For the past few years our vacation rental remodel has been top priority, which means there is no budget for continuing the remodel of our house. So I have to
learn to appreciate live with our kitchens drop down ceiling & fluorescent bulb’s (why was this ever a thing?) as well as the super deep pantry cabinets that swallow everything to the back.
Since nothing could be changed about the existing layout I decided the next best thing was to paint the dated oak cabinets to give it a more modern and fresh look. Unfortunately, I decided to do this one week before my family was coming from Iowa! This isn’t a hard project but it DOES takes a lot of time, patience, and some basic painting skills.
It will completely take over your life and home, don’t be fooled by the “paint your kitchen in a weekend” or “How to paint your kitchen quick and easy without removing anything” or my very favorite–“paint your kitchen without priming”.
I can promise you, once you get started you will realize that it’s a joke to think this is a 2 day project, remember how I mentioned my family was coming to town? Ya, I thought: “I’m great at this kinda thing, I know what I’m doing…there is no way this will take me longer than 4 days max!”
HA- I finished installing the last door the day they were arriving with some of the hardware still missing, which meant my house was a disaster zone because there isn’t time for anything except painting the cabinets! So, can we just agree to trust me on the time commitment of at least 7 days for this project?
If you want your finish to last (and trust me, after all the work, YOU DO) then please, please, please–do it right! I have a horror story about Mr. B painting our rental kitchen in a hurry while I wasn’t home and us having to hire out to have it sanded down and finished (cuz this girl doesn’t have the time or patience for that)!
If none of that scares you one bit & your
like me determined to DIY then I’ll share as much helpful information as I can to make sure you get a durable and smooth finish. Brace yourself this is a long one…
Choosing Paint Color/Sheen & Type:
I read a lot of conflicting opinions on paints and primers while researching this project. Since our kitchen will eventually be remodeled I went with what knowledge I had on prep and paints. I’m happy to report that it’s been over 2 years without a single issue, and we are NOT gentle on them so if you follow the steps outlined here your results should be equally as durable.
*NOTE: All of the paints listed below have different properties and some have a bit of a learning curve to get a perfectly smooth finish, so if you’ve not used them before recommend testing it out first to make sure you’re comfortable working with it.
Originally, the plan was to do a darker base and white uppers which is all the rave right now with kitchens and I was ready to jump on the bandwagon! I soon realized this wasn’t going to work for us though 🙁
A few years back, in an attempt to get rid of the 1970s countertop that bugged me every single day, I used the Rustoleum countertop kit in gray sandstone. All of the blues & grays I tested on our lower cabinets felt wrong because we already had a gray countertop.
My original thought was to go with a warmer white, creating a ‘cottage’ feel and compliment the gray countertops and navy blue of our living room with a creamy yellow base white (SW Summer White). Once swatches were done on the base cabinets and I looked at it during different times of the day it looked all wrong and much too warm for the space. So the final winner was SW Alabaster white which reads very clean and cool in our space & helped to make the dark room as open and airy as possible.
Just a warning– if your planning to go with all white cabinets; It may be shocking just how dirty they get on a daily basis! Our cabinets get covered in drips, marks, dog slobber, scoffs, etc. on a daily basis and it quickly get’s exhausting trying to keep up with it all & that’s without having kiddos around!
I do LOVE the look of all white cabinet kitchen’s though and don’t really regret going this route–I just felt I should warn ya’ll that they require a bit more work than a slightly darker color would. My love for white kitchens hasn’t faded one bit even with all the work they require to keep clean. These are some of the white cabinets that make me swoon….
Anytime white is paired with natural wood finish I swoon but these wood floors put this kitchen over the top for me:
The cleanest of this white color combined with the warm tone of natural butcher block countertop and stainless steel fixtures get’s me every time I see it:
I love the look for a darker island like in this next image (someday I will be lucky enough to have a kitchen island!)
I love the dash of color in this kitchen, it’s so well done that it all blends seamlessly from the sconce shades to the dog bed:
This is the type of color combination I initially wanted, with a smokey blue lower and white upper cabinet combo. I didn’t realize until writing this blog post but almost all of my inspiration kitchens on Pinterest have some type of wood countertop or island in them!
