Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets take more abuse than any other woodwork in home, from grimy hands to cooking grease; to being opened and closed innumerable times a day, to being located in the room where the air conditions would be destructive to any kind of woodwork. Although cabinet replacement might be inevitable, you can buy some time by painting your cabinets. Repainting cabinet doors can also give your kitchen a new look and feel, without you feeling the pinch of total remodeling via replacement on the units.

Determine a few things before you begin re-painting your cabinets. Are the cabinets painted now or are they finished with a stain and varnish (or lacquer)? If they are painted, do you want to paint them the same color? This will help you to not only get the cabinets cleaned up, but to completely change their look.


Surface Prep

Step 1: Cleaning the cabinets. Surface prep is at least 75 percent, maybe as much as 90 percent, of the success of a repaint. It is important to make sure that all of the surfaces you are going to paint are completely free of all grease, grime, food residue and whatever else may be stuck to them. Remove doors, drawers and all hardware. Doors and drawers should be identified in an inconspicuous spot (mark the bottom edge of a door, for instance) to avoid mixing them up later. Use an all purpose cleaner and a rag and then allow them to dry thoroughly. Once cabinets are clean, they should be rinsed thoroughly with clean water.

Nicks and dings should be filled with nonshrinking putty. Most types of putty are rock-hard once they dry, so removing as much excess as possible as you go along will save time later. Once the putty has dried, cabinets can be sanded. Many painters use 120-grit paper, although 150- or 180-grit leaves a slightly smoother surface. When the prep is complete, what you should have, is a clean, dry and dull surface.

Step 2: Sanding. The slightly sanded surface allow the primer to bite and hold onto the cabinet surface. It can be a tedious process, but taking the time to lightly sand your cabinets before you prime and paint them will greatly increase longevity of the paint job. If stripping is the option you choose, a light sanding with 150- or 180-grit sandpaper after the old finish has been removed will suffice. Sanding dust should be removed with a tack cloth or a soft cloth dampened with odorless mineral spirits.

Stripping may be ideal, but it is not always practical and, according to some painting contractors and manufacturers, is not absolutely necessary (particularly if your cabinets have already been painted). If the job is intended as a short-term improvement, a thorough cleaning, followed by a light sanding, is all you need to prepare the surface for new paint. Ordinary household cleaners should remove most grime, but if that doesn\’t do the trick you might want a stronger cleaner, such as trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is sold at hardware and paint stores. Some home centers also offer a TSP substitute, but this product does not etch the surface as well.

Step 3: Apply primer. Primer forms a better bond with the surface than paint alone would, so that the paint is less likely to chip and peel. If the cabinets are being re-painted with the same colour, it is OK to skip this step and go ahead and apply the paint. If the cabinets are stained and you are trying to cover up the natural wood grain with paint, they must primed them. Paint will not stick to the varnished surface and the color of the stain will most likely bleed right through the paint.

If you are planning to use a latex paint for your top coat, then a shellac based primer is recommended. This product tends to dry fairly quickly, so make sure that you are ready to go before you begin applying it. The shellac based primers, just like the oil based, carry a very strong odor and caution should be used.

If cabinets are heavily stained, use a stain-blocking primer such as B-I-N, a tinted shellac made by Wm. Zinsser & Co. It dries quickly and seals knots and other surface defects that might bleed through the topcoats. But in most situations, stain-blockers should not be necessary. Use either an alkyd or 100 percent acrylic latex primer. If you have stripped cabinets to bare wood, an underbody is recommended, which a special type of primer that fills minor surface imperfections. This will produce a smoother finished surface.

After the primer or underbody has dried, a light sanding with 150- or 180-grit sandpaper will remove dust nibs and other imperfections before the topcoats are applied. The surface should be wiped down after sanding. One coat of primer is all that\’s needed.


Step 4: Paint the cabinets. Whether you\’ve chosen oil or latex as the topcoat, don\’t skimp by buying cheap paint. This is one of those cases where you really do get what you pay for. Latex paint should be applied with a synthetic-bristle brush, which does not absorb water; oil-based paint should be applied with a natural-bristle brush. Gloss paint offers greater protection and holds up to scrubbing better than a semigloss or eggshell sheen.

If you are repainting in roughly the same shade, a primer coat and two finish coats ought to do it. You might even get away with one coat over an underbody primer. But painting over a dark finish with a light color is tougher. It could take a primer and three finish coats. Even so, it\’s a small price to pay for a kitchen that will look almost new.

Step 5: Add additional coats. To achieve a professional finish, very lightly sand the flat surfaces with some 400 grit sandpaper. This is not to remove the paint, but insuring that the next coat has the smoothest possible surface to adhere to. Add second coat. Two coats of paint is normally sufficient, although better results can be had with three, especially with woods that carry a heavier grain, like oak.

Hang the doors back once they are painted and fully dry.

Additional Reading:

The Painted Kitchen: Over 60 quick and easy ways to transform your kitchen cupboards

Expert Paint: Painting Kitchens: How to Choose and Use the Right Paint for Your Kitchen Walls, Ceilings, Floors, Cabinets, Countertops, and Appliances

Debbie Travis\’ Painted House Kitchens and Baths: More than 50 Innovative Projects for an Exciting New Look at Any Budget