How to paint a refrigerator

Q: Renters left me with damage on the side of a fairly new Kenmore refrigerator. The sides have a different finish than the front. One side was spattered with grease. Once that was removed, black dots of metal seem to be showing where paint is gone. How can I find a primer that will stick to metal?

A: To paint a side of a white refrigerator, you have a few options, including one that doesn’t need a primer.

That option is Rust-Oleum appliance epoxy, a brush-on, oil-based paint that comes only in white. Although epoxy is in the name, this is a ready-to-use enamel, without the need to mix in a catalyst like most epoxies. It is designed and marketed for refinishing exteriors of refrigerators, dishwashers, laundry machines and other indoor metal surfaces.

Not only does it not require a primer, the manufacturer actually recommends against using one. Instead, instructions call for removing any loose paint or rust with a wire brush or sandpaper and lightly sanding the whole surface to help the paint stick better. Sandpaper with 150 grit should work well. Then wash with soap and water. You’ve already removed the grease, but if you hadn’t, you’d want to use a degreasing detergent such as Simple Green all-purpose cleaner ($5.48 for a 32-ounce bottle at Home Depot) or Krud Kutter original cleaner/degreaser ($19.38 a gallon). Rinse by repeatedly wiping the surface with a clean cloth and clean water. Let it dry, and you’re ready to paint. Because this product is an oil paint, make sure to have good ventilation, and don’t have any open flames or lighted cigarettes nearby. Use a brush to paint the edges, then fill in the main area with a foam roller. Use mineral spirits or paint thinner to clean your tools after the job.

We still use appliances like it’s 1970. There’s a better way.

The paint costs $26.98 a quart at Home Depot, which should be enough to do a refrigerator in one coat. The pictures you sent show that your refrigerator, like many these days, has a textured finish on the sides that’s different from the smooth, shiny finish on the front. If the front is still in good shape, you’re better off just painting the damaged side. Besides reducing your work, this would retain the manufacturer’s finish on the front, which is almost certainly more durable than any new paint you could apply. If you don’t paint the undamaged side of the refrigerator and the two sides wind up with a slightly different sheen or color, it’s likely that no one would notice. Painting only one side would also ensure that you have enough paint to add a second coat where it matters. (Rust-Oleum’s epoxy enamel usually dries to the touch within two to four hours, but if you need a second coat, you should do it within one hour or wait for at least 24 hours to make sure it cures properly.)

Of course, you need to move the refrigerator away from the wall to paint it. Refrigerators can be heavy enough to dent some flooring. Prevent that by moving the refrigerator onto thin plywood. Tip the appliance back just enough to get the wheels over the edge of the plywood, then “walk” the refrigerator out from the wall by moving it at an angle from side to side.

There are other options for painting an appliance, which would work if you wanted a color other than white, or if you wanted to use only water-based paint. Painting pros would probably use DTM (direct-to-metal) paint and apply it with an airless spray gun, but these paints can also be applied with a brush or roller. Benjamin Moore ultra spec DTM acrylic can be tinted to almost any color and is available in quarts. The price varies depending on the tint base.

Or you could use a water-based enamel labeled as good for use on cabinets. Cabinets and refrigerators both collect fingerprints and need to stand up to repeated cleaning, so paint needs are similar. Check the label to determine whether you need a primer and then check the primer label to make sure you get one that will work on steel. Many water-based primers formulated to stick to slick surfaces list aluminum, but not steel, as a suitable surface, presumably because they wouldn’t stop rust from forming. One example of this type of paint is Insl-X cabinet coat ($22.99 a quart at Ace Hardware). Made by Benjamin Moore but not marketed with the company’s name, it can be tinted to almost any color. On previously painted metal, it doesn’t require a primer, just scuff-sanding to de-gloss the surface. If spots of bare metal show, you could use a little of the paint to spot-prime, saving you from buying a separate primer.

And, of course, you could go the spray-paint route. Rust-Oleum and its sister brand, Krylon, make spray cans of paint in numerous colors. Or you could get DTM paint and apply it with an airless spray gun. Before you decide on spray paint, though, think through the details. You would need to unplug a refrigerator or freezer, empty it of food and remove any ice buildup. Then you would need to move the appliance to a place where overspray wouldn’t be a problem, probably a temporary spray booth that you rig up. You’d need to remove or mask off handles. And for a refrigerator or a freezer, where you’d want the paint to continue around the door to the edge of the seal, you would need to use thin plastic and tape to protect the flange and interior. This Old House has a good primer on how to do all the steps.

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