How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Painting kitchen cabinets can update your kitchen without the cost or challenge of a major remodel. See step-by-step instructions on how to update old cabinets with paint.

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Painting kitchen cabinets can save you the headache (and expense) of messy remodeling. Before you start painting kitchen cabinets, it pays to prepare ahead of time for the job. If possible, take one of your cabinet doors to a local paint retailer and talk with a pro about what kind of material you're working with and what products will help you achieve the best results. The pros can give specific advice for painting kitchen cabinets if they know more about your project.

What You Need

  • Cordless drill or screwdriver
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
  • Bucket
  • Rubber gloves
  • Protective goggles
  • Sponge
  • Putty knife
  • Spackling compound or wood filler
  • 120- to 220-grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth or rag
  • Deglosser
  • Painters tape
  • Drop cloth
  • Primer
  • Paintbrushes: 1.5-inch tapered and 2-inch-wide synthetic fiber brushes
  • Microfiber paint rollers, 2–3 inches wide
  • Paint
  • Paint tray and stir sticks

Before You Begin: Choose the Right Paint

Primer: Select a primer that's recommended for the type of kitchen cabinet surface you have (wood, metal, or laminate), and have it tinted to the color of the top coat. This is especially important if the surface is dark or stained because the original finish can bleed, or be visible, through the top coat. Again, consult with the expert at your paint retailer who can help you decide between a waterborne or solvent-borne primer.

Paint: You'll need to choose between acrylic enamel paint and alkyd paint for cabinets. Acrylic, or water-base, paints are low-fume and clean up easily with water. Alkyd, or oil-base, paints require good ventilation because the paint contains solvents that can irritate your lungs and make you feel sick. Alkyd options require mineral spirits for cleanup, but they provide a hard, durable paint finish. Whichever you use, buy the best-quality paint you can afford for a lasting kitchen cabinet finish. A self-leveling paint that levels out the brush marks as the paint dries for a super-smooth finish is often a good choice for painting kitchen cabinets. It does, however, set up fairly quickly, which can make blending brushstrokes tricky.

Popular Kitchen Cabinet Paint Colors

Step 1: Remove Hardware

The best way to paint cabinets is to remove the cabinet doors and drawers. You never want to paint over hardware, such as hinges and handles, because it will affect the way the cabinet functions. If your hinges and hardware have been previously painted, you can contact a paint shop and ask to have them restored.

Make a map of how the doors and drawers go together in the kitchen, carefully labeling each piece with its position for easy reassembly. Use a cordless drill or screwdriver to remove hinges and hardware. If your cabinets have adjustable shelves, be sure to remove those—and the hardware that supports them—from the cabinets.

Stylish Ideas for Kitchen Cabinet Doors

Step 2: Clean and Sand

Before painting kitchen cabinets, it's important to clean the faces of cabinet boxes and drawers and both sides of doors and shelves with a product that removes dirt and grease, such as trisodium phosphate (TSP). Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the packaging, mixing water and TSP in a bucket as directed. Wear protective goggles and rubber gloves. Apply the TSP-and-water mixture with a sponge to clean. Once the cabinets are clean and dry, use a putty knife to fill any nicks or dents with spackling compound or wood filler; let dry.

Sand the surface with 120- to 220-grit sandpaper to dull the surface and smooth down any imperfections. To sand all the contours of paneled doors, try using a contoured sander, a small sponge wrapped with sandpaper, or a commercial sanding sponge. Use a tack cloth or damp rag to remove dust after sanding.

An alternative to sanding cabinets that are in good shape—and don't require you to fill nicks and dents or to sand smooth—is to apply a liquid deglosser, which removes the glossy finish on cabinets and makes it possible for the new paint to adhere to the old finish. If you need to sand your cabinets regardless, you do not need to degloss before painting kitchen cabinets.

Step 3: Test Paint and Prime

Before you paint cabinets, try the new color by priming and painting the back of a cabinet door. This gives you a chance to make sure you like the color, and more importantly, to make sure the paint finish you've chosen will adhere to the cabinetry and that your prep steps will yield a smooth finish. If you are not pleased with the finish, consult your local paint shop for advice on painting kitchen cabinets.

Use painters tape to protect the wall or backsplash tile from paint drips or messes while painting kitchen cabinets. Cover the countertop with a drop cloth. Use a roller or paintbrush to prime the faces of cabinet boxes and drawers and both sides of doors. If your cabinets have a lot of detailing, it will be easier to use a tapered brush. A roller works well on larger flat surfaces and flat doors. Paint cabinets with one light coat of primer; let dry.

Pretty Blue Kitchen Cabinets

Step 4: Paint Cabinets

Make sure to stir your paint well, then pour it into a paint tray. Load a roller or brush with paint. Start with cabinet doors, which will take longer to paint because you'll need to allow dry time before you turn them over to paint the opposite side. If your shelves are adjustable and the insides of your cabinets need a fresh coat of paint, now is the time to start painting them, too. If they have never been painted, don't start now. Paint cabinets with light coats. Painting thinner coats means fewer drips for a high-quality paint job. Be prepared to apply at least two coats per side when painting kitchen cabinets.

Paint the front of each drawer but not the drawer sides or glide hardware. Use painters tape to protect the rest of the drawer from errant brushstrokes. Set cabinet drawers on their ends; they should balance easily in this position. Paint cabinets with light coats using a brush, allowing paint to dry completely between each coat.

Don't Paint Kitchen Cabinets Until You Read This

Step 5: Paint Interior and Reattach

Use a roller or paintbrush to paint the frame and sides of the cabinetry unit or cabinet box. Avoid painting inside the cabinet unless the shelves are fixed and would benefit from a fresh coat of paint. Paint cabinets in light coats, allowing paint to dry completely between each coat. This can take a day or more per coat.

Once the kitchen cabinet paint finish has dried completely, it's time to reattach drawer pulls, screw the hinges onto the doors, and hang the doors on the cabinetry box, according to the map you made. If desired, spray paint hardware and let dry before reattaching. Slide each drawer back in place.

Bonus: How to Get a Super-Smooth Finish

If you have a big project to tackle, consider renting a power sprayer from your local hardware store. Talk to the paint professional about what sprayer is right for you, and work with them to get what you need. This may include an air compressor, sprayer gun, and tubing. These tools are easy to use and guarantee a smooth finish. 

For a super-smooth finish, you can send your cabinet doors and drawers to a professional paint shop or cabinetmaker. They can spray-paint kitchen cabinets off-site for a good-as-new look. To find a professional, ask your paint retailer for a recommendation, search online, or look in the Yellow Pages for painting contractors. Paint kitchen cabinet boxes yourself, which is a manageable do-it-yourself project.

Kitchen Cabinet Details That Wow

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