Hard Paint Finish on Plywood Cabinet Interiors

A first-timer gets advice on applying paint to cabinet interiors. December 14, 2009

I'm building plywood boxes and the customer wants the interior color to match the door color. The customer already has the doors on hand, pre-finished, bought used. They are a cream colored door and want the interior to be painted the same color. The customer wants what they describe as painted interior with a rock hard seal coat!? I explained I'm not a painter and they don't want to pay to have them professionally done. Any ideas on how to accomplish this for a first time painter?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor P:
Let them hire a painter that has the skill and knowledge to produce the desired result. That way, any disputes are between the owners and the painter, not with you.

From contributor D:
I would think that if you brushed on some latex paint, tinted to match the doors, then sand and go over the paint with some Minwax polycrylic (water based clear sealer), you will get a smooth and reasonably durable finish.

From the original questioner:
I completely agree, but they're not going to hire anyone else. They fully understand this is a first for me and are willing to go with what I do. It will be a good learning experience for me and the customer is on board. If I don't do it, they said they will just prime and paint themselves, so why not do it myself and get some experience, as well as get paid for it? From what I've researched, I should prime, color match paint with light sanding between 2-3 coats. But what can I brush on as a rock hard sealer?

From contributor P:
Let them do it. You're not a painter. You're going to end up responsible when the finished product and their vision don't mesh, all disclaimers and understandings to the contrary. Whatever you'll make on it won't begin to cover the aggravation and time.

Get your product advice from your paint supplier - product formulations change constantly, and a good supplier will do a much better job of pointing you in the right direction than one of us will. After all, we're not painters.

From contributor E:
Let the customer paint them. Are they assembled? If not, spray all the parts, then assemble them. You do realize brushing them, you most likely will have to go back and clean out shelf peg holes?

When I first started (21 years ago) I did things I should not have taken on. Trying to be a brush painter was one of them. Pass on this and learn to spray cabinets. Do you know a good painter? Sub it out and make a little money.

From contributor R:
Do it. Like you say, gain some experience and money. Use the good head on your shoulders. I think the advice on a paint for color and whiter-white clear coat on top is good advice.

From contributor B:
I would leave the backs off until after finishing. Can you spray them?

From contributor R:
Use Muralo Ultra tinted to the right color and don't worry about a clear coat. It will be more than hard enough.

From contributor G:
Painted plywood is still going to show the wood grain.

From contributor S:
Are you interested in learning how to finish cabinets? If so, it seems like this is a good opportunity to learn. Find a professional finish dealer (ML Campbell, Sherwin Williams) in your area and go talk to them about a "rock hard finish." I think you would do best with a pigmented lacquer and the appropriate primer. They are available as WB if that is needed, and can be tinted to match any color. Finish your plywood unassembled. Prime coat, sand, second prime coat, sand, 2 finish coats. If you feel it needs to be even more durable you could put coats of compatible clear lacquer over the top. Needless to say you will need a spray gun.

If you are not interested in finishing cabinets, and you just want to get theses painted for your clients, use a good quality sandable primer and Muralo or SW's top quality enamel. Sand your primer to hide wood grain. I find a foam roller does a good job for enamel. Allow to cure for as long as you can and then assemble. Do not try to sand latex paint, as it is too soft and will just gum up your sanding disc.

From contributor J:
Contributor S is right on the foam roller and enamel. I just did this for a customer who didn't want to hear the word melamine, and she didn't like the pre-finished maple in her white cabs. I used BM latex enamel underbody primer and oil based Satin Impervo. Cut your parts, prime, and paint. Corners look great this way, and it's just faster. You have to work on your backroll technique with the foam to avoid too many bubbles, but if you get it, it looks almost identical to a sprayed finish, without the overspray. It will be plenty hard enough, good enough for doors and baseboards.

From contributor M:
I have had wonderful success hand applying marine finishes to cabinetry, such as Petit Easypoxy Polyurethane enamels or Epifanes. These are superior hard finishes which flow easily and level off beautifully. Add brushing thinners if needed depending on humidity and other drying factors.

Downsides? Expensive, long drying time - which is a huge factor in a generally dusty cabinet shop environment - and not so many color choices.

But these are really the best hand applied finishes for look and durability that I have ever used. I prefer to paint my panels before sizing into cabinet parts and then assembling the pre-finished parts, but that isn't always practical and these finishes do lend themselves to painting into corners of assembled boxes with foam or good bristle brushes.

Prep work is everything, and you will find that the finishing is as labor intensive as the actual cabinet making. Clients don't always appreciate that perspective.

From contributor U:

You want rock hard finish? We one time finished wood cabinets with an automotive PPG finish. The cabinets are 10 years old and look perfect. But what a process...

First clear ChemCraft sandable sealer
Epoxy PPG primer (white)
White (matched to Ben Moore) basecoat
Clear urethane topcoat, flattened to a satin

It came out great, but what a nightmare in time and material costs. Just spray a sealer and pre-cat lacquer if you have spray equipment. Most of the time we spray the cabinet parts before assembly, which cuts down on overspray and material loss.

From contributor K:
Why not spray with pigmented (white) lacquer, tinted to match? Lacquer is pretty foolproof to spray, compared to just about anything else. Pretty much rock hard too. If you don't spray, brush and roll a good oil base primer and top with an alkyd enamel (oil base). This is rock hard stuff. I'd stay away from waterbase acrylic or vinyl... For the homeowner, that stuff is hard to clean.