Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Is Grain Filler Necessary for Painting Oak Cabinets?
Oak is tricky to paint if you don't fill the holes in the wood grain first before priming. If you're painting your oak cabinets white, filling the grain, even with only one coat of filler, will make the cabinets look smoother and less like painted oak.
One coat of filler is usually enough to fill most of the holes in the grain of oak, using the products I recommend in this article. When I paint grainy cabinets, the doors and frames get one coat of filler over the bare wood and two coats of primer, and by doing it that way, you can barely tell the cabinets are oak.
What's the Best Grain Filler for Oak Cabinets?
I've tried several products for filling the wood grain of oak and only a few have worked out. When you have over 20 or even 30 cabinet doors to paint, choosing a product that fills the grain and sands easily is important. There is nothing more annoying than working with a product that's difficult to sand.
I don't like using products with a short shelf life. I like reusing my shop materials throughout the year instead of throwing out a half-filled container because it dried out a few days after opening the lid.
Dry time is also important to consider when choosing filler for your cabinets. Products with extended dry time can take several hours to cure before you can prime.
The following products below, some of which I still use for painting grainy cabinets, work well for filling wood grain.
DryDex Spackle (Purple)
I've used DryDex spackle to fill the grain in more than one set of oak cabinets, with good results. Although DryDex is spackle and not a wood grain filler, this product works really well for that purpose.
DryDex is the easiest to sand out of all the products in this article. An orbital sander with 220-grit sandpaper easily removes the surface layer, leaving the rest of the spackle embedded inside the grain. Removing the spackle from corners and grooves is easy with a putty knife, sanding sponge, and a damp rag.
I definitely recommend DryDex spackle if you have oak cabinets you need to fill for painting. I use the Dry Time Indicator version that goes on purple and dries white. The dry time is around 30 minutes. This product doesn't dry out in the container as long as the lid's on tight. I have a container from several months ago that's still useable.
I used Aqua Coat grain filler a lot for cabinet painting before switching to DryDex. Aqua Coat is a clear gel you skim coat over cabinet doors and frames. I always used an expired credit card and a taping knife to work the material into the grain. The thin consistency of the gel makes it very easy to work with. The odor is there, but it's not terrible.
This water-based gel goes on light, but it forms a hard, glossy finish when dry. The gel dries harder than DryDex, but it's difficult to sand if you put on too heavy of a layer, or leave globs of filler in corners. If you leave heavy edges during application, you'll regret it when it comes time to sand. A thin layer sands easily. The dry time is less than one hour as long as you skim coat a thin layer.
Aqua Coat works well for filling the small cracks and holes in oak grain, but the price is a little high compared to DryDex, which does the same thing. However, since Aqua Coat is clear in color, you can use it for other wood finishing projects outside of cabinet painting. The downside of the clear color though, unlike using white, is that it's invisible before and after drying, so it's hard to see if you've missed filling any part of the grain. You won't know until after priming.
Famowood Wood Filler
I used Famowood wood filler on one set of cabinets I painted white. I applied one coat on all of the doors and cabinet frames. Famowood fills wood grain well and the price is okay, but I found that this product was hard to sand, even with my electric sander.
This filler, in the natural color, dries white, making it easier to see if you've missed filling any parts of the grain before priming. The odor is very low. This product doesn't last long in the container once the seal is broken and the lid opened for the first time. Inserting plastic into the container and storing it upside down helped it last longer.
All three of these products work well on oak cabinets, but for the price and easy sanding, DryDex is the one I recommend the most. It's important to understand that while all of these products fill the holes and cracks of oak grain, they won't totally hide the natural pattern of the wood when it's painted, but with two coats each of primer and paint over the filler, the surface will be very smooth and way less grainy.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do you still do 2 coats of primer after using the drydex?
Answer: You can prime one coat first, fill, sand, and prime again, or you can fill the grain first and prime two coats after. Although the DryDex sands easier, I actually recommend Aqua Coat grain filler instead because it dries harder.
© 2019 Matt G.
Matt G. (author) from United States on January 07, 2020:
Yes, I clean and sand doors before filling the grain. I'm not sure if you can apply oil primer over DryDex since I've only used BIN with it. I would call the manufacturer or check the product specs online.
Karen on January 07, 2020:
Do you sand the cleaned doors before you apply the DryDex? And can you apply an oil based primer over the DryDex? I know some patching materials say only water based paint / primer. Great article! Very informative! Thanks!