Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Spray Painting Cabinet Doors
Most people paint their cabinets with a brush and a small roller, but I can tell you from past experience that painting cabinets that way takes a lot longer than using a professional sprayer, especially if you're painting white over brown unpainted wood. With brushing and rolling, the quality of the finish suffers too. Although you can definitely achieve a decent finish with the right technique, nothing beats the sprayed look.
Before I used a paint sprayer exclusively for my cabinet painting projects, I brushed and rolled everything, including the doors, until I started using an airless sprayer and a system that streamlines the process.
Reasons to use a paint sprayer:
- Smoother finish than brushing and rolling
- Finish painting projects a lot faster
- Ability to use fast-drying cabinet coatings (lacquer) that dry too fast for brushing and rolling
- Better coverage in less coats
There is a slight learning curve using a paint sprayer for the first time, but spraying cabinet doors isn't complicated. Masking a kitchen and spraying cabinet frames is a little more challenging, so it's common to brush and roll the frames and spray the doors and drawer fronts. Door and drawer fronts can be easily removed and sprayed in a separate work space.
In this article, I'll show you how to easily spray paint your cabinet doors with an airless sprayer, using the right size spray tips and techniques.
Step 1: Rent, or Buy, an Airless Paint Sprayer
Airless paint sprayers are awesome for painting cabinets in large kitchens because you can paint a set of cabinet doors really fast and achieve a factory finish. Another option is to use a handheld cup sprayer, but unlike an airless setup, you're limited to one or two quarts of paint at a time, which means you'll have to keep refilling the cup if you're spraying multiple doors.
Airless sprayers allow you to siphon paint directly from the can. Some airless sprayer models, like the Graco GX-19 Finish Pro, which is what I use for my cabinet projects, include a hopper that holds a couple gallons of paint at a time. You can also achieve a super smooth finish with an airless sprayer, simply by using the right size spray tip and pressure setting and thinning the material if needed.
Buying vs. Renting A Paint Sprayer for Cabinet Doors
Buy a professional paint sprayer if you have multiple painting projects to tackle beyond your cabinets. While you can save money buying a cheap one from the home improvement store, a contractor model will last longer and perform better. It's important to know too that the motor in cheap sprayers almost always cannot be used safely with flammable coatings, so if you plan on using oil primer, lacquer, or shellac, you will need to use one with an enclosed motor.
If you only need to use a sprayer one time to paint your cabinets, visit your local paint store and see what sprayer rentals they offer. Paint stores often rent out professional sprayers that are better than the cheap ones sold in stores. Look for sprayers made by Graco, or Titan. The rental cost is typically under $100 per day.
Step 2: Detach the Cabinet Doors and Drawer Fronts
Removing the cabinet doors and drawer fronts for spray painting is a must, as well as carefully labeling each piece as you take them off. Use a drill to remove the door hinges from the frames and the drawer fronts from the drawers. Inside the drawer, there should be two Phillips screws that connect the drawer front to the drawer. Bag the screws so they don't get lost.
Labeling Cabinet Doors for Painting
Use a simple numbering system when labeling the doors and drawers. There are different ways to do it, but I simply count each door and write a number on the back of the doors underneath the hinge area. Cabinet doors with a cavity for the hinge are perfect. Write a number inside the cavity with a marker and cover it with a small piece of tape. On the drawer fronts, write a number on the back area that won't be exposed after install.
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Step 3: Prep the Cabinet Doors
Taking the time to carefully prepare cabinet doors for painting is critical to a successful paint job. Greasy cabinets need extra attention. If your cabinets are sticky with grease, you must absolutely clean them thoroughly before priming and painting, otherwise the paint can chip off.
The Best Cleaner for Cabinets
Two cleaners I use a lot on my cabinet projects are Dirtex powder cleaner and Krud Kutter Original. If the cabinets are really greasy and nasty, Krud Kutter is a strong de-greaser, otherwise Dirtex works fine for removing dirt and food stains. I painted oak cabinets once that were covered with thick layers of nasty grease, and the Krud Kutter cleaner worked great at de-greasing and restoring the wood. Rinse the surface of the doors with clean water to remove residue from the cleaner. With Krud Kutter, you have to be careful to rinse off residue from the cleaner before painting. Dirtex doesn't leave as much residue on the surface, but I always rinse with clean water.
Sand the Doors
Sanding de-glosses the lacquer finish on cabinets so the primer and paints sticks better. Sanding also removes any remaining food particles after cleaning and scrubbing. Orbital sanders work best for sanding cabinet doors and frames. The sandpaper grit I recommend is 220-grit. This is coarse enough to dull the gloss without causing any damage. You'll also want to sand between coats of primer and paint too for a smoother finish.
