How to Paint an Unfinished Basement Ceiling

Learn how to paint an unfinished basement ceiling.

Over the weekend, we painted our basement ceiling of my soon to be studio space. I’m so excited to share how it turned out! I feel like we gained about a foot of space visually.

Even I doubted that paint could make the mismatched pipes and ductwork look good, but everything looks amazing.

painted basement ceiling collage

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Basement Ceiling Painting FAQs

Why should you paint a basement ceiling?

  • Much faster than drywall. This entire ceiling was painted using a sprayer in about 3 hours (with breaks between to let paint dry.) Drywall would have taken days to finish. Plus, drywalling ceiling involve a lot more work and neck aches.
  • To leave access to pipes. We know that we’re not finished with the house and future pipe work will need to take place. Plus we have hard water, so it’s inevitable that we will need to fix pipes in the future. An exposed ceiling allows us access to those pipes.
  • Budget. To be fair, drywall is pretty inexpensive to DIY, but so it painting. If you already own a sprayer, all you need is paint and primer.
  • Keep away unwanted guests. I detailed our pest problem in my post about removing insulation, but it was also a consideration when deciding to spray the ceiling. Exposed rafters leave nowhere for pests to live.
  • Looks cool. I like the way the exposed beams and pipes make the space feel slightly industrial.
  • Gain visual height. Our basement walls are 8′ high, which is standard, but the open basement ceiling makes the walls feel so much higher.

What colors should you use to paint a basement ceiling?

You’re only limited by your imagination, really. Most images show white, black or gray ceilings, but I chose a grayish- aqua instead.

Black ceilings are great for hiding everything. It all just disappears. But it can make the ceiling feel lower.

White ceilings can make a room feel brighter, but white needs more coats or paint. And special primer to block the knots from turning yellow with time.

Gray seemed like a good compromise. It’s lighter, but still hides a lot of the details. Plus, gray covers better than any other color.

And then I came across this article and knew that I needed a grayed out aqua color for my basement ceiling. I chose Sherwin Williams Sea Salt. If you try to find it in the paint rack, it’s with the grays, not aquas or greens.

finished sprayed basement ceiling in sw sea salt

How much does it cost to paint an exposed basement ceiling?

We spent about $575 total to paint our basement ceiling. Here’s a detailed list of what we bought and spent:

  • Paint sprayer: $300**
  • Primer: $84*
  • Paint: $150
  • Drop cloths: $12
  • Paint respirator: $30

*Buying paint and primer in 5 gallon buckets saved money and time. Plus, we still have some left over for future projects.

**The sprayer will be used for future projects as well. Although we already own a smaller sprayer, we bought a bigger one to tackle the ceiling. Holding a bucket of paint above our heads didn’t sound like fun. Neither did having to refill the bucket every few minutes. The bigger sprayer was worth every penny.

Can you paint pipes in a basement?

Yes! Painting pipes in a basement is a great way to make them disappear visually. To make paint stick, make sure you use primer.

We had a variety of materials: copper pipes, pvc pipes, softer pipes, ducts, metal duct work, etc. And the paint covered all the surfaces and made the whole space look better.

How to Paint an Unfinished Basement Ceiling

In full disclosure, my husband did 100% of the work on this because as it turns out, spraying is a 1 person job. We typically work together, but there was not much to help him with.

Supplies Needed:

Prep Basement Ceiling for Paint

We had already removed the insulation from the ceiling in preparation for this project, but we still had to clean the ceiling, plus protect everything from paint overspray.

Cleaning a Basement Ceiling

  1. Start by using a broom or brush to clean the ceiling. This is a good time to find any hidden pieces of insulation that you missed.
  2. You can also use a ShopVac. I often use a vacuum to clean cobwebs and it works wonders.
  3. One other option is to use an air compressor with a blow sprayer attachment to spray away the dust. This worked the best, but it made a huge mess. It really worked well for cleaning the spaces above the cinder block walls.
  4. Sweep up all the debris and dispose. (I always clean as I go, despite knowing that we will be making more mess. It makes my life – and anxiety – better.)

