7 Things You Should Know Before Painting Your Kitchen Cabinets

updated Jul 17, 2020
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(Image credit: Justin Levesque)

If you’re looking for a relatively painless, low-cost way to update your kitchen, and have ever been on the internet, you know that painting your cabinets is the way to go. Honestly, I can’t think of better dollar-to-dramatic improvement ratio on any other project. And the news gets better: It’s way easier now than it was the olden days, before the miracle of chalk paint. Of course there are other options, but here’s what I’ve found to be the secret to painting success.

If you’re all done looking at those ’80s oak cabinets and are raring to go, there’s no time like the present. But like with any paint job, the devil is in the details. It’s so very easy to just jump right in. Look! One swipe of the brush and you can already see how beautiful it’s going to be. But you know what I’m going to say: It’s all about the prep. So, before you even head out for supplies, save yourself some time and grief with these tips.

1. Do I have to say it? Don’t paint over dirt.

Your cabinets have born the brunt of years, maybe decades, of kitchen abuse. I don’t think any of us really wants to know how much grease and grime has worked its way into the wood fibers. As you can imagine, paint’s not going to play well with all that accumulated funk, so before you do anything, give them a thorough scrub down. Consider it a therapeutic transition to the new and improved kitchen. I’ve learned a lot from the professional who’s painted most of the walls in our house, and this cleaning secret is one gem, and works for trim, walls, and yep, cabinets—granulated Dirtex works wonders, and leaves you with a clean surface ready to be made beautiful.

2. Bite the bullet and take the doors off

Yes, yes, you have to go through the trouble of taking the doors off before you paint (and of course removing the drawers). Is it a pain? Yeah, a little. Is it worth it? Well, it can be the difference in a job that looks professional and one that looks like maybe you slopped it on over a weekend. Don’t worry, you can still do it in a weekend. And honestly? It can be a little easier when you don’t have to navigate around the doors as you work. While you’re at it, remove the hardware. You don’t have to, but painted-over hardware is sort of a telltale sign of someone in a hurry, plus it can get really gunked up. Now’s a good time to replace and upgrade the knobs, anyway.

Here’s a great tip: Label your doors and drawers with numbers, and sketch out your kitchen showing where each number goes. No need to be fancy: it’s just to help you put everything back where it goes. Theoretically doors should all be the same size (if your cabinets all are), but who knows, and maybe there’s that one that hangs or slides funny, so it’s best to put them all back where they belong. If you mark the numbers under the hinge locations, they won’t show up later. Just cover them with your painter’s tape so they don’t get erased!

3. Take cover

When you’re done painting you want to celebrate, not crawl around looking for and scraping up paint splatters. Do your due diligence on the prep front, and cover your counters (and maybe your floor for good measure) with brown builder’s paper. This is good to keep on hand for your next project anyway, so no worries if you buy more than you need.

4. Choose your tools wisely

Mini-rollers can make the going easier, or you can use a brush. Now is not the time to scrimp; go ahead and pony up for the good quality ones (clean them and keep them for your next project!). Brands like Wooster and Purdy are available at big box stores, and on Amazon. A small sponge brush is helpful for smoothing out any build-up you get on the door edges. As for paint, I’ve had good experience with Annie Sloan brand, though it costs the earth. I’ve tried some knockoff furniture paints from the big stores with less good results, so I stick with the fancy one. I use a brush because that’s what their website recommends, but bloggers like this one report success using a roller.

5. Sand if you’re using traditional vs. chalk paint

I default to whatever will save the most time, so I’m firmly in the chalk paint camp, which adheres to just about anything, no sanding required. If you’re using a standard paint, sorry, but you’re going to have to sand. No need to go wild— you’re just giving the paint something to grip onto. If your cabinets still have their original factory finish, start with a 120-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge. If older paint jobs aren’t faring so well, bump that up to a coarser 100-grit first, followed by the 120 to lose the sanding marks.

6. Decide if you want to see the grain

If you happen to have a revulsion for visible wood grain (and seriously, I can’t tell you how much I hated the oak grain in our builder-grade ’80s cabinets at our last house), consider erasing it before you paint. A dark, matte paint will go a long way, but if you want that grain gone baby gone, spackle your surfaces first to fill the pores. Of course, then you’ll need to sand and prime, so maybe you’ll decide that grain isn’t so bad after all?

7. Paint the insides first

All ready to roll up your sleeves and get painting? One last tip: If you’re new to this, it’s a good idea to start with the inside of the cabinet doors to practice. (Just leave the edges for last so you have something to pick them up by.)

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