Paint-Grade Cabinet Doors – Which Woods Paint Best & Which Woods To Avoid?

Posted by Jim Hill on Dec 2nd 2019

Many folks searching the internet for Poplar Cabinets or Paint-Grade Cabinet Doors find our website and ask questions about painting cabinet doors. After explaining the pros and cons of painting a cabinet door, we decided to add the question-and-answer to our Blog.

Because we manufacture kitchen cabinet doors, and have built many ten’s of thousands of paint grade cabinet doors, we have acquired significant experience with the different wood types. Some wood types paint well and some not so well. Usually if we are told that the cabinet door is going to be painted, and the wood requested will not paint well, we can offer a suggestion that another wood type might be a better candidate for painting.

Most Popular Woods Used On Paint Grade Cabinet Doors

The woods typically used by professionals on their paint-grade cabinet doors are the tighter-grained woods like Poplar, Soft Maple, Alder, Pine, Birch, Hard Maple, and MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). The woods we offer can be seen here.

Woods like Oak are rarely painted because of the “Orange peel” look the open grain causes.
If an open grain wood like Oak is the only choice you have, it is recommended that the grain be filled with Drywall putty, Bondo, or a similar thick sealer then sanded to a smooth surface before painting.

The prices for the recommended paint-grade woods run from Poplar (cheapest), Soft Maple, Alder, Pine, Birch, and Hard Maple being the most expensive. Birch Wood is actually the same wood most pull out shelves are constructed with.

Each of these woods have their own advantages and disadvantages, but there are a few practices that will apply to whichever wood type is chosen to paint.

  • The first is the “prep-prep-prep” rule. That means that every hour spent preparing the cabinet door for painting saves two hours in repainting.
  • The second is the 5-F’s rule. This rule is “Fine Finishers Finish Firewood First”. It simply means that experimenting with your finish on scrap wood can prevent ruining a door with a failed finishing attempt.
  • The third is always break all sharp edges with fine sandpaper before painting. Sharp edges will not hold paint and will give the dried paint an unpainted spot to absorb moisture.
  • The forth is to keep in mind that all wood types will expand and contract with changes in humidity. The paint will slow these humidity-caused wood movements, but no paint is totally moisture-proof, and paint will not stop the movements. This humidity-movement of wood presents another potential issue for the painted cabinet door. When the paint dries, it will no longer have the elasticity to move with the wood; so it will crack, usually along the glue joints where the Stiles & Rails join.
  • The fifth relates to the hardness of the paint-grade wood. The softer the wood, the more easily it will dent, if hit with a pot or frying pan. The dent in the wood may be slight and hardly noticeable, but dried paint doesn’t dent without cracking. The weakest link in any painted cabinet door is not the door. Regardless of the wood type used, the weakest link is always the paint.
  • The sixth practice covers the method of application of the paint. The desired look from painting a cabinet door is usually a high gloss finish, similar to the finish on a piano. A finish of this quality will certainly require a highly experienced finishing professional, and a dust-free spray booth. This doesn’t mean you can’t achieve an excellent finish, but it does mean you won’t get this piano-finish with a paint brush in your driveway. To get a professional looking finish you will need to spray-on the paint. Not from a Krylon can, but from an compressed-air, or airless, spray painting system.

Blame The Grain

Wood that is used to paint for cabinets or other purposes typically features tight grained wood species. These are woods such as maple, poplar, pine, and others. The tight surface of the wood provides a good surface for the paint to be applied to and covers the natural ripples and texture in the wood. Open grained wood as more prominent grain which has rougher texture. To look good when painted these open grained woods need to be covered with filler to have that smooth look when painted.

Soft Maple & Poplar

Soft maple and poplar are common for the door panels, end frames, and face frames in cabinet doors. This is because they are workable and keeps cost down. Many carpenters and cabinet makers find that poplar can dent easily and tends to absorb more paint than other species. Other tight grained woods are easier to work with and paint yet are more costly and sometimes have limited availability. Some homeowners choose hard maple yet there is greater likelihood of humidity causing the wood to move slightly.

MDF & Cabinetry

The frames and end faces can be built from medium density fiberboard (MDF). It can also be used for door panels, however it can be difficult to finish. Due to the difficulty to finish MDF other varieties of wood are preferred for stiles and rails. MDF is used for larger sections as it is dimensionally stable. Other options for larger sections are birch plywood and prefinished plywood.