QUICK TIP: Mixing different bran paint colors (SW, BM, etc) @ big box stores: If your going to this–check and see what type of colorants the paint color manufacturer’s uses in their paints. Example: Farrow & Ball use a pigment based tint (not a liquid colorants) and therefore cannot be matched at a store that uses colorants. You can come close with a well-trained paint mixer as long as they are willing to experiment with the dosage of colorants, but it will never be exact.
Choice of sheen is a personal preference. I do have a few recommendations based on the abuse your cabinets are going to take. For example; if you have children or use you kitchen a lot I wouldn’t recommend a flat or eggshell/satin paint and would instead go with a semi-gloss. On the opposite end if you rarely use your kitchen or live alone a satin finish or even matte can look lovely if your prepared to treat it carefully.
- Flat/Matte paint absorbs the most light and gives the truest color output. However, it is not good for places that require high durability such as cabinets. Stains are difficult to remove often times requiring re-coat. It dries to a porous finish which traps dirt and grim which can become embedded in the finish when scrubbed.
- Eggshell can vary depending on paint manufacture but it’s usually slightly shinier than satin but not as dull as flat. It can be hard to tell a difference between satin and eggshell so when painting cabinets I would err on the side of safe and get satin finish.
- Satin is slightly more durable than flat, but scrubbing can buff away the shine causing a difference in sheen over time and leaving the finish vulnerable to damage.
- Semi-gloss is my recommendation for cabinets and trim, it’s durable and tough enough to handle the abuse of daily cabinet use. It’s more forgiving than a gloss sheen but still requires some sensitivity to make sure that the finish is leveling to a smooth and uniform finish.
- Gloss can create a designer look on cabinets but will show every defect and paint stroke so I only recommend this if your confident enough in your painting skills. If you do select gloss be sure to get enough paint that you can reapply and fix areas that come out incorrectly. Be sure to check the sheen reflection in light often to make sure the finish is leveling out properly and you won’t see brush strokes once they are reinstalled.
The higher the sheen the less forgiving the finish is, so any flaws in your surface or paint job will be more obvious to the eye. For this reason, I most commonly use a semi-gloss on kitchen cabinets and use a paint sprayer for a majority of the project. If your going to go this route I cannot stress how important it is that you purchase high quality tools and paint to mae the job easier on yourself. Houzz has a wonderful article on picking the right paint finish based on your home project and room!
The are a lot of opinions on the best paint for kitchen cabinets–this is just my personal opinion based on my knowledge of paint, finishes, and durability.
As I said above, If using a paint you’ve not used before I highly recommend testing the paint you choose to learn its leveling ability and how it flows. It can be very frustrating otherwise and can feel like the paint isn’t working like promised because it’s different from your used to.
I’ve included some of my tips below to hopefully help minimize any frustration.
1.Chalk Paint: I love chalk paint and use it almost daily–but despite the increasing amount of people who have used this on kitchen cabinets I cannot bring myself to recommend it with its standard method of application for a few reasons:
- Durability: Kitchen cabinets needs to be highly durable to stand up to daily abuse and scrubbing. Wax coated can take up to 30 days to cure and still doesn’t harden to as durable a finish as a cross linking polymer finishes (paint and industrial top coats). I’m interested to see how well the current kitchen’s finished in chalk paint & wax have held up after 5-10 years. I would also be concerned about resale value issues from the home buyer perspective when kitchen cabinets may be high maintenance or could possibly become damaged with regular use.
- Time: To think about the painstaking process it would take to finish an entire kitchen makes my hands ache. After completing regular prep (which is important in this type of project, even with chalk paint), painting (which is usually the final step), all of the cabinets need to be waxed! This doubles the amount of time it takes to complete the project, which is already a very large job.
- Cost: The paint is more expensive by the quart than some of highest quality/expensive paints like Donald Kaufman or Farrow & Ball. This means to paint a decent sized kitchen is going to cost quite a lot!
