How To Paint Your Cabinets (Hallelujah, They’re Done!)

It’s finally here. The day that we get to wake up and pad into a kitchen that used to look like this…

And see this…

So here’s how we did it from soup to nuts. Wait, first let me gush a little more. Seriously, it doesn’t even feel like the same room. Scroll back up and picture yourself standing next to the fridge in the “before” shot. The cabinets felt about two feet away from you on all sides. I can’t explain it, but it was like the room didn’t respect my personal space and was always inching towards me. It was all up in my area. Now when I stand at the sink or pantry, I literally feel like I could perform a small musical number (with a minimum of six Glee backup dancers). It just feels so much roomier. Plus no weird cabinet knob-eyes are looking over my shoulder anymore. Bonus.

But let’s get back to the present. Ahh, much better.

Our big cabinet-painting victory hardly happened overnight. We’ve been slowly working up to this sucker for a while now. First we painted the paneling, the fireplace, and the beams. Then we rearranged our cabinets a bit, got new appliances and, oh yeah, got a big beautiful hole busted in the wall. Then some cabinets came in, others came down, and eventually new counters made their way to us. Finally, the painting project was upon us. So first came the primer

… and, at long last, the paint. Speaking of the paint, we used Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint in Cloud Cover in a satin finish (it’s a soft tonal taupey-gray color, so it’s not quite as bright as our glacier white counters for a subtle layered look). Benjamin Moore Advance paint actually came recommended by a few pro cabinet painters that we know. We went with the satin finish because it’s specially formulated for cabinets (they actually came out with satin first and only added semi-gloss later to help folks who wanted more shine). We used it on our office cabinets a few months back (which still look great after Clara has beat on them relentlessly with wooden fruit) so it’s safe to say that we’ve been extremely happy with it. The fact that it’s low-VOC, self-leveling, and amazingly durable is pretty much the best thing ever.

Since a bunch of you have asked, here’s a rough timeline of the cabinet painting process (we just worked on nights after Clara went to bed and weekends during her naps, so it’s a good indication of what anyone with a day job might be able to follow):

  • Day 1: We removed the cabinet doors (including drawerfronts) and hardware (including hinges), applied wood filler to cracks and hardware holes, let everything dry for a few hours, lightly sanded the putty spots by hand, and refilled them with a second layer of wood filler wherever necessary. We did the same to the cabinet frames. Our wood filler of choice was Elmer’s ProBond Professional Strength Wood Filler.
  • Day 2: With the wood filler completely dry, we used a palm sander to smooth any putty spots and rough up all cabinet doors in the sealed off sunroom (it’s a dusty job). We then emptied out all the kitchen cabinets and covered appliances with drop cloths so we could also use the sander on our cabinet frames (roughing everything up = better adhesion). After everything was sanded, we wiped it down with a liquid deglosser (we like Next from Home Depot because it’s low-VOC and biodegradable). Read a lot more on the puttying, sanding, and deglossing steps of this process here (there are lots of pics too!).


  • Day 3: Cabinet door backs and cabinet frames were primed (we love Zinsser Smart Prime which is high-quality, stain-blocking, and low-VOC – the primer trifecta). We applied it with a high quality 2″ angled brush to get into all the cracks and a small foam roller to smooth everything out and ensure that we were applying super thin and even coats (there’s a video of the application process a bit further down in this post)
  • Day 4: We flipped the cabinet doors over and primed the fronts, leaving them to dry another 24 hours, just like the backs. Read more about the priming steps of this process here (there are extra pics too!).

  • Day 5: With the primer all done and dry (be sure to read the can – ours said not to over-prime, so one coat did the trick), during Clara’s nap we flipped the cabinet doors over again and painted one coat of paint on the backs (we used Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint in Cloud Cover). We applied it with a high quality 2″ angled brush to get into all the cracks and a small foam roller to smooth everything out and ensure that we were applying super thin and even coats (there’s a video of the application process a bit further down in this post). Clara woke up before we could paint the frames, so after she went to bed that night we put a first coat on the cabinet frames.
  • Day 6: We applied a second coat of paint on the back of the cabinet doors and the frames after Clara went to bed. As for applying any sealer or topcoat, the general pro recommendation for cabinet painting is to use high quality stain blocking primer and 2-3 thin and even coats of super high quality paint with ample drying time between coats (Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint is meant for cabinets without any top coat, since sealers can drip, yellow, and even cause things to stick/crack since they thicken the application).
  • Day 7: We gave the doors a full day to dry before flipping them over and applying a first coat to the fronts (the reason we did the backs first was that just in case the backs got marked up while we painted the front, at least the front would remain pristine). The day of drying time did the trick though, so the backs look as good as the fronts.
  • Days 8 & 9: We applied the first and second coat of paint to the front of the doors over these two days. Read a lot more on the puttying, sanding, and deglossing steps of this process here (there are lots of pics too!).

