Painting Over Water Stains: 3 Ways

Do you have brown water stains on your walls or ceilings? Painting over water stains is a simple process that will help you cover the stains for good.

During my 20 years as a professional decorator, I’ve had to deal with this problem time and time again. Fortunately, that makes me the ideal person to advise you on what you can do and what products you should use so that your walls and ceilings will look as good as new – and stay that way.

It is important to note that if you have yet to find the cause of the water stains, you should make that your first priority otherwise there’s a big chance that the stains will return in the future.

How to Paint Over Water Stains

Method One: Use Zinsser Cover Stain

My go-to method to cover anything from water stains to nicotine stains is to use Zinsser Cover Stain as a stain sealer before applying a couple of coats of my chosen matt paint.

I’ve had really bad water-stained ceilings and walls on a few jobs recently and 2 decent coats of Cover Stain over the damage really does the job.

One thing to bear in mind is to make sure you spread it out properly as it’s got quite a thick consistency.

It dries to a matt finish so doesn’t flash when painted over and dries within an hour or so depending on room temperature.

It’s also good to use if you don’t have Zinsser Peel Stop for flakey paint areas and it also covers mould stains plus more.

For me it’s one of the best products out there for decorators but if you come across the spray can version, bear in mind that I would only use that for light stains. If anything heavy – use the tin version.

The last thing to mention – don’t waste your good brushes or rollers when applying this. Get a cheap roller and brush and then sling them in the bin once you’re done. It really is a nightmare to clean.

So to summarise:

  1. Apply a generous coat of Zinsser Cover Stain
  2. Wait an hour or two for it to dry
  3. Apply your chosen wall or ceiling paint



  • Dries very quickly allowing you to apply the stain blocker and 2 coats of ceiling paint within just 4 hours
  • Has been formulated specifically to seal stains
  • Dries to a matt finish so won’t flash through your top coats


  • Expensive
  • Ruins your paintbrushes and rollers

Method Two: Apply An Oil-Based Undercoat

Depending on the severity of the water stains, method one should work. But if you’ve found that the water stains on your ceilings keep coming back, I would recommend using an oil-based undercoat followed by 2 coats of your chosen ceiling paint.

Using an oil-based undercoat is a tried and tested method used by thousands of decorators for over 40 years and almost every one of them, old and young, swears by it.

As water and oil are immiscible (which means they can’t mix), a coat of oil-based undercoat over water stains means there’s no possibility for the stain to bleed through the oil.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Give the walls or ceilings a good clean and wait for them to dry
  2. Apply a coat of oil-based undercoat
  3. Wait for the undercoat to fully dry (this could take up to a day)
  4. Apply your top coats


  • Almost guaranteed to work on any water stain
  • Very cheap to buy


  • Takes a long time to dry
  • Has a strong odour

Method Three: Use A Stain Block and Finish In One

If time is of the essence, the final method you can try is using a stain block and finish in one.

My personal favourite for this job is Johnstone’s StainAway which is nice and thick with great covering power.

StainAway is a water-based emulsion that’s ready to be recoated after just 4 hours so saves decorators lots of time when dealing with water stains, nicotine stains etc.

I would personally use this in my own home if I had to deal with water stains but with that being said, the product hasn’t been available long enough to really gauge how long it can hold the stains back for.


  • Saves lots of time as you’ll only need to apply a couple of coats of StainAway
  • Has a beautiful matt finish
  • Water-based so has low VOC content


  • It’s not tried and tested for a long time

If You Still Haven’t Fixed the Water Stains

If the above methods didn’t work for you and the stains are still pushing through, there is one final thing you can attempt before calling the professionals in.

You can dig out the stains that are bleeding through the top coats and use a filler. I created a full guide on filling here, but here’s a quick overview:

  1. Use a scraper tool to dig out any visible stain on your wall or ceiling
  2. Dust the substrate down
  3. Fill the holes
  4. Sand the filler down so that it’s level with the surface
  5. Dust down again and then spot prime with Zinsser Coverstain

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide has given you a few methods that you can use to finally get rid of those pesky water stains from your ceilings and walls.

Whilst these methods should work if you’ve already found the cause of the water stains, I really would recommend getting a professional in to deal with it if you can’t do it yourself.