The Great Cabinet Debate: To Paint or Not Paint

The Great Cabinet Debate: To Paint or Not Paint

Leah Moss
Mar 8, 2010

If there's one concern that shows up in our "good questions" posts nearly every month without fail, it's whether or not to paint wooden cabinets. Having decided to take the plunge myself in our current home (pictured above), I have a few tips for getting the job done without a lot of hassle.

First, it's totally worth it! Ok, ok that's not really a tip, but it is true. Cabinets take up a large amount of visual space especially in small kitchens, and if you're even considering painting them then you probably aren't digging the look of stained wood to begin with. For me, deciding was as easy as asking myself — and my husband of course!— whether or not we liked look of the existing cabinets. Not whether or not we liked wood in general or whether we had a moral opposition to painted wood, but whether we actually liked the vibe that the honey stain brought to our particular space. Once we came to the simple conclusion that no, we didn't, it was an easy decision even for my husband who is normally quite opposed to painted wood.

Obviously, painted wood is a matter of personal preference, but I have never fully understood the reverence many people pay to staining but not to painting. Even though wood stains allow the wood grain to show, in many cases they alter the visual weight of wood just as much as paint—case in point: the early 2000s trend of cherry-stained cabinets.

Ok, now onto the real tips. When we decided to ditch our honey stain for fresh white we scoured the internet for painting tips. These were the most helpful:

Remove the cabinet doors and all hardware. Kind of a hassle, but totally worth it because it makes actual painting much easier and will ensure that you keep the hardware paint-free.

Fill cracks and nail holes with wood filler before priming and painting. You would think this would be a no-brainer, but I managed not to do this on two separate previous occasions, so I thought that it was worth mentioning. I've used Elmer's carpenter's wood filler, which works just fine. Squeeze a little bit of filler into the crack, wipe off any excess with a paper towel or edge of a putty knife, wait for it to dry, then sand of any excess with fine grit sand paper.

Use Zinsser's B-I-N shellac based primer. I promise that I'm not getting paid to promote this, but I had to mention it because it is by far the best primer I've ever used, especially on wood with knots. When we started the project we used a regular water-based primer, but within a few days, the knots began to bleed through (not the fresh look we were going for in our clean white kitchen!), so we switched to this one and loved the results. Another great perk is that either oil or latex paint can be used over it, and it can be used over most surfaces (including laminate) without sanding. Most Benjamin Moore stores carry it.

Use a foam brush to paint the inside corners. I didn't discover this helpful tip until I was halfway into the project. The flexible foam brush was much easier to get into the tight corners and crevices than a regular paint brush, and it didn't drip nearly as much.

Wait until paint is completely dry before rehanging the cabinet doors. Again, another no-brainer for most of you, but one that my impatient self needed to be reminded of. Attaching the doors prematurely may mean risking them sticking together or causing some of the new paint to peel off.

So those are my cabinet painting tips, what are yours?

To check out more details of our modest kitchen makeover, pictured above, in this post from last year.

(Images: Leah Moss)

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