Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Painting Cabinet Doors for a Smooth Finish
If you want to get a super smooth finish painting cabinet doors, thorough prep work is key. Sanding dust and crumbs from caulking get stuck in the paint if left on the surface. These imperfections become very noticeable from an angle on doors painted with a glossy finish. You should be able to look at the doors from an angle and not see any texturing from imperfections.
One of the most important parts of cabinet paint prep is controlling the sanding dust. Airborne dust particles cause surface contamination, ruining the finish on painted doors that haven't dried yet. Dust left on the surface can also cause air bubbles to form where the paint is unable to bond with the primer underneath. These air bubbles in the paint will ruin your doors, but this can be avoided.
Sanding Cabinet Doors
Sanding is important because it removes the protective lacquer coating on cabinets to expose the bare wood for primer and paint. This provides a much stronger bond than if you were to prime and paint directly over the surface without sanding. Sanding also smooths out any rough areas, or splintered wood. Annoying sticker glue comes off easily with a sander too.
Using an electric sander is a must, instead of sanding by hand. A random orbit sander sands surfaces evenly without leaving scratch marks like a folded piece of sandpaper can. You can scratch the fresh primer and paint on cabinet doors very easily, using the wrong tools and sandpaper. These scratches become noticeable in the final coat of paint.
For the first sanding on oak cabinets, 100 grit is great for removing the lacquer top coat. A softer wood, like maple, should be sanded with finer grit like 120, or 150. Using coarse sandpaper on maple can damage the wood fibers, texturing the surface.
Sanding Primer Coats
I prime my cabinets with two coats of primer, sanding and cleaning the surface in between coats. This creates a very smooth profile when painted, without any surface imperfections. Sanding the primer allows the paint to adhere better, and applying two coats of primer eliminates any chance of stain bleed-through that sometimes occurs with only one prime coat.
When sanding primer, 220 grit smooths out the surface to a fine powder without burning all the way through the coating to the bare wood. If you need to sand out an accidental finger mark in the primer, 150 grit works well for that.
Spot Sanding Paint Coats
If needed, I'll do a light spot sanding of the first coat of paint to remove any crumbs from the doors that might have been missed before. I use a very worn sanding sponge, or 220 grit, using my orbit sander if necessary. If the primer coats were sanded and cleaned thoroughly, you shouldn't have to sand the paint other than a light scuff sand.
Using coarse sandpaper will scratch the paint very easily, especially if you're doing it by hand. Stay away from sandpaper coarser than 220 grit. Scratch marks are hard to sand out without grinding the coating down to the primer. Allow the paint to fully dry before applying the next coat. Painting cabinet doors before the previous coat has dried can result in air bubbles.
Dust is your enemy when painting cabinet doors. Sanding dust makes a huge mess and hovers in the air for hours over your painted doors. If possible, I highly recommend sanding the doors outside and away from where you're painting them. If you're sanding the doors inside, you can position a shop vac hose directly next to the sander to capture a good amount of the dust blowing out. A bagged sander still blows out dust.
You can also place a fan near an open window, in reverse, to pull the dust away from the workspace. Another option is to buy a portable spray tent where you can store your painted doors, so dust in the air doesn't fall onto them.
You can buy these at any home improvement store. They work great. However, never leave a tack cloth on top, or underneath, your painted door, or it will leave a sticky residue on the surface that's hard to remove. These cloths should be replaced as soon as they start getting dirty. A damp rag works well too, but the problem with using water is it has to dry before applying primer.
Clean Dust After Each Sanding
Sanding primer creates a lot of powdery dust that you don't want to leave on the surface. Sanding dust from primer comes off easily with a tack cloth. Always wipe the doors down after each sanding. The oil-based primer Zinsser Cover Stain sands very easily, but the trick is to let the primer dry overnight before sanding it. Zinsser BIN shellac primer also sands well, but not as easily as Cover Stain in my experience.
If you roll your cabinets instead of spraying them, using Cover Stain primer, you can sand out the roller texture pretty easily once it's fully cured, which creates a smoother profile with less stippling. Sanding your prime coats makes a huge difference in how smooth your cabinets look after they're painted.
Foam Roller vs Spraying
If you want a super smooth finish on your cabinet doors, I strongly recommend spraying them instead of using a brush and roller. While a foam roller does produce a smooth finish, these still leave stippling on the surface, not to mention the work will take much longer to finish. Side by side, a sprayed door looks far better than one that was brushed and rolled.
Spray Painting Cabinet Doors
The idea of spray painting cabinets might sound intimidating, but it's a lot easier than you think. Buying an expensive sprayer obviously doesn't make sense if you're only using it one time, but you can rent a professional airless sprayer for around $50 to $75 per day.
If you need a sprayer for a few days though, or longer, the cheaper alternative is to simply buy a small HVLP sprayer. These produce very little over-spray and a finer finish than an airless.
An airless sprayer is the fastest way to spray multiple doors in a short amount of time, but the over-spray means more masking. An airless sprayer is best for production. An HVLP sprayer produces much less over-spray, but it requires the thinning of paint and the refilling of the material cup more often than working with an airless directly out of a paint can.
