How to Paint Old Ceramic Tile

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Perhaps you’re dying to do a remodel on your kitchen backsplash or bathroom tile, but you don’t want all of the hassle involved with removing and replacing it. For these situations, it can make a lot of sense to paint your ceramic tile. It will allow you to change the color without needing to incur a lengthy demolition project.

We review the perks of painting vs replacing, along with outlining the six steps for how to paint tile.

A woman paints ceramic tile with a paintbrush

Painting Tile vs​ Replacing It

Tearing out old tile is messy and expensive. Depending on the material the tile was applied to, you may wind up having to replace or repair sheetrock before you can apply your new tile.

If you plan to do it yourself, be aware of a couple of things. One, tearing out backsplash tile will have you working at a very awkward angle. Two, this may leave your kitchen with no counter space until the project is done.

If you have your heart set on a completely new tile job, you can pick up a great tile saw for your DIY project. You’ll also need new tile and grout designed for the surface you’re putting the tile on.

When you’re looking to save time and money, painting may be your best option. Here are the steps to take to paint tile at your house.

​How To Paint Tile in 6 Steps

Before diving into painting, double check that you’re working with ceramic tile. Chances are any tile on your kitchen or bathroom wall is ceramic. Porcelain does not handle water well and isn’t used in these environments.

However, there is a chance it could be marble, which would require a different set of steps for painting

Step 1: Clean and Degrease 

Cleaning your existing ceramic tile is probably the most important part of the entire process. If you try to paint tile that isn’t perfectly clean, the paint won’t afix and won’t stay over the course of time.

  • Scrub your tiles with TSP to strip away all dirt
  • Degrease your tiles with rubbing alcohol until they’re squeaky clean
  • Allow the grout lines to dry for a couple of days
A woman scrubs and cleans a tile floor

Step 2: Prepare the Surface

If your tile is glossy, you’ll need to sand the tiles. Sanding the tiles will rough up the area and allow the paint to adhere to the glossy surface.

This will also cause some mess and dust, so be prepared to wipe the tiles again with rubbing alcohol. 

Repair any cracks in the tile with caulking or epoxy, and be ready for more dry time. Investigate if you need to fill in some grout as well. Use the best grout for shower walls, as this stands up better to moisture over the long haul.

Applying wet paint to wet grout or uncured repairs will not give you a good result.

Finally, wash the tile with bleach or a mold-killing mixture.

Step 3: Prime the Tile

Pick the right primer, first and foremost. ​Water-based primers allow for easier clean-up, but oil and epoxy-based primers will give you better cling. Opt for an epoxy bonding primer – this will seal onto the tile really nicely, while also allowing the paint to take hold at the same time.

If possible, wear a respirator mask for ventilation and open up the doors and windows for plenty of fresh air.

  • Apply primer in light layers and leave plenty of dry time. A thick, heavy coat will be more likely to peel away. Light layers will cling and give you a better finished surface.
  • Work with a brush so you can really coat the grout lines. Try to work with light, varied strokes, such as a cross-hatch pattern.

This is especially critical around sinks where water exposure may damage your paint job, and is the same reason you need to prime surfaces when painting outdoor floors and surfaces. 

Step 4: ​Paint Your Ceramic Tile

How to paint tile

Now, you can finally start to apply the paint. You’ll more than likely opt for using a brush, as a roller doesn’t do a good job with the undulations of the tile and grout. If you have a really large area, you could probably use a precision paint sprayer, but it isn’t the best tool for this specific job.

We recommend a semi gloss or gloss finish for your paint.

  • Again, ​apply the paint in light layers. The first coats of both primer and top coat will not look very good. Keep going!
  • If you’re applying a gloss or semi-gloss top coat, be aware that you’ll need to apply more layers of paint for that finish.
  • Working lightly will also reduce the risk of drips. Grout lines are great places for paint to collect and drip down onto your countertop surface.
  • If you taped along the edges, be sure to go back after each layer of paintand check for drips that may have puddled.

​Clear these puddles away, or when you take up the tape you may peel away your newly painted surface! If you want to avoid drips and uneven coats all together, check out our​ guide on the best airless paint sprayer for inside​ walls.​

Don’t start using the area yet, though. One of the challenges ​with painting ceramic tile is how to protect it until you can apply the top coat.

Step 5: Seal the Tile

You can use a water or oil-based sealer to complete your project. Again, go with a light touch and apply several coats. Depending on what you’re covering, you can choose a flat, semi-gloss, or gloss finish.

If you’re covering a basic tile and just want a different color, a gloss finish will give you the closest thing to a smooth tile surface.

A word about sealers: Test your sealer on a paint sample or unobtrusive area before covering the whole surface. Some sealers have a slightly yellow tone and will not look good over a cool gray or bright white surface

Step 6: Creative Options

If you know your painted tile update is temporary, you can try more creative options. For example, you can make your backsplash a communication tool by covering it in chalkboard paint. This backsplash actually didn’t start out tiled, but it is a creative demonstration of what you can do with paint and a straight edge!

How to paint tile

Painting Ceramic Tile In ​Wet Areas

Water is hard on paint. If you’re painting the tile in a bathroom, consider investing in marine paint.

Please note that most boat painting projects are done outside, so it’s critical to plan for good ventilation. Don’t do this project when the house is sealed up tight against the cold, or when it’s too hot to open the windows.

The steps to applying a secure coat of marine paint are quite ​similar. Clean, repair, sand, and prime. Marine paint will protect a boat’s surface from water damage, and should offer a great seal for your ceramic tile.

​What Kind of Paint is Best for Ceramic Tile?

Ceramic tile is notoriously “slippery.” As such, you are limited in options for what paint types to pick from.

The best type of paint for ceramic tile backsplashes is alkyd paint. This type of paint is great because it is oil based and provides a really high gloss sheen.

For areas that are prone to getting wet, such as a kitchen backsplash by the sink or a bathroom tile floor, ensure you are using an oil-based alkyd paint.

Avoid latex or water based paints if possible. While convenient, they just aren’t as durable, and you want a durable paint when going onto tile (because of how slick it is).

​Can You Paint Tile Floors?

Yes, you can paint your old tile flooring. You will need to take care to do a really good job, because the foot traffic puts added strain on your paint. But, it is possible provided you follow the correct added steps:

  • Thoroughly wash and degrease your tile floor before painting. You might even want to do a round of cleaning focused entirely on cleaning the grout as well.
  • ​Expoy primer is key! Add several layers of primer, ensuring that each coat thoroughly dries before adding the next one.
  • Go with the most robust, oil-based paint possible. We actually recommend marine paint for bathroom floors, because they will be getting wet.

​Finishing Steps

A ceramic tile application can look awfully permanent, especially if you really hate it. However, anything you can prime can be painted, and there are great primers on the market today. Clean and degrease thoroughly!

Once it’s time to paint, if you can possibly work with epoxy-based paint for the prime coat, do so. If not, work lightly and build up several layers of even, primed finish. Once you’ve got the technique down, apply your color coat in the same way, then seal. Allow for plenty of dry time between layers!

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.