Options for Painting Cabinets

You can update a room's look by changing the tone of the cupboards; choose a finish based on more than color, though.

Posted by Anne Burkley | Mar 02, 2010
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A quick and easy (and cheap) way to spruce up your home is by painting cabinets. Wood cabinets -- whether they are high-profile kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities or seen-better-days cabinets and shelves in a mudroom -- are easy to paint. Staining isn't as easy, but you can do a small vanity or wet bar in a matter of days.

Before you go to a hardware or paint store, read the following primer (pun intended) so you’ll be equipped to base your choice on more than just color. Find the facts on subjects like: What kind of paint and stain should you use? Latex, oil, sheen, pigment stain, oil- or water-based stain ... all the choices for painting cabinets can be overwhelming. And what's the deal with VOCs? 

Types of Paint

  • Latex Paint: An acrylic or water-based paint (water is the solvent). A good choice for painting cabinets, because it's easy-to-use, low-fume and water-soluble. 
  • Oil Paint: Oil-based paint is also known as alkyd paint. It dries slowly, which means waiting longer between coats. But that slow drying time helps oil paint to level out, ridding the surface of brush strokes or roller stipples. Oils harden to an enamel finish. 
  • Low-VOC Paint: Paint solvents contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which create fumes that are a health hazard. Standard latex paint will give off these compounds for three years! Almost all paint companies have low- or no-VOC options. A handful of oil-based paints are also low-VOC. 
  • Glaze: If you really want to make your paint pop and add some drama to the architectural details of your cabinets, glaze will do it. It is a translucent liquid that you apply over paint to bring out a deeper hue and add shine. 

Types of Stain

  • Pigmented Stain: This offers dramatic color but can hide details of the wood's grain. 
  • Dye Stain: Dye creates a more transparent effect where the grain shows through. 
  • Oil or Water-Based Liquid Stain: Like paint, stain is either oil- or water-based. Water-based stain cleans up with soapy water and is available in many colors. Oil-based stains require longer dry times (which can be an advantage, since they are painted and rubbed on and wiped off) and give off more fumes. 
  • Gel Stain: Gel stain is thicker than liquid (think mayonnaise). It is easy to use because it stays where you put it. Gel stain is forgiving, so it's ideal for do-it-yourselfers. 
  • Toners: If you’ve ever tried staining a piece of wood, you know how hard it can be to achieve a finish that is uniform. So just how is it that all those kitchen cabinets in the showroom look perfectly uniform? The manufacturer used a toner, which is a clear, tinted finish -- usually lacquer or shellac. The tint evens out the variations in the wood. 

What to Use, Where

The kitchen and bathrooms are high-traffic and high profile areas. Select a paint that is durable, resistant to stain and easy to clean. In years past, this meant an oil (or alkyd) paint, which dries to hard enamel finish. Today's premium latex paints also offer enamel finishes.

Areas such as a mudroom or laundry room, while not exactly in the spotlight like the kitchen and bath, also require a paint that will stand up to high use and moisture. A quality enamel-finish latex or oil-based paint will work. In either case, look for paint with mildewcides.

For applications in the office, bedroom or living room, a latex semi-gloss paint should work well. In fact, as far as sheen goes, semi- and high-gloss are typical for most cabinets.

If you are planning to stain your cabinets, the key to durability, scrub-ability and shine is not the stain, which doesn't protect the wood: It is the topcoat. Apply several water-based topcoats, sanding between each one.

Painting your cabinets is an inexpensive way to update your home; just be sure that color isn't the only consideration you take into account when selecting paint or stain for your project. For a professional cabinet paint job, hire an experienced painting contractor.

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