How to Paint Cabinets Without Sanding

Painting Cabinets

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Project Overview
  • Working Time: 8 - 12 hrs
  • Total Time: 3 - 4 days
  • Yield: Paint cabinets in medium-sized kitchen
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $250 to $500

Sanding cabinets takes the surfaces down to bare wood or scuffs them into paint-ready condition. Sanding will always have its place in cabinet refinishing and painting, but it adds considerable dust, time, and frustration to the project. For some homeowners, sanding is the one obstacle to getting the cabinets painted. Yet sanding isn't always required. As long as the cabinet surfaces are stable and in good condition, the cabinets can be painted without sanding.

Materials for Painting Cabinets Without Sanding

To paint cabinets without sanding, it's necessary to properly wash, degloss, and prime the surfaces before applying the paint. Three materials (tri-sodium phosphate, liquid sander/deglosser, and bonding primer) help you do this.

Tri-Sodium Phosphate

Tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) is an inexpensive blended cleaner that contains 75 to 80 percent trisodium phosphate, plus additives. Relatively safe to use, TSP is a favorite cleaner for wiping down cabinets or trim prior to painting. As a degreaser, it's especially useful for tackling embedded grease and skin oils on cabinets.

Liquid Sander/Deglosser

Sander/deglosser, sometimes called liquid sandpaper, is a water-based solution with a milky consistency that prepares painted or other coated surfaces for new primer or paint.

In terms of strength, liquid sander/deglosser falls mid-point between cleaners and paint strippers. It is not meant to be used as a cleaner because it permanently alters the surface. At the same time, it is not a paint stripper since it cannot loosen paint. Instead, the uppermost layer of the paint or coating is deglossed and dulled.

Bonding Primer

Primer is mandatory on cabinets. Universal primers meant for walls don't provide enough adhesion for cabinets. To control peeling, flaking, and chipping, bonding primers have resins that create an adhesive link between the cabinet and the paint. Look for a primer with "bonding" in its name. It should be multi-surface or for wood. Do not use a bonding primer for concrete, masonry, or metal.

Tip

Whether or not you sand the cabinets before painting, you will want to use an interior enamel paint designed for cabinets, doors, or trim. Most cabinet paints are satin or semi-gloss.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 electric drill
  • 1 manual screwdriver, Phillips
  • 1 manual screwdriver, flathead
  • 1 set painter's pyramids or tripods
  • 1 latex or nitrile gloves
  • 1 high quality 100-percent nylon brush
  • 1 foam roller handle
  • 1 paint tray
  • 1 clean bucket
  • 1 sponge

Materials

  • 1 box TSP or TSP substitute
  • 1 quart liquid sander/deglosser
  • 2 gallons bonding primer
  • 2 gallons enamel cabinet paint
  • 1 plastic sheeting
  • 1 roll painter's tape
  • 1 tack cloth
  • 1 sandpaper, 220-grit
  • 1 package paint tray liners
  • 10 foam rollers, 4-inch and 2-inch
  • 1 package micro-fiber cloths
  • 1 masking film

Instructions

  1. Assess the Painting Plan

    With cabinets, the surfaces that are painted are usually both sides of the cabinet doors, the fronts and backs of drawer fronts, and the outer surfaces of the cabinet boxes, minus the tops and bottoms. Decide ahead of time if you intend to paint shelves, the insides of cabinet boxes or drawers, or cabinet tops or bottoms.

  2. Create a Work Area for Painting

    For painting, locate a large sheltered area such as a garage (with an operable door) or covered patio. Cover and tape plastic sheeting on the ground. Folding tables covered in plastic or plywood sheets across sawhorses work well as elevated painting surfaces.

  3. Remove the Hardware

    Remove the cabinet door and drawer pulls and other hardware, except for hinges. Remove pulls from the back side with a Phillips head screwdriver.

    Tip

    Remove bumpers from inside cabinet doors and drawer fronts with a putty knife.

  4. Identify All Pieces

    Drawer fronts, cabinet doors, pulls, and hinges work best when they are re-installed in the same spots. Switching pieces can result in misalignment. Place hardware in individual plastic bags and write the location on the bag with an indelible marker. When removing a door or drawer front. write the location on a strip of painter's tape and stick the tape to the item.

