Kitchen Cabinet Conundrum

4 Materials
1 Month

Painting kitchen cabinets is a big job, but it can transform the look of your kitchen at a fraction of the cost of new cabinets. It may sound daunting, but breaking it down into bite-size steps can take away the fear factor.

Here is the basic order of operation: clean, sand, prime (optional), paint and seal. Now, that’s not so bad, is it?

When planning to paint your kitchen cabinets, there are a few considerations. Are your cabinets in sturdy shape (or should they be replaced)? If salvageable, what color/look are you going for? Do you need to prime first? Will you change the hardware (and if so, will you need new holes)? Are any repairs necessary? What products do you need to achieve best results?

The oak cabinets in my kitchen had seen better days but they were solidly constructed, so I recently freshened them up with some paint and glaze. Here is how I achieved my “ugly oak to graceful gray” upgrade for under $200.
Before - sooo much oak
As you can see in this “before” pic, we have oak … so much oak. Oak cabinets, oak trim, oak banisters, you name it, we have oak. Now, my husband likes the oak … me, not so much. So we compromised on leaving the trim but painting the cabinets.
EDIT: We decided afterwards that we didn’t like the trim that way, so I will be painting that to match the cabinets later.

IMPORTANT TIP: Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of the how-to, let me make one suggestion. If you are planning this type of project, divide it up into manageable chunks and work on one section at a time. Painting kitchen cabinets is a big time commitment, so don’t jump in thinking you can get it done in a weekend. Not gonna happen. I did mine over the course of four weekends. Yep, for real. Plus working some in the evenings after being at work all day. The good news is we were still able to function in our kitchen, and it was a lot less physically demanding by breaking it into three chunks. Plus there was only so much room to work around the doors I had taken down.

Here we go…

Remove doors & hardware, then clean
Remove cabinet doors and all hardware, numbering them as you go so they can go back in the same spots. It may seem like more work taking the doors down, but your results will be worth it. It is much easier to lay down paint on a horizontal surface, the paint won’t “sag” and you won’t have to climb up and down to get the job done. But it is possible to tape over the hinges and knobs, and leave the doors up.

Using the same hardware? Mark which set goes with which door, and put them in a baggy. Time and use have a way of slightly warping things, so make it easy on yourself and put them on the same doors they came off. If you choose to update your hardware, make sure the new will work with the existing holes, or else plan on plugging and redrilling to accommodate the new dimensions. I was switching mine out for the same size, so all the old hardware went into a tub.
Scuff sand with denatured alcohol/water mix
The kitchen is usually the hub of the home, getting loads of daily abuse in the form of cooking greases, smoke and smudgy fingerprints. Naturally, your cabinets can become pretty grimy over time, so a good cleaning is a must to ensure proper paint adhesion.

To cut the grease and buildup on my cabinets and cupboard framing, I scuff cleaned with a Scotch Brite pad and a 50/50 mix of denatured alcohol and water, and then wiped the surfaces with a soft, clean cloth. You could also use Krud Kutter or TSP, but be sure to wipe down your cabinets after cleaning and allow for dry time. Do not use dusting sprays or oil soaps as they will compromise the appearance and adhesion of your new finish.

Also, remove felt pads and any sticky residue that may be left behind.
Fill holes
At this point, if you have any holes that need filling, now’s the time. I used Timber Mate water-based wood filler to patch up a couple of spots. It comes premixed in several wood colors for repairing furniture but if you are painting over it, any color will do. I used Natural, pushing it down into the cracks and holes with a mixing stick. It dries quickly and was ready to sand in about 30 minutes. 
Sand surfaces
My cabinets had layers and layers of shellac on them, so it was important to sand them down to give the paint something to grab onto. I sanded the bigger sections with a Festool palm sander, and then used some 220-grit sandpaper in the corners where the sander couldn’t reach. Next, I wiped all the dust off with a damp cloth. This is also a secondary cleaning step that further removes more gunk.  Plus it evens out any imperfections in the wood, which will give a smoother finish.

