Re-Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Finishers discuss the options for painting cabinets in a home, while the owners are living there. August 24, 2008

I have re-painted many sets of kitchen cabinets through the years and I always do it the way my father did: TSP wash, sand, prime with alkyd primer, sand, and topcoat with alkyd enamel. These days, that just doesn't seem to quite get it. I know that there are better systems out there available. This new builder wants to be set apart from his competition by virtue of a "really special finish" that will grab potential customers and convince them to pay more for him than for others. I am starting a set of red oak cabinets that are about 15 years old that were finished with NC. The homeowners now want them painted. Nice home, nice cabinets. I warned them the grain profile would show through but was told to press on.

What do you all suggest for a really top notch finish system? I am considering prime with 123 and two coats of WB industrial enamel. I am also considering instead to prime with pigmented shellac, lacquer under-coater, pigmented lacquer, and topcoat with satin pre-cat lacquer. The owners will occupy the house during renovation but can get out when spraying is on. I will use an airless with fine finish tips and HVLP cup on face frames. Any help would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
In some circles an oil enamel finish is considered top of the line. A good oil based enamel is rated right in there with the best for toughness and durability. How else could you use it on floors, or even your tractor?

From the original questioner:
I agree, it has served well for a long time. I am just wondering if there is some way to raise the bar a little. I was hoping someone out there has something I don't know about.

From contributor R:
What would you like to know? How about posting some of the questions you might like answers to. You already know that red oak has some deep grain and it will look kind of goofy with a painted finish.

As long as your customer is aware of that, you have covered your initial base. The rest of the bases depend on how good a prepper and painter you are. If I was to undertake the job and given the parameters you have mentioned I would lose the water based stuff.

I would apply a few coats of oil based primer - one coat right after another after another. Give it proper dry and cure time, grind it down with 240 paper attached to a half sheet and/or quarter sheet sander, tack it off real well and apply a couple thinned coats of Benjamin Moore Iron Clad Satin Oil Based Enamel.

Also if you scrub down an existing finish with TSP, use a medium course Scotchbrite pad that you dip into the TSP solution. The Scotchbrite eliminates you having to sand it.

From contributor A:
The only purpose that oil primer has on this planet is priming exterior tannin bleeding woods like redwood and cedar. Bullseye 123 is a good all around product but hardly ideal for cabinetry. You primer should be BIN white shellac primer.

It has the wonderful property that "it sticks to everything and everything sticks to it". There are surface contaminates that bother oil based primers. They are soft, take forever to dry and are usually very thick. A lot of people now believe that the waterborne acrylic paints (SW ProClassic, Muralo Ultra, etc.) have surpassed the oil enamel on all measurable levels with the exception of flow-out (this pro has far too many cons).

From contributor R:
The weakest link in any finish is the first coat. Do you really want Shellac as a first coat for a finish that’s going to be applied in a kitchen environment?

From contributor L:
To contributor R: that’s been my exact experience, and I've done quite a bit of in the field repaints.

From the original questioner:
The question was simply put: does someone know of a better system? I find many disadvantages to the old oil based system. People are living in the house and they have small children. The vapors permeate the house no matter how well you try to isolate it. It takes longer for oil vapors to dissipate than any other. Oil takes forever to dry, relatively speaking, making it harder to achieve a flawless finish. It does not touch up well. Cure time is slow, especially when other work is taking place at the same time. And it does wear badly in really high use kitchens, like say one that has a busy family.

Why don't you put aside the sarcasm and open your mind to the possibility that maybe there are better ways. Chemical companies spend millions each year to improve coating systems. Do you think that cabinet manufacturers are putting alkyd enamel on their pre-finished painted units? Not hardly - it yellows.

From contributor R:
Any type of on-site finishing is going to stink to high heavens. Not only can it be objectionable to the home owners but the neighbors could also get upset. Let’s not leave out the pets either! I suppose all the negatives outweigh the positives for a "kitchen cabinet re-paint".

My suggestion would be to carefully and as quietly as possible gut the existing kitchen, build all new cabinetry and finish it up at the shop. You would have more options as to the kinds and types of finishes you have at your disposal. Instead of your customer having to put up with the smell, they would just be bothered by the noise generated by the installation process.

From contributor N:
My opinion and most others who have ever used it, is Muralo Ultra Water Bourne, a water-based hydrophobic chemistry. The look is top notch, the durability is excellent and touch up is great, almost zero oder, and on site can be completely done with rollers and brushes. It lays out beautifully whether brushed or sprayed.

After cleaning the cabs thoroughly (tsp or soilex) rinse and sand lightly but thoroughly (if anything is flaking sand that back). Prime with their water Universal Primer twice if you really want to fill much of the grain, and fill holes and gaps with their spackle between coats. Gaps between crown molding or face frames don't show up much when in wood tone clear coats but will stick out like a sore thumb when painted. Then two to three Ultra coats with a light 320 between. One coat a day is best but you can get two coats in if you push it and humidity is not high. I usually take the doors and drawers out to spray them but they can be done with a brush and will still lay out.

It has its tricks to learn (is a lot like shellac in as much as you need to keep a wet edge, flow/lay it on quickly and tip it off, then don't go back over it or it will pull the ropey game. Once you master it you will love the stuff, and so will your clients.

If you get done early enough with the on-site portion each day, so that there are a few hours to dry, your clients can even make light dinners in their kitchen at night as long as they don't fry or steam. When complete, you can glaze if they want with Masters Glaze (completely or just the recess, pin stripe the moldings, etc.) and you do not have to top coat with anything else.

I do a lot of 1980's oak this way and some clients like how it looks after only two coats with just a hint of grain instead of filled, so it still looks like real wood. Less masking is required, they don't have to empty their cabinets, and they can still function lightly in their kitchen. It can be done for less cost generally to the client and still be very profitable to you.

From contributor E:
Can Muralo paint be sprayed with a gravity feed? Or does it need an airless? Some people spray latex with a gravity feed but thin it so much for flow out there is hardly any pigment!

From contributor N:
As far as I know it can be sprayed with just about any system as long as you get your nozzles/ needles/aircaps sized correctly. I have actually used the junk hardware store latex guns with this with excellent results.

Do a sample first because this stuff has its learning curve, but it is well worth it to put in the minimal effort. You will think it can't possibly layout, but then it does. It has a very interesting chemistry of being hydrophobic although it is water based.