The Best Types of Paint for Kitchen Cabinets

painted cabinets

The Spruce / Almar Creative

You might not be ready for a full kitchen remodel, but you can still spruce up the look of your kitchen with a fresh coat of paint for your cabinets. The process is simpler and less costly than installing all-new cabinets, and it's within the abilities of most homeowners. If you choose the right paint for kitchen cabinets, it can transform the look of your space while covering up dull, dingy surfaces.

Open the door to new possibilities by painting your kitchen cabinets in a bold fresh color or opt for a classic look with a crisp shade of white. Whatever color you choose, you’ll need to pay special attention to what type of paint is best for kitchen cabinets and which finish will be the longest-lasting and easiest to clean.

Consider Your Cabinets

The first thing you should do when deciding to paint your kitchen cabinets is to consider what type of material your cabinets are made from. Do you have solid wood cabinets or are they composed of wood veneer over particle board? Are your cabinets made from MDF or laminate? Each of these materials will have a bearing on which type of paint you use for your cabinets.

Wood Cabinets: Paint adheres best over a scuffed surface, making true wood cabinets a great candidate for painting. Sand the surface to prep it for paint and the result is a better bond and smoother finish. This is especially important if your wood cabinets are already stained or have a glossy finish - you will need to get through this finishing layer first, either with sandpaper or a liquid deglosser.

If your wood cabinets are bare, natural wood, they may need little to no sanding. However, know that they will absorb a lot of paint - especially if you go with water-based latex paint. A primer will assist in making sure the coverage is even and thorough.

Wood Veneer Cabinets: If your cabinets have a wood veneer—essentially a very thin layer of real hardwood over a pressed material—you will also need to sand before painting your kitchen cabinets. But before you break out the sandpaper or paint, carefully inspect the veneer for loose edges, chips, or cracks. Repair these first with wood glue before sanding the veneered surface.

Don’t sand too much, since the veneer is just a thin layer hiding what’s beneath. You’re just looking to make the surface rough enough to give the primer and paint something to adhere to.

MDF: Kitchen cabinets made from MDF are great candidates for painting, as long as you know how to properly prep them. You have two priorities when prepping MDF cabinets for painting: seal the edge and use an oil-based primer.

The edge of MDF is more porous, and if it doesn’t already have a finished surface, then you’ll want to use some drywall compound to seal it and keep moisture from swelling the material during the painting process.

The other important thing to remember is to use an oil-based primer. Due to the more porous nature of MDF, water-based primers can swell the surface. Use an oil-based primer for the first coat and then you can paint kitchen cabinets with water-based latex paint without worrying about moisture absorption.

Laminate Cabinets: Painting laminate kitchen cabinets is possible, but more tricky than painting wood or MDF cabinets. Laminate is a printed, plastic that is adhered on top of a base layer - usually a composite material. The finish is slick so you’ll have to make sure you put in the prep work for a quality finish.

To help you out, you might opt for a laminate-specific primer or paint. These products are specially designed to bond to the shiny surface of laminate. But you don’t have to spring for laminate-specific products - a quality primer will go a long way in helping paint stick to the surface.

You’ll still need to sand the surface before and after priming - just make sure you use fine sandpaper and go at it softly to avoid sanding through the laminate surface.

Oil Paint vs. Latex Paint

Wondering whether you should reach for old-school oil paint or widely-available latex paint for your kitchen cabinets? The short answer is that latex paint is best for cabinets. Oil paint makes a case for itself with its reputation for easy application and a long-lasting finish that can be scrubbed and cleaned regularly, but latex paint is the best choice for most cabinets since it offers lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and is quicker to dry.

Oil-based paints are known for their resilient finish, and so they might be your first thought as the best paint for kitchen cabinets. If you open the cabinet with sticky or greasy hands, you can scrub away any residue without worrying about wearing away the paint or dulling the surface. However, oil paints have some flaws that become especially hard to ignore when painting cabinets.

