20 Surprising Tips for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

If you want to upgrade your kitchen without spending a lot of money, painting your kitchen cabinets is the perfect DIY solution. New types of water-based 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

Painting cabinets is a messy job, and the last thing you want is paint all over your countertops. An easy way to protect your countertops, backsplash and floor is to cover them with inexpensive rosin or brown builder’s paper. A common roll size is 35-in.-wide by 140-ft.-long. When you’re done in the kitchen, you’ll have plenty of paper left for future painting projects.

Remove Doors, Drawer Fronts and Hardware

We’ve all seen painting projects where the hinges and hardware are covered with paint and paint is slopped over drawer interiors. It’s tempting to leave the doors in place for painting, but you’ll get a much neater and more professional-looking job by removing them, as well as all the hardware. On many modern cabinets, drawer fronts can be removed from the drawer by backing out a few screws. But if your drawer fronts are part of the drawer and can’t be removed, use masking tape to cover the drawer sides and bottom if you don’t want to paint them.

Label Doors

Start by making a quick sketch or two showing all the doors and drawers. Number them however you want. Then label the doors and drawers with the corresponding number when you remove them. Write under the hinge locations where it won’t be visible. Then cover the numbers with masking tape to protect them while you’re painting.

Get the Grease Off

Even the best paint won’t stick to greasy cabinets. So the first critical step in preparing your cabinets for paint is to clean them with a grease-cutting solution. Dishwashing liquid will work, but a dedicated grease remover like TSP substitute is even better. Mix according to the instructions and scrub the cabinets. Then rinse them with clear water and wipe them dry with a clean rag.

Don’t Go Overboard on Sanding

You should sand cabinets before painting them to give the new paint a good surface to grip. But you don’t need to sand to bare wood. If your cabinets have a factory finish, sand lightly with 120-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge. If the surface is rough from a previous paint job or poor varnishing job, start with coarser 100-grit paper to remove bumps. Then sand again with 120-grit to get rid of any sanding marks.

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

You can buy plastic painter’s pyramids, which work great for supporting doors while you paint them. Or you can make your own standoffs by driving 2-in. screws through 3-in. square scraps of plywood. If you don’t mind a few barely visible dimples on the back of your doors, you can paint both sides of a door at once using standoffs.

Here’s how. 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.

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

Paint with a mini roller: A good painter can work wonders with a brush, but for most of us a mini roller is a great alternative. You’ll find mini roller frames and sleeves at home centers and paint stores. For painting cabinets, mohair, microfiber or foam sleeves are good choices. Foam sleeves will leave the smoothest finish, but they don’t hold much paint. Experiment on the inside of doors to see which sleeve works best with your paint.

Follow the wood grain: 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.

Choose the Right Paint

Read the label and choose paint that’s formulated for painting woodwork and cabinets. Remember, glossier surfaces highlight imperfections, so unless you’re a very meticulous painter, consider an eggshell or a satin sheen.

If your paint seems too thick and isn’t leveling out after it’s applied, try mixing in a paint conditioner like Floetrol. 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. My preferred brand is Purdie. 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

When you’re painting the edge of a cabinet door, it’s easy to apply too much paint and create a buildup along the edge. To avoid a dried ridge of paint along the door edge, smooth out any paint that’s lapped over onto the adjoining surface with a paintbrush or small sponge brush.

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.

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