It’s not hard to makeover cabinets, if you’ve got the time, effort, and basic painting skills then you can do this project!
Using the right tools & high quality products makes a big difference too, but we’ll talk about that later.
This topic has a lot of information so I’m breaking it into 3 parts…
Today we’ll start with the basics:
- Time Commitment & Shortcuts
- Sheens and Durability
- Best Paints & Primers for Cabinets
In Part 2 we’ll move on to prep work.
And finally in Part 3 we get to the fun- Priming & Painting!
Feel free to skip to any part of the series if you already know the basics and just want some tips or my thoughts on certain products. Be sure to leave a comment below if there is anything I haven’t covered or is confusing.
Over the years I’ve learned some things that can make this project go a lot smoother. I’ll share as much of those tips as I can throughout the series & hope it saves you some headache!
Many of the tools you’ll see will have affiliate links. In order to keep the blog free of those annoying advertisement pop-ups I use these links to help keep the site running. When you use them to make a purchase it doesn’t cost any more than normal but does give back a few cents my way as a thank-you for the recommendation…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, if anything beyond the basic color needs done (glazing or double layer) then the time doubles.
For a medium-sized kitchen & 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 finally got around to painting our kitchen a few years ago when my family was coming to visit for the first time. One day I walked in and suddenly realized how crazy the color swatches I’d been haphazardly painting on looked.
You know when you live with something everyday how it becomes invisible? It was one of those “OH CRAP” moments!
With only 4 days free from work before they arrived, I started reading everything I could find trying to find a magical shortcut that would allow me to paint the cabinets as quickly and easily as possible without falling apart the minute they left.
I’ll save you a lot of time & Pinterest distraction..that magical AND durable shortcut doesn’t exist.
After testing some of the most promising shortcuts it became clear few that cutting corners meant the finish would soon start to fall apart, even if we treated them with kid gloves (ya right).
I could’ve easily slapped some paint on them just to survive long enough for the remodel, but shortcuts still take time & effort…so why not just do it right?
I can honestly say the work it took and the late nights were worth every minute, they still look as good as the day I finished and have held up to some serious abuse!
If speed is more important you than durability then this guide isn’t for you. There are some wonderful tutorials showing how to paint your cabinets much quicker and in a less painfully, but like some of the products we’ll talk about below, the results probably won’t hold up.
If you want the most durable finish and hope to never think about painting them again then take your time, buy the right products, and complete all the steps!
Ok, I’ll step off the soap box 🙂
Let’s talk about paint sheens & how they affect 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 very little different between Flat / Matte. Both sheens absorb the most light providing the truest color. This is because of the high ‘ratio of solids’ (more on this below under paints).
These types of sheen are not recommended for any space that takes a lot of abuse, like kitchens or bathrooms. The finish is porous which means that dirt & grime can become embedded in the finish. Water & oil stains will also show up as dark spots and can’t be removed, so its best to avoid this type of sheen when painting cabinets.
Somewhere between flat & satin is eggshell. If a lower sheen appeals to you but flat is too risky this is an option. However, since there is very little difference between eggshell and satin I usually recommend choosing satin for slightly more durability.
Even with the advanced technology of current paints please don’t take paint store associates (or manufacturers) at their word, test it out first to make sure the finish is going to hold up. Get a sample and paint a raw piece of wood, after it’s fully dried put that sucker through some abuse & spills to see if its a good fit! It may save you a lot of money and heartache…
Satin is a durable sheen but not too shiny that it causes imperfections to stand out. This is the sheen I most often use and highly recommend it.
Be aware when using a light color (like white) that over time the cleaning & scrubbing can buff away shine leaving it vulnerable to damage and cause a difference in sheen. I haven’t personally had any issues when using a high quality paint but wanted to let you know it’s possible.
Semi-gloss is more forgiving than a gloss but it will show major imperfections such as those in very old wood cabinets. Be sure that all damaged areas, chipped edges, and old hardware holes are completely filled & sanded flush before painting. Its also important to make sure the paint levels out so there isn’t a ridge which will be visible.
If you’ve got young children or love to cook then this sheen is probably your best bet to holding up to a lot of abuse and dings without chipping or damage.
High-Gloss kitchens are unique and give a designer look to the right space. It reflects a lot of light and attracts attention but can be extremely difficult to achieve a perfect finish and may not work best with your homes style so be sure to think over this decision carefully.
