Tips for Painting Oak Cabinets
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.
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.Helpful 27
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.Helpful 23
In another post, you recommend Drydex spackling for oak cabinets. Do you recommend wood filler then oil primer or spackling then oil primer?
I've used DryDex spackling to fill the grain in oak cabinets without any problems, but I actually recommend using Aqua Coat grain filler instead because it dries hard inside the grain for durability. I've done it both ways, but now I prime first, fill with Aqua Coat and sand, then prime the second coat to seal in the filler. I find it easier to prime first because the primer alone fills some of the shallow grain cracks and exposes only the deeper cracks that need filler. This is easier than skim coating and sanding the entire surface of the cabinets. Using filler over the white primer does make it harder to see where the filler is for sanding purposes, but what I do is stick a piece of tape next to the areas I fill. You can also look at the doors at an angle and see the filler spots.Helpful 3
I just had prefinished existing cabinets painted and unfinished cabinets painted. Both oak. The prefinished look great, the unfinished look don't look good at all, anywhere the grain is the paint is a different color and appears to have sucked into the wood. The painter assured me he sealed them with primer and sanded before coats and doesn't know what's wrong. How can we fix the issue on my brand new island?
The painter possibly didn't use an oil-based primer-sealer to seal the surface of the unfinished island cabinets. That allowed the tannin in the wood to bleed into the paint and change its color. If a water-based primer was used that would also raise the wood grain too and make it look and feel rough. The island would need to be sanded and primed with an oil-based primer, or white shellac primer. That will seal the surface of the wood and give you a smooth and consistent finish with the paint. The reason it didn't happen with the finished cabinets is because there was already a stain and clear coat finish on them and the sanding didn't go down to the bare wood. The unfinished cabinets are already bare wood and should have been primed correctly.Helpful 5
Can the BIN shellac primer be sprayed since it is flammable?
Yes, of course. Open the windows in the room you're spraying in and the fumes are gone in about twenty minutes. With the windows open, the fumes never have a chance to build up. The fumes and odor are gone quickly.Helpful 2
© 2017 Matt G.