How to Paint Melamine?

Melamine or Melamine Faced Chipboard (MFC) can be a total nightmare to paint but in this article I’m going to give you a couple of options of how to paint it and get a good finish. So if you’re wondering how do you paint melamine then read on!

Here’s a video I made about painting melamine – it’s a bit old but there are still some useful tips in there. I’d also suggest reading the article below as it’s a bit more up to date. If you could also do me a massive favour and subscribe to my YouTube channel that would be awesome! There’s loads of property maintenance and DIY tips on there that you will hopefully find useful.

How Do I Paint Melamine? DIY Tips!
Watch this video on YouTube.
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Let’s cut to the chase

I know you’re busy and just want to get on with it. At the moment, in 2020, if I wanted to give my kitchen cabinets a bit of a refresh I’d use Johnstone’s Revive Cupboard Paint:

Johnstone's Revive Cupboard Paint - for MDF and Melamine
Johnstone’s Revive Cupboard Paint

It’s available in a range of colours and it’s specifically designed for painting MDF and Melamine cupboards.

Johnstone's Revive Paint for MDF and Melamine
Johnstone’s Revive Paint Colours

Having said that! I would also do a bit of testing and research before destroying my kitchen. I haven’t used this paint myself yet but Johnstone’s is a reputable brand and it’s specifically designed for the job so… regardless, I would really encourage you to continue reading before touching a paintbrush.

What is melamine?

Melamine, melamine resin or melamine formaldehyde as it’s technically called, is a type of plastic material commonly used to coat chipboard (or particle board in the States) to leave a very hard wearing finish. In this article whenever I refer to MFC I’m talking about Melamine Faced Chipboard – that’s the stuff you see everywhere. It’s very commonly used in flat pack furniture and kitchen cabinets.

Melamine shelf
A melamine shelf (MFC)

The melamine resin is combined with paper, laminated and glued on to the wood boards. It’s great for shelves since it’s much more hard wearing than paint. It is however prone to chipping and edges need to be treated with an iron-on edging tape.

What about thermofoil cabinet doors?

Cabinet doors are generally thermofoil NOT melamine. It’s normally melamine for the cabinets (and shelves… and backs of doors for whatever reason) and thermofoil for the door fronts. Thermofoil is the flexible plastic stuff that, somewhat irritatingly, sometimes peels off.

Thermofoil cabinet door
Thermofoil covered cabinet door

Melamine DOES NOT peel off and is very brittle. If it’s peeling then it’s almost certainly thermofoil rather than melamine. Regardless, both are a nightmare to paint. For simplicity I’m going to refer to both as MFC, which is technically incorrect but faster to type. I approach them both in a similar way.

Thermofoil vs Melamine
Just to clarify, thermofoil vs melamine

A word of warning!

Melamine and thermofoil are both plastics. They’re not paint. Please don’t think that by painting your cabinets that you’re going to get the same finish. Paint will NOT be anywhere near as hard wearing and will NOT have the same quality of finish. This is kind of a last resort project. It’s this or replace the doors.

Why paint melamine or thermofoil?

There’s no point in painting new MFC – either buy it the colour you need or just use MDF and paint that instead. Bare MDF is much easier to paint than MFC and the painted finish of MDF will probably be more hard wearing than painted MFC. Bare MDF is absorbent and easy for the paint to stick to. MFC is smooth and completely non-absorbent – that’s kind of the point of it. So pretty much the only scenario where you’ll be painting MFC is if you want to change the colour of an existing piece of furniture… or give it a bit of a refresh. Even then it’s not as easy as it looks – practice on a hidden piece first if you can!

How do you paint melamine?

The key to painting melamine is achieving a good bond between the paint and the MFC panel. The best way to do this in the past has always been to use a good primer. The primer bonds to the MFC. The top coat bonds to the primer. In the video above I’m using Leyland Acrylic Primer Undercoat and this seems to work pretty well.

A while ago I spoke to Johnstone’s and they specifically recommended Johnstone’s Trade Multi Surface Primer but this is hard to get hold of now. The only Johnstone’s primer I can find now that’s specifically designed for MFC is their Speciality Any Surface Primer. There’s also this All Purpose Primer but it’s oil-based and that’s a different animal. HAVING SAID ALL THAT the cupboard paint mentioned earlier (Johnstone’s Revive) apparently doesn’t need a primer or undercoat. So erm… here’s a picture of some primer:

Johnstone's Any Surface Primer
Johnstone’s Any Surface Primer

My approach to painting melamine / thermofoil – what paint?

