The ‘Fifth Wall’

Debra Gelbart

iStock_000082261601_LargeYou may never paint anything as grand as the Sistine Chapel, but that doesn’t mean ceilings aren’t an important part of your business. In fact, said Tim O’Reilly of Behr Process Corporation, it’s probably a good idea to convince homeowner customers to repaint their ceilings at the same time they’re repainting walls.

“When you don’t repaint ceilings, they can look dingy, no matter what light color the customer chooses for walls,” said Tim O’Reilly, director of pro services for the Home Depot Channel of Behr. “It’s simply common sense to repaint ceilings, too.”

Most, if not all, ceilings can be painted, said Sam Carrillo, a product manager with Dunn-Edwards Paints.

There aren’t many situations when a ceiling shouldn’t be painted, said Kevin Lemire a brand manager with Benjamin Moore, but if the ceiling is damaged and shows signs of mold or mildew, it should be replaced or repaired before painting. Best coatings for ceilings Painting a ceiling is more challenging, of course, than painting walls, and paint manufacturers offer specially formulated products that address those challenges. PPG Paints, for example, offers an acrylic latex ceiling paint ideal for ceilings because of formulations that reduce splatter and provide the least amount of sheen, said Brian Osterried, product manager of interior coatings for PPG Paints. “These characteristics are valuable for ceiling application, because reduced splatter allows for less mess and flat sheens minimize surface imperfections.”

Patch any holes or cracks before painting and sand it smooth, Osterried advised. If there are stains, an appropriate stain-blocking primer should be used.

Benjamin Moore has several products that are appropriate for use on ceilings, said Lemire.

Flat or ultra-flat finishes are best for ceilings, Lemire said, since they are forgiving when it comes to surface imperfections. Using a semigloss or high-gloss on a ceiling is an option, but proper preparation is key. “Glossy ceilings can be dramatic but without proper prep work, every imperfection will be amplified with the reflectance of light,” Lemire said.

A paint that hides imperfections well with minimum spatter as it is applied is the ideal product, Lemire said. Ceiling paint is specifically formulated with these properties in mind.

“For drywall ceilings, we recommend a ceiling paint that is very flat, has great coverage, is self-priming, and can minimize surface imperfections,” said Rick Watson, director of product information and technical services for Sherwin-Williams. “On smooth ceilings, the chance that surface imperfections and application issues will stand out increases as the gloss or sheen of the paint increases.”

Behr also offers several products for ceilings, O’Reilly said, noting some block stains and others don’t. Still others are formulated for high commercial ceilings. BEHR PRO Dryfall Paint, an acrylic coating with flash rust resistance, sprays on and settles into a sweepable dust, he said. “This product is intended for tilt-up concrete walls, warehouses, sports venues and other commercial spaces that have at least 20-foot-high ceilings,” O’Reilly said.

Ceilings are primarily painted with traditional flat paints, Carrillo said, because higher sheens magnify imperfections and may show roller- or spray-pattern application marks.

When deciding what color to paint a ceiling, remember that ceilings don’t have to be ‘straight-out- of-the-can white,’ said Andrea Magno, a color expert with Benjamin Moore. “If you have a blue wall color, look to a white with a tint or hint of blue so that each surface works well with the other,” she said. “The effect will be subtle but it’s an added detail that will help to tie a room together.”

Ceilings are a great way to add more drama and depth or create additional layers of color within a room, said Sara McLean, Dunn-Edwards Paint color & design expert. “While, for the most part, I do agree about using flat paint on the ceiling, a high-gloss finish is an alternative for a special look,” she said. “I like the idea that the ceiling can be part of the beauty, creating an artistic and special feature for the room—a memory point.”

One trend in ceilings, she said, is a high-gloss finish in a deep color such as emerald or navy, or a light hue such as sky blue or cream, or even a metallic such as bronze or gold for the ceiling.

Osterried said you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to a specialized ceiling paint to get optimal coverage. “Wall paints can be used on ceilings,” he said. These types of paints provide different benefits from ceiling paints, he added. For instance, wall paints offer more color and sheen options than ceiling paints, “so if pros or homeowners are seeking a ceiling color other than white or a sheen other than flat, a wall paint will likely need to be used. In addition, ceiling paints aren’t designed to be as durable or washable as wall paints because they aren’t subject to the same wear and tear that walls are.”


Because ceilings are painted overhead, using an extension pole is preferred. Osterried said. It’s important to work quickly when painting ceilings, and maintain a wet edge to prevent flashing or an uneven sheen, he said. If a ceiling is textured, a thicker-nap roller is ideal for application, he added.

Like walls, ceilings can be rolled or sprayed, and floors should be covered in case of paint spatter, said Lemire.

Whether you choose spraying or rolling may be a matter of personal choice. The best application methods for ceilings are essentially the same as for painting walls, said Osterried. “Painters should cut in the edges with a brush and use a roller on the rest of the ceiling,” he said, adding, “When painting a ceiling, make sure to roll along the width of the room, not the length. Using an airless paint sprayer can make sense for larger ceilings to greatly reduce the time on the project.” Watson said spray application with no backrolling needed is the recommended method of application. But a super-flat finish can be brushed, rolled or sprayed, he said.

In most cases, Carrillo said, the preferred application methods for painting ceilings are dependent on the occupancy of the property and whether it’s new construction or a repaint. If ceilings are painted using a paint sprayer, more labor is needed to mask and protect the room’s contents if the room is occupied, he explained. Using a paint sprayer creates overspray that will damage furniture and other items in the room if not protected. If the room is empty, spray application will provide the fastest and most uniform appearance. Using a roller is also an effective way to paint ceilings. It requires less time to set up the room for painting, as it does not create any overspray issues.


What about ceilings that present additional considerations, such as textured or recessed surfaces? “The material that gives the ‘popcorn’ effect is somewhat fragile,” Osterried said, “and can come off when subject to contact with a roller cover or to the moisture in paint.”

“Painting popcorn ceilings can be a challenge, depending on the age and condition of the ceilings,” Carrillo said. The preferred method for painting popcorn ceilings is with a paint sprayer, he said. “Lower-viscosity paints should be used on popcorn ceilings. Applying a lower-viscosity paint will reduce the additional surface tension created on the textured ceiling, which can help eliminate delamination. If spray application is not possible, a thick-nap roller cover should be used in order to get paint into all the crevices. It must also be applied in a slower, more deliberate method in order to reduce the possibility of damaging the texture.”

Preparation is key when painting popcorn ceilings, Lemire said. “The ceiling should be cleaned prior to painting using a feather duster and then primed with the appropriate primer. Thicker rollers (3/4″ or 1″) are also available for textured ceilings.”

When painting a popcorn ceiling that first needs to be repaired, Osterried said, consider using a ceiling patch for popcorn ceilings. “This simplifies popcorn-ceiling repair and provides a time-saving solution, compared to traditional gun and hopper methods.” If removing the texture isn’t an option, Osterried said, a ceiling can be painted, but a few factors need to be considered. When using a roller on popcorn ceilings, make sure to go back and forth with the roller as few times as possible while still ensuring proper coverage. “The more you roll the more likely you are to rewet and dislodge the texture from the ceiling,” he said. “Using an airless sprayer to paint a popcorn ceiling is a good option, as it eliminates direct roller contact with the texture. Recessed ceilings, although more time consuming to paint, do not require any special paint or special techniques.”

Recessed ceilings can offer a blank canvas but carry application considerations, including cutting in small areas and highlighting accent features, Watson said.

The bottom line for the top of a room: careful preparation and use of the most appropriate products for a particular ceiling results in durable, beautiful coverage.


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