  • Days 10 – 13: We let the doors dry and cure for the recommended time on the can (always read the can!).
  • Day 14: We drilled for and installed the hardware on all of the doors (more on that in a sec). We also hung the doors but ran out of time before getting to the drawer fronts.
  • Day 15: We installed hardware on the drawer fronts, put the drawers back in, and restocked the kitchen. A droopy but spirited happy dance also ensued.

All that info above (and those three bolded links to the previous posts on puttying/sanding/deglossing, priming, & painting) should be enough to get you going on any cabinet-painting project – but just because I always think a video is worth a thousand pics, here’s a quick one that runs through the process for you. Although at some points I’m so delirious that I make up words (putty brush?) and refer to primer as paint about a dozen times. But it definitely can be helpful to see exactly how to putty a hardware hole or how to prime and paint a cabinet door. Enjoy!

As for the hardware installation details that we promised in our timeline above, we bought these handy Liberty Hardware guides at Home Depot for $7 to help us place everything evenly (centered side to side, and consistently at the same height so all the doors match up). Let’s call it the best seven beans we’ve ever spent (it’s incredibly nerve-wracking to drill through your freshly painted cabinet doors, to say the least – so any tool to make it more of a science is a friend of mine). My only tip is to double check everything ten times before drilling. And see those white blobs on the template on the left? Those are small pieces of masking tape that we used to surround “the good holes” (the ones we were using) so we didn’t accidentally drill into the one to the left or the right.

We also realized that using a small piece of scrap wood would shift all of the handles a smidge closer to the edge of the door, which we realized we liked best (after holding the handle in various places on the template). So we used this scrap wood piece…

… for marking each door with a pencil…

Then John drilled a small pilot hole first (to make sure he was going straight into our marked dot and ensure the wood wouldn’t crack or splinter). Then we went back through with a larger drill bit that would allow the screw that was provided with our hardware to slide right on through.

By some miracle, everything ended up looking nice and even. Whew. You know how sometimes when you reuse something (ex: our oak cabinets from the early 80’s) you think it’ll somehow be wonky or look cheap after something like a paint job? I’m happy to report that they look so solid and amazing. We had completely new cabinets in our first house’s kitchen (to the tune of 7K – ouch!) and we’re just as happy with these. I guess sometimes solid oak from 30 years ago is just as good as solid oak from today. Haha.

Oh and our new hardware is from here for $3.24 per handle. We love the way the satin nickel looks with our stainless appliances (and we think the soft gray backsplash will only add to the fun. We got all the same hardware for every door and drawer, but just placed them horizontally on drawers and vertically on doors. Speaking of money, here’s our entire budget breakdown:

  • Wood filler (Elmer’s ProBond Professional Strength Wood Filler from Home Depot): $7
  • Primer (we used Zinsser’s Smart Prime from a local Benjamin Moore store: $22
  • Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint (in Cloud Cover in a satin finish): $40 (thanks to a coupon)
  • All new hardware (see that link above): $84
  • All new hinges (from a local hardware store here called Pleasant’s): $89
  • Hardware templates (by Liberty Hardware from Home Depot): $7
  • Total cabinet makeover total: $249

Not bad when you compare that to the 7K total of the new white cabs that we selected for our first house’s much smaller kitchen. Le yikes. And we love that we added an entire peninsula with secondhand cabinets for under $95 (one of them was even free) – which is definitely one of those DIY coups that makes ya proud. All that storage and extra workspace is already coming in handy.

Anyway, to get back the whole putting-the-room-back-together thing, after we added the hardware, we just needed to reattach the hinges…

… and enjoy the view (don’t mind the clashy dishwasher- we’ll install our stainless one after we lay the cork floors so they’ll run underneath it).

