25 Tips For Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Painting your kitchen cabinets is a process that requires patience, and you’ll have to be prepared to deal with a bit of chaos and disorder for a few weeks before all of the pieces can be put back together.

Before I share the finished kitchen, here are my top 25 tips from this experience.

  1. Choose the right paint. Everyday wall paint consists of a formula not suited for surfaces like cabinetry. It’s known to chip and it won’t stand up well to repeated cleaning. It costs more, but choosing an alkyd enamel, like Benjamin Moore ADVANCE or Sherwin-Williams ProClassic will hold up better in the long run and since the formulas are self-leveling, will leave you with a smoother finish. Learn more about alkyd-enamels in this post.
  2. Choose a color that will flatter your appliances. Consider this: I had a lot of older, black appliances in the kitchen in my old house. They stood out like a sore thumb surrounded by oak cabinetry. When I stained all of the cabinets dark brown, the black appliances nearly disappeared. Magic! In this kitchen, we have an abundance of almond appliances that aren’t quite ready to kick the bucket, and almond isn’t my favorite finish for appliances, but miraculously, by painting the cabinets a similar light sand color, they suddenly seem to fit in perfectly. When we eventually update, we’ll probably go to stainless steel appliances, which will still fit in nicely.
  3. Remove all of the hardware. All of the hinges. Every last screw. The knob. The magnets that help to keep the door shut. It takes time, but it’s worth it to have a clean slate when you begin refinishing the surfaces.
  4. Take the time to organize the hardware. One of the best tips I came across was to label each door by number beneath where the hinge goes in the frame. Label a plastic baggie filled with that door’s hardware with the same number. Place a small piece of painter's tape over the number on the door, so when the painting is complete, you can remove the painter's tape and see the number. The small place where you had written the number should be inconspicuous enough not to be seen (ideally, it will be hidden behind the hinge hardware).
  5. Pack up your kitchen cabinets neatly. Pack paper bags or plastic bins for each individual “pantry-like” cabinet, so that the contents can be easily returned to their home when the job is through. Stack small appliances out of the way. Keep the cookware you use most regularly (a fry pan, your big pasta pot) on your cooktop. Transfer your silverware into coffee mugs – one for each spoons, forks, knives, and serving utencils – and let them be the centerpiece on your dining room table. You’ll still need them throughout the duration of your project, so best to keep them handy.
  6. Roll up the rugs, clear the countertops and remove the curtain.You’re going to make a mess.
  7. Consider buying or renting a handheld electric sander. Regardless of the surface material you’re refinishing, sanding all of the surfaces is essential to creating the best area for primer and paint to adhere. You’re going to be covering a lot of ground, and an orbital detail sander will both speed up the process, evenly prep the surface, and take a lot of the effort off your own muscles. I was painting over solid wood, but if you’re painting over laminate consider the tips I gave in this post, where I refinished a laminated tabletop.
  8. Buy a lot of sandpaper. Buy multiple packs of sandpaper to fit your palm sander (I used 15 sheets each of 80 grit and 120 grit to prep my 40+ doors and the base cabinetry surface before painting). I also bought a pack of 10 sheets of 180-grit sandpaper, which I used to lightly hand sand between coats while priming and painting.
  9. Buy a lot of tack cloths too. Cleaning the surface is just as essential as sanding the surface, is. Remove all of the dust and debris after sanding by wiping the surface with a tack cloth. It will lift all of the dust while containing the mess (you might want to don rubber gloves for this part – the cloth will make your hands sticky, too). They’re sold in packs of 2-3 for only $2-$3, and if you’re like me, you’ll use 20+ during the course of the project to manage dust between coats.
  10. Use oil-based primer. Kilz came recommended by several painting pros I conferred with – specifically the oil-based formula, not the water-based. With the oil-based formula, the hardwood is less likely to discolor painted white cabinets over time (wood is known to “bleed through” and give the paint a tinge of yellow, especially if it's knotty wood). The oil-based also creates a very well-adhered surface on which to paint. 
  11. Have the primer tinted, if you’re painting a dark color, to lessen the chance of needing multiple coats. I went duo-toned in my kitchen (can’t wait to show you, but get a sneak peek right here). I started by priming the cabinets and doors that would be the lighter color with the plain white Kilz primer. When I finished and was ready to prime the darker color cabinets and doors, I took the half-used can of primer back to the store, and had them tint it close to the shade of my paint. They were happy to accommodate, and it saved me from having to buy a second gallon of primer. 
  12. Buy canvas drop cloths. Worth the $10 to buy one or two that you can move about as necessary. I found this process to be relatively “splatter-free” compared to painting walls with a higher-nap roller, but drips and missteps happen, just the same. (Plus, keep the cloths neat and you can make drop cloth curtainsthe best tablecloth ever, and plenty of other rustic-inspired projects.) 
