The Lowdown on Painting Tile
By Matt Weber
A Frank Look at what you can Expect.
In my experience most professional painters recoil at the idea of painting ceramic tile. It’s not a quick job, it requires extensive prep work, the end result may not meet a homeowner’s expectations, plus the craftsman in question is unlikely to make much money off this particularly time-consuming project because, after all, it is “just a paint job.”
And, for the inexperienced painter, there is definite potential for failure when painting tile if they don’t exercise the time and patience to do the job correctly. The trouble with tile is the slick, glossy surface to which paint products don’t easily adhere. The surface must be meticulously cleaned, and any debris or small amount of moisture that remains on the tile surface will prevent the primer and paint from bonding.
Other considerations include the condition of the tile and grout joints. If the tile is damaged, paint won’t hide it. The same holds true for shoddy grout joints—don’t expect the coats of paint to fill gaps or holes in the joints. And, don’t even consider painting floor tile, because the paint film will not hold up to foot traffic or standing water.
And finally, you must choose the right products. Not any old paint and primer will suffice, and a fine spray-application of several coats is the only way to achieve an acceptable finish.
Despite all that, I can say from first-hand experience that the job can be accomplished successfully. Four years ago my wife and I moved into a “fix ‘er upper,” and I had a huge catalog full of major projects ahead of me. I needed to prioritize my hit list, and the tiled shower surround of the master bathroom offered the opportunity to do so. We decided the lemony yellow tile color had to go, but the tile installation itself was in fine shape, with the original grouting in like-new condition.
Now, I had heard the warnings: “Don’t paint it … It’ll never work … The paint will peel.” I didn’t listen. My reasoning: I had a ton of projects ahead of me, but limited time and budget, and maybe painting the tile would buy more time. Heck, even if it lasted only a year, that meant I could ignore the bathroom for a year, thin out the honey-do list, and then be in a better position for a full shower remodel.
So, I painted the tile. Four years later, the paint is still holding with no signs of failure. Since I had more success than I ever expected, I decided to repeat the procedure in another shower. This time, I shot a few photos of the process. Here’s how I approached the project:
This project takes a few days, due in large part to drying times. Plus, every step in preparation must be executed with precise detail, otherwise you risk poor adhesion of the paint, the film will peel and the whole project will look crummy. If you’re impatient and have a tendency to cut corners, this project is not for you.
Also, the paint finish won’t have the same hardness or glassy surface of the original
tile. Even when applying the paint with a sprayer, you should expect some degree of visible texture over the tile surface.
Finally, unlike a full remodel, painting the tile will not add value to your home. However, if done correctly then it may make it easier to sell when the time comes, due to simple aesthetic reasons. For example, modern home-buyers may prefer a fresh, white shower surround over one tiled with 70’s-era yellow porcelain and dirty grout joints.
Painting tile and grout works best with small grout joints, usually 1/8 inch or less. The sealing of the grout joints, in my opinion, is one advantage of painting the shower. Once the original grout sealant fails, grout can become brittle, discolor and provide a porous breeding ground for mildew. Sealing the entire wall surface encases the joints in primer and paint, which retains the look of the grout lines but reduces their susceptibility to mildew and grime.
Closely inspect the tile and grout joints. You can make minor repairs in the grout, but if you have a lot of loose tile, do not proceed with painting. You may have to remove and replace all the grout, but painting over failing grout is a sucker’s move. In my case, the grout lines were mostly intact, and the joints were thankfully only 1/16-in. thick. With such minor hairline repairs to make, I filled the few problem areas with a siliconized latex adhesive caulk that resists mildew. I tooled the joints smooth and allowed them to dry.
Disassemble any components of the shower that you don’t want painted. I removed a towel bar, shower handles, faucet and shower door assembly. Use plenty of painter’s tape to mask off any permanent fixtures as necessary, and prepare for some over spray when painting.
Remove any traces of old caulk or sealant. In my case, the door of the shower had been lined with silicone sealant. Use a sharp paint scraper to carefully remove all traces of the sealant. Silicone does not accept paint, and such traces of sealant provide a good example of the tricky areas that must be completely cleaned before the primer can be applied.