Before you start
The actual work involved in painting a door typically amounts
to three to five hours, depending on the condition of the door
and how fussy you are. But
add in the drying time and it's
a full-day project. So if you're
painting a door you can't live
without—like a bathroom or
exterior door—get started first
thing in the morning so it can
be back in service by day's
While you're picking a paint
color, also think about sheen:
With a flat finish, scuff marks
and handprints are hard to wipe away. High gloss is easy to
clean but accentuates every little flaw, so your prep and paint
job have to be perfect. Satin and semigloss are good compromise
choices. Also check the operation of the door. If it rubs
against the jamb or drags on the carpet, now's the time to sand
or plane the edges. If you have several doors that need painting,
start with the least prominent one. It's better to make
learning mistakes on the inside of a closet door than on your
If your home was built
before 1979, check the paint
for lead before you sand. For
more information, go to: hud.gov/offices/lead
Pros often paint doors in place. But from prep to painting,
you'll get better results if you remove the door. Working in your
garage, shop or basement, you can control lighting and drying
conditions better. And laying the door flat minimizes runs in
the paint job. Here's what to do after you remove the door:
- Clean the door with a household cleaner. Almost any cleaner
will do, as long as it cuts grease. Areas around doorknobs are
especially prone to greasy buildup.
- Remove all the door hardware to get a neater paint job and
save time. If you're dealing with more than one door, avoid
hardware mix-ups by labeling plastic bags that will hold the
hardware for each door.
- Fill dents and holes with a sandable filler such as MH Ready Patch. You'll probably have to fill deep dents twice to compensate
- Remove old paint from the hardware. Start with a product
intended to remove paint splatter such as Goof Off Pro Strength Remover or Goo Gone Painter's Pal, both available through our affiliation with Amazon.com. You can use paint strippers,
but they may also remove clear coatings from the hardware or
damage some types of finishes.
If your door is in good shape, all it needs is a light sanding with
sandpaper or a sanding sponge (180 or 220 grit). That will
roughen the surface a little and allow the primer to adhere
better. But most likely, you'll also need to smooth out chipped
paint and imperfections from previous paint jobs. This is usually
the most time-consuming, tedious part of the project. Here
are some tips for faster,
- Paint often sticks to sandpaper,
clogging the grit and
making it useless. So be sure
to check the label and buy
sandpaper intended for
paint. You may still get some
clogging, but you'll get less.
This goes for sponges and other abrasives too.
- Start with 120 or 150 grit. You can switch to coarser paper
(such as 80 grit) on problem areas, but be sure to follow up with
finer grit to smooth out the sanding scratches.
- On flat areas, a hard sanding block will smooth the surface
much better than sponges or other soft-backed abrasives
- Try a finishing or random-orbit sander on flat areas. It might
save you tons of time. Then again, the sandpaper may clog
immediately from heat buildup. It depends on the type and age
of the paint.
- Buy a collection of sanding sponges and pads for the shaped
areas. Through trial and error, you'll find that some work better
than others on your profiles.
- Inspect your work with low-angle lighting (see Photo 4).
Water-Based Alkyd is Best
Some paints show brush marks, ridges
and roller stipple no matter how skillful
or careful you are. Others go on
smoothly and then level out beautifully,
even if you're not a master painter.
If you want a smooth finish, choose a paint designed for that. Some paints,
even good-quality paints, just aren't formulated for smoothness. Smooth
paints are usually labeled “enamel” or “door and trim.” But the label alone
doesn't tell you enough; some brands of “enamel” are much better than
others. Advice from the store staff, and the price, are the best indicators.
Super-smooth paints often cost $25 to $30 per quart! But it's worth an extra 10 bucks per door to get first-class results.
Among the paints we've used, one category stands out for smoothness:
water-based alkyds. These paints dry slowly for extra working time and level
out almost as well as traditional oil-based alkyds. After applying them with
a high-quality roller, you can usually skip the brush-out step shown in Photos 7
and 9 and still get perfect results. Cleanup is as easy as with any other
water-based paint. The disadvantages of water-based alkyds are a very long
wait before recoating (16 to 24 hours) and a high price tag. Here are two we've
used: Benjamin Moore Advance Waterborne Interior Alkyd and Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Interior Waterbased Acrylic-Alkyd Enamel. To find a
dealer in your area, go to: benjaminmoore.com or sherwin-williams.com.
Tips for a perfect workspace
After the messy job of sanding is done, set the door aside and
prep your workspace. For priming and painting, you want a
work zone that's well lit and clean. Sawdust on your workbench
will end up on brushes; airborne dust will create whiskers
on the paint. The conditions in your work area should
allow paint to dry slowly. Slower drying means more time for
you to smooth the paint before it becomes gummy and more
time for the paint to level itself. Here's how to prep your space:
- Clean everything. Vacuum work surfaces and sweep the floor.
