Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Using Shellac-Based Primer On Cabinets
White pigmented, shellac-based primer is great for use on kitchen cabinets as a stain blocker and base coat for paint. The primer prevents wood tannin and annoying stains from bleeding into top coats, and the primer forms a solid bond with paint too.
Shellac Primer vs Oil Primer
Shellac-based primer dries hard, similar to oil primer, but without the extended dry time associated with oil-based coatings. The dry time of pigmented shellac primer, depending on the coating thickness, is typically 45 minutes, with a re-coat time of roughly 1 hour, which is short compared to oil. Opening windows dries the primer fast.
The faster dry time allows me to spray two coats of primer on cabinets, followed by the first coat of paint, all in the same day. With the longer drying time of oil primer, you probably wouldn't even be able to spray the second coat of primer on the same day.
Like oil-based primer, this primer smells horrible too, but the smell doesn't linger all day long like oil does. Shellac primer contains alcohol, which evaporates as the coating dries. With a couple windows open, the smell is gone in a couple hours.
The Best Shellac-Based Primer for Cabinets
The most widely used shellac primer that you've probably heard of is Zinsser BIN. It's sold in most major home improvement stores. Depending on sale prices at the time of purchase, I'll use either BIN or the white shellac primer from Sherwin Williams, which is the same exact product as BIN.
Both products have the same time specifications for dry time and re-coating, and both products perform the same. The primer reaches maximum hardness in seven days.
Having used both brands many times for priming cabinets and interior wood work, either one is fine, but check sale prices, because regular pricing is around $46 per gallon without a sale, as of this writing. Oil-based primer is usually under $30 per gallon.
Spraying Shellac-Based Primer
Spraying the primer saves an enormous amount of time and produces a better finish than rolling. Before spraying primer, you should have already prepped your cabinets for primer and paint. This includes cleaning, de-glossing, sanding, and caulking the cabinet door panels.
If you're spray painting oak cabinets, there's one extra step of grain filling involved, but one benefit of using this primer is that its very thin consistency fills wood grain a lot better than oil primer does, even without filler.
Control Over-spray and Dust
When I spray cabinet doors, I remove the doors and hardware. I spray the doors in a homemade spray booth, using the Zipwall dust barrier system to control over-spray. These work great indoors.
This primer produces a very fine dust that makes a huge mess if you don't contain it. I recommend spraying cabinet doors outside if possible, or in an empty garage if the weather permits. When spraying outdoors, spray the doors inside a spray shelter before carrying them over to an enclosed drying rack. These are cheap and prevent over-spray from blowing onto the neighbors house, or car.
Airless Sprayer vs HVLP
You can spray shellac-based primer through either sprayer, but when you're spraying over twenty cabinet doors, an airless sprayer is the best option for speed. With an airless sprayer, you can siphon the primer directly out of a 5-gallon bucket or the can, but with an HVLP, you are limited to a small cup that needs refilling for extended use.
In terms of the finish, this primer levels over the surface really nice as it's sprayed on, regardless of the sprayer being used. It levels a lot better than oil primer does, producing a nicer looking base coat. This enhances the look of your painted finish at the end. I spray and store cabinet doors horizontally. You have to be careful not to spray heavy on the door edges, or the primer will drip.
Using an HVLP sprayer to spray the primer onto the wall cabinets produces much less over-spray than an airless. You still need to mask everything in the kitchen very carefully before spraying, regardless of the sprayer being used.
Best Spray Tip Size for Shellac Primer
When spraying cabinets, you don't want to be using an oversized tip, otherwise you're going to waste primer and produce excessive over-spray. With my Graco 495 airless sprayer, I use a 210 tip, which produces a 4-inch spray fan. I use this size for the cabinet doors and the wall boxes. The size 310 is fine too.
I definitely recommend the Graco FFLP (fine finish, low pressure) spray tips for spraying primer onto cabinets. These produce a softer finish with a little less over-spray than the regular RAC 5 tips by Graco. If you're using a different sprayer brand, see if they offer a fine finish spray tip.
