This old house, or painting beadboard

When I moved to Ann Arbor, I had one real ambition – to live on the Old West Side in an old house. It took more than a decade of living on the Old West Side – and nearby – before I realized that dream. We were married in the dining room, but within months had to find a new home. And that’s the short version of how we moved onto Broadway. The longer version involves the process of buying a used house.

Big Ed’s Used Houses

By the time my spouse and I started looking for a house, most of our friends were already home owners. And almost all of them had bought a used house. (Almost all of them still live in used houses, for that matter.)

Those were the days. I never heard anyone complain about the old wiring or old plumbing; they were aware that they might need to sink some dollars into the infrastructure. Were the hallways narrow? They learned to pass in a friendly fashion. And if they needed to update the infrastructure, some of them learned how, and some called a professional. (This is, of course, a joke. Everyone complains about their children, their house, and their taxes. It’s the American way.)

But to get those used houses, nearly everyone turned to Big Ed and his staff of used house sales men and women. We did, too. And we read the ads in the paper, went to dozens of open houses, and talked with each other about what we wanted. I learned that my spouse would like a house with only one floor – maybe because he grew up in such a house. In turn, I wanted a house with a dining room, bedrooms on the second floor, and a basement – because to me, that was the essential house. In the end, we didn’t find our house on one of Big Ed’s used house lots. We purchased directly from the owner. And after that, we had the constant task of maintenance. After nearly 27 years, we are still trying to maintain this place.

How to paint beadboard ceilings

My office, such as it is, is on the sunporch that’s attached to the back of my house. This isn’t a standard porch, as the only way to enter or exit is through the house itself. We expect that it was built as a ‘sleeping porch’ around the beginning of the 20th century, when folks imagined that sleeping in fresh air would prevent tuberculosis. Sometime around 1930-1940, the porch was enclosed. And then, around 1970 the porch was updated, with the old, mullioned casement windows removed and new, sliding windows installed. Drywall was put on the exterior walls, and before we bought the place the entire room was painted a uniform landlord white. I wish for the old windows, which were elegant in comparison, and I’ve added reglazing to my list of things to do.

When we moved in, we pretty much left things as we found them in the sunporch. Over the years, we decided this was going to be where I used the computer, and so it has become. But after more than two decades of making incremental changes in the house, it is time to tackle this room.

Since it started life as a porch, it still has the original beadboard ceiling. And beadboard is notoriously time-consuming to paint. Most do-it-yourself instructions suggest painting before installing. I’m afraid that hasn’t been an option. So here’s my set of instructions for painting a 100-year-old ceiling in place.

Fix the roof

You may laugh about this, but before spending hours of time prepping the surface, patching holes and getting sweaty, make certain the roof is in good condition. A few years ago I decided to paint our bedroom, moved all the furniture, scraped, sanded, and patched. Because there was a crack in the ceiling, I also fixed it. I didn’t investigate the cause of the crack, because I imagined it was decades old and caused either by settling or by someone walking in the attic – which isn’t really for storage. After all, we had had the roof replaced fewer than 15 years before, and I didn’t imagine a roof issue.

The next winter, the roof leaked. All my new plaster work bubbled up the new paint. I had to wait until the roof was fully rebuilt and then carefully remove the loose plaster and repair the surface. I still haven’t repainted. The process was discouraging.

We’d had the roof over the sunporch rebuilt about five years after we bought the house, because we kept getting leaks. When we had the house repainted, the painters found lots of dryrot; we had that wood replaced. And later, when I had squirrels and bats coming in, I found that the fascia on the south side had rotted. I fixed it temporarily, but when we had the main roof repaired, I asked that the roofers remove the roof over the sunporch, fix all the fascia boards, find any other areas of concern, and completely replace the insulation. We even had new downspouts installed.

Maybe now the roof won’t leak.

Buy a sander

Maybe, like me, you already own a sander. I have a rotary sander and a ‘micro mouse’ sander that my brother gave me. But a rotary sander won’t work on a ceiling, and the small mouse sander, while easy to handle, is too small. So, I had to buy a palm sander with dust catcher. Before I paint walls I don’t expect to sand as part of preparing the surface, but I had to treat beadboard as if it were a floor – an upside down floor. Since there had been leaks, there was a lot of alligatored paint, warped boards and peeling paint. I found the pencil marks my spouse made, shortly after we moved in, to indicate where the leaks were. I also saw all the gaps between the boards.

