How To Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets

Update: We have a much newer cabinet-painting post with more photos, details, and even a video for you here

If you can paint a wall (and even if you can’t) you can paint your kitchen cabinets. There are just a few tried and true rules when attempting this project, so if you follow the simple steps outlined below it’ll be pretty hard to screw things up. And although you’ve all seen our newly renovated kitchen, we actually painted our previous 50-year-old knotty pine cabinets right after we moved in (to tide us over until we had the funds to replace them altogether). Check out the dark and dingy kitchen that we inherited with the house:

And the refreshing “after” thanks to only a few hours of prepping and painting:

So how did we do it? Easy peasy.

Step 1: Figure out what you want. Bring home paint swatches and select the perfect palette, and if you’re planning to replace your hardware, purchase some before you move on to the next step. Because most old hardware is a different size than newer hardware (the holes are further apart or closer together), it’s important to know if your new door and drawer bling is spaced differently than your current hardware before you begin. Then it’s nice to wash everything down with a little soap and water to cut the grease and the spills that have built up on the doors and drawers over the years. Nothin’ like a little sponge bath to get you in the mood to makeover your kitchen…

Step 2: Take it off, baby. Now it’s time to remove all of your hardware and your hinges (regardless of whether you’ll be reusing it or replacing it- and it helps to store everything in a big ziplock bag so you’re never short a screw). Of course by removing the hinges you’ll be removing all the doors, so finding a place that you can lay out a big fabric or plastic drop cloth (which are about $2 from Home Depot or Lowe’s) is a good idea. Once you have your drop cloth in place, lay out all your cabinet doors and drawers so you can paint them all together in one convenient spot (and have full access to the frames of the cabinets in the kitchen).

Step 3: Fill ‘er up. Then if you’re replacing your hardware with something that won’t fit the existing holes in your doors and drawers, you’ll want to pick up some wood filler (it’s around $6 a tube, which is all ya need) and fill those existing hardware holes in all of the doors and drawers. There are many different colors of wood fill, but since you’re painting your cabinets, matching the tone isn’t really a big deal (although it can’t hurt to grab the one that most closely resembles the color of your current cabinets).

Step 4: Get sandy. The sanding process isn’t always necessary (for example, our cabinets weren’t glossy so we skipped it and went straight to priming) but for some people with super shiny cabinets (aka: lots of polyurethane) it can’t hurt to run an electric sander over everything- or take a bit more time to hand sand things- with fine grit paper to rough everything up for maximum paint stickage. Not sure if yours need to be sanded? If they feel matte like a cutting board (a little absorbent) then they shouldn’t need it, but if they feel shiny like a laminated piece of paper or a glossy credit card then sanding is your best bet. Note: lead paint is a serious health risk when sanding, so if you have an older home with already-painted cabinets that look decades old it’s worth testing for lead with a $6 lead test kit from Home Depot. Safety first!

Step 5: It’s prime time. Due to all the grease and even just the wood stain that often coats kitchen cabinets, it’s über important to get down and dirty with oil-based primer (even if the water-based equivalent claims that it works just as well on cabinet surfaces, we’ve seen stains seep right through that stuff, so oil-based is the better-safe-than-sorry alternative). One coat of primer applied with a decent quality roller should do the trick (then just use a brush to get into those tigher spaces and the grooves in the doors). We prefer wool or polyester rollers (Purdy’s a great brand) over foam ones as we’ve found that they rile up the paint and cause bubbles. Oh and it doesn’t matter if you can still see the wood tone underneath after one coat, the primer’s main job is to make your cabinets sticky and the paint will do the rest. You’ll probably want to snag an extra brush just for priming since they’re usually pretty messed up afterwords (it’s best to toss it or save it for other priming projects and use a pristine new one for painting). And ditto with the roller. We usually don’t even try washing the oil-based paint out of it- and prefer to replace it with a fresh new one before painting for a seamless result (reused rollers and brushes can often compromise the smooth finish that you’re going for when it comes to your cabinets).

