Achieving a "Brushed-On" Cabinet Finish Look

Finishers and cabinetmakers discuss whether brush marks are a good or bad thing, and how to create or avoid them, depending. October 15, 2009

We do many traditional white painted kitchens. We have, heretofore, not participated in paint - this has always been somebody else's responsibility.

The majority of our work ends up with a brushed finish. Usually the paint is applied with a spray gun and the last coat is tipped with a brush. A painter and I discussed a new strategy today and I wanted to run it by professionals. What would you think about the following work flow?

1) Build face frames and end panels
2) Miter and glue end panels to face frames
3) Send mitered assemblies to paint shop
4) Prime assemblies
5) Introduce brush strokes as desired in primer
6) Spray one thin coat of enamel over primer
7) Send face frame assemblies back to shop
8) Install face frame assemblies to cabinet boxes
9) Install cabinets in kitchen
10) Brush last coat of thin coat of enamel after cabinets are installed

What we are hoping is that the brush strokes at primer phase would be heavy enough to telegraph through final coats. This approach would save the costs of masking cabinets. Does this idea sound viable?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
If you are brushing 1 thin (?) coat in the field you could easily brush 2 coats in the field. Also you are ending up with 1 coat primer and 2 thin coats of topcoat.

Likewise, we do a lot of pre-primed casework. Our standard method of construction is to prime the face frames with a heavy undercoater/primer. Glue/pocket screw frames onto boxes. If you have an end panel it can often be easier to fasten the primed frame and primed end panel to the box, then touch up the primer with a brush. Fill any nail holes/defects with spackle. Sand the primer/spackle in the shop to 240 grit. Install, caulk, fill nail holes with spackle.

We only sub 2 different painters (individuals) to brush what I call 1 1/2 coats of topcoat. The finish comes out like glass with enough brush strokes to appease customers.

From contributor R:
You do know that you can brush pigmented lacquer to leave the brushstrokes? Spray it on with a little retarder to hold it open and brush it back to leave the brushstrokes.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. The concept of shipping a product with any amount of paint already on it is foreign to me. We've been very fortunate over the years to not have to include this. The primary advantage of this approach, I think, is that it does not require any masking. It also minimizes how much onsite work is necessary.

I have had another (untested) idea for a while. What would you think of a spray primed product with a clear finish brushed over the top of the primer? Or is that what you were talking about, contributor R?

From contributor B:
Is this brushed effect finish popular in your area? Is it in demand? My customers want a smooth as silk finish usually.

Are you using a water base primer? If so, brushing like you said should give you enough brush strokes to work with after installing.

From contributor N:
A good brushed enamel paint job should not show brush marks. That's kind of like making reproduction antique furniture crudely to make it look old. Good work produced by hand is not obvious.

From contributor A:
We had this one customer who was really into her brush strokes. She thought it looked more authentic. They do not understand that in the old days, painters were considered skilled labor, much like the brightwork guys who brush varnish on yachts.

Get yourself some MLC Clawlock or a similar cat undercoater. It lies out even when applied in thick coats. Most customers prefer the finished look of sanded primer. We've had several customers who thought the cabinets were finished.

From the original questioner:
I disagree with you here. My product line emulates a time period when every cabinet was brushed. You are not going to see an 80 year old painted cabinet without brush marks in it. To introduce them at the onset helps the customer in many ways, now and in the future. Painted cabinets inevitably need to be touched up. If the original work shows brush marks, it is less expensive to fix because it doesn't require the skill. Apparent brush marks also mask wood movement from telegraphing through the paint. My questions are not related to whether we should or should not show brush marks, but rather how to accomplish this in the least amount of time for the least amount of cost.

From contributor N:
Let's agree to disagree.

I also build traditional style cabinets. I much prefer to finish the cabinets and then install. Sometimes we also will deliver primed cabinets to be finished in the field. The problem I have with this is the loss of control. The painters may be good or they may be bad. The finish is what people see, and good or bad, your cabinets will be judged on the appearance of the finish. When we do a primed finish we spray the primer and let the painters caulk and putty much like contributor A described. You really can't get much simpler than that.

From the original questioner:

I don't mean to be obstinate but I would like to pass on an observation about quality. Over the life of a kitchen, the quality of the finish deteriorates, much like the loss of tread on your tires. The lieutenants of time, children, animals, seasonal climate change all contribute to this degradation.

