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How to Paint a Door

By E. E. Kane

Painting a door seems like such a simple task. It is easy, but as is true for any paint job, it takes time and proper preparation to do it right. Anyone can slap on a coat of paint, but the signs of a good paint job are evident right away: the hardware is not painted, brush strokes are invisible, and the paint does not peel off a few days later. Use these detailed instructions to paint your doors right the first time. 

Choose the paint

Aside from the color, you also need to choose a paint that will last. Sheen - Since doors are handled often, you need a sheen that will hold up well to fingerprints, like semi-gloss or high gloss. Choose a sheen that you will also use on the surrounding trim of the door frame.

Type - The new coat of paint will adhere best if it is applied to a compatible previous surface - latex on latex, oil on oil. How can you tell? A simple test with a cotton ball and isopropyl alcohol will reveal the original paint: the alcohol-on-cotton will remove latex, but it won't budge oil paint. Wash the test area first with warm sudsy water so you don't mistake dirt for paint when you test. *Tip: If you are painting on new or stripped wood, the choice is up to you, but latex enamel is a good choice for doors.

Interior/Exterior - Never use an exterior paint indoors, and vice versa. If you paint an exterior door, choose a high quality brand that is formulated for the weather conditions your door will endure, like direct sun or rain.

Remove the door from its hinges, and remove hardware

It may seem like an unnecessary step, but removing the door is the best way to avoid painting the hardware, and gives you more control while painting. With a cordless drill or screwdriver, back the screws out of the lower hinge first. Ask a helper to hold the door while you release the final upper screws, or support it with a block of wood or similar object, holding the door with your free hand as you release the screws. Remove all hardware (hinges and doorknobs) and pay careful attention to the process so you can re-install it when the door is painted and dry.

If you are unable to remove hardware, you may cover it with blue painter's tape or coat the metal pieces with rubber cement. Both of these options are not fool-proof. Blue tape is tricky to apply correctly to prevent leaks, and even the best efforts allow paint to seep where it shouldn't. Rubber cement protects a little better, and can be peeled off afterwards. 

What to do with previously painted hardware:

If the hardware was painted before, you can easily remove it by slow-cooking it in water and a few drops of liquid dishwashing detergent. Because the pot can become contaminated from the metal and old paint, pick up a heavy cooking pot or a crock pot from a secondhand store for this chore. Let it simmer for a few hours, or overnight in a slow cooker. The paint should peel away from the metal. Don't use anything harsher than a plastic scrub brush to remove stubborn paint in crevices. Seal the hardware with metal polish and set it aside to re-install. 

Create a work area.

If you did not remove the door, lay a tarp or large piece of cardboard underneath the door to protect the floor. Wedge the door with a door stop or block of wood to keep it steady while you paint.

Place a removed door across two sawhorses or prop it against a wall. Choose a location where the drying door will be undisturbed with plenty of ventilation. You should paint the door outdoors if all of the following apply:

   -The forecast is not predicting wind, rain, high humidity or high temperatures

   -The paint you chose is oil paint or not a low-VOC type latex

    -There is little risk of a ruined paint job from insects or dust

    -You can work in the shade (direct sun will make latex paint tacky too fast)

Scrape and sand old paint

Use a putty knife or scraping tool to lift loosened paint, then sand with medium-coarse sandpaper (80-100) until all surfaces feel smooth. Sand with the grain, and finish with the fine grit sandpaper. If the old paint is not peeling, a light sanding will help the new paint adhere better. Consult National Lead Information Center if there is any possibility that the door was previously painted with lead paint (any paint used prior to 1978): 1-800-424-LEAD (5323).

Decide whether chemical paint remover is necessary

Is the door coated with layers of globby old paint? Sanding won't be enough to reveal the details of the molding, and it will be more difficult. You can use chemical paint stripper or a heat gun, or a combination of both. When you strip old paint you need a respirator and a putty knife, and plenty of time and patience for a messy job. 

Clean the door

The surface may be smooth, but your paint job is only as good as the prepared surface. Remove every trace of dust and debris from the door and the area before you continue. Use a shop vac or a vacuum with a nozzle and brush first, then wash the door with TSP or a vinegar and water solution.  


Applying primer is always a good idea to ensure a long-lasting paint job, but it is even more important if you are covering a previously dark door with a light paint color. Priming is also crucial if you want to paint latex over old coats of oil paint, or vice versa. Because a can of primer is less expensive than a can of paint, you can cut down on your project cost with primer. Primer does not require a long dry time; check the can for details.

Paint the first coat

Always paint with the grain, in this order:

1. Paint the edges first, beginning with the hinge side. Check for drips and smooth with your brush.

2. For a flat door, use a short nap roller to apply a moderate amount of paint to one side from top to bottom. Follow each long sweep with a four inch brush with just the tip dipped in paint. Progress in vertical sections until the door is covered.

3. Use a 4 inch brush on a paneled door. First, paint all of the panels (recessed, molded areas). Then paint the stiles (flat sections that outline the panels) beginning at the center and finishing with the outer edges.

4. Move quickly to maintain a wet edge. Once you use up the amount of paint on your brush, brush back into the wet paint to prevent visible brush strokes. Check for drips before you move to another section.

5. Allow one side to touch-dry before you paint the other side if the door is mounted to the frame. Allow longer if you are painting the door on sawhorses. Check the paint can for dry time recommendations.

Dry, sand and repeat.

If the door needs a second coat, allow it to dry according to the paint can's instructions, or at least 4 hours. Sand lightly with fine sandpaper (150) or steel wool. Check for paint drips that might have pooled in corners or on the edge of the door, and sand them smooth. Wipe the door off with a tack cloth, then paint the second coat.

What if the door is metal or vinyl composite?

The above directions are for wood doors, but you can also paint a metal or vinyl composite door. 

Vinyl - Latex paint on vinyl will not last long. Use paint designed for plastic, like Krylon Fusion spray paint. Color choices are limited, but the paint job will last longer. When using spray paint, remove the door to an outside location for spraying. Choose a calm day to spray paint to save money. Painting on a windy day means you will paint more air than door.

Metal - Is the door painted and peeling? You can remove the paint with chemical strippers and sand with fine steel wool, if necessary. Use paint designed for metal applications, like Rustoleum. Spray paint will give you a superior finish to a brush. You may use latex or oil paints on a metal door, but if you choose to do that prime the door first, and use a short nap roller to apply. Do you know who made the door? Send an inquiry to the manufacturer for a recommendation of what type of paint to use with their doors.

Dry and install

Wait at least four hours after the last coat before you handle the door. Oil paint will require a much longer dry time; consult the paint can for specific instructions. If you can, leave the door to dry for at least 24 hours before reinstalling, no matter what type of paint you used.

The paint is dry, your door is back on duty, and the surface looks clean and smooth, without a single smudgy fingerprint. Pat yourself on the back and wait for your friends and neighbors to say, "Wow. Did you redecorate?"

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