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How to Paint an Unpainted Wood Ceiling

Columba Smith is a freelance writer specializing in real estate, non-profits, and resumes. Her first novel is in the works.

Our dark, evil ceiling

Our dark, evil ceiling

How to Paint Over a Wood Ceiling

Painting a wooden ceiling takes several days. Plan accordingly. Only oil-based primer will work over stained wood.

  • Cover everything with plastic.
  • Be sure to ventilate your workspace.
  • Two thick coats of primer are best, although I got away with only one. Dip the brush only slightly into the primer to avoid drips.
  • Let dry between coats. Dispose of extra primer responsibly.
  • To create the illusion of a higher ceiling, use a lighter color on the ceiling and a darker color on the walls and/or any raking.

Our Decision to Paint the Ceiling

When my kids and I moved into our home in the forest, I thought the wooden ceiling was quite appropriate for our new habitat. It had a lovely honey-colored stain, with charming, low-hung beams traversing the planks. I thought we could live with it.

After the first several months, I knew I was wrong. The ceiling was dark and oppressive. It swallowed light like a black hole; it was evil.

I scoured the web for information on how to paint wooden ceilings. Surprisingly, I found little help. One afternoon, I’d had enough. I pulled out a gallon of primer and slapped a couple of bright, white layers onto a small patch of ceiling. I figured once I got started, I’d get it done soon enough. I lay back on the couch and smiled smugly at my patch.

It gloated back at me for the next 14 months.

It did worse than dare me to haul out the ladder and expand its boundaries during the time I didn’t have. It turned yellow. A sage young man at the hardware store enlightened me.

“You can’t use a water-based primer over stained wood,” he explained, kindly. “No matter how many layers you use, the stain will bleed through.”


Use Oil-Based Primer

Now the battle had escalated to chemical warfare. I faced a gallon of deadly, oil-based primer and some noxious paint thinner to clean it up. I opened all the doors and windows and banished the kids from the house. I got to work, breathing lightly.

It is not a good idea to lug the full gallon of deadly, oil-based primer around with you. You may spill some. Take it from me. Instead, I learned to use a nifty, plastic bucket. I’d pour a little primer in and set it on the ladder.

Use Plastic Drop Cloths

I covered every square millimeter of flooring with plastic drop cloths from the hardware store. Drops of primer have sensors that guide them to the exact location of any uncovered floor space. I covered my furniture, too.

The narrow strip of primer at the end of the bristles is about right.Obviously, I had dipped too deeply previously, hence the coated bristles.

The narrow strip of primer at the end of the bristles is about right.Obviously, I had dipped too deeply previously, hence the coated bristles.

Don't Oversaturate the Brush

I learned to dip the brush only slightly into the primer. If the paint traveled too far up the bristles, drips of it squeezed out the sides and onto those uncovered square millimeters of flooring. This was especially true if I had any residual paint thinner in the brush.

Note the gloves.

Note the gloves.

The First Layer

My brushstrokes soon rivaled those of Rembrandt. I learned to angle the brush at about 45 degrees and sweep it back slowly, laying the primer on as thickly as I dared. Do not be thrifty when applying primer. You want a good, thick layer.

Use Paint Thinner

I learned never to try cleaning up my brush in the laundry sink. Instead, I poured a little paint thinner into a glass jar and jabbed the paintbrush up and down, clearing out the primer. The lid could be replaced, and the thinner reused the next day. When the war was over, the whole fuming mess could go to those poor Hazardous Materials guys at the dump, and simply fade out of my blissful existence.

The key to finishing the primer layer is patience.

Be Patient Finishing the Primer Layer





All primed!

All primed!

Apply the Paint

I had won! (My lungs have yet to verify that.) My ceiling was now primed and ready to paint. What a feeling!

Applying the paint was much easier. I used water-based paint, so the toxic demons were driven out. My only setback at this stage was painting an entire section of the ceiling the wrong color. I find paint color to be very deceptive. Once I had the shade right, I finished up quite quickly. I brought the wall color up the raking, creating an illusion of a higher ceiling. The color difference is subtle, but enough to work.

And here it is! My painted wood ceiling! (The door shown in earlier pictures was removed when I put in a staircase.)

And here it is! My painted wood ceiling! (The door shown in earlier pictures was removed when I put in a staircase.)

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you still see the knots of the wood and the individual characteristics of the wood through the paint?

