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Home Do-It: Laminate can be painted, but prep is key

Q. We have kitchen cabinets that are covered with plastic laminate of a color we no long like. Can the laminate be painted or must we replace it?

A. The laminate can be painted but, as with all painting, careful preparation can help insure a lasting and attractive job.

Keep in mind that laminate is a slick plastic surface that doesn’t hold paint well. The first step in any case is to clean the surface. Kitchen cabinets are likely to pick up a grease film, even if you can’t see it, and cabinets over a stove are usually most vulnerable to grease.

Start with two buckets of warm water, one containing some degreasing detergent, sold at most supermarkets, and the other containing clear warm water for rinsing. Use separate, well-wrung out sponges to clean a section of surface, rinse it, and immediately wipe it dry.

When you have cleaned all the cabinets, let them dry for a day or two. Next, go over the surfaces very lightly with 320-grit sandpaper. You should be careful not to break through the plastic coating; it is very thin. The light sanding, called scuff sanding, will give the primer and paint better adhesion.

Some people use aerosol spray paints that are designed for plastic surfaces, but not every do-it-yourselfer has the skills to get a smooth, even finish with spray paint. You must also mask all nearby surfaces to protect them from overspray. I know of one homeowner who used spray paint in his kitchen and didn’t mask properly; he later found tiny specks of paint on the surface of an expensive granite countertop and removing the paint was a tedious and difficult project.

A different technique is available for those who would rather not use sprays. The painting is more work, but safer. To use a brush or roller instead of spraying, you still need to cover nearby surfaces to protect against drips. Following the scuff sanding, apply a coat of glossy-surface prime such as Bulls Eye 1-2-3, a water-based primer sold at most paint stores and many home centers. Follow directions on the container for preparing glossy surfaces and for applying the primer. Let the primer dry thoroughly and follow with one or two coats of top-quality latex enamel.

DIY painters who have trouble with brush marks when they paint with a brush should try one of the small paint rollers sold at most home centers. If you are a first-time user of a small roller, practice a little first on some cardboard or scrap wood.

Q. I recently removed my baseboards to seal gaps behind them, but discovered that the baseboards were in such bad shape that I don’t want to replace them. I bought some new baseboard, but when I tried to install it I found the walls are so uneven at the bottom that I can’t get a good fit without gaps at the top and at the ends of sections. What do I do about that?

A. Walls that are perfectly flat are the exception in most houses. Despite the unevenness, you should be able to eliminate a gap at the top by using extra nails.

First, make sure there is no electrical wiring or plumbing pipes at the bottom of the wall where you will install the baseboard. Since you have removed old baseboard from the same location, you should not have a problem, but if you are in doubt have an electrician or plumber check before you start nailing.

When you feel safe to proceed, start at the left end of the baseboard and nail the end securely before proceeding. Use finishing nails that sink into the wall at least 1 1/2 inches, and try and nail into studs or the bottom wood rail of the wall when possible. If necessary, have a helper press the baseboard against the wall as you nail. Sink the nail head slightly below the surface and fill the holes later with spackling compound or wood filler or use a color-matched Blend-Fil pencil.

If you have a miter box or miter saw, you can make matching 45-degree cuts at ends to avoid less attractive butt joints. If you do get some small gaps at joints, you can fill these with wood filler. Some sanding and paint should complete the project.