NOTE: It is possible to use chalk paint if a high quality top coat is applied instead of wax, although this is still an additional step which doubles the time involved. I’ve finished a kitchen island using this method which I belive will hold up just as long as the kitchen cabinet finish because the topcoat is a cross linking polymer finish which makes the surface scrubbable, UV fade resistant, and prevents staining or chipping. Wax topcoat require a re-coating after they have been heavily used or deep cleaned, using a solvent based topcoat is permanent and should not need replacing for a very long time.
2.SW & BM Acrylic-Alkyd:
I have always had a great experience using the SW brand of acrylic-alkyd paint (I recommend testing out and learning how to properly use new to this paint type). I’ve also heard very great things about the BM variety but cannot attest to its qualities. Acrylic-Alkyd paint has a learning curve to get a completely smooth finish, it levels differently than normal latex acrylic paints.
QUICK TIP: To use the leveling properties of this paint type; Brush/Roll your first coat on in an upward motion, and instead of brushing/rolling back over the area, let it level out on its own and dry. It levels out BEAUTIFULLY but can easily be messed up if you try to brush back over an area you just laid down. Keep a wet edge and roll your next area slightly overlapping the wet edge and continue on across your surface. If you find that the overlapped areas leave a slightly different finish you can fix this with the next layer by centering your roller on the top of the overlap.
3. PPG Breakthrough
If you have access to it- I highly recommend this paint. It’s durable enough to be used on floors! So it holds up EXTREMELY well to high usage, scoffs, scratching, and scrubbing. I’ve used it with wonderful results int he past year and wish I had know about this line of PPG paint prior to doing our kitchen.
PRIMER: The choice of primer makes a HUGE difference in how your paint finish will last!
I highly recommend using Shellac based primer:
Shellac does a perfect job of blocking any wood staining or bleed through which is a very common problem when all the painting is done. It dries extremely fast as well which means the painting can start immediately after priming the cabinets. 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.
If you can’t handle the strong smell of the shellac primer, the next best thing is KILZ Cover Stain Oil Based (Brown Label). It has a scent but it’s not nearly as strong as the shellac based and will still provide an excellent base and stain proof for the paint.
You CAN use a water based paint over an oil based primer–just be sure it’s completely dry prior to painting to prevent peeling and cabinet stick.
1st Coat of Primer Applied-Testing out some darker color options
Just like with paint, I recommend purchasing the highest quality brush and roller cover possible, this isn’t a project to cut corners on. I’ve listed my recommendations above in the supply list but most options can be found at your local paint store and online.
1.Sprayer: If you want to complete the project as fast and smoothly as possible I recommend a paint sprayer. Unlike the rest of the supplies it’s not necessary to purchase the most expensive spray gun to get the job done well. In fact, after testing out a budget friendly and easy to use gun on a cabinet door I was so happy with the results it was used for the remainder of the project!!
QUICK TIP: If you don’t have an air compressor you can rent one at Home Depot for this project.
2. Painters Pyramids These help speed up the time it takes to complete the project! The doors can be flipped after only about an hour of dry time to start coating the front sides. If marks are left, they are very small divots which can be covered with the second coat of paint.
This is one of the MOST IMPORTANT parts of the entire project. Please don’t skimp on this part, nobody likes scrubbing and sanding but there is a reason that the professionals do this every. single. time. If you hire someone to come do your kitchen this part takes up a large chunk of the budget!
- Painters tape (recommended 3M)
- Plastic baggies
- Sharpie or Marker
- Degreaser (TSP)
- Wood Filler (recommended ZAR)
- Cleaning Gloves, Nitrile Gloves, Safety Glasses, Etc
- Sponge/Rags & paper towels
- Sand Paper (Grits 220, 150, and 100)
- Drop clothes, tarp, and/or construction paper
- Screw driver to remove hardware
- Paper Towels or Rags
1.Protect: Lay down your tarp & tape off any appliances to prevent degreaser from ruining the finish and if you have a removable microwave sitting inside a cabinet hole (like we do) go ahead and take it out since you’ll want to paint inside so it matches the rest of the cabinet fronts and bases.
