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Wood Ceiling Refinishing

Renee Miller
Paint stripper minimizes the need for sanding a wood ceiling.

Refinishing a wood ceiling presents a special set of problems. It’s difficult to sand and stain or finish a wood ceiling without a ton of mess, and it can be a dangerous task as well, because inhaling sanding dust and fumes can lead to illness. However, with the right products and tools, you can apply a quality finish to your wood ceiling without injury, creating only minimal mess.

Protect Furniture, Floors and Walls

Before you begin refinishing your ceiling, protect the rest of the space from sanding dust and finishing products. Move furniture out of the room and open the windows to allow fresh air to circulate through the room. Cover any furniture you can’t move, as well as the floor, walls, fixtures, trim, and doorways with plastic sheets. Tape the plastic in place with painter’s tape to prevent shifting and so dust and stain doesn’t slip behind the plastic. Make sure you have a helper nearby to hand you tools so you don’t have to get up and down from your ladder or scaffold, and to prevent falls.

Avoid the Emergency Room

The main problem with refinishing a wood ceiling is that you have to remove the existing finish and sand the surface of the wood to prepare it for a new finish. This is difficult to do without getting a mouthful of sanding dust. Inhaling, ingesting or getting this dust in your eyes can lead to serious problems. However, with the right equipment you can remove the finish on your wood ceiling safely. Put on a painter’s mask, safety goggles that fit tightly around your eyes so dust can’t slip behind them, and rubber gloves. A painter’s suit, which resembles lightweight coveralls with a hood, protects your clothes and hair from sanding dust as well.

Prepare the Wood

All wood must be prepared properly so it can be stained or finished. This means the old finish has to come off before you can refinish the wood. Use a ladder and apply paint stripper to the ceiling with a paint brush. Work in small sections. When the stripper starts to bubble, gently scrape the finish from the wood with a putty knife. Wipe away any residue with a fine steel wool pad and let the wood dry. Sand with the direction of the wood grain using 120-grit or finer sandpaper to remove any imperfections and stubborn spots of old finish. You only need to sand the wood until it is smooth, because the stripper will have removed most of the old finish.

Refinish With Minimal Mess

The type of stain or finish you apply to the ceiling will determine how messy the job will be. For example, a water-based product will drip a lot as you brush it on. A gel stain, on the other hand, is thick, making application on the ceiling easier and cleaner. Apply oil-based stain with a natural-bristle brush and use synthetic brushes for water-based stains. Paint in small sections, leaving the stain for a few minutes so it’s absorbed into the wood grain before wiping off the excess with a clean cotton rag as you work. You may wish to skip the staining process and go straight to a top coat of clear polyurethane finish to let the natural warmth and color of the wood shine through. This is fine, but whether you stain or not, a finish coat in a satin or semi-gloss finish makes the wood easy to clean and protects the wood from stains and moisture, which can lead to warping and mildew.