DIY Painting & Finishing

7 Things to Know When Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Find out what it takes to achieve a pro-quality paint job on your kitchen cabinets and update your space.
7 Things to Know When Painting Kitchen Cabinets

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If your kitchen needs a makeover, but you lack the funds or time for a costly renovation, consider simply painting kitchen cabinets to transform the look and feel of the area. Cabinets often cover the bulk of the wall space in the kitchen, so a new coat or a fresh color can dramatically alter its appearance.

That being said, potential project mishaps—from improper surface selection to inadequate preparation—can produce imperfect results and waste effort and paint. Therefore, you should do a little planning before reaching for a paintbrush. From paint selection to project duration, here are seven considerations to make when painting your kitchen cabinets.

1. Not all cabinet surfaces are practical to paint.

Painting Kitchen Cabinets: Different Surfaces

While bare or painted wood, laminate, or metal kitchen cabinets are all great selections, there are certain surfaces you should think twice about slinging paint over:

  • Open-grained wood: Cabinets made of open-grained woods, like ash and mahogany, have a visible grain that will produce a less than perfectly smooth paint finish containing prominent grooves (even after sanding). Unless you’re prepared for the time-consuming task of filling the pores of grain with wood filler to even the surface, stick to painting kitchen cabinets made of close-grained woods, such as maple and poplar, which enable a seamless finish.
  • Cracked or warped laminate: These conditions can prevent paint from bonding with cabinets, so repair minor laminate damage or reface the cabinets before painting them.
  • Peeling paint: If the existing paint on your cabinets is peeling in large flakes, you could have an underlying moisture problem in your home and should avoid painting until you have it identified and resolved. Otherwise, you risk the new coat peeling.
  • Lead-based paint: Even if your paint coat is only flaking a little, stripping it off can release harmful lead dust into the air if it’s lead paint, common in homes built before 1978. A lead test kit can tell you if your old paint coat is lead-free and safe to strip.

2. Remove and elevate the cabinet components for a uniform finish.

If you paint kitchen cabinets with the doors still hanging on the cabinet boxes (frames), you’re liable to miss edges and corners or get paint on the door pulls. For a uniform paint finish, empty the cabinets and remove the cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware (knobs, pulls, and hinges). Prop each component you want to paint on painter’s pyramids—small plastic tripods that lift an object off a flat work surface with minimal contact so that you can see and paint multiple surfaces without waiting for the painted surface to dry. With painter’s pyramids (view example on Amazon), once you’ve painted the front and sides of a cabinet door, for example, just flip it over and paint the other side.

How to Skip Sending Before Painting Kitchen Cabinets

3. You might be able to skip manual sanding before painting kitchen cabinets.

Wiping down all of the painting surfaces with soapy water is an important first step to remove caked-on dirt and grease, which can result in poor adhesion of the paint to the surface and a paint coat that prematurely peels. But to help roughen the surface so that the paint sticks, you’ll also need to either sand (smooth with sandpaper) or degloss (chemically remove the gloss) it. Gently sanding all cabinet components with sandpaper can take a day or more but is suitable if the cabinet material is coarse enough to scuff (wood, or matte or wood-like laminate). And it’s a must if the surface is pitted or otherwise irregular because deglossing can’t even out those patches. If you choose this option, use 180- to 220-grit sandpaper and take care not to scratch the wood or tear the delicate laminate surface.

If, however, you have wooden cabinets in good condition, or they’re made of a glossy laminate or even metal, which you can’t scuff, choose a deglosser, a chemical formula that acts like liquid sandpaper. It goes on with a soft cloth, and within around 30 minutes, removes the gloss from slick surfaces and leaves a coarse, paint-ready surface.

4. Primer can make or break your paint job.

Before you rush to take a paintbrush to your kitchen cabinets, be sure to apply a foundational coat known as a primer to improve adhesion of the paint coat to the surface and prevent premature peeling. This step is optional if you’re painting kitchen cabinets that are already painted, though you’ll want to use primer when going from a darker to a dramatically lighter color (navy blue to cream, for example) to keep the old coat from peeking through into the new coat. The best type of primer depends on the surface you’re painting:

  • Bare wood: Choose an oil-based interior primer (view example on Amazon) to keep any tannins in the wood from bleeding through and staining the finish (latex primers are less stain-resistant).
  • Unpainted laminate: Pick an oil- or water-based bonding primer (view example on Amazon), which is designed to stick to glossy surfaces.
  • Unpainted metal: Use an oil-based metal primer (view example on Amazon).
  • Latex over oil: To cover an old oil-based paint coat with latex paint, use a bonding primer to improve adhesion of the latex paint to the slicker oil paint.
Color Samples for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

5. Proper paint selection is key for longterm durability.

With primer applied, you can apply a latex paint (made with pigments and water) over either latex or oil-based primer, or an oil-based paint over an oil-based primer. When deciding between them on the best type of paint for kitchen cabinets, consider your priorities. Oil-based paint is more moisture- and stain-resistant—a plus in the splash-prone zone of the kitchen—and produces a more long-lasting paint job. But it can take up to one day to dry and is made with more of the noxious chemicals known as VOCs. Latex paint, while less durable, dries in only a few hours and is available in low-VOC or VOC-free formulas, which is advantageous if you have allergies or are smell-sensitive.

When settling on a color for your cabinets, choose from among timeless neutrals like cream for a traditional space, trending colors like slate for a modern kitchen, or a combination of the two for a transitional or modern kitchen. Just remember that the color you choose should ultimately complement your walls, countertops, and floors. Also keep in mind that lighter colors can make a room look bigger and brighter, but can also make cabinet stains more visible, while darker ones create a more intimate, heady atmosphere but mask stains.

Lastly, look for paint labeled for interior or interior/exterior use (view example on Amazon), ideally in a semi-gloss finish to lend your cabinets an attractive sheen and a smooth, easy-to-clean surface. Flat and eggshell finishes are duller and rougher, so harder to scrub clean, while gloss reflects too much light, and emphasizes the tiniest brush marks and other flaws in the paint coat. If your cabinets have a lot of these flaws, opt for the satin sheen, which is a step below semi-gloss in sheen but hides imperfections better.

Paintbrush and Roller for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

6. Using a paintbrush and roller in tandem yields the best results.

While some DIY painters prefer to use a quality paintbrush for more control over where the primer and paint go, and others opt for foam rollers for speed and smoother results, combining both approaches lead to a smoother and more uniform coat with minimal brush marks. To start, use a two-inch brush to coat the grooves and recesses of cabinet doors. Natural-bristle brushes are better suited for oil-based paints; synthetic bristle brushes work best for latex paints. Then, switch to a foam roller to coat flat areas of the front and back of doors, along with the cabinet boxes.

7. It’s a relatively affordable—but not last-minute—project.

Painting kitchen cabinets on your own can cost anywhere from $200 to $600 on average and can save you $400 to $800 versus professional painting. But in addition to being a three-figure project, it’s also a three-day project at a minimum. When you factor in surface preparation, priming, painting, and drying, budget three days to repaint cabinets in a small to a medium kitchen measuring between 70 and 120 square feet or five days for a large kitchen of 200 or more square feet.