Doors, especially panel doors with lots of details on them, can be a real pain to paint well and make the finished result not look like a mess of brushstrokes and drips. Sure you can always spray the door and get professional level results but not everyone has access to a spray room and knows how to use a paint sprayer.
I’ve been painting doors for a long time and have painted more doors than I care to count. Sometimes I spray, but that’s not always possible. Over the years I have developed a process that, if you follow it, will allow almost anyone familiar with a paint brush to paint a door like a pro.
Follow this order of operations, pick the right paint brush, and use the proper paint and you’ll end up with professional level results the next time you have to paint a door.
This post was sponsored by Pratt & Lambert Paints, but the techniques and opinions are completely my own. Check out their line of paints and primers here to see if one of their products is right for your next painting project.
Picking the Right Paint
Doors take a lot of abuse. More than any other element in your house, they are touched, kicked, bumped, keyed, and scratched. You need a paint that is tough, not kind of tough, but really tough and immensely cleanable so you can scrub away all the dirt and oily finger prints that accumulate on every door.
For this project I tried a paint that I’ve never used before, but it was from Pratt & Lambert who have a very long history and excellent reputation. In a previous post I tried out their Accolade paint on my daughter’s bedroom walls and got excellent results on very good coverage so I had high expectations on this project.
For my front door I used Pratt & Lambert’s Aquanamel which is a water based acrylic enamel paint. Enamel paint means that it is extremely tough and resilient. That’s just what you need on a front door when you have three kids under 8 years old!
A few things I noticed about the Aquanamel that I really liked:
It can be applied in temps down to 35°F – That means painting in cold weather is a possibility. That means there is a longer window that I can use Aquanamel than other paints which have temperature ratings down to 50ºF or 55ºF.
It has excellent coverage – I painted one side black and one side white and both covered exceptionally well. In fact I could have gotten away with only one coat of paint on the black side if I really wanted to. That’s very rare to find a paint with coverage that good!
It goes on smooth – The paint is silky smooth and lays down like butter (buttah!) Easy to apply even without using an additive like Floetrol since the manufacturer doesn’t recommend it. The paint laid down so smoothly that the only brushmarks or roller stipple I could see were what was transferring through from my primer in places which was a little bit embarrassing. But now I know my primer better be dialed in better if I plan to paint with Pratt & Lambert paints.
Picking the Right Paint Brush
I’ve written extensively on picking the right paint brush for the project at hand and you can read more of what I wrote in this recent post. For painting a door it’s important that you use the right brush otherwise you’re putting your project at risk.
For me, the right brush for painting a panel door like I had in this project was a 3″ Purdy XL Angled Sash Brush. This brush is excellent for water based paints, which is what I was using, and its large size is what you need for the large rails and stiles on doors as well as the expansive panels that need painting.
If you have an unusually large door then a 4″ brush may be called for, but for the majority of doors the 3″ width is perfect and allows you to cover the whole rail or stile with the toe of the brush and not have bristles hanging over the edge causing drips or overpaint.
How To Paint a Door Like a Pro
You’ve got your paint brush, you’ve got your Aquanamel and now you’re looking at all those panels wondering how on earth do I get a smooth brushmark-free finish on this stinking door! Don’t fret because there is a way.
Step #1 Remove the Hardware
I’ve railed on this site and on my Instagram about the monsters who paint over hardware. Not only does it ruin perfectly beautiful hardware but it also creates drips and brushmarks in the area of the hardware that leave an amateur appearance that no one likes.
So, before we do anything else you need to take that door out of the opening by removing the hinges. Typically you can just remove the hinge pins and set the door on top of some sawhorses so you have a good position to work on it. Other times you may need to actually unscrew the hinges from the jamb and door, it just depends what kind of hinges you have.
Once you have the door out of the opening, take ALL the hardware off and set it aside. Take this opportunity to restore your hardware. I’ve got a detailed post about how to do that right here if you’re not sure. Painting a door with hardware still on it even if you tape is a “No, no”. Take it all off so you have a clean slab of wood to paint.
Step #2 Sand it Smooth
When you paint a door your paint will copy the surface you apply it on. A rough brushmark ridden door with new paint will just get bigger brushmarks. Chipped paint will still be chipped but have a fresh coat of paint on top of it. The only way to get a smooth surface is to sand everything to a solid substrate.
You don’t need to sand it to bare wood if you don’t want to, but you should at minimum sand it as smooth as possible to remove loose or flaking paint. Sometimes your eyes can fool you, so I like giving the surface a test by running my hand over top with my eyes closed. You’ll know when it’s smooth enough.
