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Repair and Painting of Sprayed
Popcorn Texture Ceilings

I think the person who invented spray texture was a genius...

He combined a number of great qualities is a single product... and the builders and remodelers latched onto spray texture like pit bulls!

  • It's a cheap and easy to apply product with a minimal skill level necessary to produce good work.
  • Spray texture allows a lower quality of prep work on the ceiling, being somewhat forgiving for minor imperfections in the surface.
  • It saves loads of money for the builder when compared to quality flat ceiling preparation, priming, and painting.
  • It offers some sound deadening qualities when compared to flat ceilings... especially noticeable in large, uncarpeted rooms.
  • And, last of all, it doesn't fall off the ceiling into your soup... until after your check clears!

We hope to remove the veil of mystery from this marvelous/annoying product, and help those of you who live with it to better cope with its eccentricities!

What is spray texture, and how is it used?

Lemmer Hopper Texture GunSpray texture, called popcorn finish by some, is a paint-like coating used primarily on ceilings in both residential and commercial buildings. It is also used on walls and exposed metal carrying beams. Actually, I always marveled at the stupidity of spraying this stuff on walls. It is not meant for surfaces that may be subject to wear like... let me think... walls? Sure, it looks nice, as long as you never intend to hang anything on the walls, or don't ever want to locate the studs! Beam me up, Scotty!

The texture comes from polystyrene or Styrofoam bits of varying sizes mixed into a sticky liquid base. The product is purchased dry and mixed with water, and is available in various textures. The amount of water used in the mix is critical to a good job. Too little water and the product will not spray smoothly. Too much and it will tend to show small cracks as it dries, plus its hiding ability and adhesion will decrease.

The product is applied to large areas with a compressor-powered hopper gun... it looks very much like a futuristic assault weapon. One or multiple coats can be applied, though too thick a single coat is not advisable. The material should be allowed to dry overnight if a second coat is desired. (Graphic left supplied courtesy Lemmer Spray Systems.)

This is one of those jobs that one develops a touch for, and the home handyman that attempts this task should be patient, persistent, and be willing to deal with a big mess his or her first try! Speaking of mess, be sure to thoroughly cover anything you don't want the texture on or in, such as electrical boxes.

Though the texture will hide minor surface imperfections, allowing the contractor a little slack in the quality of his finish work, extremely poor drywall finishing will show through! Common novice errors such as sagging drywall tape or insufficient feathering out of joints can show up in the finished work. These errors may be invisible, or can be seen as pronounced shadow lines if light washes across the ceiling, such as from certain types of light fixtures or window treatments.

It is my experience that this product is too often applied to drywall without any preparation other than a final smoothing of the joints. Unfortunately, you the customer may eventually pay for this cost-cutting method of installation through loosening texture, greater susceptibility to moisture damage, and product discoloration.

Cleaning and priming the surface is the only way to assure strong adhesion of the texture. The purpose of the cleaning is obvious... dust will reduce the adhesion to the surface by absorbing moisture. The product will stick to the dust instead of the surface.

Priming before texturing seals the surface so that the appearance of the finish is uniform and no water soluble stains migrate into the finish coat. An added benefit is that the priming will also seal in any residual dust from the joint finishing, insuring there will be no areas that will spontaneously loosen in the future. This is a particular problem in bathrooms, where less-than-ideal adhesion can cause the texture to literally come off the ceiling in sheets!

Can Popcorn Texture Paint Be Rolled On, Or Must It Be Sprayed On?

There is a difference of opinion among painters as to the best method of painting spray texture. Of course, painters, being somewhat superstitious, tend to cling to the most familiar method to them. If they are production people, they lean towards spraying. If they are small job guys, rolling the paint is their preference. Who is right?

The answer is both, but one method is still better. And the winner is... the roller! Some of you contractors may be gritting your teeth, but hear me out before your flame me. As you read on, just remember I am saying better, not easier or less expensive!

Spray painting over the texture is the easy route, no question about it. You don't have to touch the ceiling (except for repairs or texture touchups), so even if there is some "looseness" from a poor original installation, you can still do a flawless job. If you spray a primer/sealer over a stain, or use an oil-based finish paint, you may be able to successfully mask an area of loose texture.