  5. Remove the Cabinet Doors

    Use a Phillip head screwdriver to remove the cabinet hinges from the cabinet boxes. Older hinges may require a flat-head screwdriver.

    Many cabinets use two-part European or concealed hinges. To remove, turn the screw on the cabinet side of the hinge counter-clockwise, then slide the door forward. One part of the hinge will come with the door, while the other part remains on the cabinet box.

    Tip

    Some Euro-style hinges can be removed without a screwdriver. The back part of the hinge flips forward, detaching the cabinet from the box.

  6. Remove the Drawer Fronts

    Many drawers have decorative fronts that can be removed to assist with the painting process. Remove the drawer from the cabinet and take out all items. Look behind the front of the drawer. If it has two or more screw heads, the front can be removed without affecting the drawer's structure. Unscrew the screws and bag them. Label and remove each drawer front.

  7. Clean the Surfaces With TSP

    Clean all cabinet surfaces that will be painted with TSP or TSP substitute dissolved in a clean bucket with warm water. Keep the sponge damp. Wall and base cabinets near stoves, ovens, and exhaust fans tend to be greasier, so they need more attention. Break up dried food particles with warm water, mild soap, and a non-metallic scouring pad. Pay special attention to around cabinet pulls and other areas with embedded oil and dirt from touching.

    Tip

    It's often faster to scuff off dried particles or hardened grease with 220-grit sandpaper.

  8. Tape the Cabinets

    Cabinets and cabinet pieces that cannot be removed and painted in the work area should be painted in place. Tape the walls around wall cabinets and base cabinets. Apply masking film over large areas that you want to protect like countertops, sinks, appliances, and walls.

  9. Prepare Items for Painting

    Set out cabinet doors and drawer fronts in the work area. It's helpful to rest the items on painter's pyramids—small plastic tripods that elevate the items. The optimal temperature for painting is generally between 50 and 90°F.

  10. Degloss the Surfaces

    Wearing safety glasses and waterproof gloves, pour full-strength sander/deglosser directly onto a microfiber cloth. Rub onto the cabinet surfaces in a circular motion, frequently refolding the cloth for a fresh, clean side. Discard cloths as necessary.

  11. Apply the Bonding Primer

    Use the nylon/polyester brush to apply the bonding primer to bevels and edges on the doors and drawer fronts. Use the foam roller on flat surfaces.

    Inside the home, use the 4-inch foam roller on the large sides of the cabinets. Switch to the 2-inch foam roller for face frames.

    Tip

    Bonding primers have adhesion recoat time limits. After applying the bonding primer, you must apply the paint within a certain time period for maximum adhesion, often as short as 10 to 14 days.

  12. Apply the Cabinet Paint

    Wait at least an hour before topcoating the primer with cabinet paint. Check for adhesion by sticking a strip of painter's tape and pulling it up again. No primer should remain on the tape. Follow the same procedure as with the primer: paint the details with the brush and paint as much of the rest with 4- and 2-inch foam rollers.

  13. Apply Additional Coats

    Apply a minimum of two coats of cabinet paint. Wait at least two hours between coats.

FAQ
  • Can you paint cabinets without sanding?

    As long as the surface is stable and in good condition, the cabinets do not need to be sanded. Proper cleaning, deglossing, and using good-quality cabinet paint are key to painting cabinets without sanding.

  • What happens if you don't sand cabinets before painting?

    If you don't sand cabinets before painting, at worst the paint will chip or peel. At best, the paint will remain solid and durable for years.

  • Do you really need to remove the doors and drawer fronts?

    Removing the cabinet doors and drawer fronts ensures a smoother finish because the pieces can be laid flat for painting, thus avoiding drips. You're also able to access all sides of the doors and drawer fronts when they are removed.

When to Call a Professional

Even though sanding is eliminated, other prep work—cleaning, deglossing, and priming—can turn this into a more challenging project than it first appears. Professional painters routinely paint kitchen and bathroom cabinets, so most can help with this type of project.