If You Can't Love Your Laminates, Paint 'Em

By Jeanne Huber
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 22, 2005

Q Can cabinets made of Formica or other laminates be painted?

A Yes, you can paint laminate cabinets, even in a hardworking room such as a kitchen. It's a great way to update a room's look without spending much money.

Painting laminate is tricky because the surface is so smooth and slick that the paint has a hard time getting a good grip. It helps to scuff up the laminate with sandpaper before you paint, but the real trick is to use a formula designed to stick to slick surfaces. You have the option of using a powerful primer, which you can then top with whatever finish paint you want. Or you can skip primer and use one of several paints designed to go directly over laminate.

The Zinsser company makes two primers that it recommends for use over laminate: Bulls Eye 1-2-3, an acrylic formula in a water base, and B-I-N, a pigmented shellac formula with an alcohol base. Tim O'Reilly, manager for primers and sealers at Zinsser, recommends the shellac formula even though it will leave your kitchen smelling like alcohol for an hour or so and even though it's more of a hassle to remove from your tools. (You'll need to use ammonia or denatured alcohol.) The reason for his recommendation: Once the alcohol evaporates from the primer, typically in 45 minutes, the shellac finish is fully cured. Not only can you can proceed immediately to put on the finish paint, but you greatly speed up the time when your kitchen can return to being fully functional.

Although manufacturers don't talk about it much, water-based paint has the annoying characteristic of remaining somewhat soft and even a bit sticky for a considerable time after its surface is dry to the touch. If you top a relatively fresh coat of water-based primer with water-based paint, the time needed for a full cure may grow from a week or two to three or four. During that interim, if you butt two painted surfaces against one another and then pull them apart, there's a good chance that the paint on one surface will pull the paint off the other surface. With kitchen cabinets, that means that you either have to leave newly repainted doors off the cabinets for a month or risk pulling off patches of the cabinet paint. But if you use a shellac primer with a water-based topcoat, you may need to wait only a week -- or even less, if you use a painter's trick that O'Reilly suggests. Once the paint seems dry, smear a tiny bit of cooking oil along the cabinet doors where they touch the cabinets. The paint layers won't stick, but the finish will still cure.

The other approach to painting laminate skips the primer step and fast-forwards to the finish coat. This saves time but requires paint that is not readily available everywhere. One product that's designed to be applied directly to laminate is Diamond Hard Acrylic Enamel, manufactured by Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp. of Columbus, Ohio. (Within a few months, Yenkin-Majestic plans to relabel this product as Diamond Hard Cabinet and Furniture Paint.) The paint sticks to smooth, clean laminate. Scuffing the surface first is a good but optional step, says Gary Dinnell, vice president of Yenkin-Majestic. Adding primer first is a bad idea, however. "With this paint, if you use a primer, that will be the weak link in the system," he says. The paint cures fully in seven days, Dinnell says.

Whichever approach you take, the first steps are the same. Remove knobs and pulls. If hinges show or if they are easily removable, take doors down from the cabinets so you can paint with the doors propped up on sawhorses or a workbench. If the hinge hardware is concealed or if it is complicated to remove, consider masking the metal with tape and painting the doors in place.

Next, wipe down the cabinets with a low-sudsing, grease-cutting cleanser, such as TSP, and rinse off all the residue. When the surfaces are dry, you can sand them with 120-grit sandpaper. (Wear a disposable respirator and mask off doorways with plastic if you are working in the kitchen.) Vacuum off the sanding dust, and wipe surfaces with a damp cloth, a tack cloth or a microfiber dusting cloth.

After that, you proceed pretty much as if you were painting wood. Laminate cabinet doors usually are flat, which means your main challenge is to avoid leaving brush strokes. A roller or a paint pad may give you better results than a brush.

Can I also paint laminate countertops?

Yes. But if you want the surface to stand up to even ordinary use, you need to use special paint.

Water-based, two-part epoxy paint has the longest track record of success. One product of this type is Aqua-Tile Water Base Epoxy, made by Insl-x Superior Coating Systems of Stony Point, N.Y. Once you mix the two components, you have four hours to brush, roll or spray the paint onto the laminate (which should be cleaned and sanded as described in the previous answer). This paint dries to the touch in one hour. You can set things on the surface in two hours, and it cures fully in four days. If you want multiple coats, which add durability, you can apply them within a fairly flexible window: six hours to two days after the first coat.

Diamond Hard Acrylic Enamel, one of the paints suitable for laminate cabinets, can be used on countertops as well, according to the manufacturer, Yenkin-Majestic Paint Corp.

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