Whether to Caulk Painted Cabinet Doors

Materials choices, assembly methods, and finishing techniques all affect whether a door looks seamless, or not. May 15, 2014

I'm curious as to whether anyone is caulking their painted cabinet doors before finishing? I'm talking about the joint between frame and panel on a typical 5 piece door. I haven't done it as the line between the panel and frame is usually tight enough to look okay, but there is a line there. And am always looking to improve when I can. I see some manufacturers are using a profile with the inside of the frame eased a bit which I suppose is one way around. So anyone caulk them, or address the joint in any other manner?

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor S:
For a brushed or airless applied latex or alkyd paint, I might caulk so the paint wouldn't crack as much, but I think you're right not to with spray lacquer or CV; it's too thin a coating and would probably craze over the caulk. I think the best bet is to get one coat on the panels before assembly. Your joinery is tight so the joint will be normal in appearance.

From contributor R:
If necessary, I caulk after a coat or two of primer has been sanded. Haven't had any adhesion issues. If the joints are rounded over I pass on this step - same holds true if the joints on the stiles and rails have a saw kerf on them.

From contributor M:
I use a rail/stile cutter with an eased edge where it meets the panel. That gives a distinct line between the panel and frame. If I get a customer that wants a seamless look, I buy a solid MDF door that's routed out. There are companies making some nice looking routed doors now that have very tight inside corners. I just am not a fan of caulking cabinet doors with a panel that is supposed to move.

From contributor L:
I don't caulk mine mainly because I think the caulk always looks lousy after a couple of years with movement of the wood.

From contributor A:
Are the 5 piece doors soft maple with soft maple raised panel or mdf raised panel?

From the original questioner:
Sounds like nobody is really trying to get that seamless look. Which is good as it seems like it would be a lot of extra work.

I don't use solid wood for painted panels. My doors are soft maple frames with MDF panels whether flat or raised.

I may try out the eased edge on my next set of cutters. I always figured it would be tougher to paint with that detail, but having just finished up a small re-finishing job of about half a kitchen's worth of doors, it went pretty smoothly!

From contributor A:
Glue the panels in the frames. Doors with wood panels should be cracking due to normal expansion and contraction of the panel. If you want to be really nuts about it you can use thickened primer or an automotive pinhole filler in the crack or pro grade spackle. You will always see caulk through the topcoats because it is so much softer.

From contributor D:
There is another way, though most will howl and laugh. Not for the low bidders slugging it out in the trenches. Use a manmade panel (MDF core is excellent), veneered two sides, and picture frame it with mitered solids. Either pre-profile the panel raise into the solids or do so after mitering. Or, you can rim it with solids and then veneer it two sides, then raise it. This makes a stable panel, with no end grain. No need for that caulking stuff. Glue it in place so there is no rattling or errant movement. I believe this is still an AWI Premium solution. Let's hope so.

In our market, the better designers agree that painted panels should show wood grain if one were to look closely. "The inherent integrity of the materials should not be disguised" would be the philosophical reasoning. Finishing is also simplified since there is no end grain to deal with.

This was a typical solution prior to the rush to lower costs - at all costs - sucked out the craft that used to be common in wood shops.

From the original questioner:
I do glue the MDF panels in so there's really not much movement going on. I was just trying to see if caulking the joint was something that was being done and I didn't know about it;>)

That's interesting that they want to see grain under the paint. I would think most finer hardwoods you're not going to get that - maple, cherry, etc. don't have much grain to show. So are you using oak and ash to get the grain effect?

From contributor D:
We do our painted work mostly in soft maple - solids and veneers - so the grain is subtle, but will show under the right light. I specify it this way to define the use of real woods. Sort of like a mortise and tenon joint - the customer cannot see it, but learns to trust your word that it is there, and will work for decades or more. Once they handle a sample of a M&T, they think it is the coolest thing around - and want nothing to do with manmade board.

I prefer the real wood - my prejudice - and sell it as the real thing vs that nasty glue and sawdust board. Snobbery? Maybe so, but the shop smells better, and I'll die from real sawdust instead of formaldehyde. Everyone has had experience with Ikea/Saunders knock down crap with a fastener pulling out or banging a corner that crumbles, so customers relate to what I say instantly. The hardwood allows hardware to set nicely, and everything is as crisp as I want it. I cannot imagine having to work with MDF for anything other than veneer substrate. It is a quality of life issue for me.

And I have set my shop off as one that uses the real thing, not cheaper things, to help justify a higher price and raised expectations. This has brought on more work, and work of the kind I want.