Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Painting styrofoam ceiling tiles can be a challenging process, and there are many potential pitfalls that can lead to disaster. It’s essential to strategize, prepare your workspace, and paint the tiles efficiently with the right materials to avoid problems down the road.
You can paint your styrofoam tiles on your own, but you’ll need to follow these steps:
- Selecting the right materials
- Prepping the room & tiles
- Painting tiles that are still in the ceiling
- Touching up
- Clean up
There are pros and cons to different kinds of paint, brushes, and methods of installation, so you’ll want to make sure you find the right section of the article that fits your situation. You will also find helpful tips for installing the ceiling tiles after they’ve been painted, ways to prep your work area, and strategies to paint tiles with different types of surfaces.
Select the Necessary Materials
Styrofoam ceiling tiles require a specific type of paint that won’t melt or flake. Latex-based or water-based acrylics are the only two kinds you should consider as they don’t contain chemicals that can damage the tiles. You can also find many spray paints that work as well. With regard to quantity, you will need about a gallon of paint per 150-200 square feet of ceiling.
You’ll need the correct primer for the ceiling as well since the tiles are made of polystyrene. Be sure to find a water-based primer as you’ll need to apply this to the surface you want to paint.
You’ll need a roller to apply both the paint and primer as well as a nylon brush for touch-ups. You will also need masking tape to cover the corners and edges of the ceiling as well as the metallic parts in-between the tiles. Finally, you’ll want some fabric drop-cloths or sheets on the floor unless you plan to paint the tiles before installing them.
Finally, you’ll need a one-gallon and five-gallon bucket to mix your paints and primer. Depending on how dirty the tiles are, you’ll also need dishwashing fluid, some cotton towels, and a broom or feather duster. If you are painting the ceiling tiles outside of their frames, you’ll need a metal, self-etching primer to apply to the frames before installing the tiles.
Prepare the Room and Tiles for Painting
Regardless of how you decide to paint your ceiling tiles, you’ll need to prepare the room and a significant block of time to get the job done. You should clear everything from the room so that it’s empty because paint could drip from the tiles after you finish and stain furniture. Take the time to clear all items from the room to give yourself space, and then cover the floor with your sheets or drop-cloths.
Be sure to clean the tiles, even with a broom or a duster. Painting over any kind of debris will leave an eyesore, so if they’re filthy, you’ll want to clean all of them one tile at a time. Use a cleaning solution consisting of one tablespoon of dishwashing liquid and one gallon of hot water. Use one soft cotton towel to clean each tile and then a different one to rinse and dry it. While this is a somewhat painstaking task, you will be thankful that you took the time clean before painting!
If you’re painting the tiles while they’re installed in the ceiling, use the masking tape to seal off the corners and edges of the ceiling as well as the metal inserts between each tile. Be sure to thoroughly tape everything evenly, so the paint is aligned. Don’t worry if you over-tape some areas, you can touch things up with your brush later, but it’s much harder to fix paint that has already been applied.
Painting Tiles that are Still in the Ceiling
If you’re painting tiles that are already installed, then you will want to be precautionary about the preparation steps from the previous section. Due to potential paint drip and accumulation at edges, you will need to be thorough about how you apply primers and coats of paint. You will also need to have adequate time to allow the paint and primer to dry before moving on to the next step.
Step 1: Clean
As mentioned above, make sure the room is completely empty and use a duster or broom to sweep off the ceiling tiles. Make sure you have an appropriately sized ladder to reach the tiles when painting and scrub them clean if necessary with a cleaning solution.
Step 2: Tape
Using masking tape, tape the edges where the wall meets the ceiling. If your ceiling has metal brackets in between the tiles, tape over those as well as precisely as possible, but always remember that if you over-tape, then you can touch up the tiles later. Under-taping is harder to undo! You will have many kinds of masking tape to choose from and may get different widths depending on the size of the brackets. Generally speaking, go with a pretty large width for the corners of the ceiling. Cover the entire floor with fabric drop-cloths or sheets.
Step 3: Primer
Fill your five-gallon bucket with two gallons of metal self-etching primer. Using a roller with an extension, coat the entire ceiling with paint. After you have coated the ceiling, there will most likely be areas where paint has accumulated and is dripping, so using the ladder and a nylon brush, touch up those areas. If you have a styrofoam ceiling with grooves or designs with an uneven surface, you may need to use the nylon brush to put primer in those areas as well. Let the primer dry out on the ceiling for at least two hours.
Step 4: Paint
Paint the ceiling tiles just as you primed them. Rinse and clean the roller before reusing it, and be extra attentive to the areas where paint drips or grooved areas in the tile that the roller can’t access. Any flaws in these areas will be much more evident when painting than priming. Give the paint at least three hours to dry. Do this as many times as necessary, depending on how many coats of paint you’d like for the ceiling.
Step 5: Touch Up
After you’ve coated the entire ceiling, you’ll want to check areas, especially grooves and corners, for things you may have missed. Using a stepladder, take a nylon brush and paint areas that haven’t been adequately coated. Slowly peel back the tape and touch up areas that you may have missed. Be sure to give the touch-ups two to three hours to dry as well.
Step 6: Clean Up
Dispose of all of the tape and excess paint, fold up the drop-cloths, rinse off your brushes and move all of your furniture back into the room.
Painting Tiles Before Installation
If you have ordered styrofoam tiles that you intend to paint, you’ll need to add a step as well as change some of the steps from the previous section. With regards to prep and materials, you will still need the drop-cloth, stepladder, both types of brushes, metal self-etching primer, and cleaning materials along with the paint. An important step to take note of is coating the metal frames with the primer before installing the tiles and organizing adequate space for the tiles to dry before reinstalling them into the ceiling.
