Skim Coating the Bathroom Ceiling

I'm probably too happy to say that we finally have smooth ceilings in the kids bathroom!!!!!!!  It was a daunting project that we stared down the past month but finally tackled.  It only took us almost five years to get from painted popcorn that wouldn't budge to the leveled plane they are now.  Well, that and a good amount of joint compound and elbow grease.

When we first found out that we wouldn't be able to get the popcorn texture on this ceiling off like we did the others in our house, we talked about maybe covering them with something like tongue and groove planks or some sort of paneling but after researching how to skim coat (putting a thin coat of joint compound on top of the texture to make it look smooth), we decided to go that direction so they'd match all of the other ceilings in the house.  Not that all ceilings have to match because I definitely would not agree with that, but more importantly, putting on a skim coat was the cheapest option coming in (for us, because we had half the tools we needed) at just around $30.

While we should have done this ages ago, what really kick-started it was the fact that the popcorn above the shower was starting to crack and come off thanks to the super hot, super long showers our kids like to take.  At first, we got excited thinking that maybe the added humidity had, over time, dug into the texture making it removable now.  But, as we started chipping away at the stuff coming off above the shower, we realized we could only get so far until we were stuck once again with popcorn that wouldn't budge.

This is as far as we got:

With our hopes of an easy removal dashed, we planned out our first experience putting on a skim coat.

First, we decided to scrape the entire ceiling using a metal putty knife to just get off the larger chunks of popcorn.  They obviously weren't smooth after scraping but they were a little less textured which meant (hopefully) the skim coat process would be a little easier.  

Next, because we'd now exposed some of the unpainted texture, we thought the best thing to do was to prime the remaining texture to make sure we had a solid foundation for the joint compound to adhere to.  We didn't want to put up the joint compound only for some of the exposed popcorn texture to chip off.  We used this specialty primer* because it has a little bit of tack to it, holding the exposed popcorn in place and serving as a good base for the layers of joint compound.  (Psst, this primer is also spectacular for torn drywall.  We used it way back when on drywall that had peeled after being torn from wallpaper removal.)

All of that was the easy part.  Skim coating was the mucho feared part.  I watched several YouTube videos and everyone has their own process and products.  Being a first-timer, it was overwhelming.  I'm not going to give a detailed tutorial because there are lots of good videos out there that I'll share, but I will share some tricks and tips at the end of this post that I found helpful along the way.

Products we used:

>>Some people use All Purpose and some people use Plus 3.  Plus 3 is a smidge thinner and easier to work with (apparently) so we went that route.  It's carried in most big box hardware stores but the only place I could find it locally in the size we needed was Ace Hardware, where it was a couple of dollars more expensive.  (Psst, if you sign up for a rewards account with Ace Hardware, they'll send you coupons every so often.)

>>There are lots of sizes of taping knives but this is the size we had so it's the size I used.  I have no complaints about this size.

>>This just needs to be slightly smaller than the taping knife but it's easier to pile joint compound into a tray you can hold and work from verses digging it straight of out the the bucket it comes in.  This is especially true when you're working on a ceiling and using a step ladder.

>>The dust-free sander attachment is worth its weight in gold.  We bought one when we removed the popcorn ceilings in the rest of our house and it contained the sanding mess like a pro.  You can sand your skim coat with regular sandpaper or a sanding block but oh the mess and time spent cleaning and it's-all-tiny-specks-of-dust-so-it-gets-everywhere.  You will need to buy high-efficiency bags* for your shop-vac though so the fine dust doesn't get into the motor and destroy your vacuum (ask us how we know...)  

Things we didn't use that I wish we would have:

Large storage bucket with a lid
>>A five gallon bucket or large ice cream container would have been perfect.  We bought a huge container of joint compound because we knew we'd use it for the master bath walls too but when you're only working with a little at a time and need to mix it with a little bit of water, it would be much easier to have a separate container in which to do that.  I worked straight out of the bucket it came in...not ideal.  Plus, what you've mixed and not used can be covered with a lid and used later.

>>The Plus 3 joint compound (and maybe every joint compound) needs to be mixed before use so I thought I could get away with using a paint stir stick...nope.  The compound was much to thick for the paint stick to have any chance at all so I ended up using a thick metal crowbar and stirring my life away.  A drill attachment would have made my life so much easier.

The Process:

Our process, simply put, went something like this - put up the first layer of joint compound, let dry 24 hours, sand, wipe down, put up a second layer of joint compound, let dry 24 hours, sand, wipe down, prime, and finally, paint.  Seems pretty straightforward, right?  Well I'll just say that five minutes into the first layer of compound, I was seriously questioning why we didn't just hire someone to do this.  My right arm and my lower back weren't prepared and I felt like, even though I thought I had this down after watching all those videos, I actually didn't.  But there's hope!  Once I struggled to the finish line with that first coat and sanded it slightly after it had dried, it actually looked pretty good and my second coat went up without any hesitation or issue.  In the end, I'm happy we saved some money and didn't hire this out and would totally do it again if needed - which it is, only this time it will be the walls in our master bathroom that need smoothing.  Lucky for us, we bought the largest container of compound so we are all set and ready for that project.

But back to the bathroom ceiling.