Rolling has both advantages and disadvantages when compared to spraying. See if you agree with me that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages... at least for the homeowner who wants to do the job right!

Priming... If the sprayed ceiling has never been painted, or has been spray painted before, it should be coated with one coat of an nonwater-based primer/sealer, such as Kilz or BIN. These quick drying products seal in any stains, do not exert "suction" during rolling on the spray texture like a latex ceiling paint would (because they are thinner), and do not moisten the texture, which could cause it to lift.

When priming with a roller, follow the procedure for finish painting in the next paragraph, with one exception... you do not have to brush the perimeter of the room if you roll within a half inch or less of the walls. I have learned from experience that this is a time waster, since the finish paint will be brushed on in this area and will be thick enough to seal adequately.

Painting... In most flat ceiling and wall painting, the unwritten rule is to brush the edges of the ceiling, and then roll, trying to leave a wet edge as you move across the ceiling. With texture ceilings, the opposite is true. Paint the main area of the ceiling first, using a high quality acrylic latex paint. Begin your rolling six inches or so in from the wall to even the paint on the roller. Then work the roller towards the wall, rolling as close to the wall as you can get without splotching the wall... or wallpaper.

You should apply paint to within a half inch or less of the wall, with no telltale roller-edge paint globs left behind. If you have any, smooth them out with your brush and then go back to rolling. It is important to roll back over your work as you progress and keep a wet edge. And always look back to see if you have missed any spots. Touch them up immediately with the damp roller... don't apply a lot more paint to the already painted areas.

After rolling the entire ceiling, use a brush to paint the perimeter. The reasoning behind my suggestion to roll as close to the wall as you could will become apparent now. It is time consuming and sloppy to brush onto spray texture. If you apply too much paint, it may drip off the texture... not right away, but in five minutes when you are across the room. If it drips down the wallpaper... gulp! By rolling close to the wall initially, you need not apply much paint to the brush to get the job done.

Why does NH prefer rolling paint onto texture ceilings instead of spraying?

Durability and future paint-ability are my main concerns. Rolling puts a thicker paint film on the surface, whether textured or flat, and a thicker paint film means more resistance to staining and mildew. A rolled ceiling is bonded together by the latex, and thus is less likely to weep chunks of texture into your soup... very important for dieters!

If you use a high quality ceiling paint, you will also be able to sponge off an occasional OOPS... such as "OOPs I've got teal wall paint on the ceiling"... or "OOPs, the pressure cooker met the exorcist... IN MY KITCHEN!"

How can a popcorn ceiling damaged from a water leak be repaired?

Leaks from above (not heaven, silly... from the bathroom, the laundry, the roof) are the biggest cause of failure in spray texture ceilings. A minor leak can cause brown staining and a major leak can cause widespread lifting of the texture.

The size of the damage will dictate the repair method. When your area to repair approaches 10 square feet, it becomes more difficult to match the existing texture, so a touchup spray... either doing it yourself or hiring a pro... should be considered.

Most repairs can be done with a combination of proper preparation, use of the proper texture aggregate size, and the use of the proper paints.

Preparation... All loose texture must be removed by sanding and/or scraping. Be careful... sometimes it is hard to tell where the water loosened texture ends and the normal texture begins. Take my experienced word on it... it you try to roll over water-loosened texture, your roller will strip it off the ceiling like peeling a banana, turning a simple job into a very messy event!

Repair any holes or damaged wallboard. Before using any wallboard compound or tape, an absolutely essential preparatory step is to sand off any lumps of texture around the area of the repair in a 6 to 8 inch swath around the hole. Why? If you try to repair over the top of the texture, you will have a high spot that will be difficult to mask. If the texture has been previously painted with latex paint, this can be difficult, because the sandpaper will load up with the rubber. Just try your best to remove the roughness from the texture before completing the patch.

The next step is to prime the repaired area... and the entire ceiling if it has not been previously painted. By priming the repair, the new texture will go on more smoothly and appear more random... that's your goal!

Choosing the right texture product...

Roll-A-Tex Popcorn Ceiling patching powder, mixed with paintChoosing the right texture product will either give you a fighting chance of cosmetic success, or doom your job from the start.

Don't use the spray texture product for patching. It does not have good rolling characteristics as compared to the aftermarket products that is designed to be mixed with paint.

