Popcorn ceilings, those cottage cheese “acoustical” surfaces, offer a few more issues over and above the simple inconvenience of painting a flat overhead surface, particularly if the popcorn has not been previously painted.* Because the sprayed-on popcorn-textured material is extremely sensitive to water and absorbs moisture very quickly, if you’re using a waterborne latex paint you can weaken the textured material and actually pull off sections as you paint.
The solution is to prep with a non-water based primer such as Fresh Start All Purpose Alkyd Primer (024). This type of primer won’t saturate the textured product and will seal it so you can use a latex paint without any problems. For priming and painting, use a 3/4 inch nap roller cover fitted on a long pole.
Before you begin priming, however, there are a few things you should do. Painting a ceiling can be messy no matter what, so prepare the space by removing or covering everything in the room that could be exposed to paint spattering, that includes sconces and light fixtures. Dust the ceiling off with a feather duster or synthetic microfiber duster attached to a long pole to remove cobwebs, dust and loose grime.
Once you’re ready to prime, if you are not going to be painting the walls start by applying a 3-4 inch low-tack masking tape around the top perimeter of the room. This will allow you to roll right up against the wall area along the edges and avoid having to use a brush. Set yourself up with a five gallon bucket and painting grid — this will make it easier to load up your roller and saturate the sleeve with primer or paint. Next, moving the roller in one direction, begin painting from one corner and work your way across the room, keeping your roller cover completely saturated and without over-rolling (rolling over the same area multiple times). When the primer is dry (overnight), apply latex flat ceiling paint, such as Waterborne Ceiling Paint Ultra Flat Finish Paint (508), using a 3/4 inch nap roller cover.
PRO TIP: If you live in a house that was built before 1977 and have popcorn ceilings, they may contain asbestos. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission document #453, “Asbestos in the Home,” “Asbestos may be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Their use was banned in 1977.” If you think this could be the case, have a licensed asbestos professional test the ceiling before painting.
*Note: An easy way to find out if your ceiling has been painted is to lightly spray a small area, say 6 x 6 inches, in an inconspicuous place with ordinary tap water. If the popcorn finish starts to soften and could be wiped off with a cloth, then your ceiling has never been painted.