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What's the Best Wood for Painted Cabinets? My Top Picks

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

Maple cabinets I spray painted white.

Maple cabinets I spray painted white.

What's the Best Cabinet Wood for Painting?

Cabinet painting remains a very popular trend among homeowners who want to rid their kitchen of the dark stained wood look and replace it with a modern white, or gray, paint color. This never-ending design trend is so popular that I often paint cabinets white for my customers more than I paint walls. If you don't want to spend thousands of dollars on brand new cabinetry, painting what you already have is very cost-efficient and a somewhat easy DIY project.

You might be wondering whether or not you should even paint your cabinets. Before you do, it's important to know the type of wood your cabinets are made out of and how the species looks when painted. Wood can be grainy and porous, or smooth and flat, and these characteristics play a role in how the finish turns out because wood texture is more visible when painted.

In this article, I cover a few different wood species I've worked with and how each one looks when painted white.

Maple looks really smooth when painted white.

Maple looks really smooth when painted white.

1. Maple (Soft and Hard)

Maple, both soft and hard, is the best wood for painted cabinet doors and frames and my personal favorite to work with. Maple is a hardwood with a very smooth profile and no grain other than a few random pin knots here and there. The super smooth and grain-free profile makes maple an awesome candidate for paint and solid lacquer colors. It's also one of the easier types of wood to prep for paint. Since there is no open grain, you bypass having to do filling and additional sanding.

The most common type of maple used in cabinetry is hard maple. It is usually a lighter blonde color and heavier and more durable than soft maple, which is typically a little darker in color. This wood contains very little wood tannin compared to cherry and oak, but before you paint, the surface should always be cleaned, sanded and primed first.

Maple accepts primer and paint really well, and the lighter color of the wood means you can finish the job with fewer coats. Every time I spray paint maple cabinets, the finish is always buttery smooth and almost identical to white cabinets for sale in a showroom. If your cabinets are maple, I highly recommend spray painting the doors and frames to get a super smooth finish. Your cabinets will look brand new.

In terms of durability, painted maple doesn't dent or crack easily, which is why it's used a lot for cabinetry, furniture and floors, including bowling lanes. I have maple cabinets in my own kitchen and they show no signs of wear.

Cherry cabinets I spray painted.

Cherry cabinets I spray painted.

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2. Cherry

Like maple, cherry is also a durable hardwood species with a closed grain that looks really smooth when painted, but not quite as smooth as maple due to the tiny knots and pits that appear in the wood. These knots are easy to remove with wood filler so they don't show through paint. Some of the cherry cabinets I paint are slightly grainy and textured, but nowhere near as grainy as oak.

Cherry does dent and scratch easier than maple and oak, even when painted, but paint does reduce this. In my experience, base cabinet doors made of cherry almost always have multiple small dents and nicks in them that need patching. It is also important to know that cherry is loaded with a pinkish tannic acid, a type of wood tannin, which means you must use a solvent-based primer to keep the tannin from bleeding into your paint.

For the reasons I explained, painting cherry cabinets does involve more patching and surface preparation, but your cabinets will look stunning when done right. The best way to prep them is to clean first and patch the small knots between the first and second coat of primer because these knots are easier to see after the surface is primed white.

I recommend spray painting cherry too because the darker color of the wood means you'll have to apply more coats if you're using only a brush and roller. Spraying gives you more control over coating thickness. Your paint job will also look a lot smoother.

Oak cabinets I spray painted.

Oak cabinets I spray painted.

This is what happens when you spray paint oak without filling the grain first.

This is what happens when you spray paint oak without filling the grain first.

3. Oak

Some might argue that oak cabinets are the worst to paint, but having painted them multiple times, as well as oak paneling and staircase spindles, I know first hand you can make this grainy wood look amazing with some effort. Although oak cabinets are outdated and get a lot of hate, solid oak is very hard and durable due to its high density. Oak also doesn't dent as easily as softer woods like cherry and pine.

The biggest challenge when it comes to painting oak cabinets is the open grain that paint alone won't fill. The surface of oak is extremely porous and grainy, and the only way to achieve a smoother profile is to fill the grain with a specialized grain filler like Aqua Coat, or a wood filler.

The graininess is definitely something to know about if you're trying to decide whether or not to paint your oak cabinets. Filling the grain in oak cabinets is very tedious work, but the filler combined with primer and paint goes a long way to smooth out the doors so they look less like oak. It is also important to know that filling the surface won't make your oak cabinets look super smooth like maple because its natural texture and pattern is almost impossible to erase.

Similar to cherry, oak is notorious for tannin bleed when it's unknowingly painted over with water-based primer and paint. Sealing the surface first with solvent-based primer eliminates this problem. Although oak cabinets have a reputation for being cheap and undesirable, the wood is very durable and looks really nice when prepared and painted correctly.

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.

© 2022 Matt G.

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