A product I have used with much success is Zinsser Roll-A-Tex , now owned by Rustoleum.  This paint additive is available in fine, medium, and coarse aggregate. In my experience, the best match for most ceilings is the medium texture, though I have occasionally used the fine or coarse grades. Premixed products are also available, but I prefer to use the "mix-it-yourself" variety to fine-tune the density of the texture.  Premixed products are not suitable for anything other than very small repairs.

Applying the texture... Now comes the moment of truth. If the final texturing job is not good, all the best prep and patching become a sorry footnote to this project. I have seen some unbelievably fine repairs... and done some, too. I have also seen some mediocre work... and I am not ashamed to say that I followed the same learning curve as everyone else! Maybe these tips can help you to start nearer to the top of the curve!

As I mentioned earlier, choosing the right aggregate size is critical to success. Mix up a small batch and brush it onto a piece of scrap drywall or even plywood. You want to see how closely the texture you chose matches the ceiling.

There are no specific proportions of paint to texture, because you are trying to match the existing texture. Pour out two or three cups of your high quality acrylic latex ceiling paint, and add texture, a little at a time, starting with a cup, until it is thoroughly mixed. Keep adding texture and mixing until it is thick but still fluid. If you try it in a small area and you find it to be too thin, you can wipe the texture off the ceiling, add more texture, and try again. Or, you can finish the job, let it dry, and apply a second coat.

The technique for spreading the texture is not difficult. First, assume that you are going to make a total mess of the wall and floor, and cover them with plastic or newspapers. Have a bucket of water and a sponge handy to clean up any drips that evade your dragnet.

You cannot roll this material too close to a wall, so use a brush to apply the wet texture there. It is neater if you use a paint edger, a piece of aluminum flashing, or a wide putty knife to allow you to apply the material right up to the wall without getting any paint on it.

Next, use your roller to apply the wet texture to the repair until it completely covers the patch and has overlapped into the ceiling's original "virgin" texture. Without adding more texture, gently roll over the wet texture in different directions to add randomness to its appearance. Add more wet texture if need be.

Feather the wet texture into the original ceiling at least 4 to 6 inches all around the repair. This should be done within a few minutes. If you continue to work the texture longer than that, it will begin to dry, clump, and look "worked". By feathering, I mean to roll from the wet area in the dry area. You will carry some texture, but at the end of your roller stroke, you will be applying mostly paint.

If the repair is near a wall, get the roller as close to the wall as possible, to roll out brush marks from the earlier brush application. You may use the paint edger here, too, if you need it for confidence.

Once dry, the entire ceiling can be painted with the same high quality acrylic latex paint you used to mix the texture. Of course, if you feel that the new texture is not dense enough, just roll another coat over the first, and allow to dry before the final painting.


What About A Small Hole Repair in a Popcorn Ceiling?  Can it be touched up?

There are two easy steps... creative hole filling, followed by artistic paint touchup of the repair (if necessary).

Fill and texture...

If the repair is too "smooth", the repair will look like a filled hole, especially when compared with the surrounding texture. However, you don't have to use actual texture if you use your finger or a putty knife to contour the patching material so it looks more irregular. Yes... you can fake it!

Everyone has their own preference for patching materials, but for this repair I tend to lean towards the light-weight patching compounds, such as One-Time Spackle by Red Devil. They are drier than most other premixed compounds, so they can be more easily shaped while filling the hole at the same time.

You can purchase small containers of premixed texture to use for small repairs, but the hole should be patched first.

And touchup paint. Maybe...

Depending on the current shade of white the ceiling displays, you may be able to get away without having to use touchup paint at all.  You know, there is a scientific formula for this... the matching of the spackle is inversely proportional to the fussiness factor of the homeowner!

OK, you're not satisfied. Now, go to a paint store and purchase a quart of white latex paint (unless you have some kicking around), and a tube of black painting tint, and experiment with adding a small amount of tint to a small amount of the paint until you get the color right.  The tone of the textured ceilings tends to be somewhat gray, so you should be able to get a close enough match for "dabbing" purposes!


Sometimes, pieces of the texture fall off into my soup? Is there something I can do?

Unless you think you have a polystyrene deficiency, the way to solve this problem is to either 1) eat in the car, or 2) prime and/or paint the ceiling. Hey! Have fun!

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.