Tips + Tricks for Painting Oak Cabinets

My most popular post, by far, has been “How to Paint Your Cabinets Like a Professional.”   As a result, I have gotten a lot of questions, specifically, about how to paint oak cabinets.  I have tackled a great deal of oak cabinet client projects, so I thought I would share some tips and tricks for painting oak cabinets that I have learned along the way, if you’re looking to give yours a refresh.  If you’re interested in ONLINE VIDEO TRAINING, with me coaching you through the process, click here for more information.  If you’d like a one-on-one consultation before tackling this project, click here for details.

How to paint oak cabinets
 

I know there are a lot of you out there who are unhappy with your oak cabinets, whether they’re semi-new and builder grade, or from an era long gone.  You don’t want to spend the money on new cabinets because 1) that’s expensive and 2) there’s nothing wrong with your cabinets, they’re just not your style.

Am I close?  Let’s get things started by getting pumped at how you don’t have to gut and remodel your entire kitchen in order to get a new look.  Below are some of my favorite client kitchens that I’ve done.  And these are all oak kitchens!  Have hope!  I’m looking to answer some of the common questions that come about when painting oak cabinets:

  • How do I prep oak cabinets?
  • Do I have to sand oak cabinets before painting them?
  • What kind of paint do you use to paint oak cabinets?  What sheen should I use?
  • How do you minimize the grain when painting oak cabinets?
  • What color should I paint my oak cabinets?
  • Should I spray or brush and roll my cabinets?

Don’t worry!  I have you covered!

How to paint kitchen cabinets

How to Paint Oak Cabinets White

What paint do you use on oak cabinets?

How many coats of primer should I put on oak cabinets?

Minimize the Grain

The biggest issue with painting oak cabinets is how to minimize the grain that comes with that type of wood.  If you have maple or cherry cabinets, they paint up beautifully.  Oak can have a similar result, it just takes a little more effort to get there.  The wood grain can manifest itself in two ways:  through the texture of the wood and also the grain bleeding through the paint.  Check out this post on ways to minimize the grain when painting oak cabinets.

How to hide the grain when painting oak cabinets

One product I have used that has helped with both of these issues is Zinsser’s Bull’s Eye Seal Coat sanding sealer.  This aids in minimizing the wood grain of oak cabinets to a certain degree, but primarily helps to keep the grain from bleeding through your primer and paint.  Very key in giving your oak cabinets an update.

painting oak kitchen cabinets
 
 
 The first set of oak cabinets I painted, I didn’t use this product, and it took several coats of primer to cover the grain, which is labor and time intensive.
Painting oak cabinets white before and after

With the next set of oak cabinets, I used the sanding sealer.  It definitely helped with the grain – especially with the issue of the grain bleeding through, and eliminating the need for several coats of primer.  I applied the sanding sealer after I had cleaned/sanded/deglossed the oak cabinets, and before I applied my primer and paint.

What paint to use for painting oak cabinets
How to paint oak cabinets without sanding

If you are looking to try and eliminate the wood grain look altogether, I would suggest investing in the help of a professional.  There are wood grain filler and putty products out there that can be used for this purpose.  I don’t have any personal experience with them (yet), as it appears to be a tricky and time intensive process, that may not be for the DIY faint of heart.

That said, if you are a daring DIYer, and want to try to fill the wood grain on your cabinets, there are options when it comes to grain fillers.  Some grain fillers are easier to work with than others, Aqua Coat is a great option, in that it’s really easy to work with and you can work it into the wood grain fairly easily.  You might need to do 2-3 coats of it to fill the grain to your satisfaction though, since it has kind of a gel consistency and isn’t as thick as some other grain fillers.

Fill Oak Grain! Aqua Coat Wood Grain Filler

Here is a photo showing the process used to fill the grain on a piece of oak – quite impressive!  Wow!

How to fill oak grain when painting cabinets
The Hardwood Workshop

I gave Behlen’s Grain Filler a test drive myself, which you can read about here where I dove deeper into saying good-bye to the oak grain.  Pretty compelling, yes?

Berlin's Wood Grain Filler

How to paint kitchen cabinets

Another option to using the sanding sealer, is to go with a shellac primer like Zinsser BIN.  Fair warning, it stinks to high heaven, but it dries quickly, seals in the oak grain, sands easily and gets the job done.  Using the Zinsser BIN primer can save you the added step of using the sanding sealer, if you’d prefer to go that route.  And if you apply 2-3 coats (depending upon the graininess of your cabinets), it does a great job in filling the grain to a large degree.