Gloss will make any imperfections stand out like a sore thumb so its best used on new cabinets or those without any damage. It can be especially difficult to apply this sheen in an even layer to edges and detailing so its best applied by someone with a lot of paint skill or a professional to avoid sheen differences or hot spots (areas that absorb the paint differently and appear dull).
If you choose to attempt a gloss finish on your own be sure to purchase enough paint to fix areas that don’t come out perfectly, paint colors are never exact between mixes. Its also important to have a work light placed at an angle across the surface while painting to make sure the paint or brush strokes are leveling out before dry.
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 “the best” paint & primers, this is by no means a rule book so be sure find what works for you.
If there’s one thing I think everyone can agree on its this….
Purchase the highest quality paint & tools you can, it makes all the difference in this project!
In the world of cabinet painting, durability is king! The low-VOC limits imposed on paint manufactures have eliminated almost all of the old and dependable oil-based products that can handle a lot. Everyone in the painting field is stressed about the decline in durability & that nothing has been developed that can come close to the old products.
However, I’ve had a great experiences with some of the paints listed below and have recently found one that I consider my #1 Holy Grail paint!
Each of these paints has a different learning curve, if you choose one that’s unfamiliar be sure to apply it to a few test boards first or it will feel like it isn’t working correctly. Keep playing around until you feel comfortable with how the paint levels (brush marks disapear) and its flow (how smoothly it glides or moves around).
WHAT IS RATIO OF SOLIDS MEAN?:
Paint quality is determined by the volume (or ratio)of solids compared to the amount of solvent and fillers used. Paint shrinks down as it dries and the solvent/fillers evaporate leaving behind the pigment and resins (or binder). This is what determines what the final color will look like, how well it will cover, and how durable it will be over time.
This is why some paint brands are more expensive than others..the more pigment and binder a paint has the more expensive it becomes. High quality paint always gives you more bang for your buck than a lower quality (cheaper) paint can. When using a paint sprayer the volume of solids is more important than when you’re rolling because the paint has to be thinned which reduces the solids and coverage ability.
It can be a lot of work to track down the technical data of paints and understand the numbers, but I’ve done research on all of the paints mentioned below and the ones I recommend all have a high percentage of solids and will provide a durable finish and great coverage!
1. Chalk Paint:
I love chalk paint and have quite the collection! Despite the increasing amount of people who are using it on kitchen cabinets I can’t bring myself to recommend it for a few reasons:
- Durability: Kitchen cabinets take a lot of daily abuse and frequent scrubbing. Wax takes up to 30 days to cure & even then it’s still not as durable as the cross-linking finish of an acrylic or latex paint (this is what happens when high-quality paint hardens & water/binders evaporate).
- Cleaning: Abrasive cleaners shouldn’t be used on a wax topcoat and it’s inevitable that you’ll have to re-coat the cabinets with wax after regular cleanings and abuse have taken their tole.
- Time: Just thinking about the painstaking process makes my body ache. After regular prep work is complete (which is still important for any cabinet job, even with chalk paint), painting, and then waxing & buffing all the cabinets….It doubles the amount of time of an already large project! So although chalk paint dries much faster than regular paint so there is less time spent waiting between quotes, I still don’t see any advantages.
- Cost: The paint is more expensive by the quart than some of the highest quality (aka most expensive) paints such as Donald Kaufman or Farrow & Ball. This means to paint a decent sized kitchen it will cost A LOT!
APPLICATION: I’ve had good success using chalk paint on islands with a DURABLE TOPCOAT instead of wax. This will make the surface scrubbable, UV fade resistant, and prevent staining or chipping. The color won’t deepen like it does with wax and this still requires another step that painting wouldn’t but you can glaze the paint before top-coating if a deeper color is desired and chalk-paint is something you REALLY want to use. If you use glaze over the paint be sure to try some samples first, the glaze will soak straight in & darken it more than the normal dark wax over clear wax method. DO NOT apply wax before a top coat, it won’t adhere and will make 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.
This is a water-based-hybrid of the old oil-based-alkyd paints that are now banned in most areas. It cleans up easily with soap and water, levels beautifully, and dries to a hard and durable finish that doesn’t dent or chip if allowed to cure without too much abuse. This is the paint I’ve been using for years and have always had great luck although I’ve recently switched to the PPG Breakthrough mentioned below. It takes some getting used to but once you’ve played around with it and learn how to let it self-level without over-brushing its amazing to see the perfectly smooth finish when dry!