- Minimize air movement for less airborne dust and slower
drying. Close doors and windows. Turn off forced-air heating or
- Don't rely on overhead lighting; you may even want to turn
it off. Instead, position a work light 4 to 5 ft. above the floor.
This low-angle light will accentuate any drips or ridges.
- Have all your tools and supplies ready, including a pail of
water to dunk your paint tools in as soon as you're done.
- If you're working in the garage, unplug the garage door
opener so it can't be opened while you work. An opening door
Remove hair with tweezers.
Favorite Painting Tricks
Make the door flippable
Drive one screw into one end and two into the other. That
lets you coat both sides of the door without waiting for the
first side to dry. Drill pilot holes and drive 5/16 x 5-in. lag
screws about halfway in. Smaller screws can bend and let
the door drop just as you're finishing the final coat.
Wet the floor
Two benefits for the price of one: A wet floor prevents you
from kicking up dust that will create dust nubs in your
finish. Better yet, it raises the humidity, which extends the
time you have to smooth out the paint and gives the paint
more time to level out. In our informal experiments, raising
the humidity doubled the working time of the paint. (We also
discovered that slick floors get even slicker when wet,
which can lead to Three Stooges-style paint accidents.
Keep a pair of tweezers handy
Pluck out paintbrush bristles or rescue stuck insects
without messing up the paint. This works great with other
finishes too. For marital harmony, don't return the
tweezers to the medicine cabinet. Buy a new pair (another
lesson learned the hard way).
You can “spot-prime” a door, coating only patched dents or
areas you sanded through to bare wood. But priming the whole
door is best; the new paint will stick better and you'll get a
more uniform finish. Here are some tips for this critical step:
- Your choice of primer is just as important as your choice of
paint. At the paint store, ask for a primer that's compatible
with your paint, levels out well and sands smoothly.
- Have the primer tinted, based on the color of your paint.
- Apply the primer with just as much care as the paint and
following the same steps (see Photos 5 – 9). Also check out the
painting tips in the next section.
- For an ultra-smooth paint job, apply two coats of primer. With a thick build of primer, you can sand the prime coat glassy-smooth, without sanding through to the old paint.
- Lightly sand the primer with 220-grit, inspecting as you go (Photo 4). A couple of quick passes is all it takes. If you're not in a rush to get the door back in service, let the primer dry overnight before sanding. The longer it dries, the better it will sand.
Back to Top
Painting a door is a race against time. You have to lay down the
paint and smooth it out before it becomes too sticky to work
with, or so stiff that brush marks won't level out and disappear.
Keep moving. Don't stop to answer the phone or get coffee.
Minutes count. In warm, dry conditions, even seconds matter.
- Consider a paint additive to slow down drying and improve
leveling. Your paint dealer can recommend one that's compatible
with your paint.
- Start with a dust-free door; wipe it down with a damp rag
just before painting.
- Spend at least $10 to get a quality brush for a smoother finish. Pro painters disagree about the size and type to use, but most prefer a 2-in. or 2 1/2-in. sash brush.
- Don't use cheap roller sleeves or you'll get fibers in the finish.
Use a mini roller and get good results with microfiber, mohair
and foam sleeves. Foam sleeves also leave a smooth finish,
but they hold very little paint, which slows you down.
- Paint all four edges of the door first (Photo 5). Here's why: when
painting edges, some paint inevitably slops onto the faces of the door. It's better to have that happen before the faces are painted.
- Brush on a light coat. A heavy coat of paint covers better and
sometimes levels out better, but runs are more likely and brush
marks are deeper. So start out lightly, then lay it on a little
thicker as your brush skills improve.
- Roll on the paint where you can. Rollers lay on paint much
faster than a brush, giving you a few more precious minutes to
work the paint before it begins to stiffen.
- Brush out rolled paint. Brushed paint usually levels out better
than rolled paint, and any brush marks are less noticeable than
roller stipple. But you might be able to skip the brush-out step altogether.
With top-quality enamel and roller sleeves, roller results
can be super smooth. This depends in part on drying conditions,
so try it on a closet door or a primed scrap of wood first.
- Plan to apply at least two coats and lightly sand between
coats with 220-grit to remove any dust nubs.
The Ultimate Smooth Finish
Even the most skilled painter can't match the perfection of
a sprayed-on finish. There are two types of sprayers: “airless”
and “HVLP” (high-volume, low-pressure). Both can
apply a flawless coat in minutes, but HVLP is more forgiving;
it produces a finer spray, which reduces your chances
of blasting on too much paint and creating runs. Many
HVLP sprayers won't spray acrylic/latex paint. For a model
that will, expect to spend $100 to $150, well worth it if you
have a house full of doors to paint. Aside from finish quality,
a sprayer will also save you hours of brushwork if you
have several doors to paint. For more on both airless and
HVLP sprayers, see Paint Sprayer Reviews and Painting With an Airless Sprayer.