Our Best Tips and Tricks on How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

By Marilyn Syarto


It can feel overwhelming when you think about rejuvenating your faded, outdated, or dark and dreary kitchen cabinets. It’s tempting to gut your kitchen, but if the cabinets and the rest of the kitchen are in decent shape, a complete gut isn’t necessary. Your cabinets might just need an affordable paint job. Learning how to paint kitchen cabinets may sound difficult: Yes, it takes some time, labor, and elbow grease, but as far as skills go, if you can handle a paintbrush, you’ve got this. The other important skill you need? Patience.


Compared to the thousands of dollars you would need to replace your cabinets, a few hundred dollars to paint your cabinets on your own sounds just about right. Or, you can hire painters and that will likely run you a little over at least a thousand dollars or so. Our guide tells you how to accomplish this project on your own so it looks like a million bucks.

kitchen sink vignette with gray cabinets and stone backsplash

Photo via Kassandra DeKoning


How to Assess the Condition of Your Cabinets

Can you actually paint your cabinets? It depends on how damaged they are and what material they’re made from. A few pointers:

  • Wood is the ideal surface that can be refreshed with paint—but prepping is key (which we will explain more in-depth later).
  • Laminate, a thin layer of plastic over plywood or particleboard, is a tough surface to paint. However, if the surface is not damaged or peeling, it can be prepped, primed (with a special bonding primer, and painted over for a short-term solution. Many people use chalk paint over laminate cabinets for its adhesion.
  • Thermofoil, which is vinyl applied to medium-density fiberboard, can peel, chip, and turn yellow over time. It can be prepped and painted over if you use the right primer (ask the paint store for help), and only if the surface is not damaged. However, painting over thermofoil may not be a long-term solution for your cabinets.


If you are using about the same color paint to refresh your cabinets, you should be able to use one to two coats. If your existing color is darker or lighter than the new color, you may need three coats of paint. If you’re covering old, dark paint with a lighter color, you may need to add two coats of primer rather than just one.


Bring a Door to Your Paint Dealer

If you’re unsure about whether or not you can paint your cabinets, remove a cabinet door and bring it in to show the paint vendor. A paint expert can recommend the best course of action, primer, and paint for you to use for the best results. This is especially helpful if you have cabinets other than solid wood. 


How Much Does It Cost to Paint Kitchen Cabinets?

We mentioned it takes a couple of hundred dollars to paint your kitchen cabinets on your own. We’re not kidding. You’ll likely need a couple of gallons of primer and the same for paint depending on the size of your kitchen, plus other painting supplies to get the job done right. The whole process can take between two to four days (or more if you work slowly).

 

You can use online paint calculators to guesstimate how many gallons of primer and paint to buy.


Most major paint manufacturers have one, including Sherwin-Williams, Glidden, and Benjamin Moore. The calculators are based on room/wall dimensions, so you’ll have to make the calculations with a grain of salt.

 

One gallon of paint covers about 400 square feet, which is about the size of a small bathroom. That’s a 20-foot by 20-foot room, but depending on how many walls are filled with top and bottom cabinets, you’ll still have to estimate. Quality paints are around $20-$30 a gallon and remember that the better the quality of the paint, the fewer coats you’ll need to use.

 

Best Paints for Kitchen Cabinets

The paint aisle at a home improvement store can be overwhelming unless you know exactly what you need for your project. Here are two vital pieces of advice for painting kitchen cabinets:

1.  Use latex paint.

2.  Brush it on unless you’re an expert spray painter.

 

Let us explain: Many professional painters still love oil-based paints for their instant coverage, smooth finish, and durability. But, oh, the lingering odors and difficulty cleaning it since you need a stinky solvent (such as turpentine) to clean up drips, spills, and brushes! However, the paint does dry fast and hard. Latex paints (water-based), on the other hand, have vastly improved over the years. They cover better and smoother, they’re odorless, they are much more durable, and they clean up easily. But, they take a very long time to fully cure (harden), which means your cabinets can be easily dinged or damaged while they’re drying for those three weeks.

