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Painting Ceramic Tile

DEAR TIM: I am thinking about painting ceramic tile in my home. This tile is in several rooms both on the floor and walls. Our budget does not allow replacement at this time. Is ceramic tile painting a reasonable project, or will it end in disaster? What do I need to know about painting ceramic tiles that will make me look like a hero in front of my husband, the man who thinks this is a folly of an idea? Sharon D., Carrollton, TX

DEAR SHARON: Oh, you are going to be astonished by the praise and compliments that will be showered upon you by your friends and neighbors once they discover how you transformed your home by painting the ceramic tile. The best part is that the cost of the job will be less than what you and your Doubting-Thomas husband will spend at a fine restaurant for a dinner for two. He is going to be ordering some crow followed by a large helping of humble pie.

If you want long-lasting results, let's discuss what ceramic tile can and can't be painted. You can paint any ceramic tile that will not be subject to lots of water on a routine basis. This means floor tile, wall tile, and countertop tile can all be painted. You can even do decorative painting on ceramic tile. The only tile I would never paint is that ceramic tile within a shower or above a bathtub. The high levels of moisture in these areas cause most paints to peel from ceramic tile in a short amount of time.

The first step in the process is to deep clean the ceramic tile and grout. You must remove all dirt, oil, wax, grease, mold, etc. I would use a bathroom cleaner that contains a mild abrasive for this task. The cleaner you get the tile, the better chance you have of overall success. Keep in mind that paints of any type are simply glues that have color in them. Glues prefer to stick to surfaces that are squeaky clean. They stick even better if the surface is slightly rough.

I have had fantastic results over the years painting ceramic tile with oil-based paint. It is getting harder to find this paint because of environmental issues, but rest assured, it really sticks to things once it is dried and has cured. Water-based paints peel readily from glazed ceramic tile surfaces. You may have great success with epoxy paints, but test these in a small area as they might be hard to use the first time.

Use a semi-gloss or high gloss paint for the job. If the paint is thick or hard to brush or roll, use a little paint thinner to slightly dilute the paint. Always follow the directions on the paint-can label with respect to the maximum amount of thinner you can add.

Use masking tape to protect surfaces next to the ceramic tile. Use tapes that have less-aggressive acrylic adhesives so when they are removed, they do not damage the surface that was taped.

Decorative painting on ceramic tile is easy. You have unlimited design options on any ceramic tile surface. Keep in mind that if you grow tired of the design, you can paint over it. Stenciling over the finish paint will allow you to create borders on walls, floors or countertops. You can have scads of fun with stencils or even two-tone paint designs. Let your mind run wild, and experiment on a small section of ceramic tile. If you don't like what you see, start over.

Once the finish paint has dried for two or three days, coat it with two coats of clear water-based urethane. This urethane is very sticky and will adhere to the fresh oil paint. Avoid using oil-based urethane as many of them have a tendency to develop a golden patina over time. You may find the amber color of this patina to be objectionable. The water-based urethanes stay clear forever.

The urethane is an integral part of the paint job. Most urethanes are very hard and resist water and foot traffic or abuse from plates, glasses and cookware on countertops. It is a known fact that urethanes do a fantastic job of protecting hardwood floor finishes for years. They do the same for painted surfaces. This is especially true for painted ceramic tile floors. The urethane finish will protect the colorful paint and provide you with years of beauty. There are thousands of basketball courts that are living proof that painted floors can handle abuse and still look good with minimal care.

Be sure to repair any chips in the tile before you paint. Quick-drying epoxies are an excellent material to use for this purpose. Caulk all cracks as well. Be sure the caulk cures for several days before you paint it. Some water-base caulks will shrink if you squirt them into wide or deep cracks. Use caulking backer rod, if necessary, to fill deep cracks. Generally speaking, a bead of caulk should only be as deep as the caulk bead is wide.

Don't shy away from using multiple colors when painting your ceramic tile. Creating geometric patterns by painting separate tiles different colors can yield stunning results. You can also paint stripes or borders with ease. On large ceramic tile floors, a border can be designed that compliments the placement of a large area rug that is used in the center of a room or a runner carpet in a hallway.

Author's Note: We've received other questions with similar problems or questions. Here's one from E.J. Vincent of California regarding her ceramic tile painting project.

"I want to paint my own design onto ceramic tile, like the ones you would buy at Home Depot. Is there a special ceramic tile paint and sealer I need to use? The ceramic tiles will be incorporated in with the same unpainted tiles on the kitchen cabinet top and back splash."

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7 Responses to Painting Ceramic Tile

  1. Can I paint the tiles in my bathroom. I can't match it with anything because it's from the late '50s.

  2. I have existing ceramic tile in light green on my kitchen backsplash.
    I do not want to remove the tile because its in good condition except for the colour.
    Is there a paint I could use to stencil designs on the tile.
    Thanks.

    • Hi Brenda! I'm not sure if you found the answer that you were looking for, but my guess would be to use your 'stencil designs' on the tile along with the paint that Tim already recommended in his article on this page in his response to Sharon. That would have been nice to see how Sharon's project came out and if she was able to accomplish what she wanted. Hope she comes back here to 'strut her stuff'! I also have a bathroom that has ceiling to floor (baseboard) tiles! It's in an old cape cod style home on 2nd fl. bath and looks like a hospital/clinic bathroom. It's a green color along w/those old medicine cabinets w/the 2 florescent long strip lights on ea side of mirror. Pretty freaky looking. Would love to turn/pain the green tile to baby blue. Hoping to find a solution, but I think Tim pretty much summed it up. My only problem is that the tiling is along the bathtub as well, so I'm not sure how I'm going to be able to work around that. Good luck to you!

  3. Krylon Fusion spray paint its made for plastic but works extremely well even in areas regularly exposed to water. I've been using this stuff for years with my work on countless bath and kitchen makeovers and have never had a single failure to date. As long as you clean the tile real well no primer is needed. Use several light coats and the important thing is to let it dry untouched for at least 7 days but as much as 10 in humid climates. then go over the surface with a extra fine wet dry sand paper thats slightly damp just to remove any burrs in the finish and then top coat with a non yellowing clear coat.

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