BIN Shellac
Painting Oak Cabinets – To Spray, or Not to Spray?

When I painted my own cabinets, I went all in with the Wagner HVLP (high volume, low pressure) conversion spray gun – doors, drawers and frames.  There are two main reasons for this:

  • You truly get a professional, factory finish with a spray gun, (with a lot of control using an HVLP gun), no brush marks!
  • My cabinet frames have raised panels, and I wanted the same factory finished look that I had with my cabinet doors and drawers.
How to paint kitchen cabinets
 

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to sprayers, take a look at my guide to paint sprayers as part of my “Painter in Your Pocket” series.

How to paint oak cabinets using a paint sprayer

That said, if your cabinet frames are relatively flat and don’t have a lot of nooks and crannies to worry about, you can save yourself some time and trouble and paint the frames by hand vs. spraying them.  I still recommend spraying the doors and drawers, because the finished look is second to none, but there is some flexibility on the frames.  Plus, it saves you the hassle of having to tape off your kitchen to avoid overspray.

If you choose to do your frames by hand, here is another tip for getting the best finish.  Use a mohair paint roller like this one by Purdy or this one by Wooster.  That is what I used for some of my projects, and the finish turned out beautifully – it looks like a sprayed finish.

 

Customize It

Another way to give your oak cabinets a new look is to add custom woodworking elements.  Build them up and trim them out with crown molding.  Add panels to the ends of your cabinets or to your island.  Add furniture details to give them a high end look.

Kristin’s kitchen is living proof that builder grade oak kitchens can be transformed into something high-end and custom.  Notice how the cabinets were built up and trimmed out with crown molding and the furniture look they have with the addition of  cabinet feet to the lower cabinets.

cabinet feet

How to paint oak cabinets and not see the grain
My Uncommon Slice of Suburbia

I’m still amazed that her kitchen started with this:

My Uncommon Slice of Suburbia

Pam, at Simple Details, added custom panels to her stock kitchen cabinets used in her kitchen island, to give it a high end look.

Simple Details

 

Custom woodworking details definitely help to kick it up a notch and pull the space together when you’re painting your cabinets.

Add New Hardware

It seems kind of obvious when you’re in the midst of redoing a kitchen, but it bears repeating.  New cabinet hardware can really step up the look and feel of your kitchen – even if you’re not painting them.  Old knobs and pulls just make a dated kitchen look even more dated, so consider some of the options out there.  And if you’re changing out your hardware, don’t forget this cabinet hardware mounting kit to make the job easier, if you’re starting with a clean slate.

cabinet hardware mounting kit

Hardware Trend

Bin pulls remain popular in kitchens – in just about any finish.  I am also a big fan of changing things up with a mix of knobs with pulls.  Step away from all knobs, or all pulls.  I think it gives a really polished and finished look.

Painted oak cabinets before and after

How to paint oak cabinets white

How to paint oak cabinets without the grain showing

Choosing a Color

One of the biggest decisions that comes with painting kitchen cabinets is choosing a color.  There are so many options out there, it’s hard to figure out which one is right for you and works with your home’s decor.  I know that I agonized over paint colors for more time than I care to admit.

My advice?  Samples, samples, samples!  And I’m not talking about the little paint chips here.  Spend the money on some sample pints/quarts and paint sample boards so you can get a feel for what the color will look like on a larger scale.  I have done this for clients with foam core boards, so they can compare the colors and live with them awhile before making a decision.  The color is something you want to get right.


Color trends in cabinetry right now seems to gravitate towards white, gray and black.  But, there are so many options within those colors, it can be overwhelming.  We know there are Fifty Shades of Gray, but who knew there were so many different shades of white?

Here are some great go-to colors to consider when painting cabinets white.

White Dove – Benjamin Moore:

What color do I paint my kitchen cabinets?

 

What paint do I use to paint my kitchen cabinets?

Decorators White – Benjamin Moore:

Decorator's White kitchen cabinets

Cloud White – Benjamin Moore:

Cloud White kitchen cabinets
 
 

Swiss Coffee – Benjamin Moore:

Swiss Coffee Kitchen Cabinets

Super White – Benjamin Moore:

Super White kitchen cabinets

Marscapone – Benjamin Moore:

Marscapone Kitchen Cabinets

Acadia White – Benjamin Moore:

Acadia White kitchen cabinets

Mountain Peak White – Benjamin Moore:

Mountain Peak White kitchen cabinets
 
If you’re loving the gray color trend in kitchens, there are lots of options there too.
 