I used to paint cabinets with a brush and foam roller, and while you can certainly get good results with this method, foam rolling creates stippling, especially when the material is applied too thick. Brushing and rolling is also extremely time-consuming. Foam rollers can also leave air bubbles in the paint, which has happened to me using the black foam rollers from Sherwin Williams. I've used their flock foam rollers with good results though.
Use Paint That Levels
This is probably one of the most important parts to getting a smooth finish on your cabinets. Some paints have levelers in them to help the paint level out over the surface for a uniform finish. Working with a leveling paint makes it easier to minimize brush strokes and stippling from a roller.
I used acrylic Pro Classic from Sherwin Williams for many years, but I've switched to their Emerald Urethane enamel. Both products level nicely, but Emerald urethane seems to level a little better and dries harder. Whichever paint you decide to use, make sure it's one that levels.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have some office built-ins (cherry stain) that I will degrease, sand with 150, and use BIN for a primer sanding in between (220 grit) the two coats. The trim in the home we just bought was painted with promar 200 interior waterbased acrylic-alkyd extra white base semi-gloss. Will that work as a topcoat, and work well with Zinsser BIN and holds up?
Answer: I don't recommend using ProMar 200 as your topcoat. The acrylic alkyd is more durable than the regular latex version, but I would use Emerald urethane enamel instead of ProMar 200. A less expensive option too is Pro Classic, but Emerald urethane dries harder and it's more durable. If you know the color of your ProMar trim paint, you can get the color mixed in either of those products.
Question: Can you use Aqua Coat grain filler on unfinished oak cabinets that have already been primed with an oil-based primer and painted with a latex high gloss enamel? The woodgrain is visible and looks horrible.
Answer: Yes, you can use Aqua Coat before or after primer, but I would prime over the filler to seal it and then apply your enamel again. Scuff sand the enamel before applying the filler. Also, scuff sand the filler before priming.
Question: I cleaned cabinets with TSP, sanded, and did 1 coat of Zinsser Cover stain. Waited overnight and the primer is scratching off very easily. What do you recommend?
Answer: I have no idea why the primer is scratching off, I've never had that problem, but there could be a few reasons why. Primer is a little soft until it fully cures. This can take a few days. The air temperature/humidity also plays a role in dry time. If it's cold, or high humidity, it will take longer. Surface contamination might be the issue too. The TSP should be cleaned off with clean water so no residue is left on the surface. The surface needs to be dry before applying oil primer. Make sure the surface was cleaned good with no grease or dirt on the surface. Lightly sand the first coat of primer with a sanding sponge and apply a second coat. If it's rubbing off really easily though then there's surface contamination preventing the primer from bonding with the wood, and in that case, it would be best to strip if off, clean the surface really good and start over. Make sure you're also using Cover Stain oil primer. There are a couple of variations of this product.
Question: We moved into a house where the cupboards were already painted in a white latex. I want to keep white but need to repaint. What is the process between this latex step and air spraying? I know that we will need to sandpaper some common use areas on each cupboard door but is there an overall primer I am going to have to put on? will it have to be applied to the entire area (over the latex?)
Answer: The right steps to take in your situation depends on the condition of the existing paint. If there's bleed through, or chipping paint, you should start over by removing the old paint, cleaning, sanding, priming, and painting, but if the paint's in good condition you can simply clean the surface, scuff sand, prime, and paint.
Question: Is it recommended to paint cabinet doors outside in the open or inside a paint tent?
Answer: You can paint them outside in the open, but the wet doors should be stored for drying in a garage, or with something above to protect them from airborne debris.
Question: We recently started to paint our kitchen cabinets. We cleaned and sanded them first then applied 2 coats of b.i.n shellac base sanding in between coats. Last night applied one coat of oil-based, semi-gloss enamel and this morning is still tacky I'm assuming from not dry yet, but it has a really textured finish look anyway. How should I fix this tacky enamel before applying the second coat?
Answer: Oil-based paint takes a lot longer to dry than latex. If your paint is tinted too, the colorant prolongs the dry time further. The textured finish could be caused by small debris in the paint or the primer. BIN gets chunky in the can, even after stirring. It's best to always strain your primer and paint otherwise small debris ends up on the substrate. It could also be caused by airborne dust settling on the paint, or from using paint that didn't lay out over the surface, which would create a slightly textured look and feel. Allow the paint to fully dry and sand the cabinets with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it out before applying the next coat.
Question: Did you also use the airless paint sprayer to apply the primer, or just the paint when finishing your cabinets?
Answer: Yes, I spray the primer too.
Question: How about satin oil pro classic for painting cabinet doors?
Answer: Alkyd Pro Classic dries a lot slower than the acrylic version. Oil-based paint also yellows over time. This won't be noticeable with dark colors, but you'll see it if you're painting cabinets white. I've sprayed the alkyd Pro Classic many times years ago, but prefer the acrylic version. Both of them level out really nice. For cabinets though, Emerald urethane levels out the same, if not better, and dries harder for better durability.
