Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
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.
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
Question: 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?
Answer: 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.
Question: My house does NOT have oak cabinets. The cabinets are whatever wood combination that builders are simply slapping into homes. Part wood part something. I do not like oil based anything, but it is an oil based primer my only option or can I use latex primer along with the Sherwin Williams paint?
Answer: Latex doesn't dry with the same hardness and sealing ability as solvent-based primer. Latex primer won't seal in surface stains or tannin bleed. I don't recommend priming your cabinets with latex primer. You might want to consider using the shellac-based primer BIN. BIN smells bad, but the odor goes away a lot faster than slow-drying oil primer. It's dry to the touch in 15 minutes. With a fan running in an open window, the smell goes away quickly as the alcohol evaporates from the coating. The smell doesn't linger.
Question: Will SW Emerald fill the wood grains and self-level on a finished oak handrail?
Answer: 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.
Question: 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?
Answer: 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.
Question: Hey Matt can you use a paintbrush with self-leveling paint or is spray recommended?
Answer: Yes, the paint will level out too like it would if you spray, but spraying always gives you the smoothest finish. I spray all of my cabinet projects. You can make it look nice using a high-quality brush too, but sprayed is sprayed. If you were to see two painted doors next to each other, one sprayed and the other brushed, the sprayed door will look better.
Question: 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?
Answer: Yes, use primer. Oil primer is good.
Question: What paint is best to level textured ceramic tile?
Answer: If you mean leveling the texture on the tile with the surface, paint alone isn't the best solution. If you're trying to smooth the tile out I would consider prepping and skim coating the tile first. Use paint that can be applied to ceramic tile. Maybe a thicker product to fill in some of the gaps, but I would look more into the appropriate filler to achieve what you're looking to do.
Question: Do I have to use an oil based primer if I plan to use the Pro Classic? My go to had always been Killz2.
Answer: Yes, using an oil-based primer under Pro Classic is an excellent combination. Oil primer seals the wood so you won't have to worry about stains or tannin bleeding into the enamel. I definitely wouldn't use Kilz 2, water-based primer, especially if you're painting cabinets that haven't already been painted. The primer is too soft and it won't seal the surface to prevent tannin bleed. Oil primer is harder and more durable. I recommend Zinsser Cover Stain or Pro Block from Sherwin Williams. I've used both products for many years.
Question: I have stained oak cabinets that I want to paint white but keep the grain texture. What primer and paint would you suggest?
Answer: I would use an oil-based primer (Cover Stain, Kilz, etc), or white shellac primer (BIN). Any of those options will stop tannin bleed. If you want to see more of the natural grain pattern of your oak don't use any wood filler. It will look like painted oak. If you spray them instead of rolling that will give it a more grainy look too. Rolling pushes primer and paint into the grain to fill it and reduce the holes and texture. For paint, I like Pro Classic acrylic enamel.
Question: Do you recommend always sanding and priming?
Answer: If the cabinets are already painted, they're likely smooth and glossy. That should be sanded for stronger adhesion. I would prime them too.
Question: I am a cabinetmaker and I am starting to offer paint finish on my builtins and bookcases I build for clients. The first product I have chosen to go with is BM Advance primer and topcoat. The main reason was it is a water-based product and I only work with water-based. Aside from these 3 products you name have you tried any other water-based products that level out like an oil?
Answer: I haven't used any other water-based products for cabinet painting. I've read good and bad things about PPG Breakthrough for use on cabinets, but I haven't personally tested that product. The only product I can recommend at this point is Pro Classic acrylic. I used this enamel for many years without any problems, or callbacks, before I started using Emerald urethane enamel. I've used this product many times without problems too, but unfortunately, I learned recently that Sherwin Williams reformulated this product sometime in 2019, and since then, I've experienced application problems on a recent project, so I've returned to Pro Classic acrylic, which is also durable and levels nice. Pro Classic acrylic has always performed the same for me with no headaches. I was very pleased with Emerald too until the product changed.
Question: If I use oil based paint, how can I clean the sprayer?
Answer: Use paint thinner, or mineral spirits, to clean the oil-based paint from your sprayer.
Matt G. (author) from United States on September 02, 2020:
Rolling is always going to leave stippling texture from the roller. Foam and microfiber rollers reduce stippling so it's less noticeable for a smoother look, but using any roller, the texture won't completely go away using a leveling paint. The leveling works best for spraying and brushing.
Mishelle on September 02, 2020:
Filled, primed with a roller and sanded my oak kitchen cabinets to a beautiful glassy smooth finish using your awesome instructions. Now I rolled BM Advance and got nothing but stippled surface! What am I doing wrong? No leveling happening here!
FRZNKIWI on August 23, 2020:
I have sanded, primed and painted all of the oak trim and doors in our house, but, because we live in Minnesota, we experience a lot of the wood shrinking and expanding due to the climate we live in. On the doors, with inset wood panels, the paint has stretched to capacity and cracked. I am about to tackle the whole kitchen of oak and would be mortified if this was to happen due to the extensive process. Not really wanting to caulk every cupboard, is this the only solution? Also, just found out we own a Graco Magnun DX airless sprayer, and really want to learn how to use as I have hand painted everything else, long, tedious job. Any suggestions? Have been watching the videos of how to use, rather involved but, willing to try to cut down thectime factor and of course, winter is always around the corner in MN!
Matt G. (author) from United States on January 08, 2020:
Thank you. I'm glad you found the information helpful. I would scuff sand the Masonite and prime with oil primer, two coats, sanding between coats. Cover Stain oil primer would be a good product to go with.
SeanStrong on January 08, 2020:
Matt, this was helpful article. Your experience is invaluable. I am building wainscoting with MDF and the panels will be made of 3/16 Masonite hardboard - very smooth. I don't really have the space or equipment to spray so I'll likely roll or brush the self leveling paint. Question is, if it were you, (if you've worked with it before), what prep would you give the Masonite? Fine sand to scuff for adhesion or just prime with oil base, no scuff? Thanks much!
Matt G. (author) from United States on July 14, 2019:
Yes, you should clean the cabinets and sand them before priming. You should also sand each coat of primer.
Elitadlock on July 12, 2019:
Should I sand down my cabinets before painting, or is the priming enough? They have a varnish finish, very traditional. Thank you.
Matt G. (author) from United States on May 22, 2019:
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.
ELGR on May 20, 2019:
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.