6 Steps to Take Before Painting Shelves


In this guide you will learn how to correctly prepare wood shelves and other shelf types for painting and the best way to paint them to achieve a smooth finish.  Included are the most common questions people have about sanding, priming, and prepping shelves for painting.

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DISCLAIMER:  Houses painted before 1978 may contain lead.  If you scrape, sand or remove old paint, you may release lead dust.  Lead is toxic and can cause serious illness, such as brain damage, especially in children; pregnant women should avoid exposure.  Wear a NIOSH-approved respirator to control lead exposure.  Clean up carefully with a HEPA vacuum and wet mop.  Before you start, find out how to protect yourself and your family by contacting the National Lead Information Hotline at 1-800-424-LEAD or log on to www.epa.gov/lead.  Credit:  Zinsser primer paint label.

Steps to prepare for painting pantry shelves

Whether you are painting bare wood, previously painted shelves, old wooden shelves, or metal shelves, the prep and painting steps are the same:

  1. First, clean the surface to remove any oil, debris, etc. to allow the paint to stick better.  
  2. Inspect carefully, repair any damage or imperfections.
  3. Lightly sand and remove dust with cloth.
  4. Apply a primer to prepare the surface for the topcoat of paint, dry and lightly sand again.
  5. Apply the first top coat of paint, allow to dry, lightly sand.
  6. Apply a second coat and dry.

Below we go into detail about each step and answer your common questions about painting pantry shelves.

Painting metal and metal wire pantry shelving

Can wire shelving be painted? Yes, metal wire shelving, chrome metal, and plastic covered wiring can be painted over.

How do you paint a pantry with metal wire shelving? Remove the metal wire shelving from the pantry. If the wires are rusting, use a wire brush to remove any loose paint, coating, and rust. Clean and dry using a good grease cleaner to remove dust, grease, and dirt before painting.  Spray with a rust-blocking primer and allow to dry.  Finally, spray paint a top coat with a paint specially formulated for metal and plastic surfaces.

Tips for painting wire pantry shelves

Here are additional tips for painting wire shelves:  When painting the shelves, find a spot outside where you can prop up the shelves when spraying with spray paint. The prop can be a cardboard box, sawhorse, or anything that would allow the spray to pass through the wires without pooling up. If spraying outside, be sure to choose a warm day with low winds and low humidity. The spot should also be away from dust and in the shade (because sunlight will dry the project too fast).

If you have adequate garage space, you can set up a protected area with cardboard and a plastic ground cloth.  Spray the shelves at your makeshift painting station (the garage should not be too cold or too hot). When one side of the shelves is dry, flip over and spray paint the other side. Continue until you have successfully coated all sides and angles of your metal wire pantry shelves.

Preparing the surface of wood pantry shelves for painting

As stated earlier, the steps that have to happen before painting are: clean, inspect for damage and repair, sand, and prime.

Cleaning pantry shelves prior to painting

Micro-debris on the shelf surface can result in dried paint appearing "sandy" or having texture. Any grease, dust or dirt will prevent your paint from adhering properly, which can result in the paint flaking off. It is important to use a good grease-cutting cleaner, especially for cabinets near or in the kitchen that build up grease due to cooking.

Popular grease-cutting cleaning solutions like Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) do a supurb job of cleaning surfaces. It comes in powder form and you mix it in water (but wear gloves to protect your hands). You can also use TSP Substitute ® that is less harsh or even products like Simple Green ®. Another favorite grease cutting solution in recent years is a product called Krud Kutter ®. Dawn ® dish soap has also been a reliable product to remove grease from shelves.

vacuuming out pantry shelves before painting

Vacuuming out pantry shelves before painting.

