose a paint specifically designed for ceilings but purchase about 20 percent extra to cover the texture. Applying the paint is easier with a sprayer, but use a roller if you’ve never used a sprayer before. Benjamin Moore suggests a ¾”-1” nap for textured ceilings.' You can find a variety of ¾”-1 naps on Amazon. (opens in new tab)

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.

Zig-zag for a pro finish 👌

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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