I’ve totally been doing that thing where you spend way more time in a room than necessary, just staring at things. I keep gravitating towards the kitchen (ex: Clara, let’s go read this book on the floor next to the refrigerator!).

Oh and here’s a shot of how things look with the natural oak color inside the cabinets while the doors and fronts are painted. We don’t mind the two tone look at all, and this way we can toss things in there and pull them out without worrying about scratching or peeling paint (we did the same thing in our first kitchen and in our office built-in cabinets, and they really hold up nicely). Our tip would be to just keep a nice clean line around the frames when you prime/paint them (using a small foam roller sort of does that for you). That way it looks intentionally two-toned and not crazy-sloppy when you open the door. And yes, that is a slide out cutting board. Our cabinets may be old, but they still have their tricks. Haha.

For those who can’t watch the video above to see my shot of the painted cabinets up close, the picture below might shed a little light on the whole oak-grain thing. Using high quality primer and good self-leveling paint helps hide a lot although it doesn’t guarantee 100% invisible grain (we don’t see any evidence of grain on the oak cabinets in the office but do see a hint of it on the kitchen cabinets, so it probably just depends how much grain your cabinets have to begin with). We don’t mind painted wood that looks like painted wood though, so a little grain is ok with us, as long as the paint is nice and even and glossy.

Words can’t express how much additional function/workspace our little peninsula added to the kitchen. It’s amazing to think that none of these cabinets were here before our makeover! And the fact that we gained a 3 x 5′ counter on that peninsula already makes eating/baking/spreading out and doing crafts there a regular occurrence.

We mentioned in this post that two of the retrofitted cabinets were 100% seamless, and it’s these babies in the corner. We don’t think Sherlock Holmes himself could tell, even with his nose an inch away from them. Hurrah!

As I mentioned here, the three other retrofitted doors are tad less than perfect. By this I mean if you look at them from an inch away for five minutes (bobbing your head back and forth to catch the light bouncing off of them) two out of ten people might notice a tiny seam. The cabinet hanging above the cereal jars in the photo below is one of them. See how it’s almost impossible to pick up from far away…

But when you get super close and the light hits it just the right way you might be able to catch a super subtle horizontal line? In person it’s so unnoticeable that we can’t decide if it’s worth doing anything about, but we’ll keep you posted if we decide to sand them one more time and use some sort of buildable primer and a few more coats of paint to hopefully make them as perfect as the two corner cabinet doors are.

I don’t know why I love this shot but I do. John’s totally my hero for figuring out how to build in the fridge like that. Mah man.


Oh my gosh, can you even believe that room looked like this last December when we moved in? In case you can’t tell, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that.

The doorway to the dining room definitely helps bring the light in – and the glossier cabinets and bright white counters definitely brighten things up too.

Here’s the other side of Dark City:

And the same view now that I’m the Mayor of BrightVille!

Of course there’s still tons to do, like…

  • hang our backsplash tile
  • add floating shelves & a range hood
  • redo all the lighting (two pendant lights over the peninsula + inset lights in the cooking area)
  • install our mocha cork floors (can’t wait to balance out the brightness with some rich contrast!)
  • install the new dishwasher
  • add quarter-round and crown molding
  • possibly tweak our stools (we’re waiting for the room to take shape a bit more)

…but it’s definitely progress. Hooray, progress. So who’s about to embark on a cabinet painting adventure of their very own? I hope this post full of details (and especially that little video we whipped up) come in handy! Have fun and don’t forget to make up words (might I recommend putty brush?).

PS: We’re over on BabyCenter sharing a tearful little announcement. More on that here.

UPDATE: Our painted cabinets are still holding up great. Check out a little update post here.


  1. says

    Things are looking great! You have my sympathies with painting the cabinets, that’s for absolute sure! Whenever I think about painting cabinet doors again I always let my mind wander to buying an inexpensive sprayer that can hook up to our compressor. But it looks like you sure achieved a smooth finish using the brush/roller. Well done!

    It looks great and all feels wonderful when it’s done, but you still have my sympathies for the effort I’m sure you exerted mid project ;-)

    • says

      Aw thanks Alex! I may have had a mild breakdown once or twice! I think the whole Christmas/guests coming/book manuscript due/trying to make a play kitchen thing got me in a tizzy!