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Spraying and Storing Primed Doors
The way I prime doors is I spray and store them horizontally, using the Door Rack Painter system. I highly recommend this drying rack if you want to paint your cabinets fast. Without this system, you would have to wait for the wet side to fully before flipping the doors over to prime the other side, which takes forever. With this rack, you can spray both sides at once instead of waiting. The rack system I bought paid for itself the first cabinet project I used it on.
I always spray two coats of white pigmented, shellac primer, on cabinet doors, lightly scuff sanding in between coats. The primer is dry enough for sanding in usually under one hour. This primer blocks everything except marker stains. I keep a spray can of oil primer handy to spot prime if necessary.
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
Question: Should I clean up my sprayer when I get done with applying primer?
Answer: Yes, you need to clean your sprayer thoroughly after spraying primer. If you're spraying shellac-based primer you can clean the sprayer with ammonia or denatured alcohol. Ammonia is a lot cheaper and safer to use. Use mineral spirits to remove oil-based primer from the sprayer. You also need to clean the filter and spray tip.
Question: For thinning down with HLVP, do you use alcohol or ammonia?
Answer: With an HVLP sprayer, you shouldn't have to thin shellac-based primer at all. It's already as thin as milk and should spray without any problem.
Question: What grit sandpaper do you use between primer coats and for prep?
Answer: Clean the cabinets, sand with 220-grit, and prime two coats, sanding in between coats with 220-grit. If you sand in between coats of paint, use 320-grit.
Question: What do you use to clean and de gloss your cabinets before priming?
Answer: I use Simple Green Surface Prep cleaner. It cleans pretty well with a coarse scrub pad. I sand to remove the gloss.
Question: I am only painting my cabinet fronts as I am ordering new doors. I was thinking about doing it with the bin primer in a spray can or the Sherwin Williams shellac primer in a spray can. I was wondering if I can get a good spray finish from the can? And if you prefer one primer in the can over the other? Or if I should spray it with my sprayer? My thought was I really don’t have a lot to prime so I was thinking of spray cans.
Answer: I would use your sprayer. You'll get a better finish. The spray cans kind of splatter and produces a rough finish. It won't look as smooth as if you were to use a sprayer.
Question: How long do you wait after your last coat of primer to cure before applying your cabinet paint?
Answer: I spray the first coat of paint the next day. The re-coat time for shellac primer is 45 minutes, but priming doors usually consumes an entire day, and letting the primer cure more overnight is good too because build-up in grooves and corners can remain wet beyond the re-coat time.
Question: Does spraying bin require any thinning and will it clean with water alone from sprayer?
Answer: No, BIN does not require any thinning. The primer is already very thin, similar to the consistency of milk. You need to use ammonia, or denatured alcohol to clean your sprayer and completely remove the primer. Ammonia is cheaper. Don't let the primer sit inside your sprayer for more than a couple hours either. I use a mix of warm water with ammonia and it cleans out the primer really well from my sprayer. You need to carefully clean all of the filters too if you're using an airless sprayer. I soak them in ammonia water overnight and they're clean in the morning.
Question: I have a Grace Ultra Max airless handheld sprayer. I have tried using a 310 and a 312 but I constantly have to clean the tip due to clogging and array streams. This onlyOccurs while using the BIN shellac primer. Any advice?
Answer: Mix ammonia with a little water and try cycling that through the sprayer to clear any clogs inside. BIN gets chunky when it starts to dry, or when it comes into contact with straight water. If you cleaned the sprayer with only water and no ammonia that would cause the primer to solidify and form chunks inside that would definitely cause clogs. On my sprayers, which aren't handheld, you can take apart the gun and clean the parts, but I've never used those handheld sprayers, so I'm not sure if you can take them apart or not. There's probably an obstruction from the primer stuck inside that's restricting flow. Check your filter too if your sprayer has one. Those need to be checked and cleaned. You might want to also strain the primer before pouring it into the holding cup. BIN is a little gritty out of the can sometimes.
Question: I’ve never sprayed paint before. How much primer and paint is needed to paint cabinets? Do you calculate by sq ft or by count of cabinets, doors and drawers?