Starting with 60-grit, then 80-grit, then 120-grit will usually be sufficient to get the right level of finish for any painted door. Sand the flat portions with a random orbit sander and then hand sand any profiles and nooks and crannies by hand.
Step #3 Clean it Good
Using an air hose or tack cloth clean the surface of ALL the sanding dust. We’re talking super-duper, Monica Gellar level of clean before you break out any paint or primer.
A tack cloth is best, but a damp rag can work well too. Again check it by running your hand over the surface to make sure you don’t feel any inconsistencies or sanding grit that was left behind. Is it clean? Is it smooth? Then you’re ready to continue.
Step #4 Prime it
Do you have to prime it? Of course not, but we’re talking about how to paint a door like a pro so that means we prime. You never know exactly what type of paint was previously on your door so priming is insurance that whatever you are dealing with will not be a problem.
My go to primer for doors is an oil-based primer to seal any issues safely behind the primer and make sure my paint job turns out great. Thin your primer a bit with some Penetrol to make sure it flows and dries nice and smoothly.
For my project door here I didn’t use quite enough Penetrol in my primer and the heat of the day tripped me up a bit causing the primer to dry faster than I wanted. I ended up having to sand my primer a lot to get it smooth again so don’t make the same mistake I did.
Step #5 Sand Again
Seriously, didn’t we just do this? Yes, but once the primer is dry you need to give your door one more quick sanding with a fine sanding sponge to knock down any nibs that the primer created. No power sanding here just a few minutes to make the surface smooth as a baby’s bottom again and then a good cleaning to make sure you don’t have any dust or sanding grit left over and you’ll be ready.
Step # 6 Paint the Panels
I’ve given you pretty standard information so far on how to paint a door, but this is where the professional tips really come out. There is a very specific order of operations for how to paint a door so you can maintain a wet edge on your paint and avoid brushmarks.
I always start by painting the panels. Cut in the edges of each panel and then brush the center of the panel vertically. We are always going to run our brush strokes in the direction of the wood grain. Once one panel is complete use a clean rag to wipe off any of the excess paint that inevitably got onto the rails or stiles of the door.
This last tip of wiping the excess paint off the rails and stiles is the thing most amateurs miss. This extra paint will dry and then get gummed up when you go to paint those rails and stiles later. By wiping it off you keep those surfaces completely smooth for later and the final results are incredible.
Once you’ve finished painting all the panels and panes of glass you’re ready for the next step.
Step #7 Paint the Rails & Stiles
Let’s finish off this door! Now it’s time to go through and paint your rails and stiles. Start in one corner leaving yourself a way to paint straight off the door on the last stile. For me this usually means starting on the top rail of the door and painting clockwise around the door until the last thing you paint is the left stile allowing you to run your brush right off the edge of the door.
This is the time when you have to think about which way the grain of the wood goes and keep your brush strokes running in that direction. Get the paint on and then tip off the paint to leave a smooth surface. Check out the video below to see the technique I use to tip off my paint which virtually eliminates brushmarks.
Be sure to check the drying time of your paint and don’t rush the recoat time. For the Aquanamel it was dry to the touch after about 1 hour, but I had to wait 4 hours for it to cure enough to be ready for a 2nd coat. Applying a 2nd coat too early is a typical rookie mistake you want to avoid. It can cause poor adhesion, bubbling or flashing. Dry to the touch does not mean ready for another coat!
I was really amazed with the coverage I got with just 1 coat on the Aquanamel, but I always apply 2 coats of paint unless I’m just doing touch ups.
Give your paint as long to cure as you can before very gently putting the hardware back on and hanging the door back in the opening. Keep in mind that the paint may be dry to the touch but it is still curing and for the first 30 days it is very fragile. Handle the painted surfaces with clean hands and go slowly to avoid marring the surface.
Pro Tip: If you’re painting both sides of the door you want to set down cardboard on top of your sawhorses and place wax paper over them. This will prevent the fresh paint from sticking or being scratched.
Go ahead and remove any weatherstripping that may be pressing on the freshly painted surfaces during the first 30 days of curing time to prevent marring the surface.
You did it! You’ve now learned how to paint a door like a professional. Remember the three main things to get that professional result. The right paint brush, the right paint, and the right order of operations. Stick to those three things and you can’t go wrong.
If you are looking to paint your doors I would really recommend you check out Pratt & Lambert Aquanamel. I was really impressed with the results on my door. Since applying it I have had virtually no sticking paint which is extremely hard to get using a water-based paint. If you want to learn more about Aquanamel visit Pratt & Lambert’s website here.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.