What To Do With Popcorn Ceilings

Q: I just moved into a condo and I really dislike the popcorn ceilings. Is there anything I can do to disguise or hide them, like painting them a dark color, or should I scrape it all off and start over? – Jack Antouri, White Plains


A: Ah yes, the popcorn ceiling: the home décor equivalent of the polyester-knit disco shirt, and popular during the same period. In fact, some popcorn finishes sprayed on during the height of the disco era actually had sparkles for added … disco-ness, one assumes.

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According to some intrepid souls discussing this problem online, you can wet the stuff to soften it, then scrape it off inch by inch with a putty knife. But it requires the patience of a monk, and if it was applied before 1977, when asbestos was banned in such products, you’ll need someone with a hazmat suit and a permit.

At best, says Frank Branca, general manager at New Dimensions Remodeling in Mount Kisco, removing it means “you’re looking at a big mess.” Even if you’re willing to put up with that, Branca still suggests, “Forget scraping. You’ll probably gouge or ruin whatever’s underneath.” Which raises another issue. “Popcorn finishes were often used as a cover up, so the builders wouldn’t have to worry about heavy taping and joints that weren’t done properly,” Branca says. “It can disguise shoddy workmanship.” So you could go to all the trouble of scraping the stuff off, and then find you still need a major fix-up.

Painting is a possibility, Branca concedes, although if you’re in an older building, you’ll have to contend with accumulated dirt that may resist paint. “In any case, you’ll need a heavy roller and two or three coats to get in all those little bumps. And it’s still a popcorn ceiling.”

His suggestions: “Hire a plasterer — and there aren’t too many alive any more — to skim coat the ceilings and smooth the whole thing out. Or put Sheetrock right on top, right into the studs. Sheetrocking is the cleanest, simplest way. Tape it, paint it, and it’s done. You’ve got a classic look.”

During our brief discussion about the nearly lost art of plastering, the word “prohibitive” came up, so unless you have deep pockets, Mr. Antouri, it looks like Sheetrock is your best bet. The job would be simple, Branca says, unless the ceilings aren’t level, or you have crown moldings that need to be removed and replaced.

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Fashions come and go. Does Branca believe popcorn ceilings will ever be back in style? “I hope not,” he replies.

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