This question — about whether you can strip your steel kitchen cabinets and leave them unpainted — has now come up a couple of times, so I thought I better post it. I solicited a proposed answer from my favorite go-to guy, Palm Spring Stephan… And, to finish the story, the writer/reader ignored his thoughts and, like a good reporter, kept searching for a solution — until she found it! Kathryn Janicek, a renovator from Chicago, wrote:
I purchased a condo with original American Steel cabinets. Ripped off the vinyl covering — and found great steel underneath. Love them… but, am looking for a clear and HARD coating to seal them now. We’ve stripped, buffed and coated with Rust-oleum Painter’s Touch Ultra Cover Matte Clear. The problem — steam from the stove, etc is spotting the cabinets. This “Ultra Cover” is not really protecting the steel.
Can your readers help? Thank you Pam!
Kathryn from Chicago
Interestingly, Kathryn says the cabinets were unfinished underneath this vinyl-like covering… To answer her question, I turned to longtime reader-friend Palm Springs Stephan, who also has a background in restoring vintage cars, for his thoughts on this question. He responded:
Since the cabinets are not stainless steel, they are going to require some kind of coating to protect the otherwise bare metal from the elements. Plain (non-stainless) steel will rust over time, even in the driest of environments. In the humidity of the normal household kitchen, it will rust even faster.
I actually had a neighbor here in my building who stripped his steel cabinets to raw metal and tried to leave them that way. Yet despite our very low 5-10% desert humidity, they still developed a light patina of rust after a few months.
I do not know much about Rust-Oleum’s Ultra Cover, but I suspect it is not intended to be applied directly to raw steel. Something tells me that is is intended as a top finishing coat over other paint layers.
In fact, steel almost always requires some kind of primer before being painted. Primers increase the adhesion of paints to the steel surface. Without primer, the elements can penetrate the paint (which will always have microscopic gaps) and work their way between the paint and the steel. So I am already wondering if it is even possible to apply any kind of clear protectant directly to an untreated metal ….
If they were my cabinets, I’d start by calling that old standby, the local auto body shop. Ask them if they know of a clear-coat that can be applied directly to raw, non-primed metal. Or perhaps there is a clear powder-coat that can be applied using the powder coating process, though I have never heard of one myself.
Also call a local metal plating shop and ask them the same question. Sometimes brass-plated objects are coated with lacquer to keep them from tarnishing, but lacquering kitchen cabinets would be a major operation, especially if done with the cabinets in place.
My overall sense of it is that the cabinets will have to be fully primed and painted or powder-coated with a pigmented paint. After all, stainless steel was developed in part because manufacturers need a steel that would remain rust-free even in applications in which coating or painting was impractical … especially kitchen applications (e.g.: cookware).
Palm Springs Stephan
Isn’t it always nice to hear from Stephan? Thank you, PSS! Meanwhile (I shared Stephan’s answer with Kathryn but then a couple of months passed since I got back to this post), I checked back with Kathryn to see how her kitchen project had been going. She had plowed forward in her goal to keep the bare finish, but with a coating that would protect the raw steel from water particles. It sounds like she found a solution that worked for her. She also sent lots of hard-at-work photos, below:
To start the slide show, click on the first thumbnail… it will enlarge… use the arrows below to move forward. If the show “breaks” you can re-start it anywhere. If you can’t get it to work at all — get thee off IE6, for gosh sake.
It took a TON of glue removing and buffing for weeks… then SEVERAL coats of ProtectaClear.
I tried several products — this is the only one that really seals — and doesn’t let moisture in to rust the cabinets.
“ProtectaClear is a tough, durable clear protective coating that protects stainless steel from corrosion, salt air pitting and provides excellent fingerprint and smudge prevention. Stainless steel surfaces protected with ProtectaClear will be much easier to keep clean and will never darken as it will with oily protectants.”
Directions: If the stainless steel is already corroded or rusty, clean the surface with a no-scratch cleanser cleaning with the grain. Wash off the residue with EZ-Prep Cleaner let dry, wipe with a solvent like xylene or denatured alcohol to remove any residue or fingerprints and then ProtectaClear can be sprayed on with Aerosol Cans, rolled on the surface with high-density foam rollers, wiped on with a clear-coat applicator or sprayed on with paint sprayers.
Way to go, Kathryn, you for sure get super mega brownie points for tenaciousness. I have to say, I wonder about the durability… as I don’t think the steel underneath painted vintage metal kitchen cabinets is “stainless.” I’ll be checking back with you, to see how the finish holds up!
And to all readers, my Precautionary Pam Disclaimer: Readers, do your own homework, please, before proceeding with any of these ideas. We’re sharing personal experiences, thoughts and ideas here, not definitive solutions, we ain’t Consumer Reports. Also: Test for lead paint on those cabinets before living with them and certainly before messing with them. Vintage homes can have all kinds of potentially hazardous materials all over the place. Consult with pro’s to know what you have, so that you can make informed decisions. And: Use proper safety gear and ventilation. Etc.
Readers… I know many of you also have experience with vintage cars. Any more thoughts on this question?