Painting Over Ceramic Tile

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What You'll Need
Commercial tile cleaner
Handheld orbital sander
220-grit sandpaper
Clean cloth
Oil-based primer
1/8-inch paint roller
Oil-based paint
Paint thinner
Eye protection
Dust mask

Decorating and adding accessories can only do so much when it comes to updating a room that has a particularly nasty color of ceramic tile. We all remember the harvest gold, avocado green, and burnt orange that adorned so many kitchens and bathrooms 30 years ago. For many, the prospect of removing and replacing this tile is not financially feasible, so painting it might be the solution to your problem.

It is true that paint does not like to stick to the slick, shiny surface of ceramic tile. But with a little bit of extra preparation, you can paint your tile and create a durable surface that is much more visually appealing than the outdated look you may currently have.

First, let's talk about what you can and cannot paint. Don't paint any tile surface that gets wet repeatedly. If you try to paint your shower surround or even your tub itself, you will be cleaning paint chips out of the bottom of your tub within a matter of weeks. It just won't stick. There are professional services available that will paint your ceramic appliances and fixtures. Things like your antique claw foot tub, your toilet, and shower stall can be painted with a highly specialized product that requires a good deal of skill to use. What we're talking about in this article is painting wall tile or countertops that see everyday use but won't get soaking wet all the time.

Preparing the Tile for Paint

As with most painting projects, preparation is the most important part. The goal is to create a surface that the paint will stick to. Since we have already established that most paints will not stick directly to the slippery tile surface, we need to get rid of that shine. The first step is to clean the tile vigorously with a commercial tile cleaner. Make sure you use one with a mild abrasive. Not only will this remove all of the buildups from the tile and make it nice and clean, but the abrasives will begin to break down the shiny surface.

At this time, make sure anything that might deteriorate underneath your paint job is addressed. Crumbling grout, mildew stains, and cracked tiles should all be taken care of now. You can't go back and address them after you paint unless you want to repaint the entire project.

Once you are confident that the surface is clean and free of damage, you need to get a little more aggressive about taking that slippery shine off of the tile. The best way to do this is with a handheld orbital sander. Use 220-grit sandpaper. This will be course enough to remove the gloss, but still fine enough to prevent you from leaving any marks that may show later through your paint. If you don't have an orbital sander, you can do it by hand—it will just take a little longer.

After every surface that is going to be painted has been sanded, including the corners, use a cloth and make sure that all of the dust is thoroughly removed. Sanding is tedious and is generally not very much fun, but I cannot overemphasize how important this step is. If you skip the sanding or only do it half-assuredly the paint simply will not stick.

Prime and Paint

Now that you have a freshly sanded surface that is dry and free of dust, you have the perfect foundation for a good paint job. By using high quality and high adhesion primer, continue to build the base that your paint will be applied over. This is not the project where you want to skimp on paint costs. Do not buy cheap primer!—You need a strong bond in order for this to stick to the tile. Use an oil-based product, as you will be using oil-based paint for the finished coats.

Apply the primer, using a brush to cut in the corners, and then a short napped roller (1/8") to apply the primer to the flat surface. Go slowly and make sure you don't leave any lines caused by paint squeezing out of the edge of the roller cover. These will show through later when you apply your finish coats. Allow the first coat of primer to dry for the amount of time indicated on the can, then apply a second coat.

Once the primer is dry, take a fresh sheet of 220 sandpaper and make a very light pass over the primed surface. You are not trying to remove the primer, you simply want to remove any small burrs that may have been made by your roller cover, and make sure that the surface is perfectly prepared to receive paint.

Some people suggest using latex paint for the topcoat. However, you should probably use oil. It takes longer to apply, longer to dry, and it's messier too, but when it dries it provides a very durable finish. Latex paint often dries with a soft, rubbery feel. If you were to bump it with something hard, the chances that it could peel right off are high.

Use an oil-based semi-gloss or high gloss alkyd for your topcoats. Apply several thin coats instead of trying to do one thick one. You want to build up the strength of the paint adhesion by adding multiple lightweight layers, not one heavy layer.

You will need to have paint thinner on hand in order to clean up the oil-based primer and paint, as well as a good-sized supply of clean dry rags. Though it may be a little extra work, using the oil-based product on your tiles will give you a much higher quality finish and in the long run, you will be glad that you did.