What is needed, for the benefit of the customer, is a paint delivery system that can be repaired over time. This is where I think visible brush strokes are useful. I think they are also what you expect to see in an older house. A street of dreams pristine finish, while definitely a testimony to the craftsman's talent, is not necessarily what you want on a reproduction project.

You can polish this thing all you want and it will, on day one, be stellar in appearance. Go back to some of these projects a year or two later and see what they look like. I contend that the ones with more apparent brush strokes on day one hold up better over time.

I think also that some of this quality goes over your customer's head. Show them an A+ job alongside B+ with the price tags affixed and they will probably ask for an A (-) and be just as happy.

From contributor G:
The one thing I see missing in your schedule is sanding. The first primer coat needs to be sanded to remove imperfections, raised grain, fuzz, etc. Brush marks introduced here are going to be lost to the sanding.

After the first primer coat is sanded and you have a smooth substrate, the second primer coat is applied. You could introduce the brush marks here – but why?

Depending on which primer/topcoat system your painter uses, there may be a required sanding step before the first topcoat for intercoat adhesion, which will degrade the brush strokes. Further – if the painter does one brush-on application in the shop, then another onsite, there may be a recoat window which means sanding onsite as well.

My suggestions are:
1 - first primer coat
2 - sand aggressively to remove nibs, etc.
3 - second primer coat (this can be glass-smooth)
4 - back to your shop for cab assembly
5 - install in customer’s house
6 - sponge-sand and brush on unthinned topcoat(s) onsite - this will give plenty of brush marks

Also to consider – why not send everything flat packed to the finishing shop instead of attaching the end panels to the face frames? Unless you’re sending them batches of 1, flat pack will lessen chances of transit damage and take less space in the delivery vehicle.

From contributor J:
One major high-end cabinet brand does it this way: The cabinets come primed from the factory. I'm sure they sand in between 1st and 2nd coat. Installed, all trim, pieces, etc. Caulk, fill, then two coats of very expensive European oil-based paint put on with very good brushes. Minimal brush strokes are visible but you can tell they are hand done. Painting is only done by select highly-skilled crews.

From contributor R:
You can use a pigmented lacquer primer, brush it and spray a thin clear topcoat. I would agree that many very high end companies paint their cabinets after installation. This includes Clive Christian, Christopher Peacock and Smallbone.

From contributor G:
Contributor R, that's an interesting direction. It would take some experimenting and the questioner's finisher may or may not be up to it, but here's an idea:
1 - Prime first coat with BIN white tinted to whatever white he is using - antique white, whatever.
2 - Sand aggressively to remove nibs.
3 - Apply second coat of BIN same as above and brush out.

4 - Brush or spray onsite with clear coat of choice.

Everything sticks to shellac (BIN) and no sanding required. Trickiest bit would be getting the BIN tinted properly so the clear coat gives the proper shade of white. Samples strongly recommended.

From the original questioner:
What is BIN?

On another note (maybe the same one?), one of the best finishes I have ever seen was on Doug fir. It went as follows:
1) Fir was sealed with benite.
2) Fir was stained rich dark brown.
3) Two coats of garden variety nitrocelluose lacquer. All this was done out in the carport; nothing high tech...
4) Fir was installed.
5) Putty crayons fixed nail holes.
6) Back brushed with spar varnish.

The lacquer gave it build and the spar varnish gave it streaks. The net effect made you think you were in an old lumber baron's house that had some of the rooms closed off years ago when the old guy died. Wonderful looking finish and pretty simple set of processes.

From contributor A:
BIN is a universal primer made by Zinsser. Available at virtually all hardware/paint stores. It's been around for about 60 years. It is shellac resin/alcohol solvent. BIN is the true problem solver for painting. Shellac has this great property that it sticks to everything and every coating (more or less) sticks to it. The one major problem with BIN is that it doesn't sand well compared to pro primer/undercoaters.

I find it amazing that in your long successful career you managed to avoid the finishing aspect of our industry. Unfortunately it is one of the most frustrating/rewarding aspects of woodworking. My first boss managed to do the same. He only went as far as satin lacquer or BIN primer with the majority of our work being bare wood. We were building some of the best millwork/casework in Essex, Greenwich, and Watchhill, RI. Up until the late 90's it worked great. Then he started to lose jobs because he had no finishing department. The first thing the next owner did was to throw 50k at a real finishing system.

