How to Paint In Order: Do You Paint the Ceiling or Walls First?

Audrey Bruno
Written by Audrey Bruno
Updated November 2, 2021
two women painting a room
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Top to bottom or side to side, we’ll tell you where to start when you can’t decide

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Painting an entire room can be daunting, especially if you have no idea where to begin. Between the ceiling, walls, and trim, what’s best to paint first isn’t always clear. But the order in which you paint will determine how quickly the process goes and how well the final product turns out. Keep reading to find out the answer to this common home improvement question once and for all. Plus: how to use your new knowledge to paint a room like a pro.

Difficulty: 3/5

Time: 1 to 2 days

Tools and Materials Needed:

  • Drop cloths or plastic sheets

  • Painter’s tape

  • Ladder or step stool

  • About 1 gallon of wall paint for every 400 square feet

  • Primer (if necessary)

  • Gloss or semi-gloss trim paint

  • Caulk and sandpaper (for repairs)

  • Ceiling paint (optional)

  • Paint stirrer

  • Paint tray

  • Paint roller

  • Roller extension

  • Paintbrushes

1. Get Your Tools Together and Ready Your Space for Painting

woman painting apartment
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Properly preparing one or more rooms for painting is the key to guaranteed success. It takes time to move furniture and correctly apply painter’s tape to the border between the trim and walls, but these extra steps are worth it to reduce unwanted mess and make your space look professionally painted. 

  • Make sure you have enough paint to complete the project. Not having enough paint for all the various elements of a room can cut your productivity in half and greatly lengthen what should normally be a relatively quick process. In general, you’ll need about 1 gallon of wall paint for every 400 square feet, but this doesn’t include potentially necessary trim paint and ceiling paint for your space. When in doubt, give your space measurements and specs to the paint professional at your nearest hardware store to find out just how much you’ll need.

  • Take time to move furniture and cover the trim and floor with drop cloth or plastic sheets. Securely cover the floor by fixing the cloth or sheet to the point where the wall meets the trim with painter’s tape. You’ll also want to cover up any electrical outlets or light fixtures to avoid accidental paint splatter.

  • Repair damages and imperfections like holes or cracks. Apply caulk to these spots, let dry completely, and sand before moving on.

  • Prepare a paint pan or bucket for rolling and stir your paint. Place a grate in the pan or bucket to use for removing excess paint.

  • Primer the walls and ceiling if necessary. Doing this will generally give your painting project a more polished look, and it’s also a great way to hide dark colors more easily. But if you’re working on white walls, or in a brand new home, you may be able to skip this step.

2. Start at the Top With Your Ceiling

woman painting ceiling white
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Working from top to bottom is the secret to painting any space. That way, you won’t have to worry about any unexpected dripping damaging the walls or trim you’ve already painted. You can use either normal wall paint or ceiling paint to complete this project, but ceiling paint is technically better for the job and has a similar cost to the alternative—between $15 and $50 on average per gallon. It’s thicker and more viscous, making it less prone to dripping and better at hiding common ceiling marks like bubbles and cracks. Also, using this option means you usually won’t need to apply a second coat.

  • Use a brush to cut in before anything else. Cutting in is a painting technique that has you paint a straight line along all edges and borders that would be difficult to reach with a paint roller. Odds are you’ll need to use a lander to reach those spots on your ceiling.

  • Fill in the center of your ceiling with an extended paint roller. Once you’ve finished cutting in, use your preferred painting method to fill in the center. Take time to overlap the border with the new paint carefully so there are no noticeable streaks.

  • Do both of these tasks at once with some extra help. You can absolutely cut in and roll simultaneously if you have enough hands to do it. Recruit a friend or two to help you complete this project twice as fast as you normally would.

3. Move Onto Crown Molding (If You Have Any)

Since the trick to painting is working top to bottom, crown molding should be the next stop on your list. Treat it the same way you’d treat the trim along your walls and windows. Cover with painter’s tape while you’re taking care of the ceiling. When that’s fully dried, remove the tape and use a brush to apply an even coating of gloss or semi-gloss trim paint. 

4. Next, It’s Time to Paint Your Walls

woman painting apartment
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The only difference between painting your walls and ceiling is the type of paint you use. Otherwise, the process is mostly the same, but you will normally need to apply a second coat.

  • Use a brush to cut in and frame each wall. Try to roll in an M or W motion to make sure the roller lines are properly blended.

  • Use a paint roller and your preferred painting technique to fill in the rest. Once again, working with others will make this process go a lot faster.

  • Add a second coat. After painting the wall, wait at least four hours before adding a second coat. If you’re using an oil-based paint, you should wait 24 hours between coats.

5. Save the Trim for Last

woman painting wall trim
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Now that you’ve finished the ceiling and walls, the trim is all that’s left to do. It’s not always necessary, but painting your trim will give you professional-level results. Follow these tips to put the perfect finishing touches on your painting project.

  • Wait until your walls are dry to begin painting the trim. Then, remove any painter’s tape and adjust your drop cloth. Fix it to the point where the floor and trim meet and cover the border between the wall and the top of the trim with more painter’s tape.

  • Remove any dust or debris beforehand as well. When everything is covered, use a damp, microfiber cloth to remove anything that might get in the way of your paint.

  • Finally, use a brush to paint the trim with gloss or semi-gloss paint. You may need to repair damages with caulk and sandpaper as you did with the walls and ceiling, and using primer can create a polished final appearance here as well.

Cost to DIY Paint an Interior Room vs. Hiring a Pro

professional painting wall in house
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In general, it’s far cheaper to paint a room yourself than to hire a professional painter. While it only costs $200 to $300 on average to buy all the materials and tools you need to do it yourself, a pro will charge anywhere between $200 and $1,000 to paint a single room. On the flip side, the pros can complete the project about a third of the time it might take the typical DIYer.

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