Montpelier Ashstar Gray – Valspar
 

Dark Granite – Behr:

Dark Granite kitchen cabinets

Dorian Gray – Sherwin Williams:

Dorian Gray kitchen cabinets

Fieldstone – Benjamin Moore:

Fieldstone kitchen cabinets

Gettysburg Gray – Benjamin Moore:

Gettysburg Gray cabinets

Galveston Gray – Benjamin Moore

Galveston Gray cabinets

My friend Cyndy, over at The Creativity Exchange, is brilliant when it comes to paint colors, and has pulled together a couple of gorgeous gray color palettes to consider in the selection process:Favorite-Kitchen-Cabinet-Paint-Colors-Friday-Favorites-The-Creativity-Exchange1

Popular-and-versatile-cabinet-paint-colors-for-kitchen-bath-and-built-ins.-The-Creativity-Exchange-4Of course, the look of two-toned cabinets is quite popular right now, so you could mix white and gray or white and black to add some interest to your kitchen.

Island – Kendall Charcoal – Benjamin Moore:

Kendall Charcoal kitchen cabinets
 

This beautiful kitchen from Elements of Style, is a perfect example of two-toned cabinetry done right!  The upper cabinets are painted Classic White, and the lowers are Cape May Cobblestone (Benjamin Moore).  Absolutely gorgeous!

Cape May Cobblestone cabinets
Elements of Style

I don’t have the exact colors in this amazing two-toned kitchen, but it’s too beautiful not to share.

I have done some two tone looks for clients too, and while I love a fresh white kitchen, the two toned ones are a lot of fun to pull together as well.

A big transformation with Gauntlet Gray (lower cabinets) and Repose Gray (upper cabinets).

Gauntlet Gray cabinets

And another two toned look with Urbane Bronze and Alabaster in this kitchen.  What’s not to like with Urbane Bronze?  One of my favorites.  The homeowners also trimmed out their island for this redo, giving it a more custom look.

Urbane Bronze kitchen cabinets

If you have a hard time deciding on a cabinet color, visit a kitchen showroom and take a peek at their cabinets.  I was able to get a sample of a cabinet that I liked and had it color matched.  That’s how I decided upon my kitchen cabinet color, and I’ve used it for several clients as well.  This oak kitchen that I did for a client is that same custom color.  I think I need to get it patented. 😉

Before:

After:

Painting oak kitchen cabinets
 

Jane’s kitchen makeover at Modern Jane, includes the addition of two-toned cabinets.  The upper cabinets are Natural White (ICI) and the lower cabinets are Whale Gray by Benjamin Moore.  I love how fresh and modern they look and the chrome pulls and glass knobs work beautifully with the cabinet colors.

If you happen to come across a cabinet color/sample that you love, don’t hesitate to take it to your local paint expert and have it color matched.  That’s exactly what I did when I painted our kitchen cabinets and island, and I got the exact look that I was looking for as a result.

Hinges!
If you’re refreshing your cabinets with paint, it’s a great opportunity to change something that you don’t always think about when updating kitchen cabinets – the hinges!  Many older homes with builder grade oak cabinets have exposed hinges.  Swap them out with hidden hinges, and take the transformation to the next level!  (Or hire someone to do it for you).  Read more about what a difference hinges can make in this post.

Check out this amazing kitchen reveal at Everyday Enchanting.  The doors are original – they painted them to give them a fresh look.  But look at the hinges – they swapped them out for hidden ones, which completely modernizes the kitchen (along with all of the other amazing updates).  Gorgeous!

 

And don’t forget to check out my full tutorial on How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets Like a Professional.

Did I miss anything?  Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add in tackling oak cabinets?  I hope you find these tips + tricks for painting oak cabinets helpful, should you choose to tackle your own!

How to Paint Oak Cabinets - From a Pro

130 Comments

  • Reply
    Ann Anthony
    May 31, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    Your info great! My oak cabinets painted by builder.Now paint coming off in spots and at raised paneling. Want to redo. How?

    • Reply
      Jenny
      May 31, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      I might have to dedicate a post to this very topic! When painting over a painted surface, I typically sand the cabinets and frames well, getting rid of as much of the chipping paint as possible. From there, you’ll want to use a good primer – I use Stix for cabinet repaints. It lives up to its name and sticks to just about anything. From there, you can paint. It’s just a matter of getting a good sound base and working from there. Hope this helps!

