Painting paneled doors is the ultimate painter's challenge. To make it easier, we tried different tools and paints and watched pros work. Here's what we found.
By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine
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$20 – $100
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 end.
Best Paint for Interior Doors and Trim
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 entry door. Keep reading for more tips on how to paint a door.
If your home was built before 1979, check the paint for lead before you sand. For more information, go to: hud.gov/offices/lead.
Photo 1: Remove all the hardware
Slice through paint buildup around hinges and latches. Otherwise, you might splinter surrounding wood as you remove hardware.
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 for shrinkage.
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.
Photo 2: Sand it smooth
On flat areas, level out old runs and brush marks with a hard sanding block. For the shaped profiles, you’ll need a combination of sanding pads, sponges and scraps of sandpaper.
Photo 3: Remove the sanding dust
A vacuum with a brush attachment removes most of the dust. Wipe off the rest with a damp rag.
Photo 4: Sand after priming
Sand out any imperfections in the prime coat. Shine a light across the surface at a low angle to accentuate imperfections. If you find any spots that need an extra dab of filler, mark them with tabs of masking tape.
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, better results:
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 (Photo 2).
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 cooling.
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 raises dust.
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. Be careful.)
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).
Photo 5: Paint the edges and wipe off the slop
Brush or roll paint onto all four edges. Immediately wipe any paint that slops onto the face of the door with a rag or foam brush. You don’t have to completely remove the paint, but you do have to flatten it to prevent ridges.
Photo 6: Brush around the panels
Work the paint into the corners and grooves, then drag the brush over the paint to smooth it. Wipe away any slop around the panel as shown in Photo 5.
Photo 7: Roll, then brush the panels
Coat the panels quickly with a roller. Then smooth the paint with a brush. Be careful not to touch the profiles surrounding the panel.
Photo 8: Roll the rails and stiles
Roll the door in sections, coating no more than one-quarter of the door at a time. Then brush out the paint. Be careful not to slop paint over the edges around the panels.
Photo 9: Brush with the grain
Brush across the joints where door parts meet. Then drag your brush in a straight line along the intersection. That way, any visible brush marks will look more like a wood grain pattern and less like sloppy brushwork.
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.
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.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
You’ll also need a shop light and tweezers.
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.