2. If keeping the existing hardware: Start by removing all the hardware & placing it (screws and all) inside a plastic bag. Tape this bag inside the cabinet on whichever side the door was removed it from.
Example: If you have a double door cabinet, tape the bag from the Right hand door onto the Right side wall of the cabinet. This step saves you A LOT of headache when you go to re-install the cabinet doors and drawers. Missing hardware and screws can completely ruin your project.
3. Mix up the degreaser based on the manufacturer instructions. Start scrubbing down the doors, cabinet base fronts, an drawers. Be sure to get into all the crevices and scrub around the area the hardware was installed or places people grab the doors to open them. It’s amazing what builds up over time and how gross the water becomes as your scrubbing-ew. **Be sure to wear cleaning gloves, long sleeves, and protective eyewear for this part. TSP can irritate skin and you don’t want to get it in your eyes!
TSP works WONDERS for removing grease that has been coated on cabinets for years. Our oak cabinets are from the 1970’s and were GROSS. The TSP cleaned it all off with minimal effort! You’ll find this in the painting aisle at the box store, not the cleaning isle (odd, I know).
4. Rinse as you go. The TSP can dry out if you just keep moving & cause issues with chipping once the cabinets are finished–you don’t want this to happen after all the hard work you’re about to put in! Just keep a bucket of fresh rinse water or a spray bottle nearby while cleaning and use paper towels to wipe it off. Don’t worry if you see a white haze or it looks like there is a film, the TSP can cut into old topcoat and make it look hazy.
5. Once all the cabinets are cleaned and dry it’s time to remove the doors!
6. Use your painters tape to mark the doors location. Figure out a way that is easy for you to remember. In an older kitchen most of the cabinets have different size doors still run the possibility of getting mixed up and not fitting properly when reinstalled. Marking the doors helps make sure they get returned to their proper cabinet and hinge set.
QUICK TIP: Check and see if your cabinets have adjustable hinges (newer kitchens), this means that you can fix any tilting or sagging but adjusting the hinge!
7. Sanding: If the cabinets have flat faces your one of the lucky few and should do a happy dance right now! If, like most people, they have recessed door fronts or heavy edge detailing it’s going to take a bit more work. Take the doors and drawers outside to a work area (this is going to help minimize the sawdust buildup inside).
I highly recommend using a random orbital sander for this project! It cuts the required work down by at least half & your arms will thank you later. A basic model can be purchased for under $40 (I’ve linked the one I was using at the time below).
Start with 100 grit sandpaper working up to 220 (100,150, and then 200). You don’t need to go higher than 200 grit when painting, it just need to be smooth to the touch. When it comes to details and recessed corners hand sanding is best to prevent damaging the delicate edges.
IMPORTANT: Any defects such as; sharp areas, rough patches, or raised knots will show in the final paint finish so it’s VERY IMPORTANT you work to remove any imperfections, splinters, smooth raised wood knots,
8. Repair: If your cabinets are anything like mine the tops of the drawers and some of the cabinet door knots needed filling. Apply the wood filler with a rubber scraper or fingers, allowing it to dry before coating again (it often shrinks when drying). After its dried sand it flush with the wood surface for priming. Your almost there!
IF INSTALLING NEW HARDWARE: Start by measuring the distance for the new screws prior to filling. Sometimes the new hardware will fit your existing holes & you can skip this process! If not, go ahead and fill the holes and sand smooth after it’s dried.
Priming & Painting:
The painting process is actually the fun part of the entire project…well seeing the final result is pretty sweet too, but you know what I mean!