Answer: It depends obviously on the number of doors and how many coats of primer and paints you're spraying. If your cabinet frames have crown molding and lots of paneling, that will consume more primer and paint. Most of the cabinet jobs I do are similar in size, so I just know how much material it's going to take. I spray two coats each of primer and paint on everything. With that in mind, a kitchen with 30 to 40 cabinet doors usually takes 4 to 5 gallons of paint for the doors alone and another 2 to 3 gallons of paint for the frames. Factor in roughly the same amount of primer. Spraying consumes more material than brushing and rolling. You can return unopened primer if it's untinted. With the paint, when I'm unsure of exact amounts I'll need, sometimes what I'll do is have the store leave a gallon or two untinted so I can return them if needed, or I'll use them for my next project.
Question: Have you ever sprayed a Hi Bild tinted lacquer over the BIN? I have done some cabinet refinishing and occasionally have trouble with fisheye after thoroughly cleaning and sanding. I have been reading that the BIN shellac would provide a good seal coat to help prevent the fisheye problem.
Answer: No, I've never sprayed lacquer over BIN, only paint. The BIN primer will probably help with the fisheye, but it's best to find the cause of the fisheye. The cleaning solution you're using might need to be rinsed off more, or use a different one.
Question: When painting cabinets do you have to paint the inside or just paint the frame?
Answer: No, you don't have to paint the inside of the cabinets, but I do if the inside is visible through doors with glass. As far as durability, it doesn't matter if the outside part of the frames is painted and the inside is not.
Question: Can shellac be used under and over water base and oil base paint?
Answer: Yes, white shellac primer can be used underneath latex and oil-based paint.
© 2019 Matt G.
Matt G. (author) from United States on August 16, 2020:
You didn't mention the type of primer you used, but latex will raise the wood grain and give it a rough finish. If you primed with BIN, or oil primer, which is good, the rough texture is probably from sanding dust on the surface, or you sprayed too light and the overspray itself misted onto the surface creating the texture. Bookshelves are tricky to spray. The dust has to be completely removed from the corners and you have to spray a nice solid coating. I would sand the shelves with a 220-grit sanding sponge and carefully clean the dust with a tack cloth and shop vac. Then spray a nice even coating of primer. If you used latex primer then sand and prime with the appropriate primer (oil, or BIN). Your paint finish will be super smooth with the right prep and spray technique with the primer and paint, but if there's rough spots in the paint, sand them out with a 320-grit sponge and spray again.
Emily on August 15, 2020:
Hi Matt, I used a hand held sprayer to apply the primer to some bookshelves. When it dried it is very rough. Should I sand it down and apply again? I’m not sure painting on top of it would leave a smooth finish. Any thoughts?
Matt G. (author) from United States on July 01, 2020:
You could do that, but the primer is really meant to be top coated with paint. I'm sure it would be fine to just clear coat it instead, but I've never done that myself.
Dave on July 01, 2020:
Hi Matt I used shallac primer on a mahogany Vanity it covered nicely is it possible to distress it and use a water base clear as a finish coat thanks Dave
Matt G. (author) from United States on June 19, 2020:
I use two separate sprayers for primer and paint. If you're only spraying primer and paint through the same sprayer a couples times, it's fine as long as you clean the pump and spray line really good, but for repeated spraying, using two separate sprayers is best because residue builds up inside the pump and spray line over time, even after a good cleaning, and this can cause cross contamination issues with your finishes. This is because cleaning with ammonia breaks down the paint and primer particles inside the line that can end up causing issues next time you spray. Don't reuse the flushed out ammonia water. It's dirty and you definitely don't want to cycle that back into your pump and line. Dump it out and use fresh ammonia for the next cleaning. You can buy cheap bottles of ammonia for a couple bucks each. It's cheaper than de-natured alcohol.
Trevor B on June 18, 2020:
Do you use the same spray equipment after spraying BIN Shallac Primer, and then spay lets say a Latex paint? Have you had issues ?
Also once you flush system with 50:50 ammonia and water, what do you do with that biproduct ? Is is reusable ?
Matt G. (author) from United States on August 08, 2019:
I'm not familiar with Wagner spray equipment or what coatings can be sprayed with them. I use a Graco airless sprayer to spray BIN.
AH5 on August 07, 2019:
Could I use a Wagner flexio 590 to spray this shellac primer? From all of my research, I want to say yes. But I thought the instructions that came In the box said not to use them together??