Painting wood cabinets

Suggested paint-grade materials for cabinets. October 15, 2001

I usually build MDF cabinets and paint them with Sherwin Williams warm white gloss lacquer. I need to build an all-wood set and paint it white. I am going to use birch doors and finished ends. What would be a good paint-grade material to use for the bottom, shelves and finished ends? Should I try another paint also?

Forum Responses
From contributor M:
I'm not completely sure of whether you are looking for a solid wood product. If you are, then poplar or soft maple would be good choices for paint-grade species. If, on the other hand you are looking for ply, then I'd suggest birch, "furniture" grade ought to do the trick.

From contributor J:
You have to be very careful painting solid wood doors because you throw a wrench in the works when the panel expands and contracts (causing the paint to crack around it)--you have to caulk the panel and bondo (auto body filler) any seams. That said, one trick to use on MDF doors is to paint them with 100% acrylic latex paint and then use a CAB lacquer over the top, kind of like a clear coat on your car. Only problem is this method will crack on the joints and around the panel.

From the original questioner:
Should I use regular silicon caulk? I use lacquer base primer--should I caulk before or after priming?

From contributor M:

I have to disagree with contributor J. I would never caulk the seam between panel and frame on a solid wood door. The panel will inevitably move (shrink or expand); there is no way to prevent it. The caulk will only accentuate the problem.

There are three approaches I know that work when painting solid wood panel doors.
1) Pre-paint the panel edges prior to assembly. This is time consuming and may be difficult depending on the type of final finish.

2) Use tooling that cuts a rounded or eased edge that will allow sprayed finish to more easily penetrate the panel groove. Use well dried material and unless you are in an unusual environment, most of the door movement will be toward expansion so at least the unpainted edge won't be noticeable. (illustration below)

3) Educate your customer. They must understand that solid wood will move.

I believe you can achieve the same end result using solid wood frames and MDF panels. The panels are not prone to shrinkage/expansion and take paint exceptionally well.

How about using a one piece MDF door? This also eliminates the paint cracking at the joints.

I have done several paint grade jobs, my latest a 13 foot mantel with columns and light box. I always use birch plywood where I can and poplar for the solid wood. I use pre-cat lacquer by Gemini Chemical. I spray 1 coat high solids sanding sealer and then 3 coats of semi-gloss pre-cat white--this has worked very well for me and all customers are happy.

If you do use solid wood doors, do like everyone else has said and educate the customer on movement and the seam between the panel and frame. I pre-finish my panels and then build the doors and finish the frames and the joint left between the panel and frame accent the panel. I think and all my customers have been happy with the result.