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What is a Popcorn Ceiling & Why is it a thing?

Popcorn Ceiling

Popcorn ceilings, also known as acoustic ceilings, are a textured ceiling finish resembling popcorn or cottage cheese. The style first appeared in the 1930s and was a common choice up until the end of the 90s.

We’re going to go on a deep dive into everything you need to know about this once-popular trend and how it compares to other more modern ceiling styles. With our help, you’ll be able to make your own informed decision whether popcorn ceilings are something you want to remove or add to a space in your home.

Let’s get started.

What is the Purpose of Popcorn Ceilings?

The purpose of popcorn ceilings has been talked about a lot over the years. There are well-grounded points on why they became so popular, how they’re useful and why the style eventually fizzled out.

We’ll go into more detail.

Why is Popcorn Ceiling a Thing?

In the beginning, applying popcorn texture was a cost-effective way for builders to finish a ceiling. They could avoid the trouble of creating a smooth, flat plaster finish which saved a lot of time and energy.

Also see: How Are Popcorn Ceilings Made & What’s It Made Of?

Why Were Popcorn Ceilings Popular?

Into the 50s, it was becoming a wildly popular option for builders and homeowners alike. On top of being budget-friendly, it was trendy and something different. It’s not a surprise they became the go-to choice up until the 70s.

What Is Popcorn Ceiling Good For?

Popcorn ceilings do have a few strengths compared to other ceiling styles. They’re why it’s so common to see them in multi-story homes and apartments.

They Absorb Sound Better

Popcorn ceilings have a larger surface area due to the raised bumps, which helps muffle sounds from above. This characteristic is why they’re also called acoustic ceilings.

While it won’t reduce sound dramatically, the level of thickness and how porous the texture is will make a difference in sound absorption.

They’re Good at Hiding Imperfection

The more texture on your ceiling, the more it will hide imperfections. It can help cover bad drywalling, small holes, cracks and dents.

Cost-Effective and Easy Installation

As we just mentioned, the popcorn texture hid imperfections well. Therefore, homeowners and builders didn’t have to worry about the difficulty of creating a perfectly smooth ceiling.

Spraying on the texture was time-efficient and straightforward, which led to it being a more cost-effective option.

Who Invented Popcorn Ceilings?

The first mention of textured ceilings was by Artex Ltd, a UK company.

During the mid-30s, they began marketing their product “Artex,” which you could use to texture your ceiling and finish it without needing plastering skills.

The idea took off amongst builders, and different styles of textured ceilings were created, including the well-known popcorn ceiling.

When Did They Stop Using Popcorn Ceilings?

The popularity of popcorn ceilings dramatically decreased after the 1990s. The style wasn’t a pleasing, modern look anymore, and the asbestos issues made them less desirable.

Are Textured Ceilings Outdated?

Textured ceilings are widely considered outdated; many homeowners will go out of their way to remove them to give their homes a more modern look.

Out of all the styles of textured ceilings, popcorn ceilings are the least popular. They’ve become almost obsolete in new home builds as they give your home an outdated look and lowers your property value.

What Does Popcorn Ceiling Look Like?

what do popcorn ceilings look like?

These ceilings are very easy to spot. Even though they’re called popcorn ceilings, they more closely resemble cottage cheese. The thickness of the texture will vary from ceiling to ceiling.

When the popcorn texture is first applied, it’s generally an off-white colour. Over time the colour will be yellow, especially if there has been a lot of smoking in the home.

Many homeowners will opt to paint their popcorn ceiling if they don’t have the budget to remove it. Generally, and what we would recommend, would be a bright, untinted white.

Why Are The Ceilings Bumpy?

Popcorn ceilings are bumpy because of the tiny particles in the mixture and the way it’s applied.

We’ll cover that next.

What Are Popcorn Ceilings Made Of?

You can use several different materials to create the popcorn texture. In the past, the mixture would widely depend on the year your popcorn ceiling was installed. These materials include:

  • Vermiculite
  • Polystyrene (styrofoam)
  • Cardboard or paper-based substances

Vermiculite containing asbestos was very regularly used during early manufacturing. It wasn’t until 1976, under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) controlled and regulated asbestos-containing products. Luckily, the Clean Air Act (CAA) of 1978 also banned spray-on asbestos products.

After that, manufacturers switched to using styrofoam and paper fibres in their textures. Some suppliers continued to sell existing products that contained asbestos, though, which means ceilings installed as late as the mid-80s have a chance of containing it.

How Are Popcorn Ceilings Made?

