Painting Oak Cabinets Black
White is the most common color I use for my cabinet painting projects, but recently, I spray painted a set of oak cabinets using black instead. I painted them with the popular Sherwin Williams color Tricorn Black, using a gloss finish to make the doors smoother and more reflective.
For this project, I used black on everything, but another popular color scheme is to paint only the base cabinets black and the upper cabinets white, or use black for the island only. Black pairs nicely with gray wall paint too. I painted the walls around the cabinets with the color Repose Gray (SW-7015).
In this article, which features pictures from my project, I’ll walk you through the steps to paint your cabinets black using a sprayer, or a brush. Although the cabinets I painted were oak, the surface prep and painting process is almost the same for other types of wood.
First, let’s talk about a few reasons why you might consider not using black paint on your cabinets.
Should You Paint Your Cabinets Black?
While I do think black painted cabinets look really nice, white is more forgiving and easier to maintain. Most people assume white paint shows more dirt than black, but that isn’t the case. Have you ever owned black appliances? I have them in my kitchen. Touching and wiping the surface leaves noticeable marks. The same is true with black paint on cabinets. Light colored food spills from cooking become more noticeable too.
The color is also a magnet for dust. Even at the end of this painting project, I noticed dust accumulation on the doors during clean up. Darker colors also take longer to fully cure than white due to the heavier load of tint in the paint, so you have to go easy on the doors for a while. Handling the painted doors too soon can mar the paint with fingerprint smudges.
Prepping Cabinets for Black Paint
Designate a work space where you can paint the doors and store them for drying. The work space should be heated if its cold out. This is important for black paint too because dark colors take longer to dry. Cold temperatures, or high humidity, will extend the dry time even more. Don’t attempt to paint the doors while they’re attached to the frame, especially if you’re spraying them. It’s a lot easier to take them down.
Remove and label the doors: The door hinges and knobs should be removed. Use a marker to label each door so you know exactly where each one goes for installation. The best way to label the doors is to write a number inside the hinge cavity. If you’re spray painting, cover each number with a piece of tape.
Remove the drawer fronts too by removing the screws on the inside of the drawer with a drill. Sometimes the drawer fronts are glued on, or dove tailed, in which case the entire drawer has to be removed by lifting them out of the slider track. Write a number on the reverse side of each drawer front.
Clean the cabinets: Surface cleaning is one of the most important steps for painting cabinets. Painting over dirt and grease will cause paint to lift and peel from the surface. Cabinet doors above the stove and microwave are always the worst. Scrub your cabinets with TSP, or Dirtex powder cleaner, to rid them of grime and grease.
Lightly sand: Use 220-grit sandpaper to sand and dull the lacquer finish on your cabinets. In most cases, a light sanding is all that’s needed to dull the gloss for a stronger primer and paint bond. Paint doesn’t stick well to glossy surfaces. With oak, sanding too much opens up more of the grain, making the filling process more challenging. Sand only enough to dull the surface gloss.
Fill the wood grain: Determine the wood species of your cabinets. Wood with a closed grain, such as maple, is easier to paint because it doesn’t have any grain to fill, but oak does. Oak is super grainy, but filler helps level out the surface for a smoother profile when painted. The cabinets featured in this article were filled.
Do you have to fill the grain? With oak, pressure from a brush, or a roller, forces primer and paint into the grain and fills most of the grain. Spraying doesn’t do the same without spraying heavy coats. If you want to go the extra mile to get a smoother finish, filling is worth the effort, but more than one coat is needed to make a difference. I usually apply two to three coats. Three coats is ideal.
I use the newer version of Aqua Coat cabinet filler when I paint oak. In the past, there was only a clear gel version available, but the thicker white version is easier to work with and performs better. Lightly sand the filler with 220-grit sandpaper before applying the primer.
Caulk the cabinet frames: The gaps where the cabinet boxes meet the wall look a lot better caulked and painted. I use elastomeric caulk. The caulk takes longer to dry, but it’s more flexible and less prone to cracking. Use high quality caulk that is paintable.
Protect everything not being painted: Careful masking is critical for avoiding a mess. Use painter’s tape and masking materials for surface protection. You won’t have to do as much masking for brushing and rolling, but spraying is another story. Everything in the path of over-spray must be protected.
Priming and Painting Cabinets Black
I spray painted the black cabinets in this article with my Graco HVLP sprayer. There were only eight doors and the frame to paint. For larger cabinet projects, I use my Graco GX-19 sprayer. If you’re willing to learn how to use a sprayer, an HVLP set up, or an airless sprayer, will both give you a beautiful finish when used correctly, but you can achieve good results too with a high quality brush and roller.
Apply two prime coats: The biggest mistake people make is using latex primer on unpainted cabinets, or worse, not using primer at all. Use solvent-based primer. This is really important. For brushing and rolling, oil-based primer is one of the best options. For specific application tips, check out my article on priming wood with oil-based primer.
Oil-based primer is an awesome surface sealer for unpainted wood. In particular, the product Cover Stain works great for brushing and rolling, but for spraying, another excellent primer to go with is the shellac-based primer BIN. This stuff sprays really nice with no thinning needed. That is what I used for the project in this article.
With my HVLP sprayer, I sprayed two coats of BIN primer, sanding between each coat. The primer dries fast, allowing a re-coat within one hour. If you’re brushing and rolling your doors instead of spraying, use a 4-inch wide roller with 3/8-inch nap, or 1/4-inch nap.
Microfiber rollers work good, but make sure the roller you choose is made for use with solvent-based coatings. Don’t use a foam roller. They fall apart when used with solvent-based primer and paint. Use a roller on the paneled parts of the doors and the sides of the cabinet boxes and a high quality brush for the rest.
Apply two coats of enamel: Choose your paint wisely. High quality trim and door enamel is best. I used Pro Industrial water-based alkyd urethane enamel in the gloss finish for this project. This is the most glossy finish available for this product. The color is Tricorn Black from Sherwin Williams. I thinned the enamel with water until I achieved the desired viscosity for my HVLP sprayer. I used the same product and spray set up to paint staircase railings and spindles black and white on a separate project. An HVLP sprayer, when used correctly, will give you an automotive-like finish.
If you’re using an airless sprayer, the best spray tip sizes for the doors and sides of cabinet boxes is a 310 tip. For the cabinet frames, a 210, or even a 110, works good. I use the Graco FFLP tips from the RAC-X series. I recommend thinning your enamel with an airless sprayer too. Unlike an HVLP sprayer, an airless sprayer will spray enamel right out of the can without thinning, but thinning the material allows it to level out better so you don’t end up with orange peel texture.
Let your paint dry long enough: Allowing enough dry time between coats is important. Painting over the previous coat of black before it’s had a chance to cure enough can result in bubbles, or a tacky finish. Be sure to allow the paint to dry for a day or two before you handle the doors. I had to repaint a couple black painted doors after I damaged the paint with fingerprints. Black paint takes longer to dry, due to the extra colorant added to the mix.