Interior Painting - Cabinets and Wood Trim

This time of year, at Great Plains Painting we see requests for interior painting spike.  Specifically people want estimates on switching their cabinets and/or trim from stained wood finish to painted.  As we’ve worked with homeowners over the years, we’ve noticed that some painters are giving estimates that are half or less than what we estimate.  When we’ve been able to investigate why, we’ve discovered that in most cases they’re following a different process that is quicker, but that we’ve definitely seen cause problems for the homeowner in the future.

We’ve written this post to educate homeowners about what’s going on and what we think you should be looking for in an estimate where you’re taking a stained surface to a painted one.

The important things to be aware of are:

  1. Bond - will I get a good bond between the newly painted top coat and the old surface or will the new top coat begin to crack and peel off quickly?
  2. Finish - are the cabinets being painted via brush / roller or is an airless sprayer being used to apply the top coat?  Is the finish saint or semi-gloss?
  3. What type of top coat is being used?  Is it a latex based wall paint or is it enamel?  Is it oil based or water based?
  4. Color - will they be light or dark?
  5. Caulking - is caulking necessary?  What gets caulked?

Disclaimer: ask 4 or 5 different painters what the best way to do anything is and you’re likely going to get 4 or 5 different answers.  What we are writing about is what we believe to be a process for painting stained wood trim that is in compliance with our experts at Sherwin Williams and that produces a finish that looks great and lasts a very very long time.  We base our recommendations on empirical evidence, having completed dozens of cabinet and trim painting projects none of which have failed and which our customers have loved.


Often times, old trim/cabinets that are wood finished are stained and then lacquered.  Lacquer is the glossy clear finish that goes over the stain to protect and seal the wood surface.  What we’ve seen fail is when a painter takes a regular latex paint and applies it directly over the lacquer surface.  The paint may bond for as long as a year, but when applied this way inevitably the paint will begin to peel in the future.  Of course applying the paint right over the lacquer without any prep is quick and therefore cheaper so it look enticing initially.  But when that begins to fail, the only real way to fix it is to remove all the paint that was applied and start over, which can be many times more expensive than applying the new top coat correctly the first time.

If you get a cheap estimate, find out what they’re doing for prep and what type of coating they’re proposing to use.  If painters you’re getting estimates from are taking shortcuts to make prices low and win work or flat out don’t know what they’re doing, it will cost you somewhere down the line.

The lacquer applied to the cabinets to seal them after staining fills the pores in the wood grain.  This makes it difficult for a top coat to bond to anything, because it’s being applied over a smooth glossy surface.  What needs to happen is that surface needs to be roughed up a little to give it some profile and a coating applied that is designed to stick to that type of surface.

We scuff sand the lacquer to rough it up and give a profile.  This doesn’t need to be a serious sanding, just a sanding sponge scuffed over the surface is all that’s required.

After the scuff sand an appropriate primer should be applied.  When we’re dealing with lacquer we like to go with an oil based primer.  Oil based primer seems to bite better and also locks up any tannins that might bleed through the new top coat.  A primer that sands easily is also a benefit in this case.

Step 1 of our cabinet painting projects is to setup our work area - making and plastic over everything non-painted, and then disassemble the cabinets.  Then scuff sand all the cabinets/trim being painted.  Then apply an oil based primer.

Following this process is time consuming and tedious, but pays dividends by ensuring the bond between old surface and new top coat is excellent.


Satin or Semi-Gloss

The standard for trim and cabinets used to be semi-gloss, but in the last couple of years we’ve been using more and more satin finishes of cabinets and trim.  A satin finish product has lower sheen which is beneficial for coating a stain based trim.

There are two types of wood used for cabinets and trim - stain grade and paint grade.  Stain grade are an open grain wood because after stained and finished you want to see the beautiful variations in the wood grain.  Paint grade are tight grained woods designed to look smooth and uniform after being painted.

Often times when painting over a stain grade wood we like to attempt to mute the wood grain a little.  The more sheen you have in the top coat, the more wood grain will be apparent, so a semi-gloss will show more wood grain whereas a satin finish will help mute the grain some.  Make no mistake, painting over a stain grade wood will always display some wood grain, but a satin finish helps because the sheen isn’t so high.