This is after that tough first layer:

It doesn't look too too bad in the picture but there were lots of chatter marks (skim coat lingo I picked up on YouTube University).  You can see them pretty well around the vent at the top - they're lines that occur when you slide the taping knife loaded with joint compound along the rough surface of the popcorn texture.  Some videos said they're avoidable and it was probably my lack of experience that made them appear everywhere.  It was really disheartening.  But don't worry, their existence ended up not mattering after the second coat!

Speaking of, that second coat was like a bandage over a bad wound:

I knew what to expect this time around and I thinned the compound a little more than last time making it go up much easier.  I thought for sure after the rough first coat that I'd need a third coat but this second coat looked amazing, especially once it was sanded.  My proud heart was beaming out of my chest...speaking of, when the ceiling was ready for the first layer of joint compound, I had just assumed Anthony would do it but as he had a thousand other things on his plate, he said "You should do it.  You're the one who did all the research, you can do it, and you'll feel proud of yourself."  At the time, I just remember it was a cue to take a deep breath but he's right, I am proud of myself.  :)

This is after two coats of primer (I used white Kilz 2 primer we had already):

And this is after two coats of Valspar ceiling paint (color-matched to SW Pure White):

(Psst, instead of buying a new, white register to replace the discolored and old silver one, I spray painted the old white.  I've done this on all of the registers in our house (tutorial here) and they're still as good as new.)

I rolled on two coats each of primer and paint because of those long, hot showers I mentioned our kids enjoy.  This ceiling needs all the protection it can get.  Eventually the shower will get new tile and new hardware and inside that hardware you can max out how hot the water coming out of the shower head gets...we will do that.  Just don't tell the kids.

So, skim coating.  It's not a beginner project per say but I would say almost anyone can do it.  Sanding joint compound is very forgiving.  Here are the tips and tricks I gleaned along the way plus the videos that armed me with the info I needed to have a go...

>>Work in sections, maybe two by two foot squares or more if you have a long reach.  Don't try to do too much but don't skimp and do too little.  Just get the joint compound up on the whole section you're working on and then worry about spreading and smoothing after it's all up and sticking.  If you put a little up and spread and smooth it right away, it'll just get messed up when you put more up and you'll find yourself constantly smoothing what you thought was smooth and it'll just get frustrating.  Just stick it up/on the entire section and then finish it.  Plus, it's easier to smooth when you can take a long pass at it verses small swipes with the taping knife.  Hopefully that makes sense. 

>>Stir and thin the joint compound with a little bit of water to make it easier to work with.  My first coat was the consistency of peanut butter, pretty thick, but my second coat was more the consistency of greek yogurt.  The first coat should be pretty thick - joint compound has glue in it which is what makes it stick to drywall (or popcorn ceilings) so you don't want to water it down so much that you compromise the glues efficacy but you also need it to be workable (especially if you're a beginner like me.)  But consecutive coats can be thinner.  This is why some drywall finishers use different kinds of joint compound for different coats - all purpose to varying lighter weight compounds.  The main thing for skim coating though is that water is your friend, just not too much water.

>>It's not always necessary to sand after the first (or even second if it's not your last) coat but I had so many chatter marks that I thought maybe I could get rid of some by sanding so I opted to do that.  However, if you don't feel the need to sand after the initial coat, you may still have raised lines or ridges like the one in the photo below that you should get rid of before you keep going with coats.  

One YouTuber had the ingenious tip of scraping these off with a putty knife instead of sanding them smooth.  It doesn't make as much of a mess and you won't have to wipe the ceiling after.  Yes please.

>>Speaking of sanding between coats, you can if you want to but you may not need to.  Would I have had the same outcome had I not?  I don't know.  Sanding after the first coat made a little bit of a difference but seeing how easily that second coat went on, I'm not sure it was necessary.  But because this was my first time, if I could go back, I probably still would have sanded just because it really does fix imperfections well.  After my umpteenth time skim coating (Lord help me if I ever need to do it that much), I would probably skip that part.

>>Getting joint compound into the corner between the ceilings and walls was tricky.  I got compound all over the walls a lot of the time and sometimes, in trying not to get it on the walls, I didn't get all the way into the corners.  However, I realized I didn't need to worry about getting it on the walls - it sanded right off and it's easy to just touch up paint.  So then I found the easiest way of getting it all the way into the corners and keeping it smooth was to get some compound on my finger and smooth it into the corner as you would caulk.  

>>A smaller putty knife worked better for me than a large taping knife for putting up compound around a circuit box and any vents.

>>The dustless sanding tool we have is, like I said above, golden, but the sanding screen we used did make some scratch marks/lines on the ceiling, even with the suction as low as it can go.  If I could go back, I'd try to find some finer grit screens that don't dig into the dry joint compound quite as much on that final sanding pass.  (Oh look, here* they are.)

Helpful videos:

How to Skim Coat a Ceiling for Beginners by Paul Peck - this guy has a ton of videos on this subject but I didn't have time to watch all of them.  Just click on his YouTube profile and browse away.

How to Cover Popcorn Ceiling Without Removing It | Skim Coating Over Popcorn Ceiling by The Nifty Nester - this was the first video I watched and the one that made me feel like we could totally do this ourselves.

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  1. That is such a tough job! It looks great and you should be proud of yourself! And thank goodness for YouTube, right?

    1. You said it, thank goodness for YouTube. :) Thanks Marina.