Kitchen cabinets see a lot of wear, tear, and sticky hands over the years, and those nicked or scuffed wood-laminate relics of the ‘80s can significantly date an interior. But remodeling is expensive, and after all that holiday shopping, a major home update doesn’t likely feature near the top of your priorities list for 2018.

While replacing a kitchen’s worth of ailing cabinets carries a hefty price tag, however, modern hardware and a few pints of paint can transform the look and feel of a kitchen over the weekend. It just takes a bit of work.

(Fair warning: This guide includes sanding, and your triceps will be sore.)

Still up for the challenge? Then keep reading to learn the best techniques for a professional paint finish that will bring your kitchen cabinets into the modern age.

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First, Choose Your Paint and Primer

paint color swatchesPriming is essential to achieving a seamless, who-did-you-hire finish. When picking out your paint and primer, it’s a good idea to have your primer tinted with the color of your topcoat to prevent quirks in the natural surface from showing through. Choose a fast-drying primer if you’re in a time crunch, or if you have the time to spare, go with an oil-based primer for the smoothest possible base layer.

Wood, wood-laminate, and metal cabinets all lend themselves beautifully to paint, but plastic laminate can be tricky. If you aren’t sure how well paint will adhere to your cabinets, consult an employee at your local paint supplier and ask for a sample to try on an inconspicuous area of your cabinets, such as the back of a door.

And if you need a little color inspiration, check out our infographic on the year’s top paint color trends.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Materials list:

  • Drill or screwdriver for removing hardware
  • Wood putty or spackle compound
  • Putty knife
  • 100- and 120-grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth/rag
  • Rosin paper and/or drop cloth
  • Cleaning solution
  • Painter’s tape
  • Plastic painter’s pyramids to elevate doors for painting
  • Primer
  • Paint
  • 1.5’’ tapered and 2’’ paintbrush
  • Small (2-3’’) paint roller
  • Paint tray and stirring sticks

Once you’ve gathered everything, you’re ready to get started!

Step 1: Prepare for painting

Painting can be a dirty job, so before you break out the brushes, you’ll want to prepare and protect your workspace. Empty the cabinets, clear off the counters, and lay rosin paper over the backsplash, countertops, and floor, using painter’s tape to secure it. One roll of inexpensive rosin paper will last through several painting projects.

Step 2: Remove doors and hardware

Removing doors makes painting them easier. And although it’s a pain, removing hardware will ensure no paint smudges end up on your knobs and pulls. Bag the hardware and screws and place inside the cabinets, where they will be easily accessible when you’re ready to reassemble.

If you have a large kitchen, labeling the doors as you remove them will make reinstalling simpler. To do so, quickly sketch your kitchen layout and assign each door and drawer a number. Use a marker to label the corresponding door where the hinges attach, so the number won’t be visible, and cover with tape to preserve the number during painting.

3. Clean surfaces and fill holes

With all the cooking that goes on in your kitchen, chances are your cabinets aren’t as clean as they look. Paint adheres best to a clean surface, so scrub the cabinets with a grease-fighting cleaner and let dry. Dish soap diluted in water works fine, although commercial degreasers are available for tough, stuck-on grime.

Then, fill any nicks or cracks with wood putty, or if you’re installing new hardware, fill the holes from the old attachments. Sand with 100-grit sandpaper for a smooth, even surface.

Step 4: Sand the surfaces

Using 120-grit sandpaper, start by lightly sanding the doors on all sides. A power sander can help speed up the process for flat surfaces, but switch to a sanding block to avoid rounding hard edges and better reach the contours of paneled doors. For the frames, tape off the interiors for a clean finish and sand only the outer surfaces.

You do not need to remove the old finish entirely; you only need to roughen the surface to allow for better adhesion when applying the paint and primer.

When finished, use a hand vacuum or hose attachment to pick up most of the sanding dust. An air duster (or “canned air”) can help blow out the dust from molding details and crevices. Finally, wipe down the surfaces with a tack cloth to remove any remaining residue.

Step 5: Apply the primer and paint

Now that you have a clean, rough surface, you’re ready to apply the primer. Using a small roller or paintbrush, apply an even coat and let dry according to the manufacturer’s directions. If brush strokes are visible after drying, lightly sand until smooth, and use a tack cloth to remove the residue.

painting kitchen cabinets diagram

When you’re ready to paint, start with the inside edges of the face frames, then the sides, then the fronts. For the doors, start with the framing and center panels, then flow the paint into the crevices. Use a small, angled brush for these tricky areas, and try not to let the paint accumulate in corners.

Apply paint in light, thin coats. Thick or overworked paint will leave brushstrokes or air bubbles.

Let the paint dry according to the instructions on the label, or for at least four hours. When dry, lightly resand, wipe down with the tack cloth, and apply a second coat. Usually, two coats are all that is necessary for full coverage.

Once the cabinets have cured completely (at least 24 hours), reinstall hardware and attach the hinges to the doors and then to the cabinet frames.

In Conclusion

A fresh coat of paint can breathe new life into an old room, and the kitchen is no exception. But painting cabinets can be tricky, so for a professional finish, remember these tips:

  • Oil-based paints and primers will give you the smoothest finish.
  • Remove all hinges, knobs, and pulls before painting.
  • Label the doors as you take them down for easy reinstallation.
  • Paint adheres best to clean, slightly rough surfaces, so be sure to degrease and sand your cabinets before applying primer.
  • Additional sanding between coats will result in a smoother finish.

Of course, you could always leave all that sanding and painting to the pros. Local Best Pick painters come highly recommended by your neighbors, and their work is backed by the Best Pick Guarantee, so you know you’ll get the high-quality finish you want without all the elbow grease.