How to paint kitchen cabinets
Updated: 2022-01-24

By Paul Bianchina

If you're getting tired of looking at your old kitchen cabinets but don't have the inclination or the budget to undertake replacing them, painting can offer an attractive alternative. Whether the existing cabinets are a dark stain from yesteryear or are already painted and in need of some refreshing, with the proper materials, some time and some patience, you can make quite a difference in a fairly short time.

How to paint kitchen cabinets

Any successful paint job begins with proper preparation, and nowhere is this more true than when painting kitchen cabinets. Take your time here, and the rest of the job will go much smoother.

First, you need to decide exactly what you want to paint. Some older kitchens have cabinets that are painted both inside and out, and that may be what you want to do again. You may wish to paint only the outside of the cabinets and leave the insides alone, or you may be planning on replacing the doors and drawer fronts, and only need to paint the cabinet-face frames and side panels.

Although it represents a little more work up front, the job will go smoother and easier if you plan on completely emptying the cabinets. Box up what you won't need for the next several days, and what you will need can be set up on a temporary work space in another room. Remove all of the doors, hinges and knobs, and store the hardware in zipper-lock bags so nothing gets lost.

Next, all of the surfaces that will be painted need to be cleaned and prepped to receive the new paint. No matter how good a housekeeper you are, older kitchen cabinets are sure to have a coating of grease on them, and that needs to be completely removed for the paint to stick well. Cover the counters and appliances with plastic sheeting, then wash the cabinets inside and out with a solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP) and hot water. TSP is a great general cleaner and degreaser -- follow the mixing, usage and safety instructions on the package.

After cleaning, you need to lightly roughen the surface of the wood so that the new paint will adhere better. Using 220-grit wet and dry sandpaper, moisten the paper with water and lightly sand in the direction of the grain. After sanding, carefully remove the old plastic sheeting that you had put up previously, to prevent the dust that's on it from being spread around. Wipe everything down with a clean soft rag to remove most of the surface dust, followed by a final wiping with a tack cloth. Tack clothes are simply rags that have been treated to make them slightly sticky, and they do a great job of removing the final traces of sanding dust without leaving any residue on the cabinets.

If you are painting the doors and drawer fronts, remember to clean and sand them as well. You may want to find a convenient spot in the garage to set them up for painting, or you can set them up in the kitchen as well. They are, however, easier to paint if they are not still on the cabinets.

You are now ready to start painting. Begin by recovering everything with plastic, paying close attention to protecting counters, appliances, floors, walls and other surfaces that will not be painted. If you are not painting the insides of the cabinets, use masking tape to create a clean line between the cabinet face frames and the interior. Mask where the cabinets meet the wall, using blue (lighter tack) masking tape to prevent damage to the wall surfaces when it's removed.

For best adhesion and best finished appearance, you should consider applying a primer coat before applying the finished color. Primers are designed to create an intermediate bond between the wood and the finished paint, and are a step well worth taking. Your paint store can help you select the proper primer for the type of finish paint you'll be using. Primers are typically white, so if the final color you intend to apply is dark, the paint store can also tint the primer to a color that's closer to the final paint color.

You now have to decide between applying the paint with a brush or with a sprayer. Brush painting is more convenient and requires a lot less masking, but spraying is faster and tends to apply the paint more evenly without having to worry about brush streaks. Your paint store can help you out with the proper type of brush for the paint you're using, and if you decide to spray, they can either rent you the proper spray equipment or direct you to someone who can.

Apply the primer coat, allow it to dry completely, then apply the top coat. Follow all of the manufacturer's instructions for application, drying, ventilation and other precautions. Allow the top coat to dry completely, remove the masking, then clean and reinstall the original hardware, or complete the fresh new look by installing new knobs and hinges as well.

All of the materials you need, along with expert advice, can be found at any well-equipped paint store. If you already know exactly what you need to buy, you can also visit your local home center.
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