Brush and Roller vs Sprayer

All the cabinet projects we work on we paint via airless sprayer.  This results in a smooth and uniform finish that looks great.  To get the same smooth finish with a brush, the top coat has to be thinned out so the brush strokes level out and you don’t see them.  There’s a lot more prep involved in setting up an area so that you only spray what you want paint on and nothing else, but the finish is definitely worth it.  Painting with a brush requires a little less prep up front, but you sacrifice the nice finish.

In some cases, it is plain not feasible to spray.  We work in some homes where there is too much furniture or the owners can’t completely shut down areas of the house for a couple days and these things make spraying impossible.

Spraying will yield the nicest finish, but depending on your situation there may be some areas that require the top coat to be applied via other methods.

Type of Coating

Another area we have seen something we wouldn’t ever do is application of a normal latex based paint over stained trim/cabinets.  There are really 2 types of top coats we use in interior applications: 1) latex wall paint and 2) enamel.  Wall paint is made for drywall.  Enamel is designed for trim and doors.  The difference is that enamel dries harder than wall paint.  Because trim, cabinets, and doors receive more abuse than walls do a harder coating that won’t chip as easily is recommended.

Make sure you understand what anyone painting trim or cabinets for you is using and why they think that is the best product for the job.

Oil Based vs Water Based

Another consideration is oil based products vs water based ones.  Oil base is the older method and water based is what everyone is moving to.  California doesn’t allow oil based products to be sold in gallon sizes any longer because they do contain harmful chemical compounds.

Oil Based Pros:

  • dries harder than water based
  • applies smoother, though water based products have made huge strides in this area over the last 5 years

Oil Based Cons

  • higher VOCs.  The odor makes it so you want to be wearing a respirator when working with or near these paints
  • harder cleanup - must use mineral spirits to clean up oil based products
  • tend to yellow over time in the lighter colors

Water Based Pros

  • easy cleanup - just water
  • won’t yellow like oil based
  • low odor, low VOC

Water Based Cons

  • doesn’t flow exactly like oil, doesn’t lay down as smooth, though it’s getting close
  • doesn’t dry quite as hard as oil based

On our projects, we normally use an oil based primer to achieve the best bond and follow that with a water based top coat.


We used to run primarily light colors on trim and cabinets, but the darker colors are becoming trendy in kitchens.  For enamels, pushing dark toners into the base used to be a problem and Sherwin Williams wouldn’t even do it for us, making us use an industrial product that would be hard for homeowners to get their hands on if they ever needed more paint.

Sherwin Williams recognized this and released their Emerald Urethane Enamel product.  It’s an excellent enamel for trim, cabinets, and doors and can be tinted to black if desired without compromising its quality.


On cabinets projects especially caulking is often a case by case basis.  When we’re enameling new, paint grade cabinets we caulk all the seams and cracks because after they’re painted you get the nicest, most uniform finish by doing so.  Paint grade cabinets are specifically designed to allow doing this.

When we’re working with stained cabinets that are being enameled, it’s a different story.  Stain grade cabinets tend to expand and contract some as temps and moisture content rise and fall.  If the seams and cracks are caulked on stained cabinets before enamel, then over the years that caulking will begin to crack out as they move.  If it doesn’t happen for several years and then we come back to try and touch it up, the color in the original enamel has changed just enough that the touchup is noticeable, forcing a complete re-enamel of that area which is more expensive.

So, we don’t caulk all the seams on stained cabinets we’re switching to enamel.  Keep in mind that you’re changing the top coat to something that the wood was not designed for so there are compromises in doing so.

Cabinets and Trim

No matter what you’re doing ask a lot of questions.  The more information you get as a homeowner the better decisions you’ll be able to make.  Whether you have paint grade cabinets and you’re changing the color or you have stained cabinets and trim you want enameled you can achieve a finished product that looks amazing if you pick the right people to work with.

We hope you’ll find this info helpful. If you’re looking for professional interior painting in Kansas City contact Great Plains Painting today!