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When faced with a tired and dingy kitchen, our first instinct is to rip it all out and start again.
However, if your cabinets are structurally sound, simply painting them can transform your kitchen without the cost and pain of a major refurbishment.
This guide will teach you how to paint kitchen cabinets through our step-by-step process and trusted resources.
It’s important to note that this guide is based on painting wood surfaces only and NOT laminates or any other surfaces.
Also, I'm going to focus on refreshing the EXTERIOR parts (doors, drawer fronts, etc.), but feel free to apply the same techniques to interior parts (e.g. shelves, inside the drawers, etc.) if you wish to go all out.
Like with many painting projects, there are three main parts to painting kitchen cabinets - Preparation, Priming and Applying The Decorative Finish.
In this section I'll briefly go over the important points of each part. Detailed steps are provided in the step-by-step section.
The key to creating the perfect finish is in the preparation. So before you even think about whipping out your paint brush, make sure you’ve spent plenty of time preparing the surface.
Professional preparation includes cleaning, sanding, and priming the whole surface to ensure the finish colour sticks properly.
Thoroughly cleaning the surface is the most important part of the preparation process and is often overlooked. Years of cooking releases grease and moisture into the air that settles on your cabinets, even if you can’t see it. Therefore, all surfaces require a deep clean before we can start priming.
Once the surfaces are free of grease and dirt, repair any dings & divots and then lightly sand the surface.
It’s very important to prime and sand the surface before applying the finish coat. Ask a paint specialist at your local DIY store to help you pick a wood primer to best suit the finish you’re looking for (e.g. gloss, eggshell, etc.).
When applying the primer and finish coat, remember to use high-quality paint brushes with fine bristles to reduce the number of brush stroke marks. Also, try to be consistent and paint each coat in the same direction (e.g. either up & down or side to side).
Remember, the way in which you apply the primer heavily influences the finish, so don't rush this part and buy good quality primer.
When it comes to the decorative finish, the traditional choice is gloss. However, gloss has one major drawback - it’s unforgiving on imperfections and will show brush strokes.
Eggshell on the other hand, is much more forgiving when it comes to brush stroke marks, and provides a superior finish. I therefore recommend going with eggshell for this project.
Whichever paint you use, buy the best-quality paint you can afford for a long-lasting finish. Remember, it’s still much more cost-effective than buying and installing new cabinets!
Note about paint types (solvent-based vs. water-based) - Due to their durable properties, solvent-based paints are typically recommend for painting woodwork in busy areas such as kitchens.
A major downside of working with solvent-based paints is that their fumes are toxic. In fact, solvent-based paints require ventilation because they contain solvents that can irritate your lungs.
Fortunately, while water-based acrylic paints don’t flow and self-level as well as their solvent-based counterparts, they're getting closer and are far less toxic.
Furthermore, acrylic formulas created specifically for cabinetry will create an even, long-lasting finish.
Another advantage of acrylic paints is that they wash well with water, making them a good option for high-traffic areas such as kitchens and bathrooms.
To learn more about solvent-based vs. water based paints, and paint selection in general, check out this useful post.
Before we get started, here’s my thoughts on this common question:
If possible, the best option is to remove all items (i.e. doors, drawers, shelves, cabinet boxes) and paint them in a garage or similar workspace. This way, you can avoid having to paint around, walls, worktops, backsplashes, floors, and appliances.
Removing doors and drawers should be straight forward, as these can simply be removed by unscrewing hinges and brackets.
However, this might be difficult for floor cabinets if they’re screwed into walls, appliances, or worktops. Also, if you have a big family and always need a functioning kitchen, you may need to work on them where they sit.
If you do have to paint each part in situ, make sure you use rosin paper (countertops), thin plastic (backsplash) and masking tape (countertops and everywhere else) to cover any area that shouldn’t be painted.
Whichever way you choose, remove all handles, hinges, screws, etc. before you start and keep them in a safe place.
Although painting kitchen cabinets is not a particularly expensive project, there are still plenty of tools & materials you need to complete the job successfully and with the least mess possible.
I've listed the essentials below. Please make sure you have them all before you get started:
Pro Tip: To save money, build your own drying rack, just like Jessie has in this video:
OPTIONAL – Airless Paint Sprayer. If you wish to go down this route (see Decorative Finish steps below), speak with a paint specialist to figure out what tools you need to rent/buy (e.g. air compressor, sprayer gun, and tubing).