After cleaning and sanding, you should be left with a dull surface ready for paint. It’s not necessary to sand down to bare wood – just remove the shine and level out the bumps. Following the prep, I taped off any areas above and around my cabinets where I did not want to get paint, and put down a drop cloth to protect the kitchen floors. 
Optional priming step
As I said above, priming is optional. Yes, it’s an extra step, but in my case, I wanted to ensure that the wood tannins or the old finish didn’t cause any bleed-through. Sometimes it’s a gamble whether you should prime or not, but I didn’t want to chance it coming back to haunt me after all my hard work. I used General Finishes Stain Blocker, which is a white, water-based primer that also acts as a base coat for lighter colored paints. It’s not cheap (about $110/gallon) but as General Finishes says, it’s designed for effectiveness, not price point. And it’s a tad stinky.

A less expensive primer/stain blocker that I also like to use is Zinsser Bulls Eye SealCoat, a clear shellac that sticks to anything and dries super fast, for less than half the cost. P.S. It’s a little stinky too.

General Finishes recommends two coats of Stain Blocker: the first to absorb bleed-through and the second to seal the bleed-through. After stirring the contents, I applied two coats with a #14 Black Dog Salvage Furniture Brush, the largest of the three brushes in this line. The round brush has a blend of natural and synthetic bristles trimmed into a dome shape that makes for a smooth finish with minimal brush strokes.

A roller works nicely on larger flat surfaces and doors as well, or the finish can be sprayed on. A tapered brush can be handy for working paint if your cabinets have a lot of detail. Because of how I chose to break my project up and the amount of cleanup between steps, I opted for brushing it on and it still looks nice. General Finishes paints level out really nicely.  
2 coats GF Seagull Gray
After completing my cleaning and priming, I gave all surfaces two coats of General Finishes Seagull Gray Milk Paint, drying between coats. One coat may have been enough since I was glazing afterwards and it would cover any imperfections in the gray, but I went with two just for a nice even base. You can also do a light sand between coats for an even smoother finish

For the removed doors, I did the backs first then flipped them to do the fronts, keeping them up off the drop cloth with Painter’s Pyramids (and soup cans when I didn’t have enough!). Having the doors lifted up also makes it easier to brush off any drips around the edges. 
Apply glaze in sections, wipe back excess
Next step, General Finishes Pitch Black Glaze Effects. In order to have more control of the glaze, I first brushed on a coat of General Finishes High Performance Topcoat Flat (satin works great too) over the gray. This allows the glaze to “glide” a little better by creating a barrier between the paint and the glaze. 

Once the topcoat was dry, I used a foam brush to liberally apply the glaze in manageable sections. You don’t want to work too far ahead with glaze because once it dries it is way harder to manipulate. I did about a third of a door at a time. After applying the glaze, I took a cloth and wiped back any excess, keeping my strokes going the same direction until I achieved the look I wanted. 
Glaze added a soft gray washed look
I kept a spray bottle of water handy (or a damp cloth works) in case I needed to get a lot of glaze off quickly. If I wanted a darker look, I just added more glaze and repeated the process. Glaze was also applied in all crevices and corners, as well as the tops and sides of all doors and drawers and cupboard framing.

The black glaze gave some depth to the gray and settled into the trim areas to create the beautiful soft washed look of my inspiration project.
A word of caution: Don’t rush the drying process! You will end up creating more work for yourself in the long run. Ask me how I know. Ugh. I had to repaint a few doors when I attempted to glaze them with only about 4 hours drying time, and the glaze did not come off uniformly. I let the next round dry overnight to avoid a repeat. 

Once all the surfaces had been glazed, the next step was to seal with topcoat to protect the finish from abuse in your kitchen. I brushed on three coats of General Finishes High Performance Topcoat in Flat finish, drying at least 2 hours between coats, per instructions on the can. 
New hardware!
Finally, all the doors were hung back up with new hinges, knobs and drawer pulls. I chose Cosmas weathered nickel replacement hardware from Amazon to coordinate with the new gray cabinets.