Cleaning previously painted shelves and shelves with alternative materials

The cleaning procedure is the same if the shelves are already painted, covered with contact paper or laminated wood - clean thoroughly to remove dirt and oil build up before painting. If you have a shelf that is covered with varnish, the varnish will have to be removed first with a varnish remover before painting (it is possible to sand the varnish and then paint, but for best results, remove the varnish). Some people skip priming on previously painted shelves, it's up to you.  Priming is always recommended.

Inspect for damage and repair pantry shelves

Examine the wood for any flaws. Before painting is the time to remove unwanted nails and examine the surface for flaws, holes, or dents you want to fill in. If the shelves are previously painted, now is the time to remove hardened past drips with a putty knife or scraper. Inspect the wood for any issues that might bleed through a new paint job. One example would be rusting nails or old wood stain. Sometimes you don't know there is a "bleeding" problem until you apply the primer, as in this plywood pantry remodel.  If the primer is fighting to cover up what's underneath, than you have a bleeding issue.

Natural tree knots in the wood can bleed resin, adversely affecting a paint job. It's important to seal the knot to prevent stickiness and further bleeding. This can be done by simply varnishing or shellacing over the knot (or use a primer that contains shellac). For the knot areas, you can apply shellac or varnish first, then dry, sand and cover with primer.

repairing pantry shelf

Repairing pantry shelf.

Mask grain of wood to increase smoothness of pantry shelves

Wood boards and plywood can have very aggressive, grainy texture. If that is not what you desire, you can fill in the grain with spackling or drywall compound or apply extra coats of primer to minimize the texture of the boards showing through. Once you paint the topcoat over the wood, the paint can exaggerate the texture beneath it, so take precautions if you want a smoother look.  To save time, resources, and energy, you may want to reserve this for only the parts that humans will see.

For smooth edges on plywood, apply spackling or drywall compound to the edges to fill in holes and jagged spots of the "plies" to create a smooth edge. Use a wet finger to "paint" the edge for easier application. The spackle (or drywall compound) will be much easier to sand instead of wood filler. View the results in this plywood pantry shelf makeover.

Sand pantry shelves prior to applying primer and sanding questions

Finally, gently sand the wood and wipe down before painting. There will be varying guidance on the Internet on the grit of sandpaper to use, but in general, start with a rougher sandpaper and as the wood becomes smoother, switch to a finer grit.

"If the piece is bare wood, start with a rough sandpaper of 80 or 100 grit, and as it becomes smoother, incrementally switch to finer grits of 120, 150 and finally 180 to ensure a thoroughly smooth and sanded surface. If the shelves have already been painted, still complete the sanding step. 120 or 150 grit is perfect for pre-painting sanding." 

-Credit Home Guides 

Can I paint a shelf without sanding? Best practice is to always sand a shelf before painting. Sanding creates hundreds of tiny texture opportunities on the surface that allows the primer to "grip" to the wood. Quite simply, sanding makes your paint stick better AND gives you a more durable finish, so why wouldn't you sand? This includes unfinished wood and previously painted wood. When paint doesn't adhere it can flake, bubble, and chip of paint.  Avoid these problems with proper sanding.

Heads up: Your sanding is not done at this stage! You will need to sand after the primer and in between paint coats for best adhesion.

Always sand your shelves before painting!


  • Sanding makes paint stick better
  • Sanding gives a more durable surface
  • Gives the final product a smoother finish
  • Removes imperfections from the wood
  • Allows you to inspect the wood up close before painting

Credit: ainsworthpainting.com

Can you paint over wood without sanding? Specialty paints such as chalk, mineral, and milk paint, or bonding primer are popular and well-advertised that you don't have to sand before applying. People love shortcuts, but for the heavy use of pantry shelves, these paints are best avoided.

Can a liquid sander deglosser replace traditional sanding? A liquid sander deglosser (also known as liquid sandpaper, deglosser, or wet sanding) is very similar to the paint remover/stripper liquid refinishing product. Using this product is not a substitute for sanding bare wood, paint, and primer coats. FYI, some cleaners, such as Trisodium Phosphate (TSP) act as a deglosser.

