Have $100? Get a New Kitchen. Painting Your Cabinets 101

Maybe you’re looking around your dated kitchen with its ugly wood cabinets and thinking, “If only I could afford a remodel.” The good news? You can paint those ugly cabinets yourself for short money. But the bad news is that the process is not as easy as those gorgeous blonde YouTubers clad in tight-fitting jeans and clean white t-shirts make it look.

Aside from being a writer, former lawyer and soccer mom, I’m also a professional painter. I’ve made over dozens of kitchens with great success and happy clients, and I want to share what I’ve learned so you can do it yourself.

Selecting the Best Product

I’ve seen many posts about using “milk paint” or “chalk paint” on kitchen cabinets, as they claim not to require sanding and priming. I haven’t used these products, so I can’t speak to their ease-of-use and longevity. They’re a little pricier than traditional paint, but skipping primer saves you money and time, so it could be worth the risk.

I use Cabinet Coat, which is specifically designed for cabinets. It goes on beautifully, it’s durable and it stands the test of time. It can’t be tinted a dark color, however, so if you want a dark color, try Benjamin Moore’s Advance instead. This paint is typically used for doors and trim, but it dries to a hard, shellac-like finish, which is perfect for cabinets.

Preparing the Surface

First, remove all the doors, hinges and handles, and place them in a small storage container. Don’t even think about leaving them up and painting around the hinges because it will look like crap, I promise. Also, don’t even think about changing your hinges. Drilling new holes and lining them up perfectly is way too onerous. Keep it simple and use your old hinges. If you hate them, spray paint them with black or metallic paint for a whole new look. The opposite goes for handles. There are so many gorgeous and affordable handles out there. Lowes, Hobby Lobby and even Target have affordable drawer pulls and handles to suit any style, whether it be sleek and modern, or fun and eclectic.

Next, clean the frame, doors and drawers. On most cabinets, a light (or no) cleaning will do since you’ll also be sanding. Those closest to the stove, however, typically require a thorough cleaning with either TSP or Krud Kutter to remove the grease, hardened spaghetti sauce and other unidentifiable food splatterings. Use your best judgment.

Once dry, sand all the surfaces to be painted. Sanding is terribly messy, so if you can sand the doors outside or in a garage, do it. An electric sander is ideal, but a hand sander works just as well because you don’t need to sand aggressively. A light sanding to scuff up the surface and buff out any imperfections will do.

Priming and Painting

After sanding, wipe off excess debris in preparation for priming. I recommend a light coat of a bonding primer like Stix. Just make sure to let it dry for at least 24 hours before painting.

When painting, unleash your inner perfectionist to ensure a smooth, drip-free job with no brush marks. Many professionals use spray-painters, which are great, but have a big learning curve and are expensive. I prefer quality brushes and small rollers. Look for rollers that have a nap of 3/16. These make the paint go on like silk, which is key for a professional look.

One major pitfall to avoid is drips. The paint made for trim and doors (and cabinets) tends to be thick and therefore slow moving. You think you put on a smooth coat of paint, only to go back later and see teardrop-shaped drops or large marks that look like saggy boobs. Once those dry, you’re stuck with them. I recommend putting on a light coat of paint and going back periodically to make sure there are no drips. You’ll need at least two coats of paint regardless, so don’t rush it.

Finishing Touches

Once you’ve painted the frame, drawer faces and doors (front and back side – don’t forget the interior), and given them at least 24 hours to dry, it’s time to put it all together. Hang the doors, put the handles back on and touch-up all the areas you scuffed while replacing the hardware. Your kitchen is now ready to use. Be gentle with your new cabinets for the first month or so, as these paints take a while to fully cure. Eventually, however, you’ll be able to scrub, slam or do whatever you typically do with kitchen cabinets.

The project will be challenging, but rewarding; torturous, yet fun. At the very least it will be worth the effort; the results I’ve seen have been truly transformative. The only problem: Your old countertops will now look like shit.

Kim Kinzie is a professional painter. For DIY questions, contact her at kkinziedesign@gmail.com.  

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