Read This Before You Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets

The right prep, primer, and paint can transform the look of your cupboards—and your entire cook space—without busting the budget

Handsome Painted Cabinets for Cookspace Appeal



If you’ve  noticed the cost of new appliances, countertops, and cabinets, it’s no surprise that renovating a kitchen is one of the most expensive remodeling projects. While few homeowners find ways to boost the look of a dated refrigerator or tired granite, transforming a kitchen by freshening the cabinets that make up most of the room’s visual space is entirely within reach. But there’s more to the job than buying a gallon of your favorite color.

The saying that a successful paint job relies on diligent prep work is fitting when finishing previously coated cabinets. Unlike drywall, cabinets are made out of a variety of materials—from wood to metal—that are then covered with a range of finishes, from oil-based paint to plastics. But armed with the right primer, quality paint, the patience not to rush the process, and a long weekend, a DIYer can overhaul a kitchen without going over budget.

Shown: A wall of dark painted cabinets can be stark, but the soft, almost matte finish on the navy-blue doors and drawers in this handsome kitchen fades into the background, leaving the gleaming stainless-steel appliances to shine through.

New Kitchen on a Dime

Cabinets can account for nearly 40 percent of a kitchen’s cost. Here’s how three common cabinet upgrades stack up in an average 10-by-10-foot kitchen. Repainting would cost less than $200. Adding new drawers and doors runs about $1,300, while upgrading to ready-to-assemble cabinets starts at about $1,630.

Set up a Temporary Kitchen

Painting your cabinets means taking a vital room completely off-line. Plan ahead: Set up a kitchen in a nearby room with a hot plate, a toaster oven, and a cooler to serve as a fridge during the project. Oh, and use paper plates.

Prep Timeline: Clean



Spray a degreaser, such as Spray Nine, onto a cloth or abrasive kitchen scrub sponge and wipe all the cabinet surfaces to remove any oil—critical for the primer to stick.

Clean all six surfaces of each drawer or cabinet door as well as the face frames and exposed sides of the boxes.

Pay particular attention to the cabinets around the cooktop and hood, which are often coated with grease.


Prep Timeline: Sand



Use a palm sander fitted with 100-grit sandpaper to remove the finish from cabinet doors, drawers, and boxes.

Next, hand-sand the molding contours and the areas where those details meet the panel. You know you’ve removed the finish once the sheen is gone.

Then use a dry paintbrush or a wet/dry vac to remove the dust before wiping the surfaces with a tack cloth.


Prep Timeline: Prime



Use a 2½- or 3-inch-wide angled sash brush to apply primer to the cabinet door.

Start in the seam where the panel meets the molding along all four sides. Then move to cover the rest of the panel before focusing on the stiles and rails that make up the door’s frame.

Check out the jig below (“DIY Paint Station”); it will make the painting-and-drying process easier.


DIY paint station



This makeshift jig provides access to all sides of a cabinet door to reduce downtime during drying. Span a pair of 2x4s at eye level between two ladders. Screw eye hooks into one end of a 2×4, where doors will be painted, and at the other end, screw hooks into both 2x4s to hang painted doors from. Add corresponding hooks to the top edges of upper cabinet doors and the bottoms of lower doors and drawers, where the holes left behind won’t be visible.


The Multisurface Primer



A top coat of paint will probably flake free without a good primer beneath it. And while most DIYers are familiar with the primer used on walls, that’s not the best option on cabinets. “Wall primer is designed to fill the pores in drywall, allowing the paint to form a mechanical bond,” says Rich O’Neil, president of Masterwork Painting in Woburn, MA. “Cabinets won’t have pores, so use a primer that grips chemically.” These special coatings, called bonding primers, hold like glue to nearly any cabinet finish, from the varnishes that cover many painted and stained cabinets to the vinyl on Thermofoil and plastic-covered melamine.

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