Can I use a power sander to sand my shelves? A power sander is acceptable to use at all stages of sanding, as long as you are using the right grit of sandpaper. Most people prefer a more gentle touch of hand sanding and finer grit sandpaper for sanding between paint and primer coats.

DISCLAIMER: Houses painted before 1978 may contain lead. If you scrape, sand or remove old paint, you may release lead dust. Lead is toxic and can cause serious illness, such as brain damage, especially in children; pregnant women should avoid exposure. Wear a NIOSH-approved respirator to control lead exposure. Clean up carefully with a HEPA vacuum and wet mop. Before you start, find out how to protect yourself and your family by contacting the National Lead Information Hotline at 1-800-424-LEAD or log on to www.epa.gov/lead. Credit: Zinsser primer paint label.

Woman sanding pantry shelf.

Woman sanding pantry shelves

Remove dust to assure a smooth paint job for finishing pantry shelves

Is it necessary to use a tack cloth? Removing dust and dirt from wood with a tack cloth is necessary to achieve a smooth topcoat finish. A tack cloth is a sticky lint-free gauze material that grabs dust particles off the surface of your projects. Normal cloths have fibers that remain behind after use. Grab a tack cloth and gently wipe down your project after each sanding session.

The "sticky" in tack clothes can come from different mixtures of varnish and linseed oil and other similar products, but you can also get a version with beeswax. Tack cloths are cheap and if stored in a plastic bag can be re-used many times before losing their "stickiness." An alternative to tack cloths are microfiber cloths. These can be rewashed and reused indefinitely.

Even after you wipe down your project with tack cloth, you should still run your hand over the project before painting. Your hand will feel any impurities that your eye can't see.

Apply a primer to your pantry shelves and common primer questions

Do I have to apply a primer? Yes! A primer provides multiple benefits. It provides a smooth base so the top color will appear solid and not blotchy. Primer coats can cover up stains in the wood that would otherwise bleed through. Primer coats provides a dull surface for the final coat to bond to. Applying a primer is the secret to a quality paint job.

Do I have to sand the primer coat before the base coat? You don't have to, but you will get a smoother base coat if you do. According to Pittsburgh Spray Equipment, "The goal of sanding wood that has primer on it is to smooth down the grain that has risen while still leaving the primer intact so you do not lose the added adhesion that the primer will provide for the top coat."

Will brush marks in my primer affect the top coat? According to The Craftsman Blog, "If you start with brush marks in the primer, then there is no way you’ll get a smooth surface for the paint."

According to thewoodweb.com, the only time you would NOT apply a primer is:

  • you're using an all-in-one primer plus paint
  • a wall is previously painted
  • you're changing to a darker tone of the previous color
  • the wood is previously sealed
  • the wood is water-resistant

Do I need a primer on shelves? A primer is needed before painting pantry shelves to achieve the best paint job. A primer serves many functions: it blocks stains (including grease and rust), it seals porous surfaces to create a smooth surface for the top coat, it provides an even base coat so the top coat doesn't appear "blotchy", as well as providing a bondable surface for the top coat.

How many coats of primer do I need? One coat of primer is sufficient, but when attempting to cover stains, more coats may be needed.

Do I need to sand primer after it dries? Yes, you have to sand primer with a finer 220-grit sandpaper (or similar grit), clean with a tack cloth or microcloth, and wipe down before applying a topcoat of paint.

What is the drying time for a primer? Most primer paints dry to the touch in 30 minutes, and can be topcoated in 1 hour. Full adhesion and hardness develops in 7 days (credit: Zinssser primer paint label).

Will brush strokes in the primer show through to the topcoat? Yes, brush strokes on the primer will show through to the topcoat, even if you sand it. Best practice is to paint the primer on and then roll with a roller.

Read more about the priming step in "How to Paint Pantry Shelves."

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. She uses her technical background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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