  • Reply
    Celia M
    June 4, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Thanks so much for your amazing blog! It has been so useful in preparing to paint cabinets!

    In addition to painting cabinets, we are also removing the old countertops and putting in new granite countertops. Would you recommend putting the countertops in first? Or painting the cabinets first? If we do paint first, how long should we wait before installing the new countertop?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Reply
      Jenny
      July 5, 2017 at 4:45 pm

      Celia – so sorry for the late response, I missed this somehow! I would recommend at least choosing a countertop before painting your cabinets, just so you can use it to aid in choosing a paint color for your cabinets. It’s a lot easier to choose colors based on finishes, than finishes based upon paint color. Ideally, have the counters installed before painting the cabinets so that you don’t have to worry about them getting scratched when counters are taken out and new ones installed.

  • Reply
    Sue
    August 14, 2017 at 7:56 am

    We painted oak cabinets white. We used a filler, sanded, primed, and “finished” with 2 coats of Sherwin Williams best paint possible. Now some (half) of them have bleeding in a few areas (looks like gray streaks) Now what? We don’t want to start over. Can we paint a coat of Binsser over the doors and then put another coat on them? Would we have to do that to all the doors, even the ones not affected? Can we spot treat them? Help!

    • Reply
      Jenny
      August 14, 2017 at 8:40 am

      Looks like you have some tannin bleed coming through. You can spot prime those areas with BIN and then add another coat of paint. I would just do the ones that are having the bleed issue, as in my experience, bleed varies from door to door and job to job for that matter. No need to start over! 🙂

  • Reply
    Vicky
    August 15, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Please help! Your guide has inspired me to take the plunge and paint our hideous oak cabinets. But I’m wondering, the three big things I need are an oil based deglosser, then the primer (zinsser BIN shellac base & sealer), and then the paint correct?

    • Reply
      Jenny
      August 17, 2017 at 7:21 am

      You don’t need an oil based deglosser – you can use the Krud Kutter to clean/degloss. The BIN shellac and sealer (although you the sealer is optional, really, but worth the extra step), and then paint. 🙂

  • Reply
    Barbara Costin
    October 14, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    I purchased unpainted oak kitchen cabinets from a big box store in summer of 2016. I sanded all surface and .
    made sure they were smooth and clean. I then painted them white with a paint plus primer product. I really don’t have a problem with the grain showing through. It seems to add more of a ‘country’ feel to my kitchen. So, everything was fine until 8 months later when I realized that some of my drawers, doors, and parts of the frame were beginning to look yellow. Long story short, after talking to the paint department at my big box store, talking to the manufacturer of the cabinets, and then calling the paint manufacturer, we finally determined that the tannin (Google it) in the oak was the cause of the discolorations. I’m now having to repaint my kitchen cabinets (same color) using a product that has a stain blocker. So, if you are painting your oak cabinets, I recommend that you use a stain blocker primer first then finish off with your choice of finish and color.

    • Reply
      Jenny
      October 14, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      Yes – you have to watch with tannins bleeding through on oak. Usually you can see if it’s bleeding through when you first begin working with them, and I always recommend priming before painting – not a primer+paint in one (I just don’t trust it – not for cabinets anyway).

      • Reply
        Jennie
        October 21, 2017 at 7:10 pm

        Hi Jenny. I’m half way through my oak cabinet project. I used Kilz primer to take care of the tannin issue but I can’t spray it and rolling it means I have to sand so much to get that orange peel bumps gone before I spray my paint. I want to be able to spray my primer. I just want to confirm that If I use that stain sealer first, then I can prime with a water base primer (which can be sprayed in the gun I have)? Or does the primer always need to be oil based or shellac based regardless? This project is about to break me but I can’t quit now.

        • Reply
          Jenny
          October 22, 2017 at 7:18 pm

          I use waterborne products quite a bit with oak cabinets – some require shellac due to heavy tannin bleeds. In many cases I will spot prime with a rattle can of BIN on areas that are stubborn. You don’t have to always use shellac/oil – it’s just a good bet with oak cabinets as a general rule.

