Tips for Painting Oak Cabinets

Updated on February 26, 2018
Matt G. profile image

Matt is a professional painter sharing house-painting tips, related product reviews, and his experience in the trade.

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. Brushed nickel knobs, or bronze, look amazing on white cabinets.

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. For versatility, you can't go wrong with white.

Remove the Cabinet Doors

Removing cabinet doors when painting them 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.

Clean the Cabinet Doors and Wall Boxes

Primer and paint doesn'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, however, the oak should still be sanded thoroughly after the cleaning is done.

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 sand paper 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.

Fill the Oak Grain with 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 out 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.

Prime Oak Cabinets with Oil Primer

Using shellac oil primer, or straight shellac, is essential when preparing oak cabinets for paint. Latex primer is a bad choice for priming cabinets because it won't prevent wood tannin from bleeding through the 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 Zinsser BIN, or Cover Stain, seal wood, preventing tannin bleed.

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 use a flock foam roller from Sherwin Williams. The flock foam roller leaves a very fine texture on cabinet doors that resembles a sprayed look.

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.

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

My favorite paint for cabinets is Pro Classic acrylic semi-goss from Sherwin Williams. It is an excellent product that is very durable. The paint levels out when sprayed, or rolled, for an ultra smooth finish. Pro Classic dries fast so you can apply the second coat the same day.

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

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    • profile image

      kabentley 

      5 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. 

      5 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 

      5 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. 

      5 months ago

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

    • profile image

      Mary 

      5 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. 

      5 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 

      6 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. 

      6 months ago

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

    • profile image

      ncharette 

      6 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. 

      6 months ago

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

    • profile image

      kabentley 

      6 months ago

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

    • Matt G. profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt G. 

      6 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 

      6 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. 

      6 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 

      6 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. 

      11 months 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 

      11 months 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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