Painting cabinets isn’t hard! Anyone with some time, effort, and basic painting skills can paint their cabinets and completely makeover a kitchen or bathroom in the process!
The right tools and product quality make a big difference too, but we’ll talk about that later.
This is such a big topic with a lot of information so I’m going to break it into 3 parts.
Today we’ll start by talking about the basics…
- Time Commitment & Shortcuts
- Sheens and Durability
- Best Paints & Primers for Cabinets
Then we’ll move on to prepping the cabinets in Part 2
And finally in Part 3 we get to the the fun parts, Priming & Painting!
Over the years I’ve come to learn there are things that can make this project easier and more durable. I’ll include as many tips and links to the helpful items throughout each part of the series as possible. Many of these will be affiliate links, I work hard to try and avoid having to use advertisements to keep the blog running, these links help by providing a few cents back when you use them to make a purchase and they don’t cost you any more to use…a win/win!
This project will completely take over your life & home. Please don’t be fooled by the “paint your kitchen in a weekend” or my favorite..“paint your kitchen without priming”.
Unless you have a VERY small kitchen it will quickly become obvious that this is not a quick project. When I paint clients cabinets it takes AT LEAST 7 days for a basic kitchen, if anything beyond the basic color needs done then its double.
For a medium sized kitchen and a few hours of work every day, plan a time commitment of at least 7 days. If your kitchen is big, or you can only work on the weekends adjust that time accordingly.
I walked into our kitchen 7 days before my family was coming to visit and realized the paint colors I’d been swatching on the doors for the past 6 months made it look like a patchwork quilt..and not a kitchen that normal people would live in.
With only 4 days free from work to fix it I started surfing good ol’ Pinterest, reading every blog and forum I could find, and became obsessed with finding some magical trick and shortcut that would allow me to get it done but also hold up to what we put them through.
I’ll save you a lot of time now and just say that magical & durable shortcut doesn’t exist.
It only took a few test runs before it was clear cutting corners on any part of this project meant the finish would start to fall apart even if they were treated with kid gloves.
Since we were going to be remodeling soonI could’ve easily slapped some pain on to cover the mess and called it a day…but I’m of the camp who feels that if work is going to be done, it should be done right.
Even with shortcuts it still takes a lot of effort.
I’m happy to say that was over 3 years ago and still look as good as the day I finished!
If speed is more important to you than durability then this guide isn’t going to be helpful. There are some great tutorials explaining how to paint your kitchen in a much quicker and less painful way, but like some of the paints we’ll talk about below, the results won’t hold up as well.
If you want the most durable finish possible and never want to think about painting cabinets again then take your time, buy the right products, and complete all the steps.
All the hard work is worth it to have a cabinet update that feels like a remodel and lasts for as long as possible while standing up to everything you throw at it!
So, let’s start by talking about the choices of sheen & how they affect the durability..
When choosing a paint sheen be honest about how you use your kitchen and how much abuse the cabinets take. Choosing a finish that will work for your lifestyle is more important than the color! The flat paints you see in celebrity kitchens may look lovely but if you have pets, kids, or love to cook it will be a nightmare to live with!
This term is used interchangeably with little difference between a Flat or Matte paint finish. They absorb the most light and give the truest color output because they have a high ‘rate of solids’ ( color pigment left over after the paint dries) compared to the binding liquid.
These sheens are not good for places that take a lot of abuse, like kitchens. It dries to a porous finish which traps dirt and grime that become embedded in the finish when scrubbed. Any water or oil stains will also show as a dark spot on the surface and cannot be removed, so its best to avoid this sheen family in kitchens.
Somewhere between flat and satin is eggshell. It can be hard to tell the difference between satin and eggshell so if you want the lowest sheen possible without going completely flat this is an option. However, while each brand is different for the most part its nearly impossible to tell the difference between eggshell and satin so its best to choose the more durable paint sheen.
This is the sheen I chose to use on our kitchen and love the result. Satin is durable while still hiding imperfections by keeping the sheen to a minimum. Be aware that if used in a light color like white, cleaning and scrubbing can buff away the shine over time leaving it vulnerable to damage and causing a noticeable difference in sheen which is more noticeable on upper cabinets.