From contributor O:
If you are doing part of the finishing in the shop, why wouldn't you do it all, minus touchups in the field? If you are going for a brush finish look, touchups in the field are going to be brushed also and would blend right in.

On stain grade I would definitely stay away from spar, poly (the kind off the shelf at the hardware store), or plain nitro. You are paying too much in labor and headache. Definitely would be introducing brush marks early and then spraying. Touch up done in the field is easy here. But I would definitely steer you away from using a clear coat over your pigmented/paint finishes, because you want to be able to do repairs. It's much harder to make it look nice.

The problem with water, alcohol, or oil based paints is the dry time before shipping. In water base I can't ever get it dry enough to, say, use as a shelf. Stuff will stick to it a long time later. Oil based paints dry way too slow to achieve hardness for shipping. I often ship stuff from my side of the state (dry) to your side (very wet). On one very large paint grade job using a pre-cat lacquer, which is not as flexible as an oil based paint (say Ben Moore, which is often called for in your area in the upper end homes), we had a finish failure, as the hard maple swelled in the doors and hairline cracks appeared. So I tried the Ben Moore oil base for a couple of jobs. Man, you have to let a job sit around for two weeks before you can wrap it in plastic or wrap it in a shipping blanket. I just can't see that being viable for you.

So you are left with going with a catalyzed product (pre-cat, post cat, CV, etc). I know it is done, but I've always been hesitant to brush these. Even to spray and then back brush for effect. Mil limits are finicky. You can exceed them a hundred times and not have a problem, but the first time you land the 200k job and your rep is riding on it, you can count on the finish to act up and you'll age 10 years in a single week. Even before you add the brush element, it is hard to get a finish that is paint grade with catalyzed finishes without getting close to the mill limits.

Good luck with your choices. Do your homework before doing any of this. Finishing can make and lose you money faster than just about any other facet of this business. Finishing is a science and when you ask what is BIN, you are still in 6th grade in finishing school and to be where you need to be with your price point and rep, you need at least a BA.

From the original questioner:
Thank you for your thoughtful responses. For the record, I don't have any immediate intention to launch a finishing department. I'm just trying to up my comprehension so that I could have a more informed discussion with people who do paint.

From contributor A:
Contributor O, I concur with most of your post.

I was on a job where we did all the millwork and casework except for the kitchen. They wanted everything in the house brushed (Nantucket summer house look). The architect spec'ed CV for the kitchen. The final finish (which I can't believe was accepted by the architect, builder, or customer) had grooves in the topcoat where they had brushed the pigmented CV in their shop. It was the worst finish job I have every seen. That was in a $4 mil, 4000sqft house. I get a bit of dust in one of my jobs and they want to withhold a pile of money until I fix it.

From contributor D:
I always thought brushstrokes = poor, amateur finish, even on walls.

From contributor E:
At first I thought that brush strokes belonged on a Vincent Van Gogh painting... But after further thinking on the subject, I see the reasoning behind the brush strokes, and it's this - it's what the customer wants! Forget what you or I would like - it really does not matter. I say if the customer wants brush strokes in the finish, so be it.

Brush strokes in oil based enamel are easy to accomplish, and enamel is a bit forgiving. It sounds to me as if the brush marks should be kind of faint and not sloppy, as if a drunk decided to slap some paint on the kitchen cabinets. If that's the case (I'm sure it is) I would try and get the brush strokes in the primer stage. Be careful at the junctions where the stiles meet the rails - that's where the "artsy" technique comes into play.

The BIN shellac primer is a good choice for this finish simply because it dries a bit slower than a lacquer and will allow you to manipulate it before it really sets up. Once the setup has begun, it's best to leave it alone lest you end up with a big mess trying to brush it at this point.

Once it's completely dry a light sanding is in order. Just enough sanding with, say, 280 paper to rid the surface of dust or otherwise heavy brush marks that might be undesirable. Once the BIN (primer) has completely cured and the sanding has been done, a few coats of oil based enamel should be in order to complete the project. Thinner coats of enamel are always desirable over heavy coats, which may run or obscure the brush marks left by the BIN primer.

From contributor G:
I'd say Muralo or equivalent instead of oil-based enamel. I've never been happy with the extended dry time or odor of oil-base.

