How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets

by James Fitzgerald
Repainting kitchen cabinet doors with white chalk paint indoors at home. Giving old kitchen new look concept. Hand holding a paint brush tool with paint against old cupboard door.

Kitchen remodels are one of the most expensive home renovation projects, in large part because of the cost of replacing the cabinets. But instead of dishing out thousands to replace your kitchen cabinets, you can make them look like new for a fraction of the price with a fresh coat of paint.

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Whether you’re trying to save money on your kitchen remodel, or you just want to give your cabinets a facelift, this guide should help you complete your project.

Before You Begin

Assess Your Cabinets

Before you even begin painting, you should assess the condition of your cabinets to see if they’re even worth the time and effort. If they have peeling or delaminated veneer, broken particle board or other significant structural and cosmetic defects, a fresh coat of paint probably isn’t going to be enough to salvage them. Instead, you may want to consider replacing them entirely.

Choose Your Paint

Once you’ve determined that your kitchen cabinets are in good enough shape to make painting worthwhile, you need to decide whether you want to use oil-based or latex paint.

Oil-Based Paint

Oil-based paints are often preferred by professionals. They produce a smoother finish, cure quickly, last a long time and are stain-resistant. However, they’re usually more expensive than latex paints, and they emit higher amounts of volatile organic compounds that can cause throat, lung and eye irritation, along with a variety of other negative health effects. It’s also more difficult to clean up oil-based paint spills.

Latex Paint

On the other hand, latex paints emit a minimal amount of VOCs, cost less, are mold-resistant and can be easily cleaned up with water. The primary disadvantage of latex paint is that it can take up to three weeks to fully cure, so your cabinets will be susceptible to damage during that time. Consequently, latex may not be the best choice if your household contains pets or small children. Use a latex paint with a 100% acrylic formula to maximize its durability.

Cabinet Materials

Another consideration when selecting paint is the type of material your cabinets are made of. Oil-based and latex paints will work for wood, faux wood, particleboard and metal. However, thermofoil and plastic laminate cabinets may need a special type of paint. If you’re not sure what your cabinets are made of or what paint to use, take one of your cabinet doors into a paint store to have it inspected by a painting professional.

Choose a Painting Method

You can either use a paint sprayer or brushes and rollers. A paint sprayer produces the smoothest, streak-free finish in the least amount of time. However, it requires more prep work to protect the surrounding areas from overspray. You’ll need to rent or purchase a paint sprayer (which can be expensive), and the learning curve can be steep. In most cases, unless you already have and know how to use a paint sprayer, the disadvantages of spraying often outweigh the advantages. Brushes and rollers are significantly more affordable and user-friendly, so they’re usually the best choice for the average DIYer.

For oil-based paints, use a brush with natural fibers. For latex paint, use a brush with synthetic fibers. A 3-inch wide brush is a good all-purpose option, or you can purchase a 2- to 3-inch wide brush for corners and detailed areas, and a 3- to 4-inch wide brush for larger areas. A mini foam roller can be used with either type of paint for large, flat surfaces.

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How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Things You’ll Need

  • Surface protection
  • Painter’s tape
  • Household cleaner, degreaser or trisodium phosphate
  • Work table
  • Electric drill
  • Sanding block
  • Wood filler
  • Tack cloth
  • Vacuum
  • Paint tray
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • Paintbrush
  • Foam mini roller

Step 1: Prepare Your Workspace

Empty your cabinets’ shelves and drawers and clear off the counters. Next, decide where you want to paint. You can either paint the cabinets in place inside your kitchen, or take them to a larger room like a garage or basement.

If you’re working in your kitchen, place surface protection (like painter’s plastic, rosin paper, drop cloths or tarps) on the floor in front of the cabinets, over countertops and on any immovable appliances. Move as much furniture out of the way as possible. Place masking tape on the walls around the cabinets, and tape plastic over any interior doorways to protect the rest of your house from airborne sanding dust.

If you’ll be working in a basement space or garage, lay down surface protection on the ground where you’ll be painting.