 

Most of the time, you’ll want to opt for a water-based enamel paint that’s used for trim, according to Sherwin-Williams. The semi-gloss paint gives kitchen cabinets the smoothest, easiest-to-clean finish. However, many people love the look of chalk paint because it can stick to just about any surface because it’s a more natural, less glossy look.


How to Set Up a Temporary Kitchen

For a mini, temporary kitchen while painting your cabinets, you’ll want a toaster oven, cooler or mini-fridge, a small movable microwave, and plenty of disposable dishes and utensils.


Spray Paint vs. Brush Paint

There’s no doubt about it: Spray-painted finishes look fantastic. To get that result, though, you need to learn how to spray paint onto cabinets without spraying the entire kitchen in the process. Plus, you’ll need the spray equipment, which is not cheap. 


If you use high-quality brushes, you’ll do just fine, but you’ll need more than one for a decent result. We give you tips on the types of brushes you’ll need to help you get into the corners of your cabinets.

white farmhouse sink with gold faucet

Photo via Michelle | breakingdownthebox


Kitchen Cabinet Color Ideas

Take the style of your cabinets into consideration when choosing a paint color. Painting over a similar color can make the project easier. Painting a darker color over a lighter color also helps the project run smoothly. Here are some tips for picking a cabinet color based on the type of cabinets you have:

  • Traditional cabinets: creams, whites, blacks, navy blue
  • Vintage cabinets: pastels, aquas, greens, and other bright colors
  • Shaker cabinets: bright whites and subtle creams
  • Contemporary/modern cabinets: contrasting or two-tones, bright colors, gray, greige (gray and beige), dark brown, black

 

Tinted Primer

When buying primer, ask the paint professionals to tint the primer to match the color you’ll use for the top coat of your cabinets. That way, you won’t be surprised to see streaks of primer showing through the paint. This is especially helpful if you are painting your cabinets a dark color.

bare kitchen cabinets laid on ground

Photo via Michelle | breakingdownthebox


How to Prep Kitchen Cabinets for Painting

Painting cabinets requires a few hours of prep work. Here's what to do, from removing the cabinets to sanding them down.


Tools and Materials Needed:

  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Painter’s tape
  • Marker
  • Plastic baggies
  • Degreasing cleaner (like Rust-Oleum Krud Kutter Kitchen Degreaser)
  • Trisodium phosphate (TSP)
  • Lint-free rags or sponges
  • Putty knife
  • Plastic protective sheeting
  • Rosin paper 
  • Painter’s tape
  • Medium-grit sandpaper (100 to 150 grit)
  • Orbital sander
  • Sanding block
  • Vacuum with attachments
  • Tack cloths


Step 1: Empty and Remove Components

Remove doors and drawers from cabinets using a screwdriver or drill (whichever you prefer). Use painter’s tape marked with corresponding numbers on each surface so you know where each drawer and door will go when you reassemble the kitchen after you’re done.


Remove hardware and hinges with a screwdriver. Also, mark each baggie and hinge cutout with painter’s tape marked with the corresponding numbers so you know where to replace each piece. Even if you are replacing the hardware, this step can help to make sure you buy new pieces to fit the existing holes.

 

Step 2: Clean Surfaces

Use lint-free rags and sponges and your degreasing cleaner to clean the kitchen cabinets, inside and out, including doors and drawers.


After cleaning, run a damp rag around each surface and let it all air dry.

 

Step 3: Prep and Sand Surfaces

Use plastic sheeting to mask off walls and backsplashes around each cabinet and on surrounding walls for full protection. Cover counters with sheeting or rosin paper.


Use an orbital sander with medium-grit sandpaper to sand down large flat cabinet surfaces and expanses—go over the surfaces a few passes. You don’t need to sand too far down, just rough up the finished surface a bit so primer and paint have something to grab onto. Use sanding blocks for corners.


Vacuum up and run a tack cloth around each surface after vacuuming to clean up the remaining dust particles.


Deglossing

If you prefer to skip the sanding and your cabinet’s surfaces are relatively ding-free, use a liquid deglossing agent on cabinets before priming and painting. Or, try a product called Oil Bond, which can also help you bypass the sanding stage. 


