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How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets

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I absolutely adore my apartment, and often joke that I’d like to live there for the rest of my life. The bathroom used to be my one big bone of contention upon moving in, but I’ve since updated it to be much less visually arresting. I have, of course, begun fixating on smaller, less offensive features in my home, because why be content when you can drive yourself delirious with projects, right?

Currently, my never-satisfied gaze has settled upon my kitchen cabinets, which are a perfectly serviceable Colonial-style (raised center panels with a cathedral arch) oak, finished with a warm stain and shiny varnish. I’d rather them be closer to Shaker style—which is not really within the realm of rental possibility—but would settle for a nice coat of matte paint, should my landlord allow it.

As with almost any home reno project, I turned to my dad. Aside from having done all our home improvement projects himself over the years (building an in-ground swimming pool from scratch, flooring every room in the house), he’s also a woodworker with three decades of experience in the cabinet-making industry. So, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I interrupted him as he built a 3D printer (yes, you read that correctly), to get every last detail on how to properly paint cabinets yourself.

Professionals usually paint cabinets with a two-part catalyzed finish, he says, but that requires a spray booth, expensive equipment, and lots of practice. However, if you follow the below steps precisely, you can get a professional-looking result on your first try. Choose a dry, temperate day (humidity spells trouble for painting), dig out an old T-shirt, and get to work.

Tools of the Trade:

Let’s Get To It:

  1. Remove all the doors by unscrewing them from the hinges and take all the hardware off, being careful not to strip any screws. Put the hardware, screws, and hinges in a storage container for later (you don’t want to lose them!). Lay cabinet doors out on a tarp, preferably outdoors, if possible.
  2. If there’s old paint on any of the hardware, gently remove using a stiff brush, and, if necessary, follow with a very fine grit sandpaper (such as 500) to buff it out.
  3. If you’re adding new hardware in different positions on the cabinet doors, fill old hardware holes with body filler, such as Bondo Wood Filler. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to mix the two parts and smooth over old screw holes with a scraper, let set, and sand smooth.
  4. Degrease the cabinet doors and frame with a degreaser like Purple Power. This will get residual grease from cooking and handling off the cabinets, better preparing it for painting.
  5. If your cabinets have layers of old paint (hello, pre-war rental) and you want to start from scratch, you’ll need to apply a chemical stripper. Professional-grade chemical strippers usually contain a chemical called methylene chloride, which is highly corrosive and gives off toxic fumes (read: unable to be used indoors). For this reason, you’re better off using a product like Citrus Strip, which is much less harsh and can be used indoors. As a precaution, open the windows wide and run any fans you have during stripping, sanding, and painting. You’ll also want to be wearing gloves, safety glasses, and a respirator mask if you have one. Apply the Citrus Strip with a paint brush over the entire painted surface and let it sit until it bubbles. Carefully use a scraper to remove paint from larger areas—this part is so satisfying—and a handheld stiff brush to get into all the nooks and crannies. Wipe any residue clean with a slightly damp rag and let dry completely.
  6. Once the cabinets are totally dry (yes, 100 percent dry), sand the surface of the doors and frame with Scotch-Brite Maroon pads. This will create a “tooth” on the surface, which essentially means roughing it up to allow the paint to better stick. Unlike sandpaper, Scotch-Brite pads won’t clog up with finish, grease, or leftover paint, but you can definitely use sandpaper if that’s what you have on hand (starting with 100 grit, and going up to about 300). Get into the nooks by cutting a piece of Scotch-Brite or sandpaper and wrapping it around something that fits—like a scraper or flat head screwdriver.
  7. After sanding, remove all debris by wiping down the entire surface with a very lightly damp rag, and let dry completely (completely!).
  8. Follow up by wiping with a tack cloth (a sticky cheesecloth embedded with beeswax) to remove any remaining dust and particles and create a smooth, blemish-free finish. Open the cloth fully, bunch it in your hand, and wipe all the surfaces.
  9. Tape off your walls, backsplash, and floors with painter’s tape, and line the floor with a tarp or drop cloth. Even the most steady hands slip up sometimes, so you’ll likely appreciate this extra step in the long run.
  10. Phew, it’s finally time to paint! Using a natural hair paint brush (2 inches will get the job done), apply primer (like this one) in a thin, even coat. You can use a small foam roller, too—just be sure to offload as much paint as possible before applying in “W” formations.
  11. Once the primer is completely dry (have I emphasized the importance of patience yet?), thoroughly mix and apply interior cabinet paint (like this one) in smooth, thin coats, using a smaller paint brush for detail work if necessary. Drying times vary between brands—and depend on humidity levels and temperature—so refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to determine wait time between coats.

    And…your work here is done. All that’s left is for you to stand back and admire.


Have you ever painted your own kitchen cabinets? Tell us how it went!

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