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Tips for Spray Painting Bookshelves

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

An oak bookshelf I spray painted with my HVLP sprayer.

An oak bookshelf I spray painted with my HVLP sprayer.

The Best Sprayer For Painting Bookshelves

Using a professional sprayer to paint your bookshelves is best if you want that smooth factory-like finish. With a sprayer, you can also paint a lot faster than brushing and rolling coat after coat. Shelving is a little more tricky to spray paint than cabinet doors and trim, and using the right sprayer is critical to getting a professional finish without imperfections.

Airless Sprayer vs HVLP For Shelving

I love airless sprayers. I own three of them, but they're not the best option for fine finish spraying in enclosed spaces like a bookshelf. When the spray gun trigger is released, airless sprayers almost always spit tiny globs of paint due to loss of pressure at the last second.

Anyone who's done enough airless spraying knows that paint spits are a nuisance for fine finishing if you make the mistake of releasing the trigger over the top of the substrate. Depending on what you're spraying, it's easy to control. For example, when spraying a door, you can keep paint spits off the surface simply by releasing the trigger above the door, but this is difficult to do with enclosed shelving.

So what's the best alternative? An HVLP sprayer works great for fine finish painting in tight spaces like a bookshelf. You can pull the trigger and release it in the middle of the shelf without having to worry about ruining the piece with paint splatter from the gun. This type of sprayer also gives you so much more control over the finish. Paint is sprayed at a significantly lower pressure than an airless set-up.

For the shelving featured in this article, I used my new Graco 9.5 HVLP sprayer. While mastering the perfect finish is a little challenging at first, it's well worth investing in a good HVLP sprayer if you're doing fine finish painting for shelving, furniture, spindles, or doors.

The shelving fully prepared for primer and paint. The walls were painted too.

The shelving fully prepared for primer and paint. The walls were painted too.

Preparing Your Bookshelves For Paint

Surface preparation is critical for achieving a successful paint finish free from imperfections and durability problems. Placing heavy books and decor on a painted shelf that wasn't prepared properly can cause the paint to damage easier, or even stick and peel off.

Never neglect cleaning the surface with a pre-paint cleaner before doing anything else. Scrub the shelves with a cleaning pad and rinse with clean water.

My Process for Preparing Bookshelves For Paint

  1. Clean
  2. Sand
  3. Fill and patch
  4. Sand again
  5. Caulk
  6. Mask walls and floors

Use a finishing sander to sand the shelves and inside panels. I really like the Makita orbital sander for sanding flat surfaces and the 3M Softback sanding sponges. Molding and trim around the shelves can be sanded with sandpaper. Don't use sandpaper that's too rough. All you need is 220-grit sandpaper to remove the surface gloss from the existing finish.

Certain types of wood like pine and hickory have random holes and knots that have to be patched. Oak shelving should be totally filled to hide the grain. Skim coat oak shelving with a good grain filler or wood filler, that sands easily. Two to three coats of the white Aqua Coat grain filler works well for oak. I've used it for painting oak cabinets and fireplace mantels. Repair wood damage with filler that dries hard and strong. My favorite filler for repairing wood I'm painting is Bondo Wood Filler and the Bondo Multi-Purpose Putty. Both products work really well. The putty version sands a little easier.

For built-in shelving, the cracks between the shelves and the inside walls should be caulked so dark spaces aren't visible after painting. Don't use low quality caulk. Use high quality caulk that's paintable and more flexible. The caulk must completely dry before painting over it. In the past, I used Sher Max elastomeric caulk from Sherwin Williams with good results, but that product has been discontinued. The premium caulk from the DAP brand works well.

Spraying is messy, even a low-pressure HVLP sprayer. Cover the floors below the shelves with cardboard, or masking paper. I use a leakproof floor protector called X-board for all of my interior spray painting projects. Walls around the shelves have to be covered with masking paper. Do yourself a favor and pick up the 3M hand masker. It's an awesome tool that makes paint prep a lot easier.

My HVLP sprayer I use for shelves and small fine finishing projects.

My HVLP sprayer I use for shelves and small fine finishing projects.

A built-in bookshelf I spray painted white.

A built-in bookshelf I spray painted white.

Spray Painting Bookshelves With an HVLP Sprayer

Using a professional HVLP sprayer is the way to go when spraying in tight spaces like shelving. Airless sprayers spit paint upon trigger release, as I explained in the beginning of the article, and the heavier output of paint makes it easier to get runs. An HVLP sprayer gives you more control over the spray fan and the amount of material being sprayed, so you can bypass paint drips easier.

I own the Graco 9.5 HVLP sprayer and used it for the shelving featured in this article, as well as for mantels and other small fine finishing projects. The sprayer produces a really nice finish when set up right. You can work the paint into the inside corners of the shelves without having to worry as much about paint runs.

Priming and Painting Shelving

Your choice of primer is critical to the success of this project. Unless the shelving is already painted and you're only changing the color, use either an oil-based primer, or shellac-based primer. When spray painting shelves and other unpainted surfaces, I use BIN shellac primer. I find that it sprays really nice and levels out better than oil primer does. You don't have to thin BIN primer for your HVLP sprayer. You will likely have to thin oil-based primer. If you decide to go with oil primer, my favorite is Cover Stain, also a Zinsser product.

My process for spraying primer and paint:

  1. Spray first coat of primer
  2. Sand and remove dust
  3. Spray second coat of primer
  4. Sand and remove dust
  5. Spray first coat of enamel
  6. Lightly sand
  7. Spray final coat of enamel

Starting at the top of the shelving and working your way down, spray a solid coat of BIN primer, or whatever primer you choose. If the surface is already painted, a water-based primer is fine, but use a bonding primer. BIN primer is dry enough for a re-coat in about forty-five minutes to one hour.

Sand between coats of primer with 220-grit sandpaper and remove the dust with a vacuum, or forced air. Dust removal is crucial. Powder from over-spray and sanding dust gets trapped in the corners and leaves rough spots in the finish if you spray over it. Spray a second coat and sand it when dry.

The Best Paint For Bookshelves

Don't use wall paint on the shelving. The paint won't be durable enough to resist scratch and scuff marks. Water-based enamel, or water-based alkyd enamel, are two of the better options to go with for shelves.

For the shelf painting project I did, I sprayed Pro Industrial water-based alkyd urethane enamel. This is the contractor version of Emerald urethane, which I have also used a lot in the past. The Pro Industrial urethane enamel is thick in viscosity and must be thinned in order to spray it through an HVLP sprayer.

I've used Sherwin Williams paint most of my painting career, but there are many excellent products on the market. The water-based alkyd products are more durable and washable than regular water-based enamel. Make sure the product you choose has a reasonable re-coat time.

Once you've thinned your enamel and adjusted your spray fan, spray the first coat of enamel. The enamel I used can't be re-coated for four hours. Spray a second coat to enhance gloss and durability. If you sand between coats of enamel, use 320-grit sandpaper and lightly sand to avoid scratching the paint. Let the paint cure for at least a week before placing books and any heavy objects on the fresh paint. For dark colors, which take longer to cure, I wouldn't place anything on top of the paint for a couple weeks.

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.

© 2020 Matt G.