APPLICATION: Brush/Roll the first coat in an upward motion & life off instead of rolling back down. The self-leveling quality can be easily messed up if you try to ‘lay-ff’ (back brush) to remove the stroke marks. Just have faith that it will do what its designed to & if for some reason it doesn’t you can always correct it later! Keeping a wet edge, roll the next adjoining area by slightly overlapping. Any sheen difference in the overlap will be fixed in the next coat by centering the roller on top of the overlap.
NOTE: For some reason SW puts all their ProClassic in cans with the exact same color label. Every time I call in and order while in the middle of a job I arrive to find the associate I spoke with didn’t hear my extra emphasis on “acrylic-alkyd please” and grabbed the Latex-Enamel version instead. It’s still a great paint that I use quite frequently, but for projects like this I’ve found the acrylic-alkyd to be more durable & the self-leveling capability unmatched. So, if you want to prevent another trip check the label before leaving & make sure its the right version ( if you’re paying attention at the register the alkyd version is more expensive so that can tip you off).
3. PPG Break-Through!: **BEST**
This is an EXTREMELY durable hard finish enamel paint that sticks to almost any surface and holds up against scoffs, scratching, and scrubbing…basically its liquid gold! I haven’t found anything it can’t accomplish and honestly don’t think there is another paint brand that can top it!
“Break-Through!” been around a long time and was purchased by PPG a few years back but I only discovered it by accident when I asked my local paint supplier what type of finish they were using on the cement floors?
I expected him to tell me it was a catalyzed lacquer or something equally durable because they look amazing compared to the abuse I knew they go through (they are also a local specialty woodworking company).
He told me it was PPG Break-Through! & they had never re-applied after putting it on over 7 years ago. My disbelief must have shown because he disapeared and came back with a wood flooring sample and hammer and told me to do my best (have I mentioned I love these guys?!).
The raw wood flooring was coated with a clear base (non-tinted) version and I tried SO HARD to scratch or chip the finish even using my full weight behind the prongs of the hammer! In the end there was only small (barely visible) scratch in the finish so I purchased 2 gallons on the spot..there’s nothing that gets me more excited then playing around with a new product!
Since then I’ve used it countless times as a topcoat, for cabinets, and even on outdoor tables, it has yet to disappoint and always leaves a very durable and smooth finish
APPLICATION TIP: This is 100% enamel . so it has a great flow to it and rolls on very easy with little to no learning curve. It DOES dry faster than the SW or other paints you may be used to so its important to have the technique and order of things ready to go before you start painting. It’s also important to mention that the solids (color tint) tend to settle to the bottom quickly so I recommend buying this only when your prep work is completed and everything is ready to start painting.
I noticed its now being carried by Home Depot so it may be available at your local box store, but I would call PPG first to to verify the quality is similar to that sold at independent paint retailers (Example: The SW paints sold at Home Depot is a different quality than those at a SW retail location).
I haven’t personally used this product yet but recently heard great things about it from a local paint contractor that I trust. He’s been using it for years and raved about how well it adheres to surfaces that can be difficult to prep like the corner moldings. I would recommend spraying this paint or at least playing around with it long enough to understand how it levels and the dry time.
The choice of primer is one of the most IMPORTANT decisions. It will determine how well the paint is able to adhere to the surface, if wood bleed stains will seep through over time, and can also help prevent the paint from gouging or denting.
Choose the best option you can and be sure to prep and apply the primer as carefully as you would paint (making sure to coat each surface area in as equal and smooth layers as possible).
1.ZINSSER BIN ‘PRIMER’ (SHELLAC BASED): **BEST**
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. ZINSSER “COVER STAIN” (OIL BASED):
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).
This is a GREAT primer for anyone that needs maximum bonding power and low odor. If your cabinets are made of anything other than wood I would recommend using this over any of the others! It’s a acrylic-urethane based primer making it an easy soap and water cleanup and has the ability to be used on almost any surface material (even metal). You can find a local retailer by searching on their site.
This is a alkyd resin based primer that blocks stains and seals the surface so its great for preventing tannin bleed through on older wood cabinets. It’s not a water based product so I recommend using the cheaper brush & roller and throwing them away when you’re done priming. This primer does an excellent job of preventing hot spots on wood surfaces as well since it doesn’t raise the grain and dries to a very hard film so the paint can’t penetrate through to soak into the wood pores causing dull spots.
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.
The cabinets and drawers are sticking when I open them even though its been weeks since I finished painting?:
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.