Published on July 1, 2020

Popcorn ceilings look and feel like they sound: bizarre. While the stippled surface (the result of a spray-on Styrofoam-mixed treatment) was once a popular alternative to a proper paint job, its unsightly texture and asbestos-prone nature have made it a must-fix for homeowners, like DIYer Ursula Carmona, who runs the design blog Home Made By Carmona. Fortunately, you don’t need any fancy equipment or specialized help to chip away at the eyesore—you only need a few hours. 

While making over her master bathroom and closet for the One Room Challenge, Carmona decided to tackle the popcorn ceilings solo, despite a professional telling her it would be practically impossible to remove on her own. Getting rid of all the little bumps was a “shockingly fast” process, admits Carmona (she did both spaces in the span of a morning). The exhausting part is applying the skim coat. “I’m not saying it’s a fun job—it’s not,” she says. “But to me, it was worth it. I have some amazing light fixtures, and you can’t put a chandelier up against popcorn ceilings. You just can’t.” Do your decor justice and follow her five steps for achieving an even surface. 

The Supplies

woman scraping ceilingPin It
Photography by Ursula Carmona

Step 1: Set Yourself Up for a Clean Room

Before you start removing any parts of your ceiling, contact your local health department and ask to get a sample of your surface tested (any popcorn ceiling installed before 1980 may contain asbestos). If it comes back positive, you’ll have to call in an asbestos abatement contractor to do the job. If you’re in the clear, there’s no need for fancy tarps: Simply throw some cheap painter’s plastic on the ground so your floors don’t get covered in debris, and remove any furniture from the space. Uninstall fans and large light fixtures (smaller sconces can be covered up with plastic bags). This way, when you’re done, you can just roll up your mess and toss it. 

Step 2: Chisel Away

woman scraping ceilingPin It
Photography by Ursula Carmona

You don’t need to put in a ton of elbow grease if you’ve got water on hand. Once you’re up on the stepladder, start by spraying a small section of the ceiling with some H2O, let it settle for a few minutes, then begin to chip away at the textured surface with your taping knife. As you go, catch the damp flakes in your mud pan to help tame the mess. 

Step 3: Smooth It Out

Ensure a pristine finish by going over any rough spots with a sanding block. If you want to give your neck a break, you can also attach a pole sander to a broom handle so you don’t have to bend over backward on a ladder.

Step 4: Give It a Fresh Skim Coat

woman scraping ceilingPin It
Photography by Ursula Carmona

Once you have a completely bare surface, fill a mud pan with a joint compound and apply a layer to the ceiling using a joint knife (this will give you an extra smooth finish to paint over). To get consistent coverage, hold the handle at a slight angle. Then skim back over it with the blade and spread it around until you get a thin, even coating. Between each stroke, scrape off any excess gunk from the knife into the pan. “I think this is where most people would go: ‘I can’t do this job,’ because they believe it requires a ton of technique,” says Carmona. “But the compound is a lot easier to work with than you’d think.” Any imperfections can be sanded out once the mixture has dried. 

Step 5: Brighten It Up

After going over the skim coat with a water-blocking primer, it’s smooth sailing. Carmona painted over her surface with Valspar’s Summer Gray, but who says your space has to be neutral? Seeing a rich shade of navy or a bright pop of yellow every time you look up will remind you why you opted for a clean slate in the first place.

Introducing Domino’s new podcast, Design Time, where we explore spaces with meaning. Each week, join editor-in-chief Jessica Romm Perez along with talented creatives and designers from our community to explore how to create a home that tells your story. Listen now and subscribe for new episodes every Thursday.

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