Some woods like paint and some don't.
Here's a quick rundown of which woods to use and which ones to avoid if you're painting your cabinets.
The best woods for painted cabinetry:
1. Soft Maple
Despite its name, Soft Maple is actually considered to be a hard wood when it comes to density (harder than both Poplar and Alder). Which makes it perfect for a paint finish since it won't absorb as much sealer and paint.
It also has little to no grain and sands fast so it's easy to achieve that smooth and flawless paint look. Low-cost, sustainable, and easy to finish, you can't go wrong with Soft Maple.
With its naturally light tone, Alder is a great wood to use for lighter paint colors since it won't show through.
And although you can get a really rich and long-lasting finish out of it, it's important to know this wood is a softer hardwood, so it will soak up a lot of sealer and paint.
It also exclusively grows in the Northwest, so it's not always available in all parts of the country and because of that can be more expensive.
High-density and highly durable, Birch is a great wood if you anticipate any hard use or abuse with your cabinets (sooo... kids.) It also takes less sealer/primer which is always a plus. Can you tell we're Team Less Primer over here?
4. Hard Maple
If Poplar is McDonald's and Birch is Olive Garden, then Hard Maple is the 5-star restaurant you need a reservation 4 months in advance for. In other words, when you want to impress, go with Hard Maple.
Considered to be the best hardwood for painting, Hard Maple delivers a smooth, rich, refined finish. The only downside? It might break the bank a little since it's one of the most expensive options.
5. European Beech
Beech is not a cabinetmaker's first thought when it comes to woods that look good painted, but we're big fans over here.
It's a high quality hardwood that's easy to work with and machines, glues, and finishes really well.
Honorable Mention: HDF
We know, we know. We're talking about wood here. But HDF is one of the best, most cost-effective options when it comes to painted cabinet doors.
It's an engineered wood that has absolutely no grain, a smooth surface, machines really well, and is actually harder than several traditional hardwoods.
If you want to know more about HDF, we have some pretty in-depth blog posts about it and how it compares to wood here:
Let's talk about Poplar
Poplar is a popular choice for most cabinetmakers (...sorry, we couldn't help it). And we couldn't go this entire post without at least mentioning it.
It's one of the most affordable species on the market which is what makes it a go-to wood for a lot of people, but if we're honest, it's not our favorite for paint. Here's why:
- Poplar is an endgrain wood that is extremely porous. Because of that, it has a tendency to absorb a lot of paint. So in order to get a complete opaque finish, it requires a bit more primer and paint.
- Poplar also has a tendency to "fuzz up" during sanding. So if you don't notice it before finishing, well... you definitely will after. This is an easy fix though. Just make sure to double, triple, quadruple check for that fuzz before painting whenever you work with Poplar.
- It's one of the softest woods you can use for cabinets. Which means it dents easily. And when that happens, your paint will crack.
Woods to avoid when painting:
If you take anything away from this post, take this: Do not paint Oak.
Here's the thing. Oak is an open grained wood. Which means it has a very porous, prominent woodgrain texture that will 100% show through paint.
See what we mean? The result is just a really rough finish. You can of course use wood filler to fill in that grain, but we think it's best to just avoid this wood altogether for paint.
Ash is another wood that just isn't the best for paint. Similar to Oak, it's heavy grained and very textured. Beautiful when stained. Painted? Not so much.
A good rule of thumb
We hope these tips make your life a little easier when choosing wood that's actually paint-friendly. A good rule of thumb is to always choose woods with a tighter grain and to stay away from woods with a heavy grain when it comes to painted cabinets.
Painting your cabinets? Read more about it here: