How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Painting kitchen cabinets can update your kitchen without the cost or challenge of a major remodel.

How to Paint Cabinetry

painted cabinets

Old cabinets that work just fine can be updated with a good paint job, saving you the headache (and expense) of a messy remodeling. Follow these steps to give your cabinets a fresh look.

What You Need

Cordless drill or screwdriver

Trisodium phosphate (TSP)


Rubber gloves

Protective goggles


Putty knife

Spackling compound or wood filler

120- to 220-grit sandpaper

Tack cloth or rag


Painter's tape

Drop cloth


Paintbrushes, 1.5-inch tapered and 2-inch-wide synthetic fiber brushes

Microfiber paint rollers, 2-3 inches wide


Paint tray and stir sticks


Seek Advice

Before you start painting your cabinets, it pays to prepare for the job ahead. If possible, take one of your doors to your 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 if they know more about your project.

Choose a Primer

Select a primer that's recommended for the type of 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.

Buy the Right Kitchen Cabinet Paint

You'll need to choose between acrylic enamel paint and alkyd paint. 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 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. It does, however, set up fairly quickly, which can make blending brushstrokes tricky.

Remove Doors, Drawers, and Shelves

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.

Prep the Surface

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 manufacturer 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.

Degloss the Old Finish

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 applying 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.

Do a Test Run

Before you paint all your 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.

Prime the Cabinetry

Use painter's tape to protect the wall or backsplash tile from paint drips or messes. 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. Apply one light coat of primer; let dry.

Painting Cabinetry

Make sure your paint is well-stirred, then pour the paint into a paint tray. Load a roller or brush with paint. Start with 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 inside of your cabinets needs a fresh coat of paint, now is the time to start painting them, as well. If they have never been painted, don't start now. Apply paint to cabinets in light coats. Painting thinner coats mean fewer drips for a high-quality paint job. Be prepared to apply at least two coats per side.

Painting Cabinet Drawers

You'll want to paint the front of the drawer but not the drawer's sides or glide hardware. Use painter's tape to protect the rest of the drawer from errant brush strokes. Set cabinet drawers on their ends. They should balance easily in this position. Apply paint in light coats using a brush, allowing it to dry completely between each coat.

Painting the Cabinet Box

Use painter's tape to protect the wall or backsplash tile from paint drips or messes. Cover the countertop with a drop cloth. Use a roller or paintbrush to paint the frame and sides of the cabinetry unit or cabinet box. 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-panel doors. Avoid painting inside the cabinet unless the shelves are fixed and would benefit from a fresh coat of paint. Apply paint in light coats, allowing it to dry completely between each coat. This can take a day or more per coat.

Getting a Professional Paint Finish

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

Putting It Back Together

Once the paint finish has dried completely, it's time to attach drawer pulls, screw the hinges on the doors, and hang the doors on the cabinetry box, according to the map you made. Slide each drawer back in.

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