The most common method of creating popcorn ceilings is by spraying on the texture to drywall or plasterboard. Here’s what you’re going to need:

  • Drop cloths
  • Plastic
  • Painters tape
  • Primer
  • Roller and tray
  • Texture hopper gun & compressor
  • Texture compound
  • Large bucket
  • Mixing paddle drill attachment
  • Safety glasses
  • Painters suit
  • Test surface (cardboard, wood etc.)
  • Knockdown or drywall trowel (optional)

Step 1:

The first step is to prep the room thoroughly.

Start by removing all your furniture or cover any large pieces you can’t move with plastic. Next, mask off the walls by taping the top edge and draping down paper or plastic. Finally, cover the entire floor with drop cloths.

Step 2:

Ensure your ceiling is smooth and free of debris, and apply a coat of primer to the surface using a roller. The primer coat is an essential step as it gives the texture something to grip to.

We recommend waiting about 4 hours before moving on. Still, it’s a good idea to check on your primer can for the specific drying times for your product.

Step 3:

Add your texture compound and water to a large bucket, following the ratios in the instructions. Mix them together using a drill and mixing paddle until it’s smooth and lump-free.

Let it sit for 15 minutes and remix, adding more water if necessary to reach your desired consistency. The ratio will depend on the texture you’re going for; however, we recommend aiming for the thickness of pancake mix or thick paint.

Step 4:

Setup your hopper gun and attach it to your compressor. You’ll want to set your compressor at about 20-25 psi to start and adjust it as needed once you start spraying.

Add the mixture to your hopper, filling it about halfway or three-quarters full.

Step 5:

Practice spraying on a test surface to get the feel of the gun and to see if you need to adjust the psi level or nozzle size. The settings will largely depend on your desired pattern and thickness.

For a heavier texture, you’ll want to use a larger tip size, higher psi level and a longer trigger pull.

Step 6:

Position the texture sprayer about 12-18 inches away from the ceiling and spray in circles to avoid creating lines in your texture. Keep the gun moving consistently, being careful not to overload any one part of the ceiling.

Step 7 (Optional):

If you’re aiming for a knockdown texture (where the raised bumps are flat), let it set on the wall for about 10-15 minutes. Then, use a plastic knockdown knife or wide drywall trowel to wipe across the surface in various directions.

It’s important to let it sit long enough. Otherwise, you may end up smearing the texture.

Quick Tips:

  • Keep at least 3-4 inches of texture in the bottom of the hopper at all times
  • Wear safety goggles and a painter’s suit to protect yourself from dropping texture
  • Open any windows to allow airflow into the room while you’re working

How Long Does Popcorn Ceiling Last?

Popcorn ceilings will last for decades if they’re not damaged.

The most significant cause of your popcorn ceiling reaching the end of its days would be water damage. The moisture loosens the texture and causes it to flake and fall off.

Another common culprit is the texture being hit or bumped into by moving furniture or objects. Since it’s “sitting” on top of the ceiling, any pressure will knock off the popcorn texture. If your ceilings are painted, however, that can make all the difference. The paint seals the texture to the surface, making it more durable to disturbances and even water damage.

Is Popcorn Ceiling Bad For Your Health?

Asbestos

The leading cause for concern with popcorn ceilings is the asbestos issue. If it remains completely undisturbed or properly sealed, then you won’t have any problems.

However, the safest choice and what we recommend is to get your popcorn ceiling removed. Even the smallest amount of asbestos can be a severe hazard to your health.

Alternatively, you can have a professional seal it in with paint/primer or put up ceiling panels. The downside of this method is if you do any renovations, the asbestos can become a risk again. Also, if you ever sell your home, you have to inform the potential buyers.

Dust Build-Up

Even if your popcorn ceiling doesn’t contain asbestos, dust build-up can become an issue. The texture itself doesn’t cause dust but is a magnet to it.

Over time, the dirt and dust particles in your home can easily get trapped in the bumps and grooves on your ceiling. Leading to allergies and potentially causing harm to someone with a respiratory illness.

Popcorn Ceiling Pros and Cons

We’ve covered a lot of information so far. It can be challenging to organize it all in your head when you’re trying to make an informed decision regarding popcorn ceilings.

To help make it easier for you, we’ve put together an easy-to-read outline of the benefits (pros) and disadvantages (cons).