Patch Holes and Dings
Use a work light to inspect the doors for holes and chipped edges. Patch the damaged areas with wood filler, not spackle. I've tried Durham's filler and other products, but Bondo Wood Filler and Bondo Multi-purpose Putty have worked the best for me. Both fillers come with a cream hardener, similar to epoxy. Deep holes usually require two to three coats of filler.
Step 4: Choose Your Primer and Paint Wisely
Unless the cabinets are already painted, I highly recommend using solvent-based primer (oil, shellac, lacquer) instead of latex primer. Latex primer is a poor sealer for bare wood and does nothing to stop tannin bleed. It's also rubbery and doesn't dry very hard. Before I started using pre-catalyzed lacquer on cabinets, I would prime with two coats of Zinsser BIN (white shellac primer), followed by two coats of enamel. This combination works very well. Spraying BIN shellac primer with an airless sprayer is easy and achieves a really smooth finish when the right spray tip is used.
Another option is oil-based primer. Pro Block from Sherwin Williams, or Zinsser Cover Stain are both good choices, but for faster dry time and a smoother sprayed finish, I would go with Zinsser BIN (white shellac primer). Clean up involves a mix of ammonia and water instead of toxic paint thinner. Oil primer is also thicker and can be trickier to spray.
For paint, use high quality enamel made for use on trim and cabinets. There are several popular products for cabinet painting including Cabinet Coat, Benjamin Moore Advance, Behr urethane alkyd enamel and products from Sherwin Williams. I've used Pro Classic and Emerald urethane enamel multiple times on cabinets with good results. Both products are good choices for cabinets, but I've heard good things about Advance and Cabinet Coat too. I can't recommend Behr alkyd enamel. I used it once before and the coverage was poor compared with other products I've used.
Step 5: Spray the Primer and Paint
Set up a work space to spray the primer and paint. If you're spraying indoors, cover the surrounding walls with plastic and the floors with drop cloths. Set up a box fan in a window to remove the chemical fumes as you spray. If the weather permits, you can even spray outdoors and carry the doors into an enclosed space for drying.
The Best Method for Spraying Cabinet Doors
I recommend spraying two coats of primer and two coats of paint on your cabinet doors. Two coats of primer enhances the paint coverage and gloss of the finish, and if you're painting oak cabinets, the second coat fills in more of the wood grain. Two coats of paint on top fills in even more of the grain.
You can spray paint cabinet doors vertically by hanging them up, or by laying them down. I recommend spraying them horizontally using a rotating spray rack. I wrote an article that goes in depth on the pros and cons of spray painting doors horizontally vs. vertically. You can spray the first coat on one side and flip the door over to paint the other side after it dries, or you can spray two coats on one side, let it dry, and do the same on the other side.
Storing Painted Doors for Drying
Placing freshly painted cabinet doors on buckets and boards can leave marks in soft paint. Make sure the paint's had a chance to harden enough before flipping them over and placing them on a hard surface. Place a soft rag under the paint, or better yet, store the doors on a drying rack.
I've used the Door Rack Painter drying racks for several years. I own three sets and use them for all of my cabinet painting projects. The racks are worth the investment if you're a painter, or if you have limited space to work in. The racks allow you to stack the doors and save a lot of room.
Use Fine Finish Spray Tips
The best spray tip size for painting cabinet doors is a 310 tip. This tip produces a 6-inch spray fan that covers the surface faster. The tip is also the perfect size for spraying cabinet enamel and lacquer. It's large enough to spray most enamel without having to thin, but thinning a little will provide a smoother finish. My favorite fine finish spray tips are the green FFLP tips from Graco.
Spraying the Doors
Turn up the pressure on your sprayer to 2,000 PSI. Hold the spray gun about 12-inches from the surface and spray the doors in one direction towards the other side, overlapping each pass by about fifty percent. Do not overload the paint. I recommend buying an inexpensive wet film thickness gauge. These are only a few dollars and tell you how thick you're applying the paint. Spraying too heavy prolongs the dry time and you can run into problems with the finish.
Follow the specs on the paint can for the dry time and re-coating. Most of the trim and door enamel I've worked with has a re-coat time of four hours. It's important to allow the paint to dry in the recommended time to avoid bubbles and solvent pop in the next coat. It is possible to spray the first coat in the morning and the second coat in the late afternoon, or to be safe, let the paint harden overnight before applying the next coat. Apply two coats each of primer and paint.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Matt G.