Step 6: Get your paint on. You’re in the home stretch, so just two coats of latex paint (in a semi gloss finish for easy wipe-ability) are next on the agenda. You’ll definitely want to wait a few hours after applying primer, but I actually primed and painted my cabinets (two coats!) all in the same day. When it comes to applying the paint, a high quality wool or polyester roller makes for the sleekest application. A mini foam roller can also help since it’s smaller and easy to control. You’ll also probably need to use a brush sparingly, just to get into those little cracks and crevices that your roller can’t reach. Do yourself a favor by buying an angle-tipped brush as opposed to a flat-tipped one- they make staying in the lines a lot easier.

Note: We didn’t prime or paint the inside of the doors, but our approach would be to prime/paint them first and then wait five days and turn them over and prime/paint the outside (that way if anything got a bit imperfect after being flipped face down, it would be on the inside- an therefore less noticeable).

Step 7: Wait for it. After two coats of latex paint you now have to practice patience. Most experts advise waiting at least three days to rehang or begin using your doors and drawers (especially since the rehanging process involves lots of holding and pressing and drilling which can muck up anything that’s not 100% dry). We actually advise waiting five days if ya can (it beats doing the whole thing all over again and guarantees a totally seamless finish even in high humidity).

Step 8: Hang in there. Then all you have to do is rehang your doors (either using your existing hinges or new ones), slip in your drawers, and add your hardware. If the hardware is new, take time to measure twice before you drill to avoid any annoying mistakes that will make you want to putty and repaint, which never looks as good as the flawless finish that you get the first time around. John actually took his sweet time drilling all of our holes for the new hardware (to the tune of about two hours) but it was well worth the assurance that everything was perfectly centered and right where it should be. In this case slow and steady wins the race.

*Oh and it bears noting that if your cabinets are anything but solid wood (laminate, veneered, etc) you should definitely take off a door or a drawer and bring it with you to your local hardware store and ask the paint pro there what they recommend. There are some great oil-based primers and enamel paints out there so it might be possible to get a semi-durable finish (although none as long-lasting as solid wood paint jobs). The key is really roughing up the surface so it’s less glossy and then priming and painting with the best stuff they have (usually oil or enamel based). Oh and don’t forget to let everything dry for a while so things can cure up and get super durable for the long haul.

So that about does it for our cabinet painting and refinishing tutorial. Of course Step 9 is to invite all of your friends over for celebratory margaritas or to do the happy dance every time you walk into your amazing new space. We hope this will help you completely transform your kitch on a dime and in a flash. And just in case you need a few more before & after pictures to convince you, here are two clients of ours that we helped transform their rooms with painted cabinets:

Here’s Kim’s crazy blue kitchen that she inherited with her home:

blue-cabinets-adobe-kitchen-color-consult

And here’s her two-tone masterpiece after a quick paint makeover (we suggested slightly different colors for her upper and lower cabinets):

refinished-repainted-kitchen-cabinets1

painted-kitchen-cabinet-makeover-before-and-after1

And here’s Carla’s kitchen before she came to us for help:

kitchen1

kitchen-eating-area-enter-from-living-room

And here it is after we encouraged her to paint her cabinets a crisp glossy white tone (along with her dining room chairs) while the dining table went black to mimic the backsplash:

after-kitchen-2

after-kitchen-eating-area

Amazing what a little paint can do, eh? And if they can do it you can to! So if you have a spare weekend or even a few week nights you’ll be well on your way to a totally new room. Happy painting…

In need of a furniture painting tutorial? Fret not, we’ve gotcha covered.

Update: We have a much newer cabinet-painting post with more photos, details, and even a video for you here.

Comments

  1. Katie says

    great tutorial! i’m currently on step 5 in my kitchen, glad to see that i’ve been doing things correctly. i can’t wait to finish this project up, i think it will make a huge difference. and seeing your before and after (well, before and temp. after) pictures above has made me even more confident that painting our dark wood cabinets a light color will help to make the space seem brighter and more open.

    • rj says

      Great job! I have a question. Did you use the two tone grey colors? I wondering if you used the same colors, what are they? Thank you!

