You may not need a full kitchen remodel, but you can still spruce up the look of your space with a fresh coat of paint on your cabinets. The process is more simple (and less costly) than installing brand new cabinets, and it's a DIY that's within the abilities of most homeowners. As long as you choose the right paint for your kitchen cabinet style, you 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 selecting the best paint for your kitchen cabinets to ensure a finish that is long-lasting and easy to clean. And keep in mind that spraying your kitchen cabinets will yield a more professional finish.
Oil Paint vs. Latex Paint
Wondering whether you should reach for old-school oil paint or widely available latex paint for your kitchen cabinets? Learn more about each option, plus the pros and cons of each technique.
Oil-Based Paint for Cabinets
Oil-based paints are known for their resilient finish, so they may be your first thought when it comes to considering the best paint for your kitchen cabinets. Oil-based paints make a surface super easy to clean. If you open a cabinet with sticky or greasy hands, you can easily scrub away any residue without worrying about wearing away the paint or dulling the surface. However, oil-based 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 air circulation (which can be hard to come by in a kitchen), you may end up waiting days for the paint to dry. Keeping cabinets empty for days as the paint dries between coats is a nuisance that many people aren’t willing to deal with. Additionally, surfaces covered in oil-based paint can take on a yellow tint over time (especially in low-light conditions), so your cabinets may start to look dingy.
Oil-based paints release volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, in higher numbers than other paint options. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, and other long-term effects. It can be especially dangerous to use paint high in VOCs near enclosed food, spices, and eating utensils.
Stands up to scrubbing and cleaning
Good coverage over wood grain
Higher levels of VOCs
Subject to yellowing, especially in low light
Up to 16 hours of dry time between coats
Latex Paint for Cabinets
While oil-based paints make a case for themselves with their reputation for easy application and a long-lasting finish that can be scrubbed and cleaned regularly, latex paint is widely regarded as the best choice for most kitchen cabinets, since it offers lower levels of VOCs and is quicker to dry.
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.
If you’re painting wood cabinets, you'll need to 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 an even look, you’ll need to do some prep work beforehand to make your painting project a success.
If your kitchen cabinets are already painted (instead of 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, a water-based latex formula is the safest option. Oil-based paint won’t adhere well over latex paint, but you can use latex on oil-based paint, as it can bind to a surface treated with either type of paint.
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
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Types of Kitchen Cabinets: Which Paint Is Best?
The first thing to consider when deciding to paint your kitchen cabinets is the 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 impact which type of paint you select.
Paint adheres best over a scuffed surface, making true wood cabinets a great candidate for painting. Sanding the surface helps to prep it for paint and results in a better bond and smoother finish. This is an especially important step 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 probably 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. Before you break out the sandpaper or paint, inspect the veneer for loose edges, chips, or cracks. Repair these first with wood glue before sanding the surface. Also, don’t sand too much—you’re just looking to make the surface rough enough to give the primer and paint something to adhere to.
It's easy to paint MDF kitchen cabinets 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, then paint the kitchen cabinets with water-based latex paint without worrying about moisture absorption.
Painting laminate kitchen cabinets is possible, but it's definitely 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 material is slick, so you’ll have to make sure you put in the prep work for a quality finish.
To help, opt for a laminate-specific primer or paint. These products are specially designed to bond to the shiny surface of the laminate. You’ll still need to sand the surface before and after priming—make sure you use fine sandpaper and go at it softly to avoid sanding through the laminate surface.
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.
- Semi-gloss: This is the best choice when painting kitchen cabinets. Because it has some sheen, semi-gloss paint will help reflect light and be more durable in the long run, which is important in a kitchen environment. Semi-gloss paint is often described as washable and has an increased resiliency to being scrubbed clean.
- Gloss paint: Another great option for kitchen cabinet paint, alongside semi-gloss, this will be the shiniest of your paint choices. It's great for especially bold cabinet colors or super modern kitchens. Gloss paint will also be the most durable, due to the fact that more resin and binders are used in formulating glossy paint, giving the paint more of a hard "shell."
- Eggshell or flat finish paint: Avoid using either of these finishes when painting kitchen cabinets. Eggshell and flat 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 clean.
Tips for Painting Cabinets
- If you have flat doors on your kitchen cabinets, you can make quick work of paint application by using a roller with a 1/4-inch 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.
- Choose a synthetic bristle brush if you’re using latex paint, since the water-based formula will swell the bristles of a natural paintbrush.
- Remove any hardware before painting. If you'll be replacing the hardware with a new style and not using the same holes, fill them in before sanding and painting.
- Get any dried paint off glass-front cabinets by gently scraping it with a razor blade.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.