Regardless of where you’ll be working, open all the windows and exterior doors for ventilation — especially if you’re working with oil-based paint. Assemble a work table on which you can paint the cabinet pieces. This can either be a series of saw horses with 2x4s or a sheet of plywood on top, or a set of ladders with 2x4s between the rungs.

Step 2: Remove the Doors, Drawers and Shelves

Removing the doors, shelves and drawers makes them easier to paint.

Starting at the top left corner of a cabinet, use an electric drill to remove the door hinges from the cabinet and doors, then pull out the drawers and shelves. Work your way from left to right and top to bottom. As you remove each piece, use a marker or pencil to label them with a number that indicates their location so you know where to put them back after you’re done painting.

A good place to mark the doors is behind the hinges, the shelves can be marked on the back edge, and the drawers can be marked on the back. Cover the marks with a piece of tape to avoid painting over them, then place the pieces on your worktable.

Remove the hardware and place them into a bag with a matching location label. The only pieces of hardware you shouldn’t have to remove are the drawer slides on the sides of the drawers since the sides don’t need to be painted. The drawer tracks mounted on the inside of the cabinet box, however, should be removed and labeled.

Step 3: Clean

Clean off any dirt or grease with a rag and a household cleaner or degreaser. If regular cleaners prove to be ineffective, you can purchase trisodium phosphate at your local hardware store and make a powerful cleaner by mixing one part TSP with four parts water. Once everything has been thoroughly cleaned, allow them to air dry completely before continuing.

Step 4: Prep the Cabinets

If you’ll be installing new hardware onto your cabinets after they’re painted, use a putty knife to cover the old hardware screw holes with wood filler. Also, inspect the cabinets for any gouges, scrapes or other cosmetic blemishes. Cover them with wood filler as well. After you apply the wood filler, use the putty knife to scrape away any excess filler until it’s flush with the surrounding surface. Allow it to dry and sand down any buildup if necessary.

Next, use a foam sanding block to lightly scuff all the surfaces you’ll be painting. This promotes optimal paint adhesion and removes any varnish that may be present. You don’t need to sand all the way down to bare wood unless you encounter a spot where the old paint is flaking or chipping. In that case, sand the area all the way down while “feathering” the edge to make a smooth transition with the surrounding, intact paint.

Once you’re done sanding, clean all the surfaces with a tack cloth and vacuum to remove all the sanding dust.

Step 5: Prime the Cabinet Boxes

A coat of primer is necessary to cover any blemishes and provide a layer for the paint to adhere to. Load a paint tray with primer and begin applying it to the cabinet boxes, working from the inside out. Start at the back, using a brush for corners and edges and a roller for large, flat surfaces. Whenever possible, brush or roll in the direction of the wood grain.

Repeat these steps until the entire cabinet box, inside and out, is covered with primer.

Step 6: Prime the Doors, Shelves and Drawer Faces

Start with the back side of the doors, shelves and drawer faces. Use a roller on large, flat surfaces and a paintbrush on the edges, corners and detailed areas. Once the back sides have dried (refer to the drying time recommended by the manufacturer, flip them over and prime the front sides.

Step 7: Paint

Once the primer is completely dry, apply the first coat of paint using the same process you used for priming:

1. Load a paint tray with paint

2. Paint the cabinet box, starting from the back on the inside and working your way out until the entire box is covered.

3. Paint the back side of the doors, shelves and drawer faces

4. Paint the front side of the cabinet pieces

Allow the first coat to dry completely, then apply a second coat. The second coat should provide a smooth, consistent finish without any blemishes or light spots. If there are still light spots or other inconsistencies after the second coat, apply a third coat and allow it to dry. More than three coats shouldn’t be necessary, but apply as many as you need to achieve the desired appearance.

Step 8: Put the Cabinets Back Together

Remove the pieces of tape covering the installation location marks, and match them up with the hardware bags labeled with the corresponding number. Reattach the old hardware and install any new hardware following the manufacturer’s instructions. Finally, reinstall the doors, drawers and shelves back onto their original installation locations.