  2. says

    Thanks for the advice. I wish we knew this when we did ours. Oil based primer is a must. We didn’t know that and eventually we are going to have to redo ours.

  3. kelly kettrick says

    Thanks for the tutorial – perfect timing. One question – we have glass-fronted cabinets on top…do we paint all of the interiors of the cabinets?

  4. says

    Our kitchen cabinets are some mysterious composite with fake-o wood veneer on the front. We have heard through the grapevine that they can’t be painted, but is there anything that can’t be primed and painted?

    • Susan says

      I had the same problem and was told something similar but luckily I found a do it yourself website and bought new painted cabinet doors with hidden hinges and new drawer fronts from taylorcabinetdoor. I hired a painter who painted my cabinet boxes and was able to match the color of my cabinet doors. Once they dried my husband and I installed the doors we ordered and it was so easy just to do that ourselves. All of this was so much easier than buying new cabinets and my cabinets look brand new. Love the end result of my kitchen!

  5. Amy says

    You make it sound so easy!

    I would like to paint the cabinets in a rental, I have permission to if I like. They are not even real solid wood. They’re a mess really. I think they are an mdf or pressboard with what looks like the precursor to laminate on top. Any tips on painting those?

    One good tip not mentioned is to number your doors and drawers so it’s easier to put them back where they belong.

    Thanks,
    Amy

  6. Heather says

    is there a special size or type of roller that you recommend? thanks for all the info…I think I see a weekend project in my future!

  7. bschwanke says

    Ditto on RA’s question. These crappy fake-wood cabinets….can they be painted? Thanks for all the info!!!

  8. YoungHouseLove says

    Hey guys,

    As for the “can you paint fake wood” questions, they’re pretty hard to answer blindly and we’re by no means experts when it comes to faux wood, so our suggestion would be to visit Home Depot or Lowe’s and talk to one of the painting specialists (you can even bring in a door to show them). They’ll hopefully be able to make a recommendation for ya, and if that fails you can always test the priming and painting method above on the back of one of your doors and see how it goes. Good luck!

    And when it comes to painting the interiors of the cabinets, it’s definitely a great idea with glass fronted ones (in fact we painted the back of our white glass fronted cabinet in the same pale blue wall color as the rest of the kitchen for a nice subtle pop behind the glass). As for whether you have to paint inside the doors when they’re not glass, it’s totally up to you (we only did the fronts of our doors and drawers but if we weren’t planning to replace them down the line we probably would have done the insides and the backs of the doors for resale). Hope that helps!

    Oh and as for picking the perfect roller, any good roller (ie: not the cheapest one, we like Purdy rollers) meant for “smooth surfaces” (which means they’ll have a short nap for a glossy and clean finish) will get ‘er done. Happy painting!

    xoxo,
    Sherry

  9. Gina says

    Thanks SO much for the tutorial.. It seems doable, however, I have one question. Is it better to replace the counter first before painting the whole cabinets?

    I am thinking about replacing my faux wood counter to a nice granite. (oh, not thinking, i’m definitely going to replace it!!!) :o)

    Thanks again!!! You rock!

  10. YoungHouseLove says

    Hey Gina,

    Wahoo! So excited about your counter upgrade along with the cabinet paint job. Don’t forget to send pics! When it comes to painting before or after the installation, it’s really a chicken or the egg situation. But from our experience, when the installers slide in the slabs of granite, they can actually scrape against the cabinets in the process (the granite slabs are cut extremely snug to fit perfectly in the space, so they really get wedged in there with some force). With that in mind, we’d encourage you to go ahead and paint after the cabinet installation (since you can easily cover the granite with a drop cloth and tape off the edges for a clean and seamless look). Good luck!

    xoxo,
    Sherry

  11. says

    The before and after looks brilliant! Thanks for that great information. I’m not sure if the terminology is different in the US to Australia, but I have laminated cupboards. In your experience, do you think the light sanding and priming would work on them? They’re currently a feral grey colour which I’d love to paint off white.