These 16 steps have been broken into 3 main sections - Prepare, Prime and Decorative Finish. Please read through them all before you get started so you're familiar with the process.
Also, I've included a video at the end along with an illustration below of all the main parts.
To keep track of what goes where, use masking tape to label each door/drawer front and its matching cabinet box/drawer.
Pro Tip: If you're reusing original handles and hinges, label the paired hinges with their doors and location.
Remember though, fitting new handles and hinges is an inexpensive way of adding a nice finishing touch to your project.
Using a cordless driver/screwdriver remove all doors, handles and hinges.
Remove drawers from units and unscrew fronts. Keep all small removable hardware and screws together in plastic bags and store in a safe place.
If you must paint cabinet boxes in situ, cover countertops with rosin paper and masking tape. Cover the backsplash with thin plastic.
Use masking tape and some common sense to protect other areas that shouldn’t be painted.
While wearing rubber gloves, scrub your doors and drawer fronts using a scrubbing sponge and multi-purpose cleaner/degreaser. Repeat for exterior parts of the cabinet boxes that couldn't be removed,
When the worst is off, clean one more time with sugar soap.
Armed with a putty knife and wood putty, fill in any cracks and divots you find.
Sand the wood putty smooth and then 'rough up' the finish with 120-grit sandpaper. Remember to rub the surface gently and evenly.
Make sure you rub down any nooks created by decorative mouldings, planed edges, etc. When finished, wipe the freshly sanded surface with a tack cloth to remove dust.
Lay your doors face down and apply one coat of primer to the back side. Start with the interior door panel and then prime the rails and stiles on the outside. See the main image at the beginning of this section if you don't know what rails and stiles are.
Leave the doors to dry on your drying rack as this will keep them flat and allow the primer to level off.
While the doors are drying, prime the back of your drawer fronts and then leave to dry flat on your drying rack.
Once the back of your doors and drawer fronts are dry, repeat steps 6 and 7 for the face side.
Let them sit flat on your drying rack until they're 100% dry before sanding (step 10).
While your doors and drawer fronts are drying, prime the exterior parts of your cabinet boxes that couldn't be removed/laid flat (i.e. the frames).
To remove brush stroke marks from flat surfaces, use a random-orbit sander loaded with 220-grit sandpaper.
For non-flat surfaces (e.g. trim detailing), use a fine-grit sanding sponge.
Once you've finished sanding, vacuum all surfaces and wipe clean with a tack cloth.
If you still don't have a smooth base coat, or the original colour still shows through (common with darker original colours), apply a second coat of primer by repeating steps 6-10.
Apply the finish colour to the back of your doors in thin coats to avoid drips and uneven coverage.
Paint the interior door panels first, then work your way out to the rails and stiles.
Leave doors to dry flat on your drying rack.
While your doors are drying, paint the back of your drawer fronts and then leave to dry flat on your drying rack.
Once the back of your doors and drawer fronts are dry, repeat steps 12 and 13 for the face side.
Let them sit flat on your drying rack until they're 100% dry before applying a second coat to both sides.
While your doors and drawer fronts are drying, paint the exterior parts of your cabinet boxes that couldn't be removed/laid flat (i.e. the frames).
Apply a second coat when dry.
To save time and for a better finish on flat surfaces, you can opt to apply your finish colour with an airless paint sprayer.
When using a paint sprayer, always start with the edges and then move inwards, making sure to overlap each pass by about 50%.
As with brush painting, keep surfaces completely flat until they’re dry.
For non-flat surfaces (i.e. the parts you can’t remove and lay flat), continue to use brush painting as this will provide a more accurate and predictable finish.
Remember, always wear protective goggles when operating a spray gun.
To learn more about using paint sprayers, check out our guide on How To Use A Paint Sprayer Like A Pro.
Pro Tip: If you’re using old hardware (hinges, etc.) you may want to freshen them up by spray painting them before reinstalling all the hardware in the last step below
Once your cabinet parts have completely dried, reattach hinges to doors and cabinet boxes.
Put drawer fronts back onto drawers and screw on handles. At this point, you’ll be glad you labelled all the parts!
Pro Tip: If your kitchen cabinets don’t appear level, try adjusting the door hinges until they do.
P.S. If you want to see this process in action, check out the video below:
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide on how to paint kitchen cabinets and now feel confident to renovate your old kitchen. If so, please share this guide using the social share buttons and leave a comment below. Thanks!