Which Woods Are Best For Paint-Grade Kitchen Cabinet Doors?

Here is a brief summary of our experience with the various paint-grade woods. Like just about everything in life the world is full of opinions, yet there is some consensus on which are the best types of wood that is best for painted cabinets. Wood that is tight grained but also workable produce long lasting durable cabinet doors. Whichever wood is preferred just about everyone agrees that the surface of the wood needs to be prepared first. This is done by applying shellac and filler to knots and rough spots so there isn’t any bleed through. Sharp corners should also be sanded so they will hold paint better. Here are some of the types of wood that are best for painted cabinet doors.

  • Poplar, for years has been the paint-grade wood of choice for furniture makers and cabinet shops. It has Soft Maple as a competitor because Poplar tends to be more labor intensive to sand and finish, but Soft Maple is more expensive. Poplar has a tendency to “fuzz-up” during sanding, and if any of the fuzz is missed before painting, it certainly is never missed after painting. Both woods tend to be absorbent and require more sealer or more paint that harder woods. The finish obtained on Poplar and Soft Maple is excellent, and both woods remain the most popular paint-grade woods.
  • Soft Maple rivals Poplar as the wood of choice by Custom Cabinet Shops for their Paint-Grade Cabinet Door jobs. Both are low cost. Both are available over most of the country. It sands easier than Alder and it doesn’t “fuzz-up” like Alder or Poplar while sanding, and it sands faster. It doesn’t absorb sealer quite as much as Poplar and finishes very smooth, and doesn’t telegraph it’s grain through the paint, like Pine.
  • Alder makes a good paintable cabinet door but tends to absorb primer at a high rate and is among the “softer” of the hardwoods. It grows in the Northwest and may not be available in all parts of the country and it is more expensive. Painted Alder is used more in the West, where it is more available, than other parts of the country, and it gives an excellent painted finish look.
  • Pine is available everywhere and is widely painted in furniture applications. It is reasonably inexpensive and is carried by all lumber yards and Big Box Stores. Furniture grade Pine is different from Frame grade Pine, like framing 2×6’s. Frame Grade Pine is typically not kiln dried to the 7-9% moisture levels required of furniture Grade woods. While Pine paints well the prominent grain can “telegraph” its texture through the painted surface, and knots and pitch pockets may bleed through the paint.
  • Birch is an excellent wood for painting and is starting to be carried by the Big Box Stores. Birch plywood is also available as 9-ply in 5’x5′ and 4’x8′ sheets. Birch is harder than Alder, Pine, and Soft Maple, so it will stand up better to “Kid abuse” than the softer woods. It does tend to be more expensive but will require less sealer or primer than the softer woods.
  • Hard Maple is the best wood available for paint-grade cabinet doors. Unfortunately, It’s also the most expensive of the paint-grade woods costing about 2 1/2 times the price of Soft Maple. Because “color” is not an inspection criteria under the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), heartwood and mineral are not considered defects and lumber buyers purchasing the highest grades still receive some of this off-color maple. Because of this, cabinet door manufacturers often have Hard Maple with dark heartwood, or mineral streaks, which they have sorted out. Custom Cabinet Shops that purchase our doors depend on the cabinet doors for the overall appearance of their cabinets, so door manufactures cannot use this off-color Hard Maple for Select Maple Cabinet Doors. If we have a sufficient stock, we will use this off-color Hard Maple for our Paint Grade doors if it is requested by the customer, and we will make the substitution at no additional cost. When painted, off-color Hard Maple requires less primer, sands smoother, and is significantly harder that any of the standard paint-grade woods we offer.
  • Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is an engineered wood product formed by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibers. MDF is used as the panel in all of our Recessed Panel Paint-Grade Cabinet Doors, and is used as the Raised Panel in some of our Raised Panel doors. MDF paints well and it is a good idea to coat all sides of the finished piece in order to seal in the urea-formaldehyde. Formaldehyde resins are commonly used to bind MDF together, and testing has consistently revealed that MDF products emit urea-formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds that pose health risks at sufficient concentrations, for at least several months after manufacture. Most cabinet and furniture manufacturers have been using MDF for several decades and the risks of Formaldehyde resin emissions, when the products are painted is considered negligible.

Thank you for reading “Paint-Grade Cabinet Doors – Which Woods Paint Best & Which Woods To Avoid?”. Stay tuned for more from the expert cabinet door manufacturers at Cabinetdoors.Com. 

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