How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets (and get pro-quality results)

To this point on the blog, I have shied away from doing any tutorials or giving specific how-to advice.   Mostly it’s because I think there’s already a lot of great info out there, and because I don’t think we really possess any kind of ‘master’ level of knowledge about anything we’ve been doing in the house.

Until now.

I don’t fancy myself as an expert about a lot of things. My job? Possibly. Guacamole, definitely. That’s pretty much the extent of it…until you get to painting kitchen cabinets.  After 2 kitchens and 2 bathrooms, this is one thing I know very, very well.  So I’m going to break this down, tutorial style, just in case anyone out there wants to get all crazy and paint their cabinets.  Hint: this will work on bathroom vanities, laundry room cabinets, living room built-ins or whatever other kind of cabinetry you might want to paint.

Question 1: Should I paint my cabinets?

I think it’s really worth an honest look at whether your cabinets are good candidates for painting.  Some cabinets cannot be saved: they are too old, too small, too poorly laid out, or just flat out falling apart.  If you have a generally good layout and good quality cabinets that need freshening or updating, then painting is probably a good choice.

If you really need new cabinets, but don’t have a lot of dough, please check out 1. Craigslist and 2. Ikea.  I have seem some really decent stuff on Craigslist for cheap, cheap, cheap – folks who are upgrading their kitchens sell a whole kitchen worth of cabs for just a few hundred dollars.  Once you get them configured to your space, paint them ;).  Have a few more bucks to spare?  Ikea has a lot of nice options, and their hardware is considered to be excellent quality for the money.

Question 2: Should I paint my cabinets?

Nope, that’s not a repeat of Step 1.  Note the emphasis on I, by which of course I mean you, faithful reader!  Nothing irritates me more than the giant illusion lie offered up by numerous HGTV shows that present painting cabinets as a quick fix that can be accomplished in two hours with a single brush and a quart of paint.  Of course, the results look fabulous and the house sells 20 minutes later.

I think not. The paint will peel off those cabinets before the ink on the offer is dry.

Look, I’ve done a lot of painting.  Walls, ceilings, furniture, cabinets.  The cabinets, by far, are the most demanding and difficult of all the painting projects.  You can’t do it in a weekend.  It will take you (most likely) at least a couple of weeks (or more!).  It is a multi-step process.  It requires a great deal of patience and attention to detail.  Frankly, if we had a bigger budget, I would NEVER choose to do this (again) myself.   I’m not trying to talk anyone out of doing it (it’s not brain surgery, after all), but I want to be realistic about what it takes to get a good, lasting result. Of course, if you really don’t care how they look or if the paint stays on, then watch some HGTV and do it their way.

So let’s get on with it, shall we?

Step 1: Breaking it down.

Take the doors off.  Put them somewhere safe, like the garage.  You might consider numbering the doors with a post-it note if you are concerned about knowing which ones go where when you are all done.  Take off the hinges (keep all hardware until you are 100% sure that you have sourced and actually fitted a replacement) and any trim that dates the cabinets, like this:

In addition to the very dated piece above the sink, there was some not-so-lovely plastic edge band trim at the top of the cabinets that we dispensed with quickly, leaving the gap you see in the second picture.

You will now have sad, empty boxes. Oh, yours aren’t empty?  Go empty them now. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Step 2: Wash ‘N’ Go

The first real step in the prep is to wash the cabinets, using TSP or a TSP substitute.  This cuts the grease and dulls down the glossy surface a little. We used Simple Green’s TSP substitute and a scrubby sponge to really go after all the 30+ years of gunk on the cabinets. When we were done, it didn’t look much different, but you could feel that the finish was a little less glossy, and definitely not greasy. Once you’re done here, it’s time to break out the wood putty and fill in any gaps, holes, mistakes or anything you just don’t like.

Step 3: Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream!

You’re going to have to take a little break here so you can run over to Sears and buy this.  I’ll wait…unless of course, you already have one or want to borrow ours.  Do you have to have a palm sander to do this?  No, absolutely you can do it by hand but you will have one very, very sore arm and maybe some carpal tunnel going on by the time you are done.  So, go spend the $30 and save yourself a co-pay or two.  Trust me on this.  Do get a sander that you can hook directly to your shop vac (you do have a shop-vac, riiiight? Right???).  This will minimize dust all over your house.  In our last house, before we learned this importance of dust mitigation, I found dust inside my wallet, which was inside my purse in a completely different room than we were working in.

I am convinced that sanding is the most important step in the prep as it ensures the paint will really adhere to the wood for the long haul.  I start sanding with 150/180 grit and then finish with 220.  It’s not necessary to get every speck of the old stain off, but you do want to make sure all the old shine is gone.  The sanding gives the surface some roughness for the primer to bind to – if the old surface is still glossy, the paint will just slide right off. Once you are done sanding, it will look something like this:

And you’ll wonder how you’ve spent so much time working, yet you haven’t even lifted a paintbrush. You’ll be itching to get on with it already.  The prep IS annoying, but it is KEY to a good result. So pace yourself, and take a break before you begin priming.

Which is what I’m going to do! Grab a tack cloth or a very slightly damp rag, wipe down your dusty cabinets and get ready for primer!

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3 Responses to How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets (and get pro-quality results)

  1. Christine says:

    What a fabulous post! I will totally be using all your wonderful insight and tips when we renovate our “forever” home! 🙂 Perhaps I’ll just hire ya’ll.

  2. Pingback: How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets (so they actually look good), Part 2 « Our Pile of Bricks

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