Painting the cabinets in kitchens can be a fun DIY project, essentially refinishing your kitchen cabinets to make the space feel brand new again. You'll often see woods like hard maple, soft maple, and red oak being used for these painting projects.
However, what's actually the best wood for painting kitchen cabinets?
Not all woods were made equally – some absorb paint better than others, while some are naturally stronger and more durable than others. The best wood for painted cabinets needs to have multiple qualities of strength, smooth grain, and paint adherence to make it suitable for the job.
In this Kitchen Infinity blog we're going to look at the best woods for painted cabinetry and answer some of your FAQs.
What type of wood is best to paint?
Different cabinet doors require different types of wood depending on their style and the aesthetic you're going for with your kitchen overall.
While there's no single “best type of wood for painting cabinets“, there are many contenders that have their own pros and cons to consider:
MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is endlessly popular in kitchen designs because it's cheap, stable, and relatively durable if you take care of it. MDF is also pretty easy to sand and repaint if you want to freshen up your kitchen's look further down the line.
MDF is also one of the most common wood species used for laminate cabinet styles, so it's a good choice if you're going for that glossy, contemporary style.
Hard maple and soft maple
Despite the names, both hard maple and soft maple are technically classed as hardwoods, making them strong and ideal for cabinet kitchen paint jobs.
Hard maple and soft maple are both very strong and durable, withstanding a lot of the everyday kitchen wear and tear.
If you're thinking about renovating further down the line, hard maple and soft maple are great choices because they're very easy to strip and repaint at a later date.
If you want longlasting wood cabinet doors that keep your painting options open, look into hard and soft maple woods.
Paint-grade poplar is usually the cheapest paintable wood you can find.
While it won't last as long as harder woods, this cheap wood is still a good option for painting your kitchen cabinets if you don't need them to last for decades.
Hickory is a strong, hard, and durable wood that will last for years if treated correctly. Primed and painted the right way, this wood can look stunning on your cabinets.
Hickory wood comes with either a reddish-brown or white grain, both of which can look at home as the cabinet doors of traditional kitchens.
Cherry wood is very heavy, hard, and strong. If you're going to use this wood species for your cabinetry, make sure that your hinges and framework are very strong to hold up this heavy wood!
The natural finish of cherry wood is beautiful – it's perfect for smooth sanding and rustic dark stains. The color of this wood species is naturally pretty, so it's a good wood to just stain and let the finish speak for itself.
An all-around decent hardwood, mahogany varies slightly in color from reddish-brown to a medium red.
The wood has a medium-coarse texture with straight interlocked grain which can be sanded down well if you know what you're doing.
It can also be painted or stained beautifully.
Heavy and pale in color, this medium-hard wood is a good middle-ground option in terms of your budget. If you want to give your kitchen a traditional or transitional look without breaking the bank, beech could be a good option.
The light color of beech wood makes it naturally great for paint or stains, especially if you want to use lighter colors which might have a hard time on darker wood species.
Another pale wood species, this light rosy-colored wood tends to redden over time.
Tight-knotted and close-grained, douglas fir wood can be used well for cabinet door panels if you're an experienced craftsperson who knows what they're doing.
What's the worst type of wood to paint?
Though all woods have their pros and cons, you generally want to stay away from “open grain wood species” when painting cabinet doors for your kitchen.
This is because open grain woods like Red Oak, White Oak, and Ash have rough wood grain textures that show through most paints, giving you a rough-looking finish.
However, some people like to use Red Oak purely because of the rough, rustic finish.
With enough sanding, you might be able to use these open-grain woods, but they're not a walk in the park by any means.
Generally speaking, you should stick to “closed grain” wood species like maple and birch because their textures are a lot easier to paint over and they tend to be well-covered with color after painting.
What kind of plywood do you use to paint cabinets?
Plywood is a great budget-friendly option if you're looking to paint your cabinetry without spending a fortune. Lots of kitchens feature plywood cabinetry, and most of the time it can be painted just like any other wood.
Any good-condition plywood should be fine.
When painting plywood cabinet doors, make sure that you sand them, prime them, paint them with high-quality cabinet paints, and then use any topcoats or polyurethane layers as necessary.
Of course, if they're dented, rotted, or falling apart, you need to get some new wood.
What wood is cheapest for cabinets?
When it comes to cheap woods for your kitchen cabinet doors, it all depends on the style you're going for.
For example, more traditional-style kitchens will often use Red Oak wood because it's cheap, strong, and gives a rustic look. However, as mentioned earlier, this is an “open grain” wood species which means that it has a rough finish and it's difficult to paint over.
It works for that rustic, rough finish.
On the other hand, more modern kitchen designs usually use MDF as a cheap wood type for cabinetry. MDF is strong enough to last for many years if you care for it properly, and it's also incredibly easy to sand and paint. You'll also find that laminate cabinets are often made with MDF cores, so it's perfect if you're looking for a modern, high-gloss cabinet on the cheap.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the finish you need and how durable you need them to be!
What paint do cabinet makers use?
As you may have guessed, cabinet makers use many different paints depending on what they're doing.
However, in general you're going to find high-quality oil-based or latex-based wood paints that are best suited to the type of wood being used for the project.
Water-based paints tend to be less commonly used by contractors.
Cabinet makers will also use reputable primers, topcoats, polyurethane coats and lacquers wherever necessary, ensuring that the face frames and cabinet doors look their best. Here are 4 paint finishes compared for your reference.
If the cabinet set is going to be put in a kitchen, then the paints used usually have a soft satin finish or a semi-gloss finish. Unless you're going for an ultra-modern aesthetic, these half-shiny paints tend to look the best without being difficult to clean.
Cabinet makers are going for a soft, homely look most of the time!
The Bottom Line
There are many different types of wood used for painted cabinetry, whether it's soft maple, hard maple, MDF, cherry, or anything in between. As long as the wood you're working with is tough, closed-grain, and the right base color, then you should be fine.
If in doubt about the best type of wood for your face frames or cabinet doors, consider speaking to a designer or tradesperson to see what would work best.
Personally, I love painted maple, but each to their own.
Whatever wood species you use for your painted cabinets, remember to follow the instructions, prepare the wood properly, and keep it sturdy. Have fun!