The Ikea version of fix 'er up
August 14, 2011 7:32 PM   Subscribe

What is the best (easiest and cheapest) way to fix up rusty metal cabinets?

There are metal cabinets in my bathroom that would be perfect for towels. But the insides are rusty and gross, particularly along seams and corners. What's the best way to make them usable? Paint? Should I try to get the rust off first or just paint over the stuff? Contact paper?

I rent. They did not paint the cabinets last time they painted. They may or may not do it if I ask. I'm not averse to painting them myself if they won't. (I highly doubt they'd notice if I painted the inside of a cabinet.) What kind of paint should I use? (I prefer cheap and easy since I'm doing their fix up work for them.)
posted by unannihilated to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to do this the right way, you'll need to brush the entire surface with a stiff wire brush, then put down a layer of primer, then a layer of paint. If you can get the drawers outside, I would suggest you use a spray paint like Krylon, which is actually made for metal surfaces.
posted by Gilbert at 7:37 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The cabinet is glued down, so I have to do anything in the bathroom.
posted by unannihilated at 7:38 PM on August 14, 2011

Also, do I really need primer for spray paint? What happens if I don't use it?
posted by unannihilated at 7:41 PM on August 14, 2011

Yes, you really need the primer in your damp bathroom.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:48 PM on August 14, 2011

I just painted a (free-standing) rusty old metal cabinet - I used red primer, then red spray paint. Both were Rustoleum, so hopefully that will prevent some of the future rust. It seemed that the primer really helped the red paint look like it was supposed to - if I hadn't used the primer, I think I would have needed at least two cans of spray paint instead of one, and I'd rather the 1st coat be the more heavy-duty anti-rust stuff anyway.
posted by HopperFan at 7:50 PM on August 14, 2011

If you don't brush and prime(ideally using a primer for rusty metal), the rust will just keep rusting. Especially in a wet environment like a bathroom, the likelihood that the new paint just peels off onto your towels is very high. Speaking from experience, if you can't take the thing apart, it is going to be a pain to do right, and you are going to end up with rust stains on your towels.

One option would be to hide it. Get some of that pretty colored duck tape (I saw like 20 different colors and patterns last time I was at Target) and run it along the seams and corners). Then put some coordinating shelf liner on the sides and bottom of the drawer.

Another option is to go to IKEA and get yourself some of those cheap fabric boxes, and put them inside the drawers. Put your towels in those boxes.
posted by rockindata at 7:57 PM on August 14, 2011

What you want to do before painting, it sand off all the loose rust, then treat it with naval jelly, which will neutralize the rust. (Phosphoric acid reacts with the iron oxide to create ferric phosphate) I used some of this on a very rusty piece of machinery 4 years ago, then painted it, and the rust hasn't come back at all.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:12 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you clean off as much rust as possible with a wire brush, then use either a rust neutraliser (as per Devils Rancher's suggestion) then a metal primer, then one or two coats of enamel, the cupboard will be perfectly usable for towels and shouldn't rust again. Don't use spray paint in your bathroom unless you want a thin film of paint all over the room.
posted by dg at 9:53 PM on August 14, 2011

The above ideas for naval jelly, priming, etc. are all good ones. Since you can't remove the cabinet, odds are you'll never get all the rust off. So to the above I would add: if you can afford to, prime it with a "rust converter" after the cleaning steps. POR-15 is the gold standard here but it is admittedly pricey ($30/qt). It's basically the same idea as naval jelly, just a permanent layer under the paint. I think there are many knock-off brands; the few I've tried were a mixed bag.

P.S. if you end up using naval jelly (phosphoric acid gel), wear safety glasses, gloves, and old clothes. The stuff isn't like uber-poison or anything, but you'll end up spattering it a bit when you scrub and wash.
posted by introp at 12:14 AM on August 15, 2011

Depending on how much you like those cabinets, how long you plan on staying in the apartment, whether it's the kind of place where you feel like "paying it forward" to make the bathroom nicer vs just getting by for your own needs... I'd totally go with contact paper. Line the bottom of the cabinet and lap the edges up the side walls, then line the sides and trim it off neatly at the corners, thus avoiding having a true seam in any of your trouble spots. If it's rusty enough that you worry that contact paper won't stick, that's when you'd need to do the wire brush/primer/paint sequence, but you could be more casual about getting perfect coverage than if the paint were really the final goal, maybe even just stop at primer.
posted by aimedwander at 7:31 AM on August 15, 2011

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