Step 1: Clean
If you uninstall the tiles from the ceiling, be sure to thoroughly clean them with a duster or broom and a liquid detergent solution if necessary. Clean the surfaces on both sides and the edges. If you use liquid to clean, be sure to give them adequate time to dry off before you start painting them.
Step 2: Prep
You won’t need masking tape if you paint your tiles this way so you can skip the taping part of the preparation. You will still want the drop-cloth for the potential dripping of the primer and paint. Find a large place to put the tiles while they are drying.
Step 3: Primer for the Metallic Inserts
An additional step is necessary when you replace tiles or uninstall to paint them. You will need to use a polyester brush to apply the self-etching metal primer to the metallic frame that will be exposed once you take down the tiles. This is a crucial step if you’re painting the ceiling tiles this way.
Step 4: Apply Primer to the Tiles
Using a roller, apply the self-etching metal primer to the tiles that will be laid flat on the drop cloth. Be sure to space them out specifically and get the primer on the edges as well as the surface. Let them dry for at least two hours.
Step 5: Apply Paint
Once the primer has dried, apply as many coats of paint as desired using the roller. Once you’ve coated every tile, use a nylon brush to touch up the areas you may have missed due to grooves or indentations and smooth out areas that may have too much paint. Don’t worry about paint going down the sides of the tiles; this is the reason you primed the metallic inserts. Stand the tiles up against a wall carefully to avoid getting paint on the walls and allow them to dry for at least three hours.
Step 6: Reinstall Tiles
Once the tiles have dried for at least three hours, carefully reinstall them into the ceiling into their place. Clean up your drop-cloths and brushes and enjoy the new color of your ceiling!
You’ll want to review this list of materials to make sure you select the right products. Taking the extra time to plan and calculate will save you additional trips to the store and money. In most cases, you’ll want to connect with a sales representative at the store and explain your project. Show him or her your list, and they’ll be able to direct you to the correct area in the store.
Brushes and Rollers
When painting styrofoam tiles, it’s essential to have the correct brushes and rollers. Certain kinds of brushes can be too coarse and damage the tile, and if the tiles are already in the ceiling, you will need a roller to reach them, preferably one with an extendable pole.
A simple nylon paintbrush is the brush you’ll want to use for touch-ups or additional painting you can’t cover with the roller. This brush is an example of the right one to use, but you can go into any store and ask a representative about their selection, and they will give you good advice. Depending on the size of the grooves and indentations in your ceiling and the metallic inserts, you may want to buy a few brushes of different sizes.
Rollers like this one are beneficial and worth the extra money. Depending on the height of your ceiling, you’ll want to be able to reach it easily and without craning your neck or having to use a stepladder. They are also easy to clean and store for your next project.
Paint and Primer
You’ll want to get the right paint and primer, as well as the right amount of each, for your project. You should first calculate the square footage of your ceiling. Calculate the length and width of the ceiling and multiply them to get the square footage. You can also use this calculator as it relates specifically to painting.
For primer, you’ll need a self-etching metal primer like this one. This primer guarantees adhesiveness and smoothness for the top coat of paint. It also stops rust and gives you a fully finished look. You may need more if you are uninstalling the tiles since you will need to apply primer to the exposed metal frames.
For paint, once you figure out the color you need, be sure to find something that is water-based like this one. If you use oil-based paints, it can melt the styrofoam, so be sure to double-check all of the labels before buying the paint. You may also want to buy double the amount if you want to apply extra coats.
Stepladder and Drop Cloths
You will want to be sure you have the appropriate stepladder and drop cloths for your project. Be sure to use your square footage calculator for the cloth and know the height of the ceiling and length of your roller.
While you can use old sheets or towels, it’s highly recommended that you buy a professional canvas drop cloth like the one here. These will protect your floors more effectively than sheets or towels, and they are easy to fold and store for another project.
While any stepladder will work, there are specific ones for painting that make the job easier and more efficient. Some have a place to put the paint while standing on the ladder, so you don’t have to go up and down. You can browse this selection for a good idea of different types of ladders convenient for painting.
You should schedule a good amount of time for these projects and make sure that small children and pets are either out of the building or that the space is sectioned off. The paint and primer is toxic, and you don’t want children to have access. Think about scheduling something for your kids for the weekend, so you don’t have to worry about them interfering.
Be sure to wear “work clothes” that you don’t care too much about. The paint will wash off of your body fine, but it is nearly impossible to get them out of your clothes. You should also wear protective goggles as the paint can splatter, and it’s dangerous to get in your eyes. A basic pair of safety goggles like these will cover you.
If you are uninstalling the tiles and painting them individually, be careful when taking them down from the ceiling. If they’ve been there for a long time, they could flake or even break. You also may want to clean the spaces that are now exposed after taking the tiles down. Don’t be worried if it takes more time because you need to vacuum, brush, and clean the tiles. Remember that the end result will be that much better if you meticulously take care of these steps.
All in all, painting styrofoam ceiling tiles on your own is a fairly easy thing to do. Help from a spouse or friend is always useful. If you want to hire an expert, it will cost more money, but the peace of mind could be valuable to you when dealing with paint and large tiles. Doing it yourself is a feasible option, however, and as long as you adhere to safety guidelines and pay specific attention to detail, it can take less than a day’s work and will turn out well.
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