The Benefits of Popcorn Ceiling

  • A budget-friendly way to finish your ceilings
  • Very efficient at hiding imperfections in the drywall or plaster
  • It has some sound-dampening qualities depending on the thickness of the texture

The Cons of Popcorn Ceilings

  • Creates an outdated look in your home
  • Potentially contains asbestos if installed before the 80s or even mid-80s in some cases
  • Collects dust which can cause respiratory problems and allergies to flare up
  • Difficult to clean because of the texture
  • Maintenance and patching is challenging to blend into the rest of the ceiling
  • Lowers the value of your home and can be a deal-breaker for some potential home buyers

Ceiling Key Differences

popcorn ceiling vs textured ceiling

Let’s go over some of the key differences between different types of textured ceilings and flat or smooth ceilings.

Popcorn Ceiling vs Textured Ceiling

While the word popcorn ceiling is often used as an umbrella term for all textured ceilings, there is a difference between them.

Let’s go over the most common ones.

Popcorn Ceilings

As you know, the texture of the popcorn ceiling resembles cottage cheese more than it does actual popcorn. It’s very bumpy and rough and is considered the most outdated of all the textured ceilings.

Skip Trowel Ceilings

This textured ceiling is very common and has a subtle “stucco” look when it’s finished. It’s known for its somewhat “Meditteranean” appearance, making it a popular choice for high-end homes.

Unlike popcorn ceiling, skip trowel texture is applied by hand using coarse and joint compounds. It’s also good at hiding any imperfections, and you can apply it in a light, medium or heavy consistency.

Knockdown Ceilings

It’s considered the successor to popcorn ceilings and is still relatively popular today. Its appearance is similar to skip trowel, but the texture looks less spread out.

Creating it starts the same way as popcorn ceilings, by spraying on the texture compound. After it’s partially dried, the peaks are “knocked down” by scraping them with a specialized knockdown knife or drywall trowel.

Orange Peel Ceilings

As you would expect, this type of texture resembles an orange peel and is applied using a spray-on method. Smoother and more subtle than knockdown textures, it’s soft-looking and slightly bumpy with gentle curves.

Orange peel ceilings are a common choice in modern homes for people looking to add just a bit of texture to their ceilings or walls.

Swirled Ceilings

Not as common as the other textured ceilings, but it’s considered a beautiful, unique look by some. The patterns consist of full or half circles that overlap each other across the ceiling.

The patterns are created by applying a thin layer of drywall mud and using a “swirling tool” before the compound sets. Different tools will create different patterns, some commonly used tools are :

  • Wallpaper brush
  • Stipple brush
  • Notched trowel
  • Sponges

Popcorn Ceiling vs Stucco Ceiling

The difference between these two ceiling types lies in the compounds used to create them.

Popcorn Texture

Like we previously discussed, popcorn texture is made from vermiculite, styrofoam or other paper-based materials.

Stucco Texture

Stucco, on the other hand, is a cement-based compound you mostly see outdoors. It’s a textured finish used on the exterior walls of homes and other buildings.

Stucco can also be used inside and is applied similarly to other texturing compounds. Your desired look and the weight of the stucco will change how you should install it. Anything more than 1/4 thick will need a plywood base and a layer of paper and wire lath.

Popcorn Ceiling vs Smooth Ceiling

popcorn ceiling vs smooth ceiling

The name says it all here. While popcorn ceilings are fully textured, smooth ceilings are entirely flat.

You start by installing drywall panels and using a drywall compound to tape and mud the seams, finish them by priming and painting. Alternatively, plaster can be used and was commonplace before the invention of gypsum (commonly known as drywall).

There are a few disadvantages to them compared to popcorn ceilings. Installing them is much more expensive because of the challenge of creating a perfect surface. If there are any inconsistencies, bumps or holes, every flaw is noticeable.

When done correctly, though, it makes a beautiful, even finish that’s favoured today.

Popcorn Ceiling vs Flat Ceiling

Flat ceilings are essentially the same as smooth ceilings. The term flat refers to the flat finish of the paint that’s standard to use on ceilings.

We recommend always using a flat or matte finish; it doesn’t reflect any light, so imperfections in your ceiling are less noticeable.

In Conclusion

Popcorn ceilings have been around for nearly a century and are still very common in older homes and apartments. Whether you’re renting, buying, or selling, many variables are involved when you’re deciding if popcorn ceilings are a good fit for you.

Your style, budget and health concerns are all elements you should consider carefully.

  • Gregory A Seely
  • Gregory A Seely

    Greg is a self taught home renovator and writer for RenoViso. His shares his experiences with Southern Living, Traditional Home and other publications.

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