Ask any painter familiar with high-quality finishes and he or she will tell you that furniture-grade paint finishes are far more demanding than natural wood finishes. The simple reason is that the opaque surface of the paint highlights any defects or irregularities in grain and texture. Surfaces must be sanded, caulked, puttied, and re-sanded several times, and still some rubbing out and polishing may be required to achieve satisfactory results. The deeper the color and higher the gloss, the more demanding the process. With so many variables to be controlled, a patient, methodical approach is essential in applying opaque finishes.
Prep the Work
On any on-site job, you have to take particular care to cover and to mask off all adjacent surfaces and any parts and hardware that won’t be painted. I use a fine-creped blue tape with high tack that leaves no residue. I rub it down with a fingernail, and it provides an excellent edge seal, allowing no paint to creep underneath. With oil-based finishes, the tape can be pulled up when the paint is dry. With latex, which has greater bridging capacity, I score a line along a straight edge with a razor blade before removing the tape.
Good lighting is also critical for a top-quality paint job. Natural light is always best, but when I do use lamps, I place them far from the work to minimize glare.
I always count on a certain added amount of time for re-sanding, puttying, and caulking because you can’t really see the surface in detail until that first coat goes on. I have found it is best to fill all you can easily see; then apply a first coat of primer, and repair any small areas you have missed. The essential thing is to catch all of these before entering into the final-coats phase. This careful, methodical filling and sanding is where the patience factor really tells. For a fine finish, you must spend a certain amount of time just looking at every piece.
After removing the doors, I fitted each one with two small finish nails in the top and bottom edges to act as stands for spraying, handling, and drying. Then I set up a makeshift booth in the garage to spray the doors and drawers.
Spray on Multiple Coats
After spraying two coats of lacquer wood surface, I lightly sanded all-surfaces with 400-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper that I first broke in on the backs of doors or bottoms of cabinets where dry-fall overspray accumulates. I turn the paper over and use the paper backing to abrade the knife-edges of doors, drawers, and trim to avoid burning through the finish.
The third coat of primer was a final fill-coat, not really sanded, but rubbed with the back of sandpaper for smoothness. Before every operation, I used a static-free tack-rag and blew the surfaces off with the air line on the spray gun. I allowed four hours between coats of primer because that’s how long it took to spray a coat on the case and all the parts. But a lacquer undercoat is generally dry and ready to sand in 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the weather.
I applied two finish coats of fast-dry industrial enamel, which has superior leveling-out characteristics and fast set-up time. The short tack time is critical when finishing on-site to minimize dust settling onto the finish. I thinned the enamel with about 30% xylol solvent and sprayed it at orifice settings between 0.006 and 0.009, something less than half the opening you would use to paint an ordinary wall.
I alternated between vertical, horizontal, and conical spray patterns as I worked to suit the intricate detailing on the cabinet doors, with the spray pressure just high enough to atomize the enamel.
A single coat was actually a two-step process. On the doors, for instance, I laid down a light tack-coat initially to cover the surface, rotated and tack-coated the back, and then flipped and rotated back for a full flowing coat. This method allows me to see how the material is performing and adjust viscosity, spray pattern, pressure, and fluid levels before committing to a full coat. It also lets me lay don more material on one coat.
When the final coat on the doors had dried hard, I removed the nail stands, puttied the holes, and touched them up with two coats applied with an artist’s brush. This was the only brushwork on the job.