TIP: We found that a few of the screw holes had been stripped when we went to put the new hardware on. There are some products out there that you can use to fill the hole and redrill it, but a quick and easy tip is to just use a match stick. Stick it in the hole, break it off flush and re-drill! Easy peasy. (Thanks for the trick, hubs!)
No more dated scallop above the sink
Houses from a certain era, including mine, typically have a scalloped wooden “valance” over the sink area between the cabinets. I felt like it really dated the kitchen, so I had been debating on removing that piece.  But then I wasn’t sure if it would affect the stability of the upper cabinets or what I was getting into with taking it down. So when I happened upon this neat farmhouse sign at a local shop, Mulberry Lane, I knew I had found my solution!  It fit perfectly and you’d never know there was an outdated scalloped edge there. 
Here is our before and after!  We still have some updates to do, like replacing the rest of countertops and upgrading the backsplash, but we’re really happy with how it turned out. It has made a huge improvement in the way the room looks. And I’m super glad to have the kitchen back in proper working order. 
What’s your next big project? Do your research, make a manageable plan and get to work! 
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Lori Haught Harper

Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!


Have a question about this project?

11 questions
  • Susie
    on Mar 23, 2018

    1. From your first pic, showing the ends of the cabinets, and then all the ones taken of your prep work, (before paint), tells me these cabinets are not oak wood. Anyone want to weigh in on type of wood? But, I do love your finished look! What a beautiful job!
  • Susie
    on Mar 23, 2018

    1. From your first pic, showing the ends of the cabinets, and then all the ones taken of your prep work, (before paint), tells me these cabinets are not oak wood. Anyone want to weigh in on type of wood? But, I do love your finished look! What a beautiful job!
  • Susie
    on Mar 23, 2018

    1. From your first pic, showing the ends of the cabinets, and then all the ones taken of your prep work, (before paint), tells me these cabinets are not oak wood. Anyone want to weigh in on type of wood? But, I do love your finished look! What a beautiful job!
    • Paperdoll
      on Mar 23, 2018

      I think they're birch.

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Hi Susieq, thanks for your nice comments. I thought my cabinets were like a golden oak but I could be wrong. I just know it was yuck!

    • Laura
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Birch plywood with golden oak stain finish. I had the same birch in my previous kitchen.

    • Brandy Ketchum
      on Mar 23, 2018

      My cabinets are ancient, and a dark wood. I would love to do this to brighten them up... Someone needs to loan me some courage!

    • Diana
      on Mar 23, 2018

      My cabinets are oak and I'm so afraid of ruining them..want to change to match my black n silver appliances.. wish I could c how they would look first

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Brandy and Diana, you can do it! Search on Hometalk or Pinterest for inspiration and looks that you like. You could also practice on a test board to see if you like it in your space. Good luck!

  • Susie
    on Mar 23, 2018

    Could those cabinets be birch wood? Anyone??

    • Paperdoll
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Actually, they do look more like birch than oak to me.

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 23, 2018

      You may be right, hard to tell with all the shellac!

    • Laura
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Definitely birch.

    • 9530106
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Yes they are birch, sadly you don't see that beautiful wood anymore in cabinets. Where I grew up, the graining was to die for, and very "high end" for cabinets!

    • Susie
      on Mar 24, 2018

      Actually, Cheryl, birch is one of the lowest priced wood for cabinets. Lori, FYI, see the wood grain BEFORE they were painted, in some of the first prep pics.

  • Berta Harnish
    on Mar 23, 2018

    Wow! Great job!! Were the side panels on the cabinets the actual wood or a printed wood look surface? I’d love to paint my cabinets, but my side panels are a wood look surface and I’m hesitant about sanding those areas.

    TIA for any insight you can share!

    • Janet Coryell Smither
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Side panels are usually constructed from 3/4" plywood. If you prime them, you should be able to paint right over them.

    • Franny Monaghan Lathe
      on Mar 23, 2018

      See my comment. I used Valspar Cabinet paint. No sanding , no priming. . It will work on faux wood

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Mine were wood but as long as you have a clean (non slick) surface, you should be able to paint them just fine. Non slick meaning they may require a light sanding to give the paint something to stick to.

    • Dana
      on Mar 23, 2018

      I’m doing it!!!! Thank you for this inspiration that has been needed. Absolutely beautiful!

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 23, 2018

      Yay!! Good luck, Dana!