From contributor J:
A hand brushed finish is desirable to many people. The quality of that finish is what it is all about. Forget about brushing lacquer or brush marks in primer in an attempt to imitate a brushed finish. Just do a top quality brushed finish. I stated above how it is done by the high-end cabinet lines. These cabinets sell in the 150k-220k range. The best quality paint and brush put on by skilled painters is the only way to get there.

From contributor Z:
I have to disagree that Bin doesn't sand well. In my experience, that is one of its greatest attributes.

From contributor C:
I'm a little confused. As a trained painter, prior to venturing into the wood finishing trade many years ago, I was taught to use the tools and materials to eliminate brush marks. Many times we were complimented on how our finish looked as if it were sprayed. This was the finish that skilled, trained painters tried to achieve. I am being asked today to replicate what I consider to be an inferior finish by people with little knowledge of the trades.

From contributor Z:
I couldn't agree more. The mark of a good finisher or finish, generally speaking, is to lay down a flawless coat whether by brush or spray. I recently remade my own kitchen and although I normally spray, I brushed on a Benjamin Moore enamel on this one. I couldn't have asked for a finer compliment when a woodworking friend remarked that he thought I had sprayed it. I can understand every now and then a boneheaded designer or customer insisting on this kind of nonsense and quite frankly, if they insist after advice to the contrary, I would give them what they want. I have done worse as long as they are willing to pay. It sounds from this thread, however, that this is becoming the norm.

Anyway, I’ve got to get back to a couple of cherry tables I am making. I had planned on mortise and tenon joinery but on second thought maybe I’ll just drive some rusty nails through the joints. I could even bend one over and call it art…

From contributor E:
Like a distressed finish where the customer wants scratches and scuffs and worm holes and the like, they want an inconsistent color and rub-throughs on the edges and dark colors in the nooks and crannies and they want the edges of everything rounded over. Heck, that's how some of my finishes looked back when I was learning the trade in the 1970's. I wish someone would make up their mind.

From the original questioner:
This dialog is not about the craftsman; it's about the customer and what the customer wants, not what they ought to want.

A classic Cape Cod house that's 100 years old has been painted at least a half dozen times over the years. The customer sees these cabinets through the lens of age. A 100 year old house without some patina would not look right to someone today.

It's also not about the craftsman today with respect to cost. I am sure that a competent painter today might argue for the highest quality finish he can deliver. The tailor might argue for the highest quality thread and cloth. At the end of the day this tailor is perfectly content with brush strokes in his paint and the painter chooses factory made shirts over handmade clothing.

From contributor G:
I knew a guy who "educated" his customers by telling them the blotching in wipe-stained maple was part of the characteristics of the wood. Sure saved him a lot of finishing time.

From contributor P:
I don't like the idea of mitering the ends to the frame, then painting them, then putting them on the box. No way that's going to work.

Then a brush painted finish... There are some requests for that in the high end market. I can brush it without brush strokes or with. With brush marks I use latex paint, sand it and then glaze it, then top coat with flat pre-cat. When I'm brushing I orchestrate all the brush marks. Sanding them gives them some antiquity, as does the glaze. I also like milk paints. Keep it simple - it's already tough enough.

From contributor C:
I agree that we need to give the client what they ask for. The problem is that there are a number of different individuals telling these clients that a painted finish with brush marks is the sign of a true painting artisan. People should not misinform others. It is our job to first teach our customers what a quality finish is and second to deliver what we promote. Is this asking too much?

From the original questioner:
This could be my own bias coming out. We build with a lot of solid lumber. Our drawer faces, for example, are often made of 3 pieces of laminated lumber. We do this to mitigate warping across the expanse of the drawer face. Whenever the finish is not brushed, the joints in the lamination tend to telegraph through the paint. Similarly, you can see the effects of expansion and contraction where the cope meets the stile. No kind of finish can stop the joinery from telegraphing. The best that we can hope for from any finish is that it retards moisture migration long enough for the humidity to dry out, or vice versa.

From contributor A:
Your glue line telegraph issue has come up a few times here in the finishing forum.

Titebond 1 = no telegraph
Titebond 2 = some telegraph
Titebond 3 = usually telegraph
Titebond white = always telegraph

It has to do primarily with hardness. Titebond 1 dries very hard/easy to sand. White glue never dries hard/clogs sandpaper.

You will always see movement on the ends of cabinet doors where the edge grain of the rail grows and the end grain of the stile does not. However, we the woodworkers of the world notice those details. You should be able to build doors and face frames where you do not get telegraphing or cracking.