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How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Updated: Jan 19

Painting cabinets: it’s a hot trend and a sure-fire way to increase the value of your kitchen (at least as of now). Don’t get it twisted, though. Cabinet painting is an extremely labor-intensive process. Whether you did it the “right way” or the “righter way”, this process will leave you warn out and with a distain for paint for the next few weeks. With a beautiful set of newly finished cabinets, however, how can you say no? Check out how to transform your kitchen cabinets.


Things to Remember

· There’s no going back. Although, in theory, you can strip, sand, and reseal your cabinets back to their original wood appearance, it would be extremely labor-intensive and would require a skilled craftsman, which in turn will prove very expensive (I mean very, expensive). Be confident that these cabinets will either be painted again or replaced if changes occurred.

· It can be invasive. If you or someone else plans to paint your cabinets in your home, you will need a space allocated for all your doors and drawers that has proper heating, humidity, and clean air. This operation will require a good amount of dedicated space.

· Time-Intensive. It’s already been said, but just know that you are in for some late nights and/or weekends.

· Use the Correct Paint! We will offer different options. Too many homeowners either use a non-cabinet-grade paint or hire someone who does the same.

· Utensils can stay. You don’t necessarily need to move all your kitchenware.

· Spraying your cabinets will yield the best results, however brushing/rolling can prove successful, too.


How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

1.   Detach/Organize. Take down your cabinets/drawers and make sure to use tape and a pen to mark your items. Assign a number per opening and place that corresponding number on your door/drawer. For doors, we prefer writing the number in the hinge hole with a piece of tape covering it over. For drawers, we write the number down where the back of the drawer will be covered when reattached along with a piece of tape covering it. This way the number remains visible afterwards while not being in our area of painting.

2.   Clean. Wash your doors, drawers, and frames with an appropriate cleaner. We prefer Dawn Dish Soap for mild jobs and Krud Kutter for more severe cleanings. Make sure to scrub with a sponge to get deep into pores of wood. Any trapped grease can prove to be a problem. Also, do not over saturate wood with water. This could cause issues if the water gets trapped in while painting.

a. If you will be hanging your cabinets for painting, this is the ideal time to also drill holes into your cabinets for hanging hooks.

3.   Set up barrier. Don’t want sanding dust all over your house? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to hang plastic around your work area to keep the dust in one location. Also, if you plan on spraying your paint, a tight plastic barrier is a must. This includes masking off your counters, walls, ceilings, appliances, floor and cabinet frame openings.

4.   Sanding. Assuming your cabinets are currently stained and sealed, begin by scuff sanding your doors, drawers, and frames with 180-grit sandpaper. A random orbital power sander is best as it will save time and leave less marks, however hand sanding is required on small, inside edges. Check out these two sanders that professional cabinet painters love!

Along with an article comparing the two -

a. Sanding should be done in between primer and topcoats as well. In general, you should sand with 220 grit after primer and up to 320-400 grit in between top coats.
b. Sanding allows you to ensure a smooth surface along with promoting adhesion of each coat of paint/primer.
c. Make sure to properly vacuum and wipe your cabinets after sanding. Using a tack cloth is preferable before you begin painting.

5.   Prime. You can elect to hang or lay your cabinets. Hanging allows you to coat both sides at once. However, the paint will never lay as smooth as it would when painted horizontally. Each option has its benefits, but most professional painters choose to paint horizontally. You also can elect to spray or brush/roll your cabinets. If brushing and rolling, your only real option is to paint horizontally.

a. 1 coat of primer can be sufficient; however, we recommend 2 coats in order to sand in between without compromising the coverage and effectiveness.
b. If painting over a wood species that is high in tannins, you will need to either use a solvent-based product such as BIN primer or a 2-part catalyzed waterborne product such as Centurion 1111.

6.   Sand In Between coats.

7.   Paint. Apply 2 coats of your paint. Make sure that your primed cabinets look as if they have already been top coated. Any imperfections before painting will be visible after painting.

8.   Reinstall. Pull your tape coverings to see your numbering and reattach drawers and doors. Pull down any masking. Take your time and be careful. Certain paints are more prone to denting in this stage as they have yet to fully cure. Wait at least one day after final coat to reinstall.

9.   Enjoy! Clean your cabinets as time goes on based on the recommendations of your paint manufacturer.


What Primer Do I Use for Priming Cabinets?

It’s very important to use a solid primer for cabinets. In general, you want to use at minimum a high quality “bonding” primer. Sherwin Williams’ “Extreme Bond Primer” is an excellent option, along with “STIX” from Benjamin Moore’s “Insl-X” line.


As noted above, if your cabinets are composed of a wood species that is high in Tannins (naturally occurring chemicals in wood), then they are prone to “bleeding” through your primer and topcoats. This will appear as a yellowish-brown color. Species such as oak, cedar, walnut and mahogany are extremely susceptible. Oak is by far the most common, so compare your cabinets to images on google to determine which species you are dealing with so you can adequately pick out your primer for your project.


If you require a primer to block the tannins, you will most likely be using a solvent-based product such as BIN from Zinsser. This is a Shellac-based product that has very strong odors along with flammability, so you need to be careful! Ventilate your space, wear a proper respirator, and turn off any pilot lights nearby. If spraying, you will need to VERY properly clean out your sprayer so that you do not cross-contaminate your topcoats.

There are water-based options that can be used for tannin-blocking, however they require a second component catalyst that contains a harmful molecule known as isocyanates that are very dangerous to human intake. Extreme ventilation, a full coverall setup, and an air-fed respirator are the only real solution when using this type of product.


What Paint Do I Use for Painting Cabinets?

Just like your primer, your paint (or topcoats) matter too. At the minimum, we recommend using a product such as “Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel” from Sherwin Williams or “Scuff-X” from Benjamin Moore. These products are near the top of their company’s tiers that can be sprayed and brush/rolled. If we lean anyway, we recommend “Scuff-X”, simply because “Emerald Urethane” may take up to a month to truly fully cure. For this reason, it is very susceptible to marring and scratching early on.


Sherwin Williams has recently released their “Gallery Series”, which is a 1k water-borne cabinet paint that exceeds the abilities of either of the two paints above. However, it can only be sprayed, and it does have some mixed reviews from professionals. Overall, when applied correctly, it should be a great option for those who will be spraying their cabinets.


As of now, we prefer using products from Centurion Wood Coatings, such as their CW-1111 primer and 400 series topcoat. However, we will be testing other products from companies alike, such as ICRO or Envirolak coatings.


In the end, always do your research on your product and make sure to follow the specific manufacturer instructions.


Final Notes

If you want your cabinets to come out spectacular, be diligent with your detail. Utilize great lighting to catch imperfections early on and be patient. It may be daunting, but the time put in now will pay off for years to come when following the correct procedure.


If this is out of your abilities, contact a reputable painting company instead! For those Metro Detroiters, Paint to Life is here to make your experience seamless. Get in contact with us today to get an idea on the cost of painting your cabinets!

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