How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

 Now, let's dive into the project! Here's how to paint kitchen cabinets, broken down step-by-step.


Tools and Materials Needed

  • Primer (get an “advanced” primer with extra adhesion and one that hides minor imperfections)
  • Foam rollers (4 in. or 6 in. for face frames)
  • Square brushes with a straight end (3 in. to 4 in. for flat panels)
  • Angled brushes (3 in. for corners)
  • Work surface to prime and paint doors
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • 280-grit sandpaper
  • Sanding sponge (extra fine)
  • Vacuum
  • Tack cloths
  • Paint
  • Blow dryer
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver

 

Step 1: Prime Surfaces

Use various square and angled brushes to apply primer, following the grain of the wood if you have wood cabinets. (You will use similar brushes to apply both primer and paint.)


Paint primer on cabinet frames, all edges and each side of the doors, and drawer fronts. You rarely need to prime and paint the inside of the cabinets unless you need to rejuvenate those surfaces. 


After the primer dries, sand flat surfaces using 220-grit paper. Use a sanding sponge on any holes and dings you have filled.


Vacuum and then run a tack cloth over all surfaces to ensure all sanding debris is wiped up. Sand primer lightly with 280-grit paper, and then vacuum and use a tack cloth to clean up again.


Make a Drying Station

You’ll need a way to dry both sides of a door without smudging the primer and paint. Lay down a piece of wood that’s a bit larger than your doors horizontally. Into that piece of wood, nail in four long, thin nails with tiny heads that can hold up the corners of a door while it’s drying. The nails will not make a noticeable mark in the paint.

 

Step 2: Paint Surfaces

We recommend using a new paintbrush or roller for each coat of paint. Even if you clean the rollers and brushes properly, the materials may break down a bit after a coat and you don’t want any debris to get stuck on and painted over.

 

Paint doors on a flat surface to reduce drips, using square (for flat expanses) and angled brushes (for angles and corners). Work from top to bottom of each frame using a foam roller (which reduces drips since the frames are still hanging on the walls), applying paint first across the grain, then with the grain.


Let dry between coats. After it's dried, lightly and gently sand surfaces between coats. Use a tack cloth or blow dryer to remove sanding debris and let all surfaces dry to the touch.

 

Step 3: Dry and Reassemble Cabinets

Replace shelving in cabinets, matching numbers on doors and drawers and replace components. Replace or install new pulls and knobs.


Leave all cabinet drawers and cabinets slightly ajar while curing. If you close everything, you run the risk of having the surfaces stick together because they truly aren’t “dry” until two or three weeks of curing.

 

How to Touch Up Painted Kitchen Cabinets

You worked hard to paint those cabinets, but the reality is that the paint will chip or flake over time. The areas where you’ll likely see chips will be the tops of silverware drawers that rub against the counter or the cabinet door under the sink that is opened many times a day. Realistically, you need to touch up these areas once every year. Here are a few tips for touching up your paint:

  • Keep a small jar of the paint handy.
  • Clean the area with a degreaser before painting.
  • Lightly sand the area with fine-grit paper and wipe remnants away with a tack cloth.
  • Brush a thin coat of primer on the area.
  • Use one or two thin coats of paint so it blends in somewhat seamlessly with the rest of the paint.

 

Tips and Hacks for Difficult Cases

If you are hoping to paint cabinets in a house that was built before 1978, the paint may have lead in it. If you are restoring original cabinets from a home that was built before 1950, there’s almost a 100 percent chance there’s lead in the paint. You’ll need to either use a test kit to see if the paint on the cabinets has lead or call a professional to safely identify and remove the paint for you.


Have you painted your kitchen cabinets? What color did you use? Do you have any tips to share in the comments below?

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  • Felicia Felicia on Sep 16, 2021

    Sherwin Williams now has a "self leveling" paint made especially for cabinets and the primer is mixed in. My mother and I used it in her kitchen and I have to say, this stuff is amazing! I reccomend it 100%! Saved us money also, as we only needed 1 gallon for the bottom 4 cabinets (2 coats) and 1 gallon for the top 6 cabinets (2 coats)

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