The Best Self-Leveling Cabinet Paint Options

Updated on April 4, 2019
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.

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What Is Self-Leveling Paint?

Self-leveling paint is formulated to level out evenly over a surface as it dries, providing a smooth finish. These paints usually cost more, but give you a finer finish by reducing roller stippling and brush strokes, and leveling paint looks awesome when sprayed on cabinets.

Non-leveling paint dries exactly how it looks when applied, good or bad. Additives like Floetrol can be used to extend the dry time and smooth out the coating, but these chemicals can reduce the gloss in paint.

I use self-leveling paint on all of my cabinet painting projects. I spray everything, including the cabinet wall boxes, using the FFLP (fine finish, low pressure), spray tips by Graco. These spray tips, combined with leveling paint, provide a beautiful finish on cabinet doors.

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My Favorite Self-Leveling Paint

I use acrylic latex paint and acrylic alkyd for cabinet painting, but I recently started using mostly acrylic alkyd, urethane enamel, with great results. Straight oil-based paint dries hard on cabinets, but the finish tends to gradually turn yellow. Oil paint also smells horrible and dries very slow.

Urethane enamel (acrylic alkyd) gives you the hardness of oil-based paint without the slow dry time, or paint color turning yellow. These are some of the self-leveling paints I have used and recommend for cabinet painting.

Emerald Urethane Enamel (Sherwin Williams)

I started using this product exclusively on all of my cabinet painting projects, applying the paint with my airless sprayer only. I still haven't brushed, or rolled, this product. At around $93 per gallon, Emerald urethane is a worthy upgrade from the less expensive Pro Classic enamel, also by Sherwin Williams. The cost is high, but you get what you pay for.

The paint dries harder than other paints I've used, making it an ideal choice for cabinets. The paint self-levels very well when sprayed, usually taking two to four hours to level out. The re-coat time is labeled at four hours, but I usually allow painted doors to dry overnight before applying the second coat.

I find it harder to get sags (paint runs) when spraying this product vertically on cabinet wall boxes, especially the satin finish, which dries noticeably faster than the semi-gloss finish. You have to spray a thick enough coat to get the coating to level nicely.

Pro Classic Acrylic Enamel (Sherwin Williams)

Pro Classic, a less expensive self-leveling paint, is a good product for painting cabinets, especially when spraying them. Brushing and rolling this product can be a little tricky because you have to work the material over the surface fast before it starts to tack up.

I used Pro Classic exclusively on cabinets, before making the switch to Emerald urethane, which dries harder for more durability. I find that both coatings spread out nicely while drying, but Emerald levels a little better because it dries slower, even though the re-coat time for both products is labeled at four hours.

If you don't want to spend over $90 per gallon for Emerald urethane, this is a good alternative with comparable leveling. There is also an acrylic alkyd version available too, which I haven't personally worked with, but may provide a harder coating.

Advance (Benjamin Moore)

I mostly use Sherwin Williams paint, but I have worked with many Benjamin Moore products, including their waterborne alkyd, Advance. This product self-levels really well, whether brushed, rolled, or sprayed. The waterborne alkyd mix means the paints dries hard like oil-based paint, no top coat of poly needed.

The main I reason I don't use this product regularly is the horribly long dry time, which takes about two days per coat, with dark colors taking even longer, due to the higher content of colorant in the paint. The fully cured dry time is thirty days. You don't have to wait thirty days to handle and install the cabinet doors, but it takes that long for the paint to reach full hardness.

Advance is a good option if you're fine with the longer dry time. I like using products that dry faster, allowing me to install the painted doors the next day.

Questions & Answers

  • What product do you use for grain filler on grainy oak? Just BIN shellac primer, or some type of grain filler and then the BIN?

    I use Aqua Coat to fill the holes in the grain, followed by two coats of BIN primer. Doing this achieves a smooth finish without visible holes and cracks. Grain filler won't make the grain flush with the surface unless you apply multiple coats, but it fills the holes and reduces the grain pattern.

  • I’ve always painted my window & door frames with white enamel and have used Sherwin Williams paints for a long time. However, on my current project the SW ProClassic is not leveling out regardless of the tool I use - bristle brush, foam brush, trim tool, foam or fuzzy rollers. Should I change paint brands? Any advice before I throw in the towel, so to speak?

    You can try adding a little Floetrol to the paint. It's an additive that thins paint to help with leveling and reducing brush marks. I'm surprised you're having leveling problems with Pro Classic. This paint levels really nice, but perhaps the surface you're painting isn't prepared right to allow the paint to lay out. If you switch brands, Emerald urethane from Sherwin Williams is good. I've been spraying cabinets with it and been very satisfied with it so far.

  • Will SW Emerald fill the wood grains and self-level on a finished oak handrail?

    No, Emerald urethane alone won't fill the grain, but it will level nicely. To fill the grain, you need to apply at least one coat of grain filler, two coats of primer (BIN seeps into the grain really well) and your paint. If you're rolling, the roller itself will force the primer into the grain to fill it pretty well, even without filler. BIN shellac primer works really well for filling grainy oak, sprayed or rolled. It's very thin and seeps into the small cracks better than a thicker oil primer.

  • I want to paint MDF cabinet doors. Should I prime first, or does the Emerald paint prime? If I need to prime, what primer do you recomment?

    Yes, use primer. Oil primer is good.

Comments

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    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 weeks ago

      Yes, you should clean the cabinets and sand them before priming. You should also sand each coat of primer.

    • profile image

      Elitadlock 

      5 weeks ago

      Should I sand down my cabinets before painting, or is the priming enough? They have a varnish finish, very traditional. Thank you.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      2 months ago

      I use a Graco 495 airless sprayer for everything, including cabinets. This a bigger and more expensive sprayer

      You can buy smaller Graco sprayers for much less. HVLP sprayers give you a nice finish too, but any paint sprayed through one requires thinning. HVLP also isn't good for production work (spraying multiple doors, trim ect. The cup is small and needs refilling more. You can get a nice finish with an airless sprayer using fine finish tips and it's more versatile for big and small projects.

    • profile image

      ELGR 

      2 months ago

      Hi Matt - I've read a lot of what you have posted about trim/cabinet paint and also a bit about paint sprayers. I think I'm finally ready to take the plunge and buy a decent quality sprayer. I would like to primarily use it to spray cabinets and trim.

      Would you be willing to give me some recommendations on airless vs HVLP and also on which model is a good value for the price.

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