20 Surprising Tips on How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets
If you want to upgrade your kitchen without spending a lot of money, knowing how to paint kitchen cabinets is the perfect DIY solution. New types of water-based cabinet paint like acrylic alkyds and acrylic urethanes have made it much easier to get a durable, professional-looking job. These finishes can be cleaned up with water and don’t make your house smell like a chemical factory. And quality tools like mini rollers and good consumer-grade sprayers allow even beginners to get pro results.
Protect Countertops With Rosin Paper
Remove Doors, Drawer Fronts and Hardware
Plus: Learn how to chalk paint cabinets yourself.
Get the Grease Off
Don’t Go Overboard on Sanding
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Choose a Fast-Drying Primer
Want to speed up the project? Choose a fast-drying primer for the first coat. Read the label for information on recoating time and to make sure the primer is compatible with the paint you’re planning to use.
Pro Tip: Use an enamel underbody primer. Water-based paint has come a long way, and some top-quality acrylic alkyd hybrids rival oil-based paint. Still, many pro painters prefer oil-based paint, especially for priming. Oil-based paint dries slowly and levels well. This gives you more working time and fewer brush marks. Also, when they’re dry, oil-based primers like Benjamin Moore Fresh Start Enamel Underbody sand easily to provide a perfect base for your finish coat.
Consider Filling Open Grain
Some types of wood have grain with many open pores. Oak is a good example. The pores show through finishes and are especially noticeable under paint. It’s OK to leave the grain showing, but if you want a smooth, grain-free look, you’ll have to fill the pores before painting. There are a few methods. You can apply several coats of a high-build primer, sanding between coats until the pores are filled. Or you can fill the grain with spackling as shown here. If your cabinets have a lot of curves and molded edges, filling with spackling is more difficult. When the filler dries, sand and prime as usual to finish the job.
Vacuum, Then Use a Tack Cloth
To ensure a smooth paint job and good adhesion, it’s critical that you remove all the sanding dust from the doors, drawer fronts and cabinet frames. Start by vacuuming everything using a soft bristle brush attachment. This removes loose dust, but you still need to get rid of the rest.
The traditional painter’s method is to use tack cloths. You can buy them in packs at the paint department. To use a tack cloth, completely unfold it and loosely bunch it up. Wipe it gently over the surface to pick up dust. Shake it out frequently and re-form the bundle to use it again. When the cloth has lost its dust-grabbing ability, throw it away and get a new one.
Support Doors on Standoffs
Here’s how to get started painting you kitchen cabinets. Paint the back first, leaving the edges unpainted so you’ll have a spot to put your fingers when you turn the door over. Paint the back. Then flip the door over and rest it on the screw tips. Now you can paint the door edges and front, then let the door dry. If you look hard, you can spot tiny indentations where the screws contact the wet paint, but they’re inconspicuous.
Double-Check for Defects After Priming
The first paint-prep step after cleaning grease from cabinets is usually filling unwanted holes, dents and dings with spackling or wood filler. After sanding, getting rid of dust and priming the cabinets, it’s a good idea to check everything with a bright light to spot and fill any remaining holes or dents. It’s usually easier to spot these problems after priming.
We prefer filling with an oil-based spackling compound like MH Ready Patch because it sticks well and dries hard for a durable repair. But other fillers will also work. The downside of this additional round of spackling is that you’ll have to reprime the patched areas.
Sand Lightly Between Coats
Dust can settle in the paint or primer as it dries. For the smoothest final coat, sand between coats of primer or paint with 220-grit sandpaper or an extra-fine sanding sponge. Then vacuum and tack as usual before recoating.
Painting Tools and Techniques: The Basics
Follow the wood grain: If you’re painting frame-and-panel cabinet doors, follow the direction of the wood grain with your finishing brushstrokes. The vertical stiles should receive the last brush strokes running from top to bottom.
Roll, then brush: If you’re old-school and still like to paint with a brush, you can speed things up by first applying the paint with a mini roller. Roll on the paint. Then drag paint brush bristles lightly over the surface to even out the coat and eliminate roller marks.
How to Choose the Right Paint for Kitchen Cabinets
If your paint seems too thick and isn’t leveling out after it’s applied, try mixing in a paint conditioner like Floetrol. Read the instructions for the correct proportion of conditioner to paint. Conditioned paint is often easier to apply and dries to a smoother finish.
Strain your Paint
Our pro painting consultant insists that even fresh paint should be strained before use to remove any small lumps that could mar the paint job. If you don’t want to go to this extreme, at least filter any leftover paint. You can buy paper cone filters in any paint department.
Scuff Up Profiles With a Pad
When you’re sanding a smooth finish to provide a better surface for paint, use a green abrasive pad to sand the molded profiles. Sandpaper doesn’t conform well enough to get into all of the intricate spots.
Buy a Top-Quality Brush
If you decide to paint with a brush, splurge on a good one. For cabinets, a 2-in. brush like the one shown here is just about perfect. Expect to spend about $12 to $14 for a pro-quality brush. Keep it clean and it will last for many paint jobs. Paint stores usually offer the widest selection and the best advice.
Pro Tip: Dampen your brush. It’s easier to clean your brush if you dampen it with water (for water-based paints) before you start painting.
Wipe the Edges
Worried About Adhesion? Try Acrylic Urethane
Acrylic urethane has many properties that make it a perfect primer for cabinets. First, it sticks tenaciously to almost any surface. You could even paint over plastic laminate cabinets with acrylic urethane. Acrylic urethane also cures to a very hard and durable finish. You can use acrylic urethane primer and cover it with your choice of paint. Or you can use acrylic urethane paint as the final coat too. Insl-X Cabinet Coat (not shown) is one brand of acrylic urethane paint formulated for cabinets.
Consider Spray-Painting the Doors
With a little practice and a good sprayer, you can achieve factory-finish quality by spraying your doors. A pro-quality airless sprayer will work best to spray unthinned water-based finishes. But you can also get great results with a high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer. Just be sure to thin the paint according to the instructions and apply several thin coats rather than one thick one.
Spot-Prime With Shellac
Pigmented shellac in a spray can (BIN is one brand) is perfect for spot-priming areas you may have missed or areas you have patched and sanded. Shellac sticks well to most finishes, dries quickly and covers well.
Try the kitchen cabinet storage upgrades outlined in the video below, too.