    • Deb
      on Apr 6, 2018

      If you are painting a white color, you can get the primer tinted gray so when you are painting over it, you know where the primer hasn't been covered!!!

  • Kym
    on Mar 23, 2018

    Looks fabulous. You worked very hard, but well worth the effort. My only question is why didn’t you paint and glaze the crown moulding to match?

    • Barbara Gulotta
      on Mar 24, 2018

      Part of her "introduction" explains that she will be painting the moulding.

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Mar 26, 2018

      Barbara is right, Kym. We had originally decided to compromise with the wood trim but then decided we didn't like it. I will be painting that to match the rest of the cabinets.

  • Linda garrett
    on Mar 30, 2018

    My cabinets are laminate,will this work on mine?

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Apr 5, 2018

      Hi Linda, yes, you can paint over laminate. Just be careful in your prep that you "rough up" the surface in order for the paint to stick and of course, give it a thorough cleaning. Hope that helps!

    • Jmh12836933
      on Apr 15, 2018

      Glidden Gripper is a great primer for laminate.

  • Lee
    on May 4, 2018

    The kitchen cabinets are very dirty and have a build up of grease on them. It was like that when I moved in. Can I just use the Denatured Alcohol to remove the grease? I can't paint since I am renting.

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Jun 6, 2018

      Hi Lee, I'm so sorry, I just saw your question. Yes, you can absolutely use a 50/50 milk of denatured alcohol and water to clean the grease from your cabinets, whether you paint them or not.

    • Onwingandhoof
      on Jan 1, 2019

      Personally, I'd use good old reliable Windex! That stuff is amazing at cutting through grease.

  • Ed
    on Aug 23, 2018

    Great job on your cabinet refacing!

    My cabinets are covered by a contact-paper like material and under the paper is rough particle board. Can I use paint over the paper? See pic where paper is coming off. Thanks!

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Sep 24, 2018

      So sorry for my delay, I just saw this! I think if you really scuff up the contact paper, and sand the peeling parts smooth, you could easily paint over it. Just get as much of the paper off as you can and sand it well.

      Good luck!

    • Shorn Glaze
      on Nov 8, 2018

      I removed the coating on my cabinets primed and painted and 3 years later they still look great.

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Nov 8, 2018

      @Shorn, those look great! It's a lot of work but worth it!

    • Ed
      on Nov 9, 2018

      Well, we did it! Here is the AFTER result...

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Nov 9, 2018

      Ed, that looks amazing!! It looks like a brand new kitchen now. One thing I might recommend is painting the undersides of your upper cabinets, I think it finishes off the look. Job well done!!

    • Ed
      on Nov 10, 2018

      Great suggestion...thanks!

  • Deb
    on Oct 29, 2018

    I love the finish.. Did you do anything above the frig? It looks too open for my tastes.. maybe another cabinet or a wine rack??? Or even a big fake spiderplant???

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Oct 29, 2018

      It does need something, I agree! I have a big basket up there now, but I'm looking for "just" the right thing, haha.

  • Carla
    on Sep 8, 2019

    Painting oak or cherry cabinets is a daunting project.

    I have oak cabinets, have had them since 1986, however, I like the oak. We have an open plan home and the oak cabinets are, also, in our dining area.

    I have absolutely no intention of painting them, as painted cabinets may look great, but the painted cabinets are a fad. What happens in five years, when the wood look will be "back in fashion?"

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Sep 9, 2019

      Hi Carla, I don't think I would like mine even if they came back in style. I would probably just paint them another color. I appreciate your perspective though!

Join the conversation

3 of 117 comments
  • Michelle McCaughtry
    on May 22, 2018

    Love it! Especially the farm sign over the scalloped edge piece over the sink - great idea and I am going to try to make one now for my kitchen sink area. Totally agree on the job time frame - I took an entire week off from work to do my kitchen and it happened to be the hottest week of the!. Lol

  • Cat
    on Jun 5, 2018

    that is awesome! I am in the house searching mode atm, and when i see an ugly kitchen, i try and visualize it after i do a little fixing up

    • Lori Haught Harper
      on Jun 6, 2018

      Thanks, Cat! I can totally relate - I had to do a lot of "visualizing" with this house but paint can do wonders!

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