This sheen is best for kitchens that receive a lot of abuse, like those with young children or members that love to cook. These are the kitchens that need to hold up to knocking and dings on a daily basis without chipping. Semi-gloss is more forgiving than a gloss but it will show major imperfections such as those in very old wood cabinets so care should be taken to fill damage areas and make sure the paint levels out to a smooth surface.
High-Gloss kitchens can be stunning! They have a unique look that attracts the eye and reflect a lot of light around the room which can open up a small kitchen. However, its best applied by someone with a lot of paint skill or a professional since it will show every defect and paint stroke if done incorrectly.
If you choose a gloss finish be sure to get enough paint to reapply and fix areas that may not come out perfectly the first time. I also recommend a work light be used at an angle to make sure the paint is level and brushstrokes are gone, its also useful once the paint has dried to make sure the sheen is uniform across the surface and there are no hot-spots or dullness.
Houzz has a wonderful article on picking the right paint finish based on your home project and room.
There are a lot of conflicting opinions on paints and primers, this is by no means a rule book so be sure find what works for you. I recommend that you purchase the highest quality paint and tools you can afford to make the job the job easier on yourself!
Each of these paints has a slightly different learning curve, if you choose one that’ unfamiliar play around on test boards before starting or it can feel like it isn’t working correctly. Keep playing with it until you feel comfortable with how the paint levels (brush marks disapear) and its flow (how smoothly it glides or moves around).
1. Chalk Paint:
I love chalk paint and find a use for it almost daily! However, despite the increasing amount of people who are using it on kitchen cabinets I cannot bring myself to recommend it for a couple of reasons.
I’m interested to see how well the current kitchen’s finished with this method have held up after an extended period of use. I would also be concerned about potential resale value issues if the possibility of selling is anytime in the future.
- Durability: Kitchen cabinets take a lot of daily abuse and frequent scrubbing. Wax coated can take up to 30 days to cure and still doesn’t harden as much as a cross-linking-polymer finish will (this is what happens when high-quality paint hardens and water evaporates).
- Cleaning: Abrasive cleaners shouldn’t be used on a wax topcoat! Re-coating with wax will be necessary after heavy use or deep cleaning as well.
- Time: To think about the painstaking process it would take to finish an entire kitchen makes my entire body ache. After completing regular prep (which is important in this type of project, even with chalk paint), painting, and then waxing all the cabinets. This doubles the amount of time it takes to complete the project, which is already a very large job. So although chalk paint dries faster than regular paint, I don’t see an advantage.
- Cost: The paint is more expensive by the quart than some of the highest quality (aka most expensive) paints like Donald Kaufman or Farrow & Ball. This means to paint a decent sized kitchen will cost a lot!
TIP: I’ve had good success using chalk paint with a durable topcoat on a kitchen islands. If you want to use chalk paint I recommend applying a high quality top coat over it instead of wax. This will make the surface scrubbable, UV fade resistant, and prevent staining or chipping. However, the color won’t deepen like it does with wax and this still requires another step that painting wouldn’t. You can glaze the chalk paint before top coating but be sure to do some samples first since the glaze will soak straight into the chalk paint and darken it more than when applied over wax. DO NOT apply ANY wax before trying to apply a top coat…it won’t stick and will become a horrible mess. .
I recently read a review by Sarah on Little Vintage Nest about her experience with chalk paint on bathroom vanities. It’s got some great feedback and warnings if this is a route you’re considering. You can check that out here.
2. Shewin Williams ProClassic Acrylic-Alkyd
This is the type of paint I’ve always used on cabinets in the past and have always had great luck. have always had great luck. Its a water based hybrid version of the older oil based alkyd paints that are now banned in many areas. It’s easy to clean up with soap and water, levels beautifully, and dries to a hard and durable finish that doesn’t dent or chip. I’ve also heard GREAT things about the Benjamin Moore variety but haven’t had a chance to use it yet although I imagine the flow is similar to SW.
- Be sure to play around with it and check out some tutorials on Pinterest and other blogs for tips on using this paint. It takes some getting used to but the leveling is AMAZING (it really does self-level if not over brushed) and the durability is some of the best I’ve found.
NOTE: There is also a ProClassic Latex Enamel that I don’t find as durable as the alkyd. The employees often grab the wrong version by mistake because the cans look identical but the prices are very different. If you order this paint be sure to check that they have provided the correct one before leaving the store. This happens to me quite often.