So I had to buy paintable caulk. I had to find the goggles we purchased years ago to keep stuff from falling into my eyes. And after I sanded, I had to sand again, as just the process of doing that loosened some paint.

Paint at least twice

I bought ceiling paint, which is much thicker, somehow, than regular wall paint. It’s not supposed to splatter –but it does. My advice is: don’t use a roller. But because beadboard has all those nooks and grooves, use a foam brush. Well, use lots of foam brushes, as they wear out.

I had the ceiling paint tinted. Well, blue is the traditional color for porch ceilings, and I do want a serene work space. I advise you to use caulk after the first coat – when all the gaps between the boards really show up. And use paintable grout which is intended for surfaces like wood and other materials that flex with humidity. Cleaning old grout out of the ceiling and from between the ceiling and the walls made me even more careful.

Traditionally, beadboard is painted with a semi-gloss; at least, beadboard on walls is painted that way. So after I paint the ceiling (which is matte) I’ll do a final coat of semi-gloss in the same color. It doesn’t need to be thick, and I can go slow.

Dripping paint on my hardwood floors is not the goal. Neither is dripping it on the furniture (which I keep moving), the computer or myself. So, I knew to buy dropcloths. You can get the cotton ones, if you are going to be painting a lot; I got the biodegradable plastic drop cloths, which will be sort-of OK when the cat takes a bite out of them. (Yes, the cat bites plastic; we try to keep it away from him.)

I try not to drip on cats when I’m painting, too – which is why, when I’m up on this ladder, I have a small amount of paint in a little tray. I don’t leave paint on the floor for the cats to further decorate the house. If you live with animals, you should consider how to keep them away or deal with the problems.


This part of the job is almost done. I have a little bit of paint patching to manage, and then I can start on the walls. Years of roof leaks affected the drywall, too. And some of the room was finished in (wallpaper covered) beaverboard. I have decided to repair that by using cheesecloth dipped in a thin mix of plaster – to create a reasonably good surface that wallpaper will stick to. I’ll prime it and size it before putting on new wallpaper – there is just no way I’m hanging drywall, and no other way to cover over 100 years of sin and neglect.

And of course, I have damaged drywall to patch, and curtains to hang.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Maybe you think I should spend my summer doing something useful, like, oh, running for office or figuring out ways to fix asphalt. But that’s what I am doing.

  • Be prepared for projects to last longer than you want. When making infrastructure repairs, there is no quick fix that’s good. (Ask me sometime about using a car door to patch the roof!)
  • Be prepared for both major and minor inconveniences. I’m learning new ways to enter the room while I move furniture around; sometimes I’m blocking all access points, so I’m stuck here working, and my spouse cannot enter. Creating roadblocks isn’t the goal, but it is one of the means to getting work done efficiently.
  • Sometimes you can fix the surface, but sometimes you have to get into the supporting structures and rebuild before you try to fix the surface – or you end up doing the work over and over again. I’m just lucky that I don’t have to pull wires or put in new water services.
  • Haste can really make waste – so if you want it done well, be organized, plan ahead, and consider contingencies. (I hadn’t planned on wallpaper until I stripped the wallpaper off of the beaverboard.)
  • Plan for a project to need a re-do in a specific length of time. We should have painted this room more than a decade ago, but we needed first to do the big stuff. Now that that’s mostly done (nothing is ever done) I’m recording this as a room that I should look at again before the end of this decade – because if I see any peeling paint or damaged drywall, I know I have a leak.
  • Don’t lose your temper, no matter how tired, hot and frustrated you get.
  • Smile, and thank your supporters. Really.
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One Response to This old house, or painting beadboard

  1. Eleanor Pollack says:

    Thank you, Sabra! Everyone keeps telling me that when I’m ready to paint the interior of the house I should hire someone to do it. I just keep thinking about my mom painting her house, slowly room by room; and the times when Peter left town for some ASLA board meeting or other & came home to find a newly repainted room (or more than one if mom had joined in as my partner in crime). Yes, this becomes yet another case of “I can do this”. You inspire me. Thank you!

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