What to Do if Painted Shelves Are Sticky

Wooden Shelves Mounted On White Wall
Chatuporn Sornlampoo / EyeEm / Getty Images

It can be very frustrating to carefully paint new or old shelves, only to find that everything you put on them sticks. Even worse, sometimes you will find that the paint peels off when you pick up an item stored on the shelf. This is not a matter of the paint simply not being fully dry—it sometimes continues to happen weeks after the paint has dried.  

Here are some suggestions for painting (or repainting) garage shelving, bookshelves, kitchen cabinets/shelves, or bathroom cabinets that should significantly reduce those sticky problems.

Clean the Shelves

If you are experiencing sticking problems with shelves that were painted some time ago, they may just need to be cleaned. This is especially true with kitchen cabinet shelves. Give them a good scrubbing with a grease-cutting household cleaner or dish soap with a non-scuffing scrubber and see if that reduces the problem. 

If shelves were not thoroughly cleaned before repainting, contaminants may be seeping through the paint and causing the sticking problem. In this case, the best solution may be to resand, reclean, and repaint the shelves with a good quality alkyd or acrylic paint. 

Use an Alkyd (Oil-Based) Paint

Alkyd (oil base) paints provide a tougher finish than latex (water-based). They are getting harder to find due to environmental restrictions and improved latex-paint quality. Still, many professional painters rely on alkyd paint for shelves and cabinets.

Note that alkyd paints require mineral spirits for clean up (versus water for latex). They also take longer to dry. Avoid putting anything on an alkyd-coated shelf for at least a week. Alkyd paints also tend to yellow over time.

Try a Waterborne Acrylic Enamel

As an alternative to alkyd paint, waterborne acrylic enamel is more readily available to consumers, with an added expense. It's low odor, sandable, requires less drying time, and has yellow-blocking capabilities. Depending on the type of finish you're looking for, you may have to do a bit of searching. Some companies only offer semigloss or high-gloss while others offer satin, matte, and flat.     

Top-Coat With Polyurethane

Apply two coats of water-based polyurethane over the shelves. Water-based polyurethane can be used with both latex and alkyd painted surfaces and will not alter the color (unlike oil-based polyurethanes, which add a yellowish tint). Clean the shelves well before application, and let the polyurethane dry for several days before putting the shelves back in service.

Apply Paste Wax

This is a simple solution that can be very effective. Clean the shelves, then apply some paste wax with a soft cloth. Let the wax dry to a haze (about 15 minutes), then buff it with a clean, soft cloth. Add a second coating of paste wax, and plan to rewax the shelves every year or so.