Tips for Painting Oak Cabinets

Updated on April 8, 2019
Matt G. profile image

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

Oak cabinets painted white by Advantage Painting Services.
Oak cabinets painted white by Advantage Painting Services.

Can You Paint Oak?

Painting oak cabinets is a cheap alternative to buying expensive replacements.

Oak is an open grain wood with a porous surface, but the grain can be filled to get a smooth finish when painted. I have painted oak cabinets for clients who actually prefer the grain to show through the paint for a rustic look. Filling the grain still allows some of the natural texture of the wood to show through the paint, but the deep cracks are no longer visible.

Proper surface preparation is critical when painting oak to avoid problems with adhesion and tannin bleed.

Paint Colors for Oak Cabinets

The most popular paint color my clients choose is white. White is timeless and goes with almost any wall and counter color. Bronze or brushed nickel knobs look amazing on white cabinets. For versatility, you can't go wrong with white.

Grey is also popular for cabinets, but may limit your color options for the rest of the kitchen. I painted cabinets for a customer who went with a light grey for all of the cabinets, except the island. The island cabinets were painted with a dark grey for an accent.

How to Paint Oak Cabinets

1. Remove the Cabinet Doors

  • Removing cabinet doors before painting is a must.
  • I use a numbering system when removing the doors to avoid confusion installing them at the end of the job. Count the upper cabinets from left to right first, then the base cabinets in the same manner. After removing each door, remove the hardware from the door too and write the cabinet number in its place. Stick a piece of masking tape over the number.
  • I also tape the hinges together for each door and number them too. I have run into instances where the hinges are different sizes.

2. Clean the Cabinet Doors and Wall Boxes

Primer and paint don't bond well to a greasy surface. Painting over cabinet grease can lead to paint rub-off when cleaning them in the future. Greasy cabinets should be cleaned using a de-greaser or a de-glosser. Tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) can also be used to clean oak cabinets. I use a coarse scrubbing pad for cleaning, and a sanding sponge works well too.

Most of the cabinets I paint are already stained and coated with a glossy, protective finish, so I use a de-glosser to prepare the wood. Klean Strip de-glosser works well, as well as Krud Kutter. Some cleaning agents claim to act as a liquid sander, but the oak should still be sanded thoroughly after the cleaning is done.

3. Sand the Cabinets

Use a random orbit sander to sand the cabinet doors and wall boxes. I use 150 grit sanding discs on my random orbit sander. I don't recommend using sandpaper that's too coarse as it can damage the wood. Using 150 grit works well for cabinet sanding without causing damage.

Sanding should be done before applying primer. Sanding the oak smooth allows the primer and paint to bond well to the surface. Remove sanding dust from the surface with a vacuum and a tack cloth.

4. Fill the Oak Grain With a Grain Filler

Oak is an open-grain wood with cracks and small holes everywhere. These cracks show through the paint unless a filler is used to smooth the surface. Some people like the grain to show, but if you want your cabinets to look as smooth as possible, using a filler is best.

Applying grain filler is easy. I use Sherwood filler from Sherwin Williams to fill the grain in oak cabinets, but there are other products available too. I apply the Sherwood filler with a brush, allow it to set for about ten minutes, and buff it into the wood pores with a soft cloth, wiping in a circular motion.

5. Prime Oak Cabinets With an Oil Primer

  • Using the right primer is really important when preparing oak cabinets for paint. Latex primer is a bad choice for priming cabinets because it's too soft, and it won't prevent wood tannin from bleeding into the top coat of paint, no matter how many coats of paint are applied. Latex primer can also raise the wood grain, forming a rough texture that needs additional sanding. Oil primer like Cover Stain, seal wood, preventing tannin bleed, and dry hard. Another good option outside of oil primer is BIN shellac, also by Zinsser.
  • Wearing a respirator is a must when working with oil primer. The fumes are terrible and can make you sick without ventilation. If possible, apply primer outdoors.
  • The fastest way to apply primer and paint on cabinets is with a sprayer. I use a Graco airless sprayer with a fine finish spray tip for cabinets. If you prime the doors by hand, use a brush and a foam roller. I spray my cabinets, but if I'm rolling I use the flock foam roller from Sherwin Williams. The flock foam roller leaves a very fine texture on cabinet doors similar to a sprayed look, but not as fine.
  • One coat of oil primer on cabinets is usually adequate, but two coats is even better. Oil primer takes longer to dry, but can usually be painted in four to five hours, but I typically allow overnight drying before painting.
  • Before painting, I recommend sanding the primed wood. Sanding the primed wood creates a super smooth finish and a stronger paint bond.