Protecting Everything from Overspray

Now comes the part that makes spraying sound super hard and time intensive. Well guess what? We did it half-ass and it still worked, so don’t stress too much here. Besides, paint overspray is pretty easy to clean up…

plastic tarps on the floor to protect from overspray
  • Remove everything that is unnecessary from the room.
  • Tarp everything you can’t remove from the room.
  • Tarp the floor. You could also use contractor’s paper if you’re worried about slipping.
  • Use tape to secure tarps if you need to. (We haven’t finished our walls yet, so we didn’t worry about overspray on the walls. Protect your walls if they’re finished.)
  • Be sure to tarp off window and shut all the doors in the room.
  • You might also want to wrap turned off lights in plastic bags. (You will need external lighting…) We plan on removing this lights and installing more, so we sprayed around them for now.

Protecting Yourself from Overspray

We are not always the best at using safety equipment (do as we say…), but for painting a ceiling, it was necessary because GRAVITY.

At a minimum, you need googles and probably someone to clean them for you occasionally.

We also used a respirator because you’re breathing in paint droplets and while it’s probably not deadly, it’s probably not great for you either. Plus the primer smelled much stronger than the paint.

Gloves to protect your hands because they will end up COVERED in paint.

Painter coveralls to protect your clothes. It also makes it easy to take them off between coats of paint so that you’re not walking around naked.

We didn’t buy the shoe protectors, but I wish we had. If you don’t buy them either, at least wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Even the dried paint gets tracked around on the bottom of shoes.

Priming the Basement Rafters

Note: this isn’t a full guide to using this sprayer. That deserves it’s own post.

Primer is necessary to make paint stick to all the different surfaces on a basement ceiling, like wood, pipes, and ductwork. It also helps you get to a lighter color faster.

man spraying paint on exposed ceiling in basement
He quickly put on protective gear after he realized how messy this process is.

If you are painting your ceiling white, you will need to seal the wood using a stronger primer. Shellac based primer is the only primer that works for sealing wood tannins. Without it, the knots will show through and so will the yellow tannins from the pine wood that is used for framing a ceiling. You need ammonia for clean up.

For a black ceiling, I would still prime everything, but I would get the primer tinted gray for better coverage.

We sprayed the primer on and it was immediately brighter and cleaner. Move quickly as you spray. If you stay in one place too long, you get drips.

primed basement ceiling

We sprayed 3 coats of primer on the ceiling to make sure that we got full coverage.

Painting an Exposed Basement Ceiling

After priming, it’s time to paint. The wood rafters and beams soaked up a lot of primer, so you will need a lot less paint.

Spray in the same manner as before. We used 3 coats for the paint, but it probably wasn’t necessary.

I will need to go back with a paint brush and get the spots around the lights when we remove them.

painted pipes and ducts in basement ceiling
Paint even made the ugly ductwork look better!

Tips for Spraying Your Basement Ceiling

  • Your first coat may be drippy, but it gets better with practice. You might want to go behind with a paint brush to smooth the drips.
  • Spray at full throttle to go fast or lower the spray to go slower.
  • When you spray, move your arm, not your wrist.
  • To spray around the edges, you’ll need to stand on a step ladder and shove the sprayer into the space.
  • As you work, make sure that everything is still tarped off.
  • You may need someone to wash your goggles for you as you go.
  • A flexible hose will make the job less frustrating. The hose that came with it tends to tangle.
  • Each coat took about 30 minutes, with about 1 hour dry time for us (time may vary due to your location.)
  • You might want a soft wire brush to clean the sprayer.
  • Despite being covered in protective gear, you’ll still be covered in paint freckles. A sugar scrub is nice for removing all the paint from your skin.
ceiling painted in sherwin williams sea salt

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painted exposed basement ceiling

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