As I say, this isn’t a job for the faint hearted but if you really want to take it on, this would be my own personal approach. By the way for the top coat paint I would normally use a quick drying water-based satinwood paint. I’ve had predictable good results with custom-mixed Dulux Trade Quick Dry Satinwood from decorating centres (the Trade is the important bit!). I’ve had mixed results with Dulux (non-Trade) Quick Dry Satinwood from the big box stores including paint that seemed to be endlessly sticky (once dry!). Probably a manufacturing defect in the paint but just thought I’d mention it. If you want to try it here’s a link but don’t blame me if it stays sticky forever.

The no primer / undercoat approach

Until I get a chance to properly test the cupboard paint I honestly couldn’t tell you whether this genuinely doesn’t need a primer. Let’s assume they’re telling the truth, you’re not bothered if the finish doesn’t last forever (you can always touch up dings and scratches) and you just want to get this job done:

  1. I would start off by using 120 grit sandpaper to lightly roughen the surface (very lightly between coats).
  2. Then use a damp cloth to remove any dust from the sanding.
  3. The MFC needs to be dry to paint it so I would use some blue roll to dry it.
  4. Paint the melamine following the manufacturer instructions for the paint.
  5. 2 coats? Johnstone’s don’t mention anything about 2 coats on their website… but to play safe I would give it 2 coats. Allow to completely dry (give it overnight) and go back to step 1.

The primer approach

If I wanted this to be a bit more long lasting I think I’d still be tempted to go down the primer route. Primer is designed to bond to the surface and generally gives a better substrate for your top-coat paint to stick to. That said the Revive paint is specifically designed for this purpose so jury’s out on that one. Let’s assume you’re not using the Revive paint since they don’t have the correct colour or whatever.

  1. I would start off by using 120 grit sandpaper to lightly roughen the surface.
  2. Then use a damp cloth to remove any dust from the sanding.
  3. The MFC needs to be dry to paint it so use some blue roll to dry it.
  4. Paint the melamine with an appropriate primer or primer undercoat.
  5. Allow to dry completely (overnight).
  6. Apply 2 coats of your chosen top coat.
  7. Between every coat of paint I would always lightly de-nib (roughen the surface) with 120 grip sandpaper, wipe down with a damp cloth and thoroughly dry using some blue roll or paper towels.

Bear in mind that if you just used a primer in step 4 then you should really apply an undercoat prior to your final two top coats. As I used a combined primer/undercoat this saved a step and worked fine for me.

What brushes and rollers should I use?

Using a high density mini roller can give you a really neat finish. Remember paint on melamine will take a lot longer to dry than paint on wood since the melamine isn’t absorbent. When I’m using water-based paints with a roller I generally apply the paint evenly, let it dry for 30 seconds and then very lightly lay it off. That means going over it VERY gently with a roller that’s not laden with paint. This takes a bit of practice but leaves a great finish when you get the hang of it. For tight areas I like to use a synthetic brush such as the Hamilton Prestige Trade Synthetic Brushes.

Hamilton Trade Paint Brushes
I’ve had great results with Hamilton Trade paint brushes

Always bear in mind that the paint will never be as hard wearing as the original melamine – melamine is essentially plastic. Paint is… paint.

A word on paint drying time

Paint can take quite a long time to properly harden. Water based paints will generally harden more quickly than oil based paints however it can still take a good couple of days for the paint to be hard enough to leave heavy objects on without it causing a problem – a few weeks for oil based. Just remember that even though the paint is dry to the touch doesn’t mean it’s properly dry and hardened.

Can you spray paint melamine?

Yes – definitely! If you’re set up for spraying you should be able to get a much nicer finish on melamine since the substrate is already so smooth. You’ll need to use a good quality primer suitable for spraying. Be careful not to scratch the melamine when you’re sanding it. Scratches will be much more visible on a sprayed surface.

Obviously for new bespoke furniture you’re probably not going to be using MFC in the first place – MDF is a much better option if you’re going to paint it.

Remember you can find a list of some of my most commonly used tools I use over on this page. You can also buy by favourite metric-only double sided tape measure from here. Best of luck with your project!

Last updated: 6 May 2020
Originally published: 21 Jul 2018

Andy Mac