Oak cabinet doors sprayed white by Advantage Painting Services.
Oak cabinet doors sprayed white by Advantage Painting Services.

6. Spray the Cabinet Doors

Use an airless sprayer, or an HVLP sprayer, to paint the cabinet doors. Although spraying takes a little practice, the paint finish looks so much better than using a brush and a roller.

You can usually rent an airless sprayer from your local paint store. Graco and Titan are two airless sprayer brands that are very popular. I personally use a Graco 490. Practice on a piece of cardboard.

You can either spray the cabinet boxes, or paint them by hand. Spraying the boxes looks better, but requires removal of everything inside, as well as masking of the cabinet openings with protective plastic.

Cabinet doors should be sprayed with two coats of semi-gloss paint on both sides. Most people wait for the wet side to dry, before flipping the door over to paint the other side, but the problem with this method is it takes way too long. The best and fastest alternative is to use a curved drying rack that allows you to paint both sides in one day, saving tons of time. That is what I use for all of my cabinet projects.

Another option is to attach hooks into the top of the doors and hang them on a rod for spraying, which allows both sides to be sprayed in one day.

Cabinet Paint Options

For cabinet painting, I have since switched from Pro Classic to Emerald Urethane enamel in the semi-gloss finish. This paint is more durable and dries harder than Pro Classic.

For fans of Benjamin Moore, Impervo is another popular paint for cabinets, although I have no personal experience with it. Advance is another popular Benjamin Moore paint often used for cabinets, but Advance takes a long time to fully cure. When choosing a cabinet paint, it's important to choose a product that's durable and levels when applied.

Questions & Answers

  • I always heard not to mix oil based and water based paints. The BIN is a shellac and the Pro Classic from SW is water based. Does this work?

    Absolutely. You can apply most acrylic latex paints over BIN shellac.

  • What grit sanding disks are you using between apllications of Seal Coat, BIN Primer and Emerald Urethane?

    With oak cabinets, I use 120 grit discs for the first sanding to remove the clear coat. For sanding coats of primer, I'll scuff sand with 3M detailing sanding sponges (220 grit). Those 3M sponges are angled and perfect for sanding into corners of cabinet doors. I stopped using an orbital sander to sand the primer because it tends to remove the primer from the edges of the doors. An orbital sander also leaves swirl marks in the primer, it's too aggressive.

  • Do you apply a clear coat after painting? And if so, which clear coat do you recommend?

    I actually don't apply a clear coat, but you can. However, my local paint store advised against clear coating the paint product I use. Check and make sure the paint you're using can be top coated with polyurethane. I'd use a water-based polyurethane. The paint should have time to cure before top coating.

  • My wife wants to replace the doors before painting the cabinets. Since they will be painted, I was planning on using something like birch for the doors to save money and using a filler on the Oak boxes to get rid of the grain. However, your article indicates that some of the grain will still show through. Would a second coat of filler virtually eliminate the grain or do I just need to suck it up and use oak for the new doors?

    A second coat of filler is better than one, but how much grain shows also depends on your application method too. If you're rolling the primer and paint, the roller itself fills most of the grain, even without any filler, but some deeper grain cracks might remain, and the natural pattern of the oak will be more noticeable without one coat of filler. If you're spraying and not rolling, which is what I do, you can fill most of the grain by spraying the doors horizontally with BIN shellac primer. BIN is very thin and seeps into the grain nicely, filling most of the cracks. One coat of filler, two coats of BIN and two coats of paint is what I do and the doors come out very smooth with no open grain cracks showing. The most difficult cracks to get rid of on oak doors is the end grain on the door edges. You can hide the grain cracks on oak cabinets with filler, primer and paint, but it's very difficult to completely hide the grain pattern. It's important to understand the difference. To completely hide the grain pattern, you would have to apply multiple coats of filler, and even then it won't be one hundred percent gone. The cracks themselves are the most important to hide as they show through the paint, especially white, and look horrible if left open.

  • How do I maintain an oak wood design if I paint the wood white?

    If you're asking how to maintain the natural pattern of the oak you're painting white, you can preserve it by not using a grain filler. This will show more of the natural cracks and imperfections in the wood through the paint.

© 2017 Matt G.

