Q: We have a "popcorn" ceiling that hasn’t been painted for more than two decades, and although it looks fairly stable, it seems to be dropping powder, which we fear could be asbestos.
We would like to know the most efficient way to paint this ceiling. We have heard that we could use a roller to cover it with a sealer (encapsulate the asbestos) and then a coat of paint. Others say the only way to do the job is to replace the ceiling.
We have also heard that the best way might be to apply a layer of vinyl (a "French ceiling"). What would you advise?
A: Handling asbestos is an important question that keeps surfacing.
Asbestos is a mineral made up of microscopic fibers that look similar to fiberglass. Because of its strengthening, heat resistance and soundproofing qualities, asbestos was used to make pipe insulation, ceiling and floor tile, paints and coatings, caulking, fire-resistant fabrics and clothing, and brake pads.
It was outlawed for most residential uses in 1978, although builders were allowed to use stock on hand, so it’s possible that homes built as late as the early 1980s can contain asbestos.
Asbestos is a health hazard when it decomposes and releases dust. When it’s encapsulated, it’s safe. As a precaution, we recommend you have your ceiling tested by providing a sample to a lab.
Over the years we’ve given three alternatives for dealing with the corn: paint it, cover it or strip it. All three methods work, and the choice should be based on the look you want. A French ceiling is also a possibility if you like the stretched-vinyl look (we don’t) and don’t mind the expense (we do).
Removing the ceiling is a mess. Brother Bryan took this route. He covered the floor with drop cloths and spent the better part of a Saturday wetting the corn with water and scraping it off. Covering the ceiling with drywall can also be a do-it-yourself project. It requires a moderate level of skill and two strong people or a drywall lift.
Of course, if testing reveals asbestos, all do-it-yourself bets are off. Professionals in hazardous material suits will have to do the job at the cost of a pretty penny.
By far the easiest way to spruce up the ceiling is to paint it. Although you could use a thick-napped roller, the most efficient way is to use an airless sprayer. The corn will soak up paint like a sponge. Plan on two to three times the normal coverage and be aware that it will take at least two coats applied over two days.
Start by prepping the room. Remove all the furniture and cover everything you don’t want painted. Use Visqueen plastic sheeting for walls and windows, and nonslip, nonabsorbent drop cloths for floors.
Next, gown up — from top to bottom. You should be wearing old shoes and socks, long pants, latex gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, a respirator (not a dust mask) and full head covering. Paint stores have lightweight head socks made for this purpose. Don’t be surprised if it takes you as long to prepare to paint as it does to actually paint.
Spray a coat of quality primer and let it dry overnight. Open a door or window to let the room ventilate. The next day spray the first finish coat, and let that dry for an hour or two.
You can pretty well count on doing a third coat.