Yes, You Can Paint Your Popcorn Ceiling—Here’s How

updated Sep 9, 2022
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The truth is, not every home can get a full-fledged renovation. Although it’s tempting to modernize all aspects of a dated space, those changes may not exactly align with time, budget, or even patience. That’s why paint often comes to the rescue. One coat of paint can refresh nearly anything—including popcorn ceilings

What to Know About Popcorn Ceilings

Popcorn ceilings—also called textured ceilings, stucco ceilings, or cottage cheese ceilings (yes, really)—were a popular alternative to troweled plaster in the mid-20th century. The texture was sprayed onto ceilings wet, covering any imperfections, providing fire protection, and even dampening sound when dry.

Pre-1970s, it often contained asbestos, a mineral fiber that can lead to cancer when inhaled (this has since been banned from ceiling treatments).

If you’re unsure of how to update a popcorn ceiling within a certain timeframe and budget, then paint can potentially do the trick. “It can be more cost-effective and safer to paint over popcorn ceilings rather than remove them,” says designer Tina Martindelcampo. “Removal can be messy, toxic, and expensive if you have to hire a professional to do the job.”

Designer Maria Delucia agrees and adds that this solution also keeps the “sound dampening” qualities of popcorn ceilings intact. Given these votes of confidence, we asked Martindelcampo and Delucia—who can both be found at Decorist—to share a step-by-step guide for painting a popcorn ceiling.

Credit: DarroS/Getty Images

How To Paint a Popcorn Ceiling

Here’s an important note before you start: Not all popcorn ceilings can be a DIY project. Before you paint a popcorn ceiling, it’s important to get the ceiling tested by a certified professional to see if asbestos is present—especially if your home was built before 1977. If there’s asbestos present, it’s best to hire a professional to do the painting. 

1. Shop For The Tools You Need

No asbestos? You’re in the clear to take this job on yourself. Delucia recommends buying the following:

  • Painter’s tape
  • Angled brush
  • Canvas drop cloths
  • Paint spray respirator (if you’re spraying)
  • Eye goggles
  • Ladder
  • Bucket
  • Plastic sheeting

“I would also rent an airless paint sprayer at one of the larger hardware stores,” she says. This is especially important if your popcorn ceiling has never been painted before. If it has been painted, you can also complete this project with a roller. Look for one with a thick nap—about 9/16 of an inch—which will help get paint into all the nooks and crannies of the surface.

2. Choose Paint in a Flat Finish

As for paint, Delucia advises getting an odorless primer alongside high-quality, water-based paint in a flat finish. 

“I tend to prefer cooler, muted tones for popcorn ceilings because they make it appear lighter,” Delucia says. “Benjamin Moore’s Misty Gray, Heaven, and Iceberg are favorites of mine. For taller ceilings, I like to make it disappear with a sound-stage effect using options like Hale Navy or Polo Blue.”

Martindelcampo turns to neutral colors in flat finishes for popcorn ceilings, like Benjamin Moore’s Classic Gray, Sherwin-Williams’s Dorian Gray, and Farrow & Ball’s All White. A flat finish helps diminish the look of imperfections and helps the popcorn effect blend in with the rest of the room.

3. Have Your Paint Thinned

“It will flake off if it’s too thick, so you may need to thin your paint by 20 percent or so,” Delucia says. “You may want to ask your paint store for help because they may already have the right formula for the brand you have.” Thinner paint will also be easier to spray.

4. Practice Before You Begin Painting Your Popcorn Ceiling

“You’ll want to practice using your sprayer on cardboard to ensure an even motion for coverage,” Delucia says.

Credit: Dougal Waters/Getty Images

5. Cover Everything With Drop Cloths

“This includes furniture, flooring, vents, and radiators,” Delucia adds. “Tape the cloth down as particles and dust will fly everywhere, and remove light fixtures.” Tape plastic sheeting to the walls to protect them from paint spray.

6. Use a Feather Duster to Ensure That The Paint Will Adhere Properly

“Brush it over the ceiling to remove dust and cobwebs from the surface,” Delucia says.

7. Prime the surface of your popcorn ceiling

 “After that’s finished, lightly paint the edges with an angled brush, and repeat for three to four coats,” Delucia says.

8. Spray in One Direction, Then the Other

“Paint the surface going in one direction, making sure to overlap slightly to prevent you from missing a spot,” Delucia says. Don’t go back over the same spot until the paint is dry; doing so can cause the ceiling finish to flake and peel. “Wait two to three hours for the paint to dry, and then spray in the opposite direction,” Delucia says. “Once you have three or four coats, you should be done.”