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    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      5 days ago

      Don't use a 212 tip. The larger orifice throws too much material onto the surface. I recommend either a 210, or a 208 tip. I used a 210 for a long time, but I've started using a 208 with better results. Coating thickness with the 208 is easier to control and the smaller orifice helps atomize material better. I use the same tip for BIN primer and the enamel. I use two different airless sprayers now, so I have dedicated pumps for paint and primer.

      BIN would spray well through an HVLP without any thinning, but because it holds less material, you'll have to keep stopping to add more primer if you're spraying cabinet doors. You still have to take everything apart and clean the gun thoroughly.

      BIN sprays really nice through an airless, using the tip sizes I recommended. I like it because I can mix a couple gallons of primer together and work out of one container with my airless.

      There's a few things you must do when spraying BIN through an airless to avoid problems. You need a dedicated sprayer to avoid a cleanup nightmare at the end. This is really important. You absolutely must strain the primer first and keep the top of the can sealed with plastic while spraying.

      For cleanup, run a heavy mix of ammonia/water through the pump and gun it leave it in the sprayer. Clean the filters thoroughly. The filters get chunky during cleanup, it's inevitable, but cleanup is easy by soaking them in ammonia, or denatured alcohol, and use the filter cleaning tool that came with your sprayer. I run 3 to 4 gallons of ammonia water through my sprayer at the end.

    • AndyMort profile image

      Andy Mortensen 

      5 days ago from Maine

      Hi Matt,

      Thanks for all the great info! I have a Graco Magnum X7 sprayer and have a question about the tips you use...

      Do you use size 210/212 for spraying both the Bin primer and Emerald Urethane.

      I was considering purchasing a Central Pneumatic HLVP for spraying the Bin as it seems Bin cleanup might be a challenge in the Graco and I can use it on other projects. Any insight on spraying Bin with a HLVP?

      Thanks a lot

      Andy

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      2 months ago

      The caulking should be done after you sand the filler and before priming. If you caulk before applying the filler the caulk can get damaged. I caulk before priming so the primer seals it, but it's not a big deal if you caulk after the primer. The two coats of paint over the caulk will cover it fine. Make sure you use white paintable caulk. I use the Quick Dry caulk in the green tube from Sherwin Williams.

    • profile image

      AH5 

      2 months ago

      Thank you!

      What about caulking?? Should I caulk before priming? Or am I already too late? Was I supposed to do it before wood filler?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      2 months ago

      Sand off all of the filler so it's only left inside the grain. When you apply the filler, apply it in thin layers like a skim coat so it's easy to sand. The surface should be smooth to the touch after sanding. You can wipe off the sanding dust with a tack cloth.

    • profile image

      AH5 

      2 months ago

      Thank you so much for your reply! One more question about the filler – what should the door feel/look like after sanding The filler? I’m nervous my coats are too thick and I’ll be leaving too much product on the door. My husband is having a hard time wrapping his head around this part of the process ha ha

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      2 months ago

      The steps that you outlined are correct, but make sure you rinse off the Krud Kutter and Klean Strip to prevent fish eye with the primer and paint. I haven't used the Pro Industrial product you're referring to. I use the Emerald urethane with good results.

    • profile image

      AH5 

      2 months ago

      I’d REALLY appreciate if you could verify (reassure and calm my nerves) the method I’ve planned out for my cabinets:

      -Scrub with krud kutter

      -Wipe down with klean strip sander de-glosser

      -apply grain filler

      -sand/ remove dust

      -prime with shellac BIN (I’m too nervous to spray in the house! Ive never masked anything off that intensely before!) So We’re going to do our best rolling

      - sand/remove dust

      -prime

      -spray paint in spray tent

      -lightly sand/remove dust

      -spray paint

      Let cure for ~7 days

      Did I miss anything?!? I’m so nervous to start!

      ** Also, do you have any tips on using Sherwin Williams Pro Industrial waterbased alkyd urethane?? The SW rep told me it was as good/better than the emerald you’re suggesting. (I’m hoping it’s at least good, because it was a pretty penny!)

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 months ago

      Ali,

      You don't have to fill the grain if you want to see the cracks and grain more. Brushing and rolling the cabinets will work the primer into the grain like filler would, but some cracks will remain.

    • profile image

      Ali 

      4 months ago

      Thanks so much!

      One more question, when painting oak, I don’t HAVE to fill the grain with a filler, prior to the BIN, if I don’t want to, correct? If I want to keep the shape of the grain.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 months ago

      Unfortunately, the latex primer should be removed through sanding and stripping. Basically start over. You want to start with a solid foundation and that starts with using the right primer.

