We live in a great apartment — tons of space, reasonable rent, and a landlord who reimburses us for home improvements. This last bit is key because (a) we love to fix things up and (b) this apartment seriously needed it. Although its the first floor of an old Beacon Street brownstone, only the front half of the apartment looks like it. The back half — hall, kitchen, bath and bedroom — was an addition circa 1960 complete with dark wood paneling and cabinets everywhere.
The front half of our apartment has lovely original wainscotting and crown molding, both painted antique cream. With our landlord's blessing, we wanted to unify the two halves of the house and make it feel like one, cohesive apartment using little more than paint to transform the 1960s dark wood. The first part of our adventure focuses on the old kitchen cabinets. Although we're still working to complete the full transformation, the kitchen facelift was finished in just one weekend.
What You Need
screwdriver (to remove cabinet doors)
quality paint brushes
Pick a Paint Color
We matched the original trim color and chose a complimentary cabinet color. The previous tenant (also into DIY projects) installed a blue glass tile backsplash and, although blue wouldn't have been our first choice, we went along with it and chose a pale blue for the cabinets. We used the trim color to delineate "trim" from "cabinet" since the entire kitchen was the same color paneling and also to echo the crown molding that's in the rest of the apartment.
Number the Cabinets and Keep Hardware Together!
Number each cabinet door and its corresponding frame with painter's tape. Also, place all removed hardware (hinges) in a numbered bag that corresponds with that door. In newer kitchens this might not matter as much but ours barely had 2 doors exactly alike (and we had over 30 cabinet doors). Organization here will save you ample time on the back end.
Prepare the Surface
Every guide we read stressed this and we completely agree. The door faces and edges were sanded with an orbital sander (outdoors) to remove old lacquer and create a smooth base. The frames and panels in the kitchen were thoroughly cleaned with a TSP substitute to remove dirt and grease.
Invest in Good Primer
Everything — doors, frames and wall panels — was primed with a stain-blocking and sealing primer. We used a Zinsser Shellac base made for latex paint.
Paint, Dry, Paint, Dry
We painted two coats on everything. We also used brushes, not rollers, and were very careful to paint in long, even, vertical strokes. With an oil based paint the surface is more flat but latex paint strokes are more visible, which looks good when done carefully. Allow each coat to dry completely before proceeding. Its best to move furniture and devote ample space to this project so that nothing need move before painting is completed.
Patience is Everything
After painting is completed its just a matter of matching everything back up. Our cabinets were anything but perfect to begin with and during our re-installation we had some issues with closing and fitting many doors back into place but patience is key. Take a deep breath and stick with it — you're almost done!
Step Back and Look at the Big Picture
About halfway through the first coat we realized our new light, airy kitchen was too light and airy and needed some grounding. Because we were dealing with paneling everywhere there was no "wall" to break up the cabinet color. We chose the chalkboard paint to balance the space and bring depth back to the room. We also mounted pegboard to cover a huge area of damaged wall paneling that was a bubbling eyesore (something that our new light paint color only emphasized).
The total cost of our kitchen facelift was $250 and that included purchasing high quality brushes and an orbital sander. Happy landlord, even happier tenants. Stay tuned for Part Two of our wood paneling transformation where we tackle the hallway and pretty much nothing goes according to plan.
Additional Notes: Our best resource for painting kitchen cabinets was This Old House.
Images: Wes & Kayla Schwartz
Originally published 11.10.2008