To paint oak or NOT to paint oak… that is the question answered today.

Painted cabinets and millwork is not a new trend.  It gained popularity during the recession because of its very attractive price point.  Plus, there are few things more enjoyable than a clean, bright, spanking-new kitchen in the whitest of whites!  And while trends do come and go, paint is sticking around…at least a little while longer.

Whether painting your millwork on your own or requesting it be finished professionally, there are some things you should know about wood.  First, wood is a natural material.  No matter the species, there will be imperfections and idiosyncrasies about the wood you already have (or select) because a factory didn’t make it, mother nature did!  If you’re working with a knotty species, you will have knots and usually in varying sizes.  Also, many woods vary in color.  Sometimes by a lot (poplar and hickory), sometimes by just a little (alder and fir).

Perhaps the single most important thing you should know before painting any wood is it’s grain structure.  Why?  Because you’re going to want to know if the paint you’re spreading on that wood is going to get sucked into the wood or lie right on top, nice and even.  I’m including a handy-dandy, reference chart for us here:

You will see that Oak is an open-grained species.  Like many open-grained wood species, oak likes to absorb moisture!  Great for staining because that’s what we want the wood to do with stain; terrible for painting or exposing to the elements.  Why?  Because open-grained woods typically have a more extreme texture than tight-grained woods and while your brush might apply the paint on evenly, as soon as that layer of paint dries, it will not have reached across all those microscopic valleys between pores because some of it will have been absorbed.  Worse, the raised portion of the grain is a darker color than the lower portion of the grain and will continue to peek out beneath the paint.  These factors make it very challenging to achieve a smooth, painted finish on oak.  Here’s a close-up example:

Simply put, oak likes to be stained, not painted.

-Holly Bayer, ASID