    • profile image

      Ali 

      4 months ago

      You’re article is super helpful. Unfortunately I primed my oak cabs with a water-based kilz and it hasn’t covered the bleed through (not shocking, now) There are three coats (!!) of it. Can I apply the BIN Zinsser over this, without having to remove the three coats of primer?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 months ago

      You can, but the cabinets need to be cleaned, sanded and primed first.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 months ago

      I've honestly never used either of the products you mentioned. I primarily do cabinet painting.

    • profile image

      Dwight Brown 

      4 months ago

      We have cabinets that have been sprayed with stain and polyurethane was applied and it looks horrible. Can we pai t over the stain?

    • profile image

      Melissa DeL 

      4 months ago

      Thank you so much for your advice. There are so many options out there. A friend recently used Minwax gel stain instead of painting and another used MW Polyshades & was happy. Going to test paint and these stains. Dark cabinets now and we are going with black. Cabinets are not oak. We need a glossy finish. If you have thoughts on either Minwax option I would appreciate your input. Thanks again for taking the time to respond. It's nice to have advice from someone with solid experience!

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      4 months ago

      Melissa,

      The store employee (salesman) gave you bad advice about the primer. Extreme Bond Primer is a good product, but not for priming stained, unpainted wood cabinets. The primer is latex and it won't seal the wood to prevent tannin from bleeding into your paint. If your cabinets are oak, you're likely to get tannin bleed using latex primer, which looks horrible if you're painting them white. Use oil-based primer (Cover Stain), or shellac primer (BIN) and you won't have any issues. Solvent primer dries harder than latex too. The store was right about using TSP for cleaning, but I like the product Gloss Off by Krud Kutter. Clean the cabinets, sand, caulk, prime and paint, two coats each. If your cabinets are oak, apply grain filler first.

    • profile image

      Melissa DeL 

      4 months ago

      Thanks for your info. About to paint very old grimy kitchen cabinets stained wood. Purchased S/W Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel based on this thread. S/W recommended their Extreme Bond Primer. Also recommended TSP PF to clean them. Was wondering your thoughts on this primer and cleaner/degreaser. They also said after cleaning, lightly sand to rough up wood. Your thoughts are appreciated!

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      13 months ago

      Dean,

      The process for prepping and painting laminate cabinet boxes is similar to oak cabinets, except no grain filler is needed. Laminate should be cleaned, sanded, primed, and painted. A good brush to use is the Purdy XL in either the 2-inch or 2 1/2-inch size. If you don't want to spray, the flock foam roller from Sherwin Williams is good, or a regular foam roller. The foam roller minimizes stippling.

    • profile image

      Dean M. 

      13 months ago

      Thanks for the great directions. What do you do for cleaning,priming, and painting of laminate cabinet boxes? Do you use the same products as for the oak doors? Also, I really don't want to plastic-off my entire kitchen to spray the cabinet boxes - what brush or roller would you recommend? Thanks.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      14 months ago

      Krobey,

      I'd check with your Benjamin Moore dealer. I've never used Advance so I'm not sure if it's compatible with BIN, but it would probably be fine. I always call first and ask when using new products. BIN shellac primer is a good choice. Zinsser Cover Stain is good too for cabinets if you don't end up using BIN.

    • profile image

      krobey 

      14 months ago

      Thanks for your article. I have read many and this helps a lot. Question, I am painting my 18 year old ugly honey colored OAK cabinets with Benjamin Moore Advance paint in white.

      Do you know if Zinsser B-I-N Interior Multi-purpose Shellac Primer is compatible with the BM Advance?

      Thanks.

    • profile image

      kabentley 

      19 months ago

      Thank you Matt for your assistance once again!! I was just confused as many have said use oil base to cover the tannin bleed from oak and would recommend BIN. All this time I thought it was an oil based primer until I went to make the purchase. I just used the BIN and it went on very nicely. Regarding the Aqua Coat - the only place I had any crackling was in the crevices between the inset and the panel. Seems to prevent that I would have to make sure no Aqua Coat piled up in these crevices. The crackling affect is now covered with caulk - so guess I'm good. Appreciate your time and advise!

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      19 months ago

      BIN is a shellac based primer. Cover Stain is oil based primer. Either one is fine for cabinets, but I like BIN because it levels really nice over grain when spraying and dries faster. I haven't had any problems with Aqua Coat cracking. I apply two thin coats with a credit card and sand lightly before priming. I use Quick Dry caulk (green tube) from Sherwin Williams.

