Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Can You Paint Knotty Pine Cabinets?
I personally love the rustic look of knotty pine for tongue and groove paneling and newer cabinets, but in an older home or cabin, pine cabinets can look worn out and obviously old. You can refinish knotty pine to restore the natural beauty of the wood, but with cabinet painting becoming a popular trend for budget-friendly kitchen remodeling, more people are choosing the look of white paint over wood stain.
Painting knotty pine cabinets is a bit more work than painting knot-free wood like maple. If you paint the cabinets white, surface preparation must be done to hide knots so they don't appear through the paint.
The resin inside pine knots make them problematic to paint over without using the correct primer to prevent bleed-through. You can paint over the knots until you're blue in the face, but a yellow film will continue to form on the surface without the appropriate primer undercoat.
Preparing Pine Cabinets for Primer and Paint
Remove all of the cabinet doors from the frames, including the hardware. Bag all of the screws so they don't get lost. The easiest way to label the doors and avoid confusion during installation is to write a number underneath a hinge and cover it with tape. Make a door count and write it down.
Clean the Cabinet Doors and Frames
Cleaning your cabinets before priming and painting is really important for adhesion. Older knotty pine cabinets need a deep cleaning to wash off surface contaminants. Clean the surface before sanding, not after.
Use regular dish soap or degreaser if the cabinets are really bad. When using degreaser though, always rinse off leftover residue to avoid adhesion problems with paint. If you use a pre-paint, 'no rinse' cleaner, I would still rinse the surface with clean water to wash off any leftover residue to steer clear of adhesion problems later.
You can also use denatured alcohol to spot clean areas with heavier grease that won't come off with soap, but wear rubber gloves to protect your skin. Denatured alcohol breaks down stubborn grease really well and evaporates from the surface without leaving behind residue.
Best Sandpaper for Pine
Sanding your knotty pine cabinets is a must, regardless if you're painting or staining them. You don't have to sand them down to the bare wood or remove all of the old stain. The purpose of sanding is to remove the clear coat on top for a stronger primer bond. You can use a hand block or sand with an orbital sander.
I sand all of my cabinets with the Makita orbital sander. Buying a good orbital sander is worth it when you have multiple doors to sand.
Pine is soft and damages easier than hardwood, especially if you're sanding with an orbital sander using too coarse of sandpaper. When I sand pine, I like to start with 150-grit for the initial sanding and finer grits for in between coats of primer and paint. Using really abrasive sandpaper on your cabinets is unnecessary.
Fill the Pine Knots
Unless you want your painted pine cabinets to look rustic, fill the knot holes to hide them and make them flush with the surrounding surface. Knot holes in pine cabinets should be filled with durable wood filler, not lightweight spackle or caulk.
The product I use the most for filling dents and holes in cabinet doors and frames I'm painting is Bondo wood filler. The wood filler is great for knot holes because it dries very hard without cracking, or shrinking. Two coats is usually enough to fill knots. Once you add the cream hardener, you have only a few minutes to apply the filler before it dries. Use an orbital sander to sand down the patch until it's level with the surface.
Another product option for patching knotty pine holes, which costs much less, is Durham's water putty, but the putty isn't water resistant like the Bondo wood filler. You also have to wait a lot longer to allow the putty to completely dry before priming.
Caulk the Cabinet Panels
Your pine cabinets might have doors with recessed paneling, or they might be one solid piece, in which case there would be nothing to caulk. But caulking cabinets that do have recessed panels achieves a cleaner and more professional look when the doors are painted.
Don't go the cheap route when buying caulk. High quality caulk is more flexible and lasts longer. The caulk I use for all of my painting projects is the Quick Dry caulk from Sherwin Williams (55 year caulk). The caulk is acrylic latex, paintable, and dries in 30 minutes. I've caulked hundreds of doors with this product and never had a call back.
Priming and Painting Knotty Pine Cabinets
Using the wrong primer (water-based) is a very common mistake people make when priming pine cabinets. Stained and unpainted cabinets always need to be primed with primer that seals the wood, which includes oil-based primer or shellac-based primer, not water-based.
The knots in pine cause very noticeable discoloration in white paint if you don't prime the surface first with the appropriate primer sealer. The discoloration, known as bleed-through, is a yellowy film that appears in the paint. The yellow film is from resin and wood tannin.
Primer for Knotty Pine
Two excellent options for priming knotty pine cabinets are BIN shellac primer, or Cover Stain (oil-based primer). Shellac-based primer is an excellent sealer for knotty pine. It's very thin and floods knot holes easier than oil primer, but I only recommend BIN if you're spraying because the primer sprinkles and splatters like crazy when brushed and rolled. If you brush and roll, you have to be really careful to cover the floors and countertops.
Oil-based primer primer is messy too, but it spatters less than BIN for brushing and rolling purposes. Both types of primer form a strong surface bond and hard finish that won't chip easily when painted. There are several options on the market, but those are the two products I have a lot of experience with.
Best Paint for Knotty Pine Cabinets
The paint you choose is really important for durability. High quality enamel is worth the extra cost because it's going to level out better during application and the finish will be more durable than a cheap latex trim paint.
I've always used Sherwin Williams paint for cabinets. I used ProClassic enamel a lot in the past, which is a good product, but now I use Emerald urethane enamel exclusively. Competing brands have excellent paints for this purpose too, so it really depends on what's available in your area.
You definitely don't want to use cheap paint on your cabinets, or you'll sacrifice coverage and durability. Using cheap paint can add another day or two onto your project when you end up having to apply an extra coat to get the paint to cover.
Spray Instead of Brushing and Rolling
I use to brush and roll all of my cabinet projects, mostly because I was worried about over-spray, but now I carefully mask the work space and spray everything. I definitely recommend spraying your kitchen cabinets instead of brushing and rolling them. Spraying gives you a superior finish in half the time it takes doing everything by hand.
You can use an airless sprayer, or an HVLP sprayer, but with an airless setup, you won't have to thin your paint. I won't get into the pros and cons of the two sprayer types in this article, but I use a Graco airless sprayer for my projects. I really like the Graco fine finishing spray tips for spraying cabinets. I use those exclusively for that purpose.
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.
© 2019 Matt G.
Lauren Hillin on February 13, 2020:
The pic you provided of the kitchen cabinets you're painting looks pretty identical to my situation. We have done ok so far. We had a minor set back when we didn't sand the cabinet doors or the area behind the oven. The oil seeped through on the doors and you could see the old hinge spot (horseshoes