A past customer of mine had contacted me and wanted to talk kitchen cabinets. Looking at being empty nesters in a few years they were tackling a laundry list of items to update their home for resale. Now, when these cabinets were originally constructed they were in the “dream kitchen” category. They were a raised panel oak with a golden/honey tone stain that would’ve been the envy of the block. Also, there was a lot of them. Nearly thirty doors.
Sadly, even with the excellent quality workmanship that was very apparent throughout the kitchen, the time was nigh for an update. She had already received a quote for a re-facing of the cabinets (that’s new doors and face-frames) that was more than she thought she thought needed to be invested for a good re-sale. New cabinets were out of the question as the return on investment just wouldn’t make sense. The obvious next suggestion was paint. Would that help update the kitchen so as to not be a stumbling block in a sale of the house? Her interior decorator thought so and picked out a colour for her.
The problem? Her cabinets were oak, with the inherent deep, open grain of that species of wood. Run your hand over a piece of oak in your home. Rough eh? When painted that grain doesn’t go away and shows very poorly on cabinets. They end up looking… painted. And not in that fresh-from-the-factory kind of way. Any painted oak projects that I have seen looked really home-spun, even if a pro did them. The grain is so visible that it looks like the Dickens. My secret weapon? Grain filler.
Click to enlarge to better view the open grain on the back side of this drawer face.
Now check out the smooth finish on this door front...
Grain filler is a product that comes either in an oil or water based form. Different manufacturers differ in their suggested application method but essentially it allows you to finish an open grain wood like oak or walnut to a glass like smoothness. Species like maple or birch, although with their own challenges for finishing, are tight grained and can be painted without the unsightly open grain. With oak or walnut, you simply apply the filler, sand it down, then prime and paint. Sounds simple but do it for thirty doors! If you happen to be staining raw wood, you can tint grain fillers so that the entire surface looks natural. Important: Grain filler is not Wood filler and cannot be used as such. Many finishers have a home-made blend that they create in their shops but it can be bought on-line through many distributors. Local paint shops tend not to carry it as it is fairly obscure.
The results for my customer? I applied the filler to both the doors and carcass faces of the cabinets, sanded and painted. The doors were sent off-site for spray painting. The result was excellent. The door backs, which were painted but not filled, had very pronounced grain showing but the fronts were as if they came from a factory. In that really-nice-job way.