    • profile image

      kabentley 

      19 months ago

      I'm back with more questions :) Above you state to use a OIL primer brand Zinsser BIN primer. I purchased Zinsser BIN Ultimate Stain Blocker primer. Home Depot said that was NOT oil based and if I wanted to keep the tannin from coming through I needed Zinsser "Cover Stain" which IS oil based. Confused - you and many others have recommended BIN and have referred to it as oil based? Next problem/question - I have used the Aqua Coat to float the wood grain - it is a very awesome product and has done an amazing job. One problem - in the "crack" where the inset is in the door panel - the Aqua Coat dried clear but crusty and crackled - I used very thin coats but the filler that got up into the crack did not turn out so well. I know I will be caulking next - but this crusty crackle bugs me. Any advise? What type/brand paintable caulk would you recommend for the cabinets?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      Thank you. I'm glad you found it helpful.

    • profile image

      Mary 

      20 months ago

      Appreciate the detailed article. Having the information will be a big help in defining the steps I will expect to be followed by my contractor,

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      I would clean, sand, fill, prime, paint. If you brush them, the Purdy XL Dale in the 2" or 2 1/2" inch size is good.

    • profile image

      Jolene 

      20 months ago

      Thanks for the great info. Best article I've found yet!

      We have oak cabinets that were originally a honey/Orange-ish color with a satin top coat. They were then lightly sanded and a dark stain was put on. However, a clear coat was never applied after the stain. Do you still recommend using a de-glosser and sanding or can we clean, fill and prime. Also, I'm not sure that attempting to use a sprayer might not end in a huge mess for us so wondering if there is any special brush you would recommended for the best finish?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      I use a the green fine finish tips. Size 210 or 212.

    • profile image

      ncharette 

      20 months ago

      Thank you for your your very informative article. With your Graco airless sprayer, what Graco fine finish tip size do you recommend for Zin BIN primer and what tip size do you recommend for the Sherwin Williams paint?

      It appears you maybe using a RAC X SwitchTip. I am looking at looking at purchasing the Graco Pro210ES which uses the RAC IV SwitchTip.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      No problem. I'm glad you found it helpful. Best wishes on your painting project.

    • profile image

      kabentley 

      20 months ago

      Thank you so very much Matt! Deeply appreciate your time and sharing your talent!

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      Fill the grain after sanding, not before, otherwise the sander will break down the filler and open the grain again. Then you would end up having to fill it all over again.

      When sanding, you don't have to sand aggressively down to bare wood, just enough to remove gloss and dull the wood so it isn't smooth anymore.

      Clean, sand, tack cloth the dust, fill grain, caulk, prime, paint. You also need to sand the grain filler very lightly once it dries to smooth out any bumps or ridges from the Aqua Coat. 220-grit sandpaper is fine for this and won't break down the filler with a light sanding.

    • profile image

      Kabentley 

      20 months ago

      I apologize - i do have one more question (watched so many different videos) now I’m confused which is best. Watched your technique on how to apply aqua wood filler but a little confused on the preparation process prior to the wood filler. Have old stained/sealed oak cabinets. Do I 1) apply aqua Wood filler directly onto unsanded stain and sealed cabinets 2) sand, prime then wood filler or 3) sand to raw wood and add wood filler? (Please don’t be option 3). :). I have a very large kitchen with tons of cabinets - prepared to put in a bazillion hours.

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      20 months ago

      You can use a rag to work the filler into the grain on rounded corners. For the grain filler itself, I recommend Aqua Coat over Sherwood. Since writing the article, I switched and it works better for me. I haven't applied poly over ProClassic acrylic. My local SW store actually advised against it when I inquired about that once. The paint finish alone is durable when prepped correctly.

    • profile image

      kabentley 

      20 months ago

      Thank you for the article! Question regarding filling the grain on oak cabinets - if you have fluted corners on all cabinets and decorative insets in the door panels - how do you use a filler to smooth out the grain in those type areas - too narrow or decorative to smooth grain with plastic spreader? Also, using the SW Pro Classic waterbase acrylic - do you finish with any polyurethane on kitchen cabinets?

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      2 years ago

      Sherwood grain filler from Sherwin Williams works well. Apply the filler against the grain, using a rag or a plastic body filler spreader. After the filler dries, buff the surface to remove the leftover residue.

    • profile image

      Mimiberry 

      2 years ago

      Thank you so much for this detailed article. I'm about to paint our honey oak kitchen cabinets SW Alabaster, and I don't want the grain to show. Do you suggest a wood grain filler or other product or technique? Thanks in advance for your help.

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