Answer: Not at all. The paint is completely opaque on my ceiling. However, I know you can use a tinted stain to get that effect.

Question: Did you sand the wood before priming it?

Answer: No, I didn't have time or energy to sand the ceiling first. I just put the primer on the previous stain. It worked fine, but sanding is probably not a bad idea if you have time, especially if you want to use a more transparent stain to see the wood, instead of simple paint.

© 2011 Columba Smith


Rachel on March 04, 2019:

Do you remember which type of paint you used? Flat, semi gloss, egg shell?

Columba Smith (author) from California on November 09, 2016:

Sorry, Jane, I don't remember. I think semi-gloss? With ceilings, you don't have to worry about the paint getting marked up or smudged. So flat works, too. But eggshell or semi-gloss reflects light, which is nice.

Jane on July 24, 2016:

Did you use flat, eggshell, or semi-gloss?

Lenka on December 10, 2015:

It looks incredible! I have the same problem with my wooden ceilling. I was hesitant to paint it but after seeing you pictures I'm definitely gonna do it.

Columba Smith (author) from California on July 20, 2012:

Wow, thanks for the information, Jeff! I had never heard of that. It hasn't bled through, but I will remember this if I decide to tackle other parts of the house. Thanks for reading!

Jeff Gamble from Denton, Texas on July 20, 2012:

Collisa - Looks like your ceiling came out great. If you ever have bleed through from the stain, and don't want to bring out the oil based paint again, use clear, natural shellac (usually available in small, easy to carry cans) to cover the stain, let it dry 24 hours and paint it with your topcoat. The shellac is a sealer that will lock in the stain (and whatever else) for good.

Columba Smith (author) from California on July 03, 2012:

Thanks, Gina!

Gina Coole from London on July 03, 2012:

Great read - well done!

Columba Smith (author) from California on March 08, 2012:

Still white, Joe, after all these months! Thanks for the feedback. It's wonderful to know I have helped someone overcome evil in the form of a wood ceiling. : ) Blessings,


Joe on March 08, 2012:

Hi Collisa

Thank you ever so much for posting your experiences with your evil ceiling. I have just come in from painting our sitting room ceiling which, it turns out, is the evil twin of yours. I went into battle with it innocently enough weeks ago. Exactly like you found, the ceiling showed nothing but contempt and turned all my hard work yellow when I wasn’t looking. This afternoon it nearly broke me as an ominous yellow stain started to creep through my latest efforts. I had just shut the door on the room having decided to plasterboard over the whole thing instead when my wife told me that your blog via Google. You’ve given me the morale boost I need and you’ve armed me with essential knowledge, namely DOP. I’d been wondering about an apparent success I’d had using what I can now call DOG (dangerous oil-based gloss) that gives my wife a migraine and triggers her asthma (I reckon I could sell it to the military). Having been rendered almost completely insane by this ceiling I am now becoming paranoid and am waiting for the DOG to fail on me but your suggestion of oil-based paints has given me confidence in it. The best thing is that the door is still shut on our evil ceiling. It doesn’t know that I’ve come across your blog and now hold the secret to its imminent demise. I’m going to buy some DOP tomorrow and will attack all 60m2 of it. I’m even looking forward to it. Thank you so very much.

All the best


P.S. Is your ceiling still white?

Becky on June 18, 2011:

You put much more thought into this than most. Wow, the finished product is amazing. You are quite the talented painter. Thanks for visiting

Columba Smith (author) from California on June 07, 2011:

Thanks! I'll check it out.

graceomalley on June 07, 2011:

Rachel Ashwell had a team of painters, maybe if she had to do it herself just a room or two would be white :)

Here's a link to the book on Amazon:

The Santa Cruz Library System has the book, I've checked it out myself a few times.

Columba Smith (author) from California on June 06, 2011:

Thanks, graceomalley! I have not seen Rachel's book. I'd love to see the pictures! Painting an entire wood house sounds a little daunting. I think she has more energy than I do, lol! I love shabby chic. My house tends to be more shabby than chic, but that might change as the kids get older...

graceomalley on June 06, 2011:

Your ceiling looks gorgeous. Have you ever seen Rachel Ashwell's book about redecorating her house? (The Shabby Chic Home) She bought a house that was entirely natural wood on the inside, ceilings, walls, shelving, ect. It was so dark and gloomy her daughter was scared when they first visited. She painted the interior all white, and the house was transformed. (Then she hung a chandelier with pale blue crystals - it was amazing against all that white.)