Paint & Primer Supplies:
- Drop Clothes (For Outdoor)
- Primer (Recommended: Zinsser Shellac)
- Paint (Recommended: SW Acrylic-Alkylid)
- High Quality Paint Brush (recommended Picasso Oval Sash Brush)
- Roller with High Quality nap cover (recommended Mohair 1/4″ nap roller)
- Tack Cloth
- Woven Roller Covers (For primer-thrown away afterwards)
- Short Angle Brush (For primer Cheaper quality to throw away)
- Helpful: Paint Sprayer & Air Compressor
- Helpful: Painters Pyramids (they keep the door off the ground so you can flip it sooner)
- Helpful: Saran Wrap
1.Prep roller cover: Use the cheaper roller cover (woven-not mohair) for primer’s like shellac since washing them out is painful and useless. I recommend doing all your priming in one day or wrapping the roller and brush up very well to prevent dry out.
- Prevent hairs from transferring to paint: Step on the end of your painters tape and unroll it to waist height. Roll the cover back and forth (refreshing tape as needed) until it no longer releases hairs onto the tape.
- Prevent Paint Buildup: Slightly singe the edges of the roller with a lighter to prevent paint buildup on the ends which transfers to the surface when painting creating lines of thick paint.
2. First Coat of Primer: Paint the edges of your cabinet doors with the cheaper brush before painting the fronts/backs so that you can brush out any overlapping paint and it doesn’t cause drips. Once the first coat of primer, give it a light sanding with 150 grit paper being sure that it sands off in a fine dust (if the primer balls up or goops during sanding it’s not dry enough to sand yet)
As you can see in my photo at the top you do not have to completely coat the cabinets in primer (you can still see the wood), just a single coat on the surface to prep for paint is good. Go over knots and repaired areas with a second coat to be positive there will be no bleed through later. If painting wood that is particularly difficult with bleed through (redwood, cedar, and mahogany) it’s best to play it safe and do a second or third coat of primer over the entire area.
Wood filler can cause a difference in the paint sheen when finished (it absorbs the paint). To avoid this be sure to place a good coat of primer over the filler once it’s dry just like wood knots. If you find it’s still causing a sheen difference once you’ve applied the first thin coat of paint–go back with a thin coat of primer before applying the second coat.
Once the 2nd side of the door is ready to be primed it’s time to remove your tape marking the placement of the door. I placed it on one of the edges of the door that had been primed and was dry (such as the top edge for our upper cabinets, and bottom edge for the lowers–whatever area wouldn’t be seen by the naked eye).
3. Sanding: After all primer coats are dry, sand it smooth with 220 sandpaper. Use a light hand to prevent going through the primer layers, the goal is to smooth out any stray dust or hairs from the roller cover before applying paint. This is the last chance to get everything perfect for the paint!
4. Clean Up: Be sure that all the sawdust and filler dust is gone before you applying the primer/ paint! It can create a huge mess of saw dust in the finish if you don’t (trust me on this one). Use a rag (and denatured alcohol if you have it) to wipe it all down, shop vac to clean up the majority, and go over the detailed areas of your cabinets and such with a tack cloth.
QUICK TIP: To prevent your tack cloth from leaving behind a film that will cause chipping; Just lightly run the cloth over the areas (don’t press down) & it will pickup any dust particles left behind. You can continue to use the same one over and over again until it’s dirty enough to throw away (they come in multiple packages so you should have plenty for this project with some left over).
5. Saran Wrap: To prevent rollers and brushes from drying out when your taking a break (please–take plenty so you don’t lose your mind), or done for the day, just wrap them up really well with saran wrap. If your planning to keep your paintbrush wrapped up overnight instead of washing it out–place it in the refrigerator high humidity box which will help keep it from drying out. I don’t recommend doing this for more than 8 hours since it will eventually dry out and the high quality brushes and roller covers can last a lifetime if taken care of properly!
Order: If painting the cabinet doors & drawers by hand (vs a paint sprayer) I recommend going in this order for the best finish:
1. Start on the back of the doors first so that when you flip it over you only risk messing up the back of the doors vs the front! Paint in the direction of the wood grain, this ensures that the paint levels correctly and you obtain the smoothest finish.
This is when your painters triangles come in VERY handy to elevate the doors off the ground while drying. You should NEVER set a newly painted surface on the ground unless they have had at least 2 days to cure, small particles and dirt can easily get embedded in a non-cured paint finish even if it feels dry to the touch.