APPLICATION TIPS: Brush/Roll your first coat on in an upward motion and instead of rolling back down lift off. It’s a self leveling paint that works wonderfully but can be messed up if you try to ‘lay-off’ (back brush) an area that has just been laid down. Just have faith that it will do what its designed to and if for some reason it doesn’t you can always correct it later. Keep a wet edge and roll your next area slightly overlapping and continue on across. Any sheen difference in the overlap will be fixed in the next coat by centering the roller on top of the overlap.
3. PPG Breakthrough: **RECOMMENDED**
I discovered this enamel paint last year when I asked my local paint supplier what they used on their cement floors (which looked amazing compared to the abuse I watched them go through). It’s an EXTREMELY durable hard finish paint that holds up to high usage, scoffs, scratching, and scrubbing. The solids ration is also high enough that it may cover in a single coat depending on how dark your cabinet color is and if your primer coat helps.
I’ve successfully used it multiple times since then and am always impressed by how hard the finish is once cured, if I’d known about it prior to painting our cabinets it would have been my top pick! I highly recommend it!
I believe they have a lifetime guarantee policy, but I can’t remember…it’s worth looking into! I also use this in the clear base (no tint) as a topcoat to chalk paint when using it on any surface that needs extra stability.
APPLICATION TIP: This is 100% enamel paint so it has a great flow to it and rolls on very easy with little to no learning curve. The solids (color) settle on the bottom fast so be sure to buy this when your ready to start painting so it’s properly mixed. Testing on some scrap wood should easily give you a feel for how it performs. I noticed this line on the Home Depot website the other day so it may be available at your local box store, but I would give them a call to verify it’s the same quality available at paint supply chains since the SW paint at Home Depot is slightly different than the store version.
I cannot stress enough how important your choice of primer is! It makes all the difference in the resulting look and how well they will hold up.
1.SHELLAC BASE PRIMER: **Highly recommend**
Shellac primer prevents wood staining or bleed through, a very common problem when painting older wood cabinets and provides great adhesion for the paint layers. It dries very quickly and greatly reduces the dry time between priming and painting. It’s been around forever and is often the finish you see on fine antiques that have an amber color and shiny french polish sheen.
Warning; it has a very strong smell so be sure the windows are open, you’ve got good ventilation, and prime cabinet doors & drawers outside to prevent high exposure to fumes. Shellac comes from the female lac bug and is all natural, however in order to be used as a liquid coating it must be broken down with a solvent such as alcohol. It’s the high amount of solvents in the paint that lead to the smell so while there is nothing that does the job as well, it may not be the best option for some people.
2. OIL BASE PRIMER:
If the shellac base primer is not a viable option for your project, the next best thing is KILZ Cover Stain Oil Based (Brown Label). There is still a noticeable smell but it’s not nearly as strong as the shellac which can be overwhelming, and it still provides a great adhesion base and seals wood staining problems. I always have this primer on hand for furniture and other projects (its not good for walls).
PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS:
I’m often asked if its ok to use a water based paint over an oil based primer and if it can cause any issues…
You can use a water based paint over an oil based primer but not the other way around. Just be sure it’s completely dry before painting to prevent peeling and cabinet stick, which is important in each step since you want all layers to be dry and cured before moving on to the next step!
It’s been two days since you applied your water based paint (such as SW Acrylic-Alkyd) and the paint still feels wet/sticky
The oil based primer was used it wasn’t given enough time to dry before you applied the paint so the two are fighting against each other. Depending on how bad it is, you can try to speed up the drying by increasing the heat and decreasing the humidity in the room, running a fan on low over the surface, setting it out in the sun during the day, and just give it time. If it still hasn’t hardened after a week it needs to be sanded down to the base primer to start over.
My cabinets are sticking weeks afterwards
This can be caused by multiple things like high humidity or an enamel based paint that requires more time to fully cure. More often its caused by the paint being applied too early without allowing the coats to dry before applying to next, or too thick. When paint is applied it starts to release the solvent into the air allowing the solids to remain behind, even when it feels dry to the touch it’s not fully cured for weeks because the solvent is still evaporating. If you live in a high humidity area its important to allow the cabinets 2-3 days between coats until they feel completely dry to the touch (still not cured) before applying the next coat. In this case, if they are still sticky a month after painting the only solution is to sand down the top layers to allow the lower layers to cure.