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. 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 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.
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. Update 9/8/18 - 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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Do you need to sand between coats of coverstain primer or just after the second one? How long should I keep my kids out of the house after priming?
You should sand between coats and tack cloth the dust. This will give you a smooth finish. The paint will also stick better to the sanded primer. Cover Stain sands really easy into a fine powder once it's totally dry. The odor from oil-based primer lingers for seveal hours. It's hard to say how long, but opening windows and using a fan helps dry the primer a lot faster. That's one reason I use BIN shellac primer instead of Cover Stain. The primer dries in 45 minutes and the smell is gone in less than 2 hours with a window open. Oil primer dries slow and wreaks all day.Helpful 4
Could I use an oil-based paint to paint cabinets?
Yes, you can, but the main disadvantage of oil-based paint is that it tends to yellow over time. This doesn't look good on cabinets painted white. The best alternative is to use either a quality acrylic paint on cabinets or one formulated with urethane to get the durability of oil paint without the yellowing problem.Helpful 6
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 13
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.Helpful 9
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?Helpful 1
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