Steps // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets
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Table Illustration

Step One // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Table Illustration

Table Illustration Kitchen Cabinet
Illustration by Gregory Nemec


Painting kitchen cabinets is, like any painting job, a simple task. But mastering the perfect glassy finish is all in the prep work. Before brush ever hits wood, there has to be a lot of time devoted to getting the surface ready to accept paint. That means properly cleaning, sanding, and priming every inch of the surface, or the finish color won't stick well.

Cleaning is the most important step in the process. Years of greasy fingerprints and cooking splatters can leave a layer of grime that inhibits paint adhesion. You can remove most of the gunk with TSP substitute (a cleaner from DAP or Savogran) or a degreaser—the former if the cabinets are not too dirty, or the stronger degreaser if the grime is thick—but it may take a couple of passes. After that, you'll need to rough up the surface with some 100-grit sandpaper to help the paint stick.

The primer you use can also make or break the finish. To get a glassy surface, you need to use a "high build" sandable primer, such as Eurolux from Fine Paints of Europe, to best fill the wood and even the surface. The sandable part of that equation is imperative, so that you can smooth the surface before painting on the finish coat. You may even need two coats of primer to completely fill the grain.

To keep the doors and drawers flat as the paint levels, make yourself a pronged drying rack by drilling screws up through several pieces of scrap wood. That way you can flip your work as soon as it's dry to the touch. Also, screw cup hooks into the edges of doors and drawers so you can grab hold and move them without fingerprinting the paint; then hang them up for out-of-the-way drying.

The formula of finish paint you use contributes to the smooth look. Traditionally, painting cabinets for a high-traffic area such as a kitchen required using oil-based paints. However, working with oils can be messy, and the fumes are toxic. Fortunately, while latex paints will never quite self-level and flow as well as oils, they're getting close. Latex formulas specified for cabinetry—labeled "100% acrylic"—will create an even, durable finish. And, in many cases, they're also low in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which make that noxious paint smell.

As long as you're sprucing things up, consider changing the hardware or putting on a faux finish for that added wow factor.

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Prep the Room

Step Two // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Prep the Room

Kitchen Cabinet Prep the room
Photo by Kolin Smith

Cover the countertop adjacent to the cabinets with rosin paper and painter's tape. Cover the backsplash with 0.5-millimeter plastic.

Flag each cabinet door or drawer and its corresponding opening with matching numbered pieces of tape so you'll know which piece goes where. Remove all pulls and knobs, and then unscrew hinges from both the cabinet boxes and the doors. Pull out the drawers and, if possible, unscrew the fronts.

Using a sponge and the appropriate cleanser, wipe down the doors, drawer fronts, and cabinet frames wherever you plan to paint.

Tip: If you're reusing your old hinges, also flag the paired hinges with their doors and location for easier reinstallation.

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Smooth Dings or Divots

Step Three // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Smooth Dings or Divots

Smooth Dings or Divots Kitchen cabinets
Photo by Kolin Smith

Using a putty knife, fill any dings or divots with wood putty. Also, fill any old hardware holes if you plan on changing out the knobs and pulls.

Using 100-grit sandpaper, sand the putty smooth and rough up the cabinets’ finish. Sand with the grain, and apply enough pressure to push the paper into any crevices, nicks, or dents without rounding over the edges. Screw cup hooks into the edge of the doors and drawers—on the top edge of upper cabinets and on the bottom edge of lower cabinets and drawers.

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Prime the cabinets

Step Four // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Prime the cabinets

Prime the kitchen cabinets
Photo by Kolin Smith

Lay the doors facedown. Using a 2½-inch paintbrush, apply a coat of primer. Brush first against the grain and then with it. Paint the interior panel before the rails and stiles. Let the primer dry to the touch before flipping the pieces to paint the other side. Prime the outside of the cabinet boxes (and the inside if desired) while waiting for the doors to dry.

Let the doors and drawer fronts dry to the touch, keeping them flat so the paint levels off. Then hang them from the cup hooks to cure completely.

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Sand the Primer

Step Five // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Sand the Primer

Sand the primer kitchen cabinet
Photo by Kolin Smith

Allow the primer to dry for several hours. Using a random-orbit sander and 220-grit sandpaper, smooth away any brushstrokes in the primer on the panels and other flat surfaces.

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Brush on the Finish Color

Step Six // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Brush on the Finish Color

Brush on the finish color kitchen cabinet
Photo by Kolin Smith

Use a new chisel-tipped paintbrush to apply the finish color. Beginning on the back of the doors and drawer fronts, brush on the paint, going with the grain. Paint the panels first; then work your way out to the rails and stiles. Apply a thin coating to avoid drips and uneven coverage.

While the doors and drawers are drying, keep them perfectly flat to allow the paint to level off. Meanwhile, paint the cabinet boxes and face frames.

Once the doors and drawers are dry to the touch, flip them over and coat the face, again working from the interior panel out to the rails and stiles. Let them sit flat until they’re dry to the touch. Then hang them to dry for another 2 hours before applying the second coat.

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Alternate Application: Spray the Paint On

Step Seven // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Alternate Application: Spray the Paint On

Alternate application is to Spray the paint on Kitchen Cabinet
Photo by Kolin Smith

To keep the paint smooth, you should use a brush on the cabinet boxes and face frames. But for a superior finish on the doors and drawer fronts, you can apply a single coat with an airless paint sprayer. Spray the edges first; then fill in the field on the face of the door. Make sure to overlap each pass by about 50 percent, and don’t let up on the trigger until the spray is completely off the surface.

Keep the doors and drawers flat and level until they are dry to the touch. Then hang them to dry completely.

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Install the Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

Step Eight // How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Install the Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

install the drawers, doors and hardware
Photo by Kolin Smith

Once the cabinets have totally cured (another day or two, depending on the weather), attach the hinges to the doors and then to the cabinet boxes—fit them by turning the adjustment screws. Install the drawer faces.

Screw on the knobs and pulls.


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