  • Reply
    Pinky
    February 1, 2018 at 8:36 am

    I would love to change my TV cabinet to white, but i am so scared because my cabinets are shining. i really would love to bring bak the shine

  • Reply
    Marcia
    April 2, 2018 at 9:03 am

    Loved all your information it was super informative! I’d like no grain showing husband liked the grain😬!! I have pretty lighter oak wood work plus darker brown beams in familyroom like those small warm touches. We live in the Midwest where with winters long the warm tones aren’t so cold. I also like the beaches decorating .
    My deliema is I’ve white walls throughout the house which I truely Love ❤️! But what color white go I paint same as the walls? It’s very hard to decide people have said grey but I think I like the white if the right color!
    Next I’ve heard good things about this Chauk paint is that an option you’ve tried?
    I’d also like to white wash my fireplace from the brick I have which has that brown salmon look of the 70’s to some white also stuck again in the right white? Pictures in magazines on the net are hard as whites can be hard to get right. 😂.
    Appreciate any ideas!
    Awesome site you have!👏😁

    • Reply
      Jenny
      April 2, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      You could go white on the cabinets and walls, but I’m more of a fan of some contrast. That said, I’m working on a kitchen where everything is going to be painted the same color, so I’ll be sure to share how that comes out! In terms of paint, I would not use chalk paint on cabinets. While I like chalk paint for furniture, I’m just not a fan for cabinets. The long term durability is better with a paint suited for cabinets, in my opinion.

  • Reply
    Deanna
    April 27, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    Hello, Wondering if by using the Zinser BIN product to seal the grain, can you get by without sanding off the original finish? Just getting started on my project and if this is truly that great of a sealer, I can’t help but ask! Please advise–love your site!!!! 🙂

    • Reply
      Jenny
      April 27, 2018 at 5:52 pm

      You still need to sand (ALWAYS SAND), but you don’t need to sand down to raw wood or anything like that. You need to dull the finish and get all of the kitchen gunk off of it. Then you’re good to go to prime and paint. 🙂

      • Reply
        Deanna
        April 27, 2018 at 5:55 pm

        thank you!

  • Reply
    Faye
    June 2, 2018 at 3:07 am

    I used gel stain on my batgriim cabinets and it turned out fine but what a nightmare. It was during the winter s o I had tables set up to put the cabinets into dry. I’m a perfectionist and dust particles got in the top of the cabinets and a few pieces a dog hair. How do u hang these to dry in a place where there’s no mono dust? I see people hanging them in there garage , ect. Dust , dust! Any advice

    • Reply
      Jenny
      June 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm

      I use drying racks for my cabinet doors and keep them in an area of my shop that isn’t as prone to dust and overspray. Prior to this, I had my spray area taped off and had my drying racks in a separate area of my basement. The struggle is real!

  • Reply
    Aly
    June 15, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    I recently painted my oak cabinets using the Sherwin Williams primer and paint that is made for use on cabinets. I followed the cleaning, light sanding and painting instructions to a T, but only a few weeks later my paint is chipping around the door knobs 😩 The process I followed didn’t suggest a top coat, but do you think adding a top coat would prevent chipping?

    • Reply
      Jenny
      June 17, 2018 at 10:40 am

      That shouldn’t be happening! What type of Sherwin Williams primer and paint did you use?

  • Reply
    Lacey
    August 21, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Love your site! We’re about to start working on our oak kitchen cabinets. We both like the look of a little grain showing through the white. Should we still sand them before priming? And is there a particular primer that you recommend? I’m new to this so any advice for a beginner is appreciated!

  • Reply
    Samantha
    August 27, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Jenny! Do you have any photos of oak cabinets where you just used the sanding sealer, primer, and paint? I’m curious to see how much of the wood grain shows. Also when you apply this sealer, what is the order of the process as far as cleaning/sanding/deglossing? Is it clean, degloss, sand, sanding sealer, primer, paint?

  • Reply
    Mark Davidson
    September 23, 2018 at 8:17 am

    I’ve been painting and remodeling for thirty years and learned some good tips. Thank you.

    People should be careful relying on so called professional painters. A really good one is hard to find. No one cares as much about your project as you do.

    When hiring craftsmen, the old saying still holds true: Price, speed, quality – pick any two.

  • Reply
    Betsy
    October 22, 2018 at 12:40 pm

    Hi there! We recently started the process of painting our cabinets: sanded, wood filler, light sand. We are now starting to prime. My husband said BIN is not sprayable, do you spray yours? What type of spray gun? We attempted using Zinsser Bullseye 123, but are seeing HEAVY tannins coming through after 2 coats. Should we switch to BIN? Any issues putting BIN on after a water based primer?

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