  13. Get disposable paint trays. Ten trays for $5, you can’t go wrong. Place the plastic disposable tray into your “real” tray so you can roll on a firm surface, and then throw it out when you’re done. Easy clean-up.
  14. Buy extra brushes and paint rollers. The enamel paint is easy to clean with soap and water, and those brushes can be reused several times, but oil-based paint clean-up is nearly a deterrent for me. If you hate it too, just spend the extra $20 and buy a few extra brushes to alleviate the pain of clean-up. In any case, cleaning the brushes only works well a few times before the bristles start to go haywire, rendering your ability to do meticulous touch-ups harder and harder.
  15. Use baggies or plastic wrap to seal your brushes and rollers overnight. This is a good tip if you’re going to work 2-3 days in a row, and an especially helpful tip if you’re going to be tossing your oil-based brushes instead of cleaning them. Seal them up and the paint will stay wet on the bristles, ready for the next day’s work.
  16. Choose the right paint rollers – one type for primer, another type for paint. Browse the painting aisle at your hardware store and the packaging will help you determine which rollers are ideal. Look for words like “smooth cabinet finish” and “mirror finish”. I found that high-density foam rollers to be best for the application of the oil-based primer (and cost-wise, it seemed economical that I could buy a “contractor’s pack” of eight for about $10, and not feel bad tossing them out after each use). For rolling the paint itself, I chose the Purdy 1/4″ low-nap “mirror finish” roller specified for use clears and enamels and – best tip ever – I found that the low-nap rollers actually perform better after they sit, used, wrapped in plastic overnight. The nap lessens, it gets “broken in” and the finish is spectacular, which means you can get a little more use out of each roller before tossing it. And for the record, you’ll want to toss these rollers after use instead of cleaning. Even though the enamel should come as clean as it does from the brush with soap and water, the dried roller stayed a bit stiff and did not return to its soft, very smooth self.
  17. Painter’s tape is your friend. It’s not foolproof and I prefer cutting in by hand without tape in most areas like trim and along the walls. But there are some inevitably difficult nooks and crannies surrounding appliances where painter’s tape comes in handy. 
  18. Prioritize the cabinet bases and the backsides of the cabinet doors first. First, sand everything all at once if you can; get it done and out of the way. Then, tackle the cabinet bases and backsides of the doors with primer and paint first, so they have a few extra days of drying than the front of the cabinet doors. The base cabinets and the backs of the doors are what will bang together and make the most contact, so allowing two weeks of solid dry time really helps in the long-run. Bonus, if the front of the door is the last thing you paint, you’ll never have to flip it over to paint the back, risking potential scratching or smudges.
  19. Apply light coats of paint! Avoid applying too heavy of a coat at a time. For one reason, drips happen and the enamel paint wants to begin curing immediately which might leave you with visible drip marks that will have to be sanded out and re-painted. Also, low-nap rollers aren’t designed to handle a lot of paint at a time; it ends up squishing out onto the surface, leaving a stippled finish that too will need to be sanded down and re-painted. The thinner each coat, the better. 
  20. Add a polyurethane topcoat. The extra coat finishes off the surface and creates a barrier for the paint finish to protect it from wear and tear. Use either a high-density foam roller or an “enamels and clears” low-nap roller to apply evenly. 
  21. Don’t overlook the insides of your cabinets. Especially the upper cabinets, which you’ll be looking into every time you open the doors. In the long run, it’s worth the extra effort to sand and paint the insides, including the bottoms of the shelves that you’ll be glancing upwards at when you reach for something on a high shelf.
  22. Decide whether you’re going to use contact paper or paint the inside shelves. Contact paper adds additional cost to your project (those rolls don’t cover as much square footage as you’d think) but are easier to clean and replace over the years, without damage.
  23. Clean all of the hardware. While it’s off, why not? Years of kitchen cooking and knob touching is bound to leave this hardware a little dirty, maybe dirtier than you’d think. To clean metal hardware, mix some water and Bar Keeper’s Friend and then soak it to loosen years of grime. Wipe down each piece with a wet cloth. Be sure to let it dry completely before installing, especially knobs, which can take on water (and turn into hidden mold!)
  24. When reinstalling, attach the hardware to the door first and then install the door to the cabinet. You should still be able to see the old screw holes from when you removed them. Use those holes as a guide for the reinstall, and you should find that the doors fit evenly and accurately, as they always did. 
  25. Have an extra set of hands when you install upper cabinet doors .Lower cabinets are reasonably easy to balance and install by yourself, but having an extra set hands when you’re working over your head makes things a lot easier.

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