How to Paint Melamine and Laminate Surfaces

Painted Laminate Countertop
Charles & Hudson/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Laminate and melamine surfaces are known for becoming outdated quickly. Not only that, they eventually become scratched and nicked even with normal use.

Unlike homogeneous solid surface materials such as Corian or butcher-block wood, both of which can be effectively sanded down smooth and brought back to like-new condition, laminate and melamine are composed of multiple layers that cannot be sanded. Short of replacing with another material, is there a cheap and easy remedy? Yes, there is. But as with most easy home improvement projects that seem too good to be true, this one comes with some built-in limitations.  

Laminate and Melamine vs. Other Surfaces

Unlike wood, laminate and melamine cannot be sanded down to a natural grain; they have no natural grain. With wood, exposing grain is vital for the paint to adhere. Laminate and melamine are designed to repel kitchen spills such as food, oil, and water. Unfortunately, paint is a type of spill, too, and these surfaces do a reasonably good job of preventing paint from sticking.

It is vital to prepare the surface so that paint will stick over the long term. Improperly applied paint will peel off of laminate and melamine, creating a bigger mess than you started out with. Painting laminate or melamine cabinets is easier than countertops because cabinets get far less physical contact than counters. As a result, fewer coats of paint are needed for cabinets than for countertops.

What Kind of Paint Do You Need?

For counters, instead of using ordinary paint, you may want to purchase an all-in-one countertop resurfacing system such as Rust-Oleum's Countertop Transformations. These kits are formulated for the rigors of countertops by laying down a thick top coat that is securely adhered with a bonding primer coat.

These systems are markedly different from paint-only processes in that they include a layer of solid decorative chips. The chips are dispensed from a hand-cranked spreader, much like an outdoor spreader that you use to disseminate grass seed. These chips lay down a thick coat that is far thicker than paint, plus it effectively covers up all scratches.

Instead of a kit, you can use a urethane reinforced acrylic paint such as INSL-X's Cabinet Coat. While more expensive than the ordinary acrylic-latex paints you would use on drywall, the urethane reinforced products have better hiding abilities and will stick better to problems surfaces.

Tools and Materials

  • Fine grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • TSP (cleaner) and rags
  • Mineral spirits
  • Paint roller with dense roller cover
  • Work light
  • Drop cloth
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Paint

Clear the Area

Remove all items near to the cabinets or counters to a garage or a covered patio. Open up windows. Place a box fan in a window to create a negative air draw (so that air is flowing towards the outside). Place drop cloths on the flooring and tape contractor's paper or plastic on all surfaces that will not be receiving the coating. Confine the work area with plastic sheeting to prevent dust from sanding from traveling throughout the house.

Roughen up the Surface

Sand down the laminate or melamine surface with fine grit sandpaper. Sandpaper grits #180-100 are appropriate for light sanding of these surfaces. Frequently check that you are bringing down all glossy surfaces to a matte (or flat) finish by checking with the work light. Do not sand down too hard or you risk damaging the thin wear layer of the laminate or melamine.

Clean the Surface

Wipe down the surface with a tack cloth. Be careful not to press too hard on the tack cloth. As this product is embedded with bee's wax, pressing down too hard will leave a waxy residue that repels paint. Follow by wiping down with mineral spirits and rags. Let the surface thoroughly dry before proceeding to the next step.

Paint the Countertop or Cabinet Surface

Apply a minimum of two thin layers of paint with the high-density paint roller, letting each layer completely dry for about 24 hours before adding the next layer. Do not apply too much paint, as this will result in pooling or drips that are difficult to sand down smooth. Generally, the more layers of paint you apply, the smoother and more durable the final finish will be.