For one thing, while it goes on smoothly, oil-based paint takes a long time to dry in between coats—up to 16 hours. Without good circulation (such as inside of a cabinet), waiting for the paint to dry can really become an issue. Keeping your cabinets emptied for days as you let the paint dry between coats can be a nuisance that many people aren’t willing to deal with. Latex paint, however, is ready for another coat in as little as two to four hours. This means you can easily paint in a day and put your kitchen back together pronto.

However, the two biggest reasons to use latex paint for kitchen cabinets have to do with VOCs and yellowing. Water-based latex paints are typically available in low or no VOC formulas. Oil paints release VOCs at much higher levels. Using a paint that is known to emit VOCs to enclose your food, spices, and eating utensils might give you second thoughts since these emissions have been linked to eye, nose, and throat irritation, dizziness, fatigue, and more serious conditions. And since surfaces covered in oil paint can take a yellow hue over time, your kitchen cabinets might start to look off-color and dingy. Oil-based paint is especially prone to yellowing in low light conditions, so if you plan to also paint inside your cabinets (surfaces like shelves and the inside of doors), you can expect to see this effect more quickly.

Advances in water-based paint formulas have made it much easier to use latex paint for kitchen cabinets. Many latex paints are now produced with greater durability for cleaning and can stand up to a good scrubbing. This is a must for a kitchen, so definitely look for a paint that is described as ‘washable’ or ‘scrubbable’ for your cabinets.

Just make sure that if you’re painting wood cabinets, you properly prep the surface before using latex paint. While oil-based paint goes on smooth, even over wood surfaces, latex paint is more likely to show variances in the grain or texture. If you want a smooth, even look, you’ll need to do some prep work beforehand to make your painting project a success.

And if your kitchen cabinets are already painted (instead of being natural wood), then you have an additional reason to use latex paint. If you don’t know what type of paint is already on your cabinets, then water-based latex formulas are the safest option—since oil-based paint won’t adhere well over latex paint, but latex paint can bind to a surface treated with either type of paint.

Oil-Based Paint

  • Stands up to scrubbing and cleaning

  • Good coverage over wood grain

  • Durable finish

  • Higher levels of VOCs

  • Subject to yellowing, especially in low light

  • Up to 16 hours of dry time between coats

Latex-Based Paint

  • Quick drying times

  • Low or no VOC formulas

  • Adheres to surfaces previously painted with oil or latex paint

  • Some formulas aren’t durable enough for scrubbing

  • Requires more prep work for an even finish over wood

The Best Finish for Kitchen Cabinets

Choosing the right paint finish for kitchen cabinets is important since it affects how durable your cabinets will be in the long run. Cabinet doors and drawers are subject to touching, pulling, slamming, and more, while shelves routinely have objects being slid in and out. These factors can make painted cabinets subject to scratching and chips, but you can lessen this by choosing the right paint finish for kitchen cabinets.

A semi-gloss or gloss finish is the best choice when painting kitchen cabinets. Paint with some sheen will help reflect light and be more durable in the long run, which is important in the kitchen environment. Many formulas of both semi-gloss and glossy paint are described as ‘washable,’ and have increased resiliency when being washed or scrubbed clean. This is due to the fact that more resin and binders are used in formulating semi-gloss and glossy paint, giving the paint more durability.

Avoid painting kitchen cabinets with eggshell or flat finish paint. These paints aren’t as washable as semi-gloss or gloss finishes, and you run the risk of rubbing through your paint job the next time you need to scrub your cabinet doors.

Additionally, semi-gloss or gloss paints are a better choice for a finish when painting in a room with humidity or moisture—like a kitchen. The extra sheen offered by this paint finish will help to ward off water spots and stains.

Application Tips

Do you have flat cabinet doors, or do they feature inset panels and raised edges? If you have flat doors on your kitchen cabinets, you can make quick work of paint application by using a paint roller with ¼ nap (for the evenest application and smooth finish). Paneled kitchen cabinets require a little more work—use a paintbrush to evenly coat angled surfaces and inset areas. Remember to choose a synthetic bristle brush if you’re using latex paint since the water-based formula will swell the bristles of a natural paintbrush.

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