Question: Do you recommend a wood filler for oak cabinets.... to hide the grain? If so would you apply before or after the primer..... I have read articles recommending each way.
Answer: For oak cabinets, I've used Aqua Coat grain filler and DryDex spackle to fill the grain. Filling the grain prevents the small holes and cracks from showing up in the paint, but it doesn't totally hide the pattern of the grain. But when you fill the grain and apply two coats each of primer and paint, using the products I mention in the article, the grain is hidden pretty good. I like to fill the grain first then prime and paint. You can prime, then fill, prime again, and paint twice, but if you do it that way, sometimes what will happen is the filler will pull tannin from the wood right through the prime coat which the second coat of primer might not fully seal. That's why I like filling first then priming twice. Two coats of primer over the filler are better for preventing bleed through and the filler gets two coats which are better than only one.
Question: Should I add a conditioner to the cabinet doors I am painting?
Answer: You certainly can, but the paint alone levels pretty good without conditioner. Both ProClassic and Emerald urethane enamel level nice on doors.
Question: We are using a foam roller on our cabinet doors and there are tonne of tiny bubbles. What can we do to reduce the amount of bubbles? Are there better rollers or technique we should use?
Answer: Try using a microfiber roller instead of the foam roller.
Question: The sprayer I used created some texture on the just painted cabinets. Should I sand them? Do I apply a top clear coat?
Answer: You can sand out the texture if you sprayed the paint too heavy. Then spray the paint again. You can apply a clear coat after painting, but you should first make sure the paint you're using can be top coated with a clear coat.
Question: Watch professional wireless sprayer do you like to use? And/or do you have a recommenced nonprofessional airless sprayer?
Answer: If you mean a portable sprayer (non plug-in), I don't own one. I use both Graco and Titan spray equipment and both companies make excellent spray equipment for DIY or contractor use. My sprayers are plug-in airless rigs. Graco and Titan sell portable handheld sprayers you might want to check out. If you want to go the cheap route, the big box stores sell fairly inexpensive sprayers that I'm sure would be fine for occasional use. I spray year round and use more expensive contractor-grade airless sprayers.
Question: I've sprayed cabinet doors using SW's Emerald Urethane enamel, using both airless and pressure feed sprayers. Each time it has resulted in a rougher almost chalky finish that requires sanding with a fine-grit paper to smooth it out. Have you experienced this? Do you do any post-spraying finishing to the paint?
Answer: I haven't experienced a rough, chalky finish with Emerald urethane, but I've had recent problems with bubbles/craters forming in the finish. If you're finish is rough, check your surface prep and the area where you're storing the doors. Maybe there's airborne dust, or the surface was dusty when you sprayed it.
© 2018 Matt G.
Matt G. (author) from United States on August 27, 2020:
Spraying them laying flat eliminates the chance of runs, but you can get great results spraying them hung up too as long as you don't spray the enamel too heavy. But yes, there's a greater chance of runs spraying them hung up.
Barb on August 27, 2020:
I will be spraying our kitchen cabinets with an HPVL sprayer using emerald enamel urethane. I have had different opinions on weather or not to spray them hanging or laying down. Some say, the enamel has more chances of dripping or sagging if sprayed hanging. opinion?
Matt G. (author) from United States on August 10, 2020:
I've never painted the inside of the cabinets and drawers, only the outside.
Mary on August 10, 2020:
How do you finish the inside of your cabinets and drawers?
I’m using Purebond plywood but it is not prefinished.
Matt G. (author) from United States on July 06, 2020:
it's possible you sprayed too close and too heavy, or the spray pressure wasn't set high enough to atomize the enamel into a finer finish. I find that turning the pressure up between 2,000 and 2,500 PSI, or higher, atomizes the enamel nicely for a fine finish. If you spray at too low of a pressure the enamel won't fully atomize and you'll get an orange peel finish. You also don't want to spray too close. At 2,000 PSI and greater you have to move the spray gun fast without overlapping too much. With the right gun speed and distance from the substrate you'll get a nice smooth finish. The enamel goes on with some texture but will level out. The 210 and 310 tips are both good for cabinets. The 214 is way too big for spraying cabinets.
Matthew Eichner on July 06, 2020:
Matt, thanks so much for your blog - it has been invaluable to tackling my first spraying job on my kitchen cabinets (using Graco 395). The Sherwin team have been good, though they recommended a 214 for the Emerald UTE, and that was messy to handle, leading to a few hours of extra sanding work after the first coat to deal with some sags. Then I saw your blog and the 210 - far, far easier and the finish coat went on without a hitch.
My question. I still have the slightest amount of orange peel look when I get up close - say, within 4 inches of the finish (not something I'd notice unless I'm looking for it). I'm wondering - is that b/c I didn't put enough product in each coat for those areas? Or is a certain amount of orange peel inevitable, and I'm just being hard on myself? I'm remembering a buttery smooth cabinet from professional painters at a prior home, and looking for tips on how to improve my art, if there are any.