  2. Jaime says

    So I am doing a similar job in my house right now, except I’m using oil paint. We didn’t have the ability to paint the cabinet boxes because they are laminate, so we bought new doors only and matched the laminate color (BM’s Manchester Tan).

    Any suggestions or tips for oil painting? Or does anyone have any awesome links? I know that you must use natural brushes, no rollers, and the priming process is a little different (more sanding, as in, between every coat, and using tact cloths). I say “I know” like I am some sore of expert which I am obviously not so any ideas are super.

    Oh I wish that video came out sooner and then maybe I wouldn’t have been sooo set on getting oil paint. Using the Advance paint seems to cut out many of the steps I have to take. I even had to drive out of state to get my paint! I live in Indiana, and only Kentucky (good ol’ Kentucky) continues to sell oil paints.

    • Emily says

      I love oil based paint and only use latex on walls. I would make sure you use a brush and NOT a roller. You’ll put on a thin coat of primer, but pretty thick (compared to latex) coats of oil after that. You’ll want to wait 24 hours between coats, and you’ll want to make sure you sand with steel wool between coats as well. I would do a coat of primer, and then two coats of the finish. Sanding between the coat of primer and again before the final coat.

      The clean up can be a pain, but I buy a good brush, and make sure it sits in a jelly jar of new turpentine between coats. Then I’m lazy and chuck the brush when I’m done.

      It will look AWESOME. I really believe it holds up like no other, and you’ll never have brush strokes because it is naturally self levelling. Good luck!

    • Jaime says

      Naturally self leveling! That is exactly what I needed to hear! I was so worried about brush strokes, thanks!

  3. Petra says

    Looks lovely! I can see the faint thin line on the cabinet, but that’s probably because I have a well trained eye… Don’t change anything!

  4. says

    You have both done an amazing job. I would be curious to see the back of the extreme retro-fitted doors. The ones you cut into fourths? I was wondering how those would work out. Also, are you planning on keeping the ceiling fan in the kitchen?

    • says

      Ironically the backs of all the retrofitted doors look seamless! Haha. Filling those pocket holes was simple and since they don’t have the bevel detail like the front the seams are just invisible now that we primed and painted! Will have to shoot some more pics for a future post soon! As for the fan- it’s gone! We’re doing a whole new lighting plan and can’t wait!


  5. says

    whoa!!! it looks awesome! when i squint, i can picture your dark cork floors in the space and that looks awesome too! :)
    i’m excited for you guys!
    do you have a schedule for when the backsplash, shelves, and floor will be accomplished? because, you know, you’re doing this renovation for our enjoyment and not for your own purposes! :)

    • says

      Haha, we hope to be there putting in the finishing touches within 6-8 weeks, but since we’ve never laid penny tile or built a range hood or laid cork it’s all sort of a wild card!


  6. says

    Those door (and drawer) handles make me smile so much. I keep scrolling back to look at them!

    If we ever get around to replacing ours (we have those horrible little knobs everywhere) it might be for some just like that.

  7. sallie says

    can’t stop looking at the before and after pics! seriously amazing!! it’s crazy how much bigger the kitchen looks now. great job!

  8. Erin says

    your kitchen looks fantastic!!! Can’t wait to see it all completed!

    P.S. you keep saying you painted your first kitchen’s cabinets but then you said you got all new white ones at Home Depot….so then, what did you paint??

    • says

      We painted the original cabinets since we had to live with them for a year or so before any reno (they were crazy knotty pine, so they had to change right away!). Then after our wedding and some getting-settled we planned the new kitchen (which meant closing off a door, a completely new layout, etc) so we sprung for new cabinets since we couldn’t use the existing ones from the 50’s (the uppers were so shallow our regular plates didn’t fit in them).


  9. Lisa says

    Did you guy buy a frigidaire gallery fridge? We are in the market to buy one but i was curious if the model you have shows a lot of fingerprints.

    • says

      We got the one with whatever their fingerprint technology is (it’s not “stainless look” – it’s real stainless, but it’s coated with some sort of poly that blocks fingerprints). Even with a sticky fingered toddler I never have to wipe down the fridge. It’s sort of miraculous actually because our old Frigidaire showed so many prints!


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