2. Turn doors over to the front side once back’s have dried (24 hours to be safe)
3. Brush edges & interior recessed detailed areas with your angled sash brush (or any are difficult to reach with a roller).
Oval Sash brushes are shaped so that the center is empty and holds paint beautifully. This means you need to dip your brush less and can finish a single stroke without worrying about running out of paint (which can be an issue with self leveling paints).
4. Roll over the remaining areas overlapping the still wet edge creating a single layer finish. *Remember not to re-roll back down once you’ve gone up to prevent issues with the leveling property if using the alkyd type paint.
First Coat of Paint Applied on Backs
5. Paint the cabinet bases in the same order as the doors/drawers are done. Start on the outside edges, and small drawer divider pieces with a high quality paint brush. After each coat has dried, lightly sand over it with 220 grit sandpaper to remove any dust that has dried on the surface (if you have to remove these later you must sand through the layers of paint).
6. Apply 2nd Coat and a 3rd if necessary. BE SURE to allow each coat ample time to dry and level out properly so you don’t cause adhesion issues, and again, sand between each coat–do not sand after the final coat (it will ruin the sheen).
Always paint in thin layers, it’s better to do 3 coats than 1 heavy coat. Paint cures by releasing the water or solvent into the oxygen and leaving behind the binders and color which cross links and forms a hard barrier.
If not allowed to cure or is applied too thickly the undercoat will not cure and will result in chipping, peeling, scratching, sticking doors/drawers, and overall lack of durability. I played it safe and allowed 24 hours between each coat to make sure there would be no issues. The only fix for this problem is sanding the cabinet’s down again to allow the under layers to cure and painting over (I know by experience that you don’t want to do this)!
QUICK TIP: Remember cure time is different from dry time; air on the safe side rather than rushing this project along. Kitchen cabinets are used every single day and take a lot of abuse so be patient and allow the process time to be completed correctly–the results are worth all the patience it requires, I promise!
7. Removing Tape: Remove any painters tape while the paint is wet (on the floor, around base cabinets, countertops, etc). This prevents it from drying to the tape and peeling up when it’s cured. Pull the tape up at as close to 180 degree angle as possible tilting it away from the surface that’s been painted.
1.Hardware: Place all the hardware back on the cabinet doors and drawers. If you’re installing new hardware you may want to wait until they are mounted back on our cabinets so you can measure out the spacing and make sure they are placed correctly for your kitchens design. Be sure to take your time drilling and don’t force the bit through causing splinters. Always drill from the front through to the black of the drawer so any splintering and chipping doesn’t happen on your new paint finish. I recommend keeping the hinges that came with your cabinets, they are hard to replace and re-drilling new holes and fitting hinges to the doors is more work than it’s worth. You can always update the finish with spray paint if you need to change the hardware’s look.
2. Reinstalling Doors: Your hinges should have been taped inside the cabinets that the doors are going back onto- be sure to screw them back into place on the proper doors and test the opening and closing of the doors to verify they are working correctly. If your doors are slamming closed you can place small plastic stoppers on the inside of the doors edges to dampen the sound (these can be found at your local dollar or hardware store).
3. Be Gentle: Remember how we talked about “cure time”? Your paint will take up to 30 days to fully cure. Because you were smart enough to allow the individual coats of primer and paint to dry in between coats your cabinets will be hard enough to reinstall and gain some sanity back to your living space within 24-48 hours after your final coat. HOWEVER, be gentle with your cabinets for at least 30 days to make sure that no marks or dents take place. While it’s possible to fix small mistakes that happen, it’s difficult to do and after all this work I know you want to just be done!
Now…grab a glass of wine and stand back & enjoy what you’ve done, and do a happy dance! It will feel like an entirely new kitchen and in a month the agonizing process will seem like a dream, I promise!
I realize this is A LOT of information, which is what I’m famously good at but I hope some of it is helpful in your project, and as always I’d love to see your results and help answer any questions you might have. Happy Painting!