Painting Over Oak

Submitted by Scott on Tue, 2010-11-30 15:26

 Painting over oak seems to be a popular thing to do these days.,  I'm as big a fan of wood as there is but at some point it's just too much.  When your floor, baseboards, doors, windows and railings are all oak that has yellowed with the years it's a bit too much to handle.  Add in some oak cabinets and you'll stop seeing anything else.

So how do you start?

First, I recommend wiping the surface down with a cleaner.  Use eco-TSP, it's available at most paint stores and definitely at the large home improvement stores.  Eco TSP doesn't need to be wiped off like traditional TSP so it saves a lot of prep time.  This will remove any dust and dirt that may affect adhesion and acts as a surface etch.

The next step is a little trickier.  Most oak has either been lacquered or clear coated.  This means the current generation of latex paints probably won't stick to it.  You could just use a latex primer first but this may bring about another issue; tannin bleed.  Tannin bleeding is when the oils in the wood seep through the paint.  The only way to stop this is to use an alkyd sealing primer first.  If the wood is still well sealed this shouldn't be an issue.  If, however, the clear coat is worn the water may seep into the wood and loosen these oils.  How do you tell if this is happening?  Easy, if you're painting the wood white and yellow staining is appearing you've got tannin bleed.  Just putting on a second coat won't stop this either, it will just keep bleeding through until you seal the stain properly.  On a related note, using an alkyd paint for the trim should avoid this, some of the new alkyds are water-bourne and don't seem to seal the wood quite as well however.  Time will tell on this one but I'll stick to a fully alkyd sealing primer for now.

Once the surface is primed you can treat it like any other painted piece of trim.  I prefer a latex top coat with either a satin or semi-gloss sheen.  For cabinets you could top-coat with a melamine for a tougher finish or something like Insl-X's Cabinet Coat (  It levels very nicely and has a nice finish, just make sure to let it cure fully before putting it to use as it will be quite soft and easy to damage for the first week or so.  Melamine is tougher but will yellow over time and with new VOC regulations will be harder to find.  If you are doing cabinets and are concerned with durability I would consider using a latex and then a water-bourne clear coat for some extra protection.

Typically when painting over oak you'll need to do one coat of primer and two coats of paint for coverage.  I've yet to find a one-coat finishing product, especially when going to a white.  It's a bit tedious but is much less expensive than replacement and the difference it can make is amazing!

Happy Painting!

Scott Appleby has been a professional painter since 2002 and currently operates a franchise of Appleby Painting Ltd. in Calgary, AB. A self-professed 'paint geek' he has trained over 20 people how to paint.
He can be contacted at 403-607-2225 or infoatapplebypainting [dot] ca

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Great info!

Submitted by MichaelCurnow on Tue, 2016-09-20 23:05.

Thank you for posting such informational stuff giving out helpful ideas for painting over oak. Using eco-TSP really saves prep time as you mentioned... and our Bundaberg Painters have done with this oak painting few weeks ago.

I've got tannin bleed!

Submitted by Anonymous on Sun, 2012-12-09 03:07.

Hi there, I've just read your excellent article - wish I'd read it before we started painting!! We've got some old oak chairs that we're painting white. We sanded them firstWe've now put 2 coats of (water based) primer on them, but we're getting really bad bleed through. My question is this - can we put a layer of alkyd sealing primer on over the top of the existing 2 layers of water based?

Also we've already bought the top coat - it's also water based. So if we put the alkyd primer on, will we be able to use the water based top coat still, or will we need to buy an oil based top coat instead?

Hope you can help! thanks loads