How to Paint Wood Cabinets

Wooden cabinet door surrounded by painting materials

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

Overview
  • Working Time: 2 - 3 hrs
  • Total Time: 6 - 12 hrs
  • Yield: 1 cabinet
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $25 to $50

There’s no simpler or more cost-effective way to update your kitchen’s style than by giving the cabinets a fresh coat of paint. While stained, varnished cabinets were once a widely admired style, today's kitchens look more up-to-date with lighter painted cabinets, which can make a huge difference if you are staging your home to sell.

In our demonstration project, tired old oak kitchen cabinets are renovated with a coat of contemporary soft gray paint. After the paint dries, you can complete the makeover by installing new hardware to go with the new color.

Preparation

Before starting your project, protect the floors with drop cloths and cover the counters with rosin paper, using masking tape to hold the paper in place. Painting is always easiest if you empty the cabinets, clear off the countertops, and move furniture out of the way.

If your cabinets have been in use for any length of time, it's critical that you clean them thoroughly before priming and painting. Grease and food residue may not be evident, but your kitchen cabinets are likely to have a layer of grime that will prevent primer and paint from adhering. If you are painting bathroom cabinets, they may have soapy residue that needs to be removed before you can paint.

Beyond basic cleaning, previously painted cabinets are relatively easy to prepare for a fresh coat of paint. A light sanding is usually enough to roughen painted surfaces enough to ensure that the new coat of paint adheres well. Painting cabinets that have a clear wood finish can be a little trickier since it's critical that the glossy surfaces be thoroughly roughened (etched) in order to ensure that primer and paint adhere well.

Safety Considerations

Even if you're using latex paint, it's best to ventilate the space well during your painting work. Oil-based paints are now formulated with lower levels of VOC (volatile organic compounds), but most paints, even latex, contain some of these compounds. Opening windows and running ventilation fans will reduce the vapors you breathe and speed the drying process.

When using mineral spirits to clean brushes used to apply oil-based paints, do the cleaning work outside if possible, away from sources of an open flame.

What You'll Need

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Screwdriver
  • Rubber gloves
  • Cleaning sponge
  • Cleaning bucket
  • Sanding block
  • Shop vacuum
  • Painter's bucket
  • 2-inch tapered sash brush
  • 2-inch square trim brush
  • Roller handle (optional)

Materials

  • Drop cloths
  • Rosin paper
  • Masking tape
  • TSP (trisodium phosphate) or another cleaner
  • #120-grit Sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • Painter's tape
  • Paint primer
  • Paint
  • Fine-nap roller cover (optional)

Instructions

  1. Gather the Right Tools

    Get a good-quality 2-inch-wide tapered brush, as well as a square trim brush. For oil-based paint, be sure to use a natural bristle brush, or a synthetic bristle brush specifically designed for use with oil. Latex paints require a brush with synthetic bristles—water in the paint expands natural bristles and you won’t get a good result. If your cabinet doors are flat without raised panels, you can speed the work by using a fine-nap roller.

    It pays to invest in a paint pail. Painting out of the can is inconvenient, the drips create a mess, and will splatter when you hammer the lid on between painting sessions. Look for a painter’s bucket with a side handle, an inside lip for wiping the paint off the brush, and a small magnet on the inside that will hold the brush upright when you are not using it.

    get the right tools for painting kitchen cabinets
    The Spruce / David Schiff
  2. Remove the Hardware

    Unscrew all hinges from both the doors and cabinets and unscrew any pulls or knobs from the doors and drawers. Most cabinets today come with cup hinges, sometimes called European hinges. For each hinge, remove the single screw attaching it to the cabinet frame and the two screws attaching it to the door.

    Note that some cup hinges have two additional screws that allow the door position to be adjusted after it is installed. Don’t disturb these adjustment screws.

    Remove doors and hardware
    The Spruce / David Schiff
  3. Detach the Drawer Faces

    If you have drawer faces that are screwed in place through the inside of the drawer boxes, remove the faces. Put each type of hardware in its own Ziploc bag or another container along with its screws so nothing gets lost.

    remove drawer faces
    The Spruce / David Schiff 
  4. Clean the Cabinet Surfaces

    Kitchen cabinets get greasy, so the paint may not adhere well unless you clean them thoroughly with a grease cutter, such as trisodium phosphate, which is sold in hardware stores, home centers, and paint stores. Some states have banned phosphate. In those states, a product called TSP-PF (phosphate-free) is sold instead.

    Mix the cleaner with warm water as directed on the package, wipe all surfaces with a sponge, and then rinse with warm clean water.

    Tip

    Even if you're not painting the insides of the cabinets, this is a good time to thoroughly clean the inside surfaces of the cabinets.

    clean surfaces to be painted
    The Spruce / David Schiff
  5. Sand the Surfaces

    The purpose of this sanding is to scuff up and dull the surfaces so that the primer will adhere well. This is especially important if you are painting cabinets with a clear wood finish. Use #120 grit sandpaper with a sanding block for the flat areas. Use a small piece of folded sandpaper for rounded or contoured surfaces.

    Vacuum the surfaces then wipe with a tack cloth to remove any remaining dust. (A tack cloth is a sticky cloth you can buy at hardware stores, paint stores, and home centers.)

    sand the surfaces to be painted
    The Spruce / David Schiff
  6. Prime the Doors and Drawer Fronts

    Cover a work surface with drop cloths or newspapers, then set the doors and drawer faces on scraps of wood to raise them slightly. This allows you to paint edges without worrying about them sticking to the cloth when the paint dries.

    Whether you are priming or painting, the procedure is the same. The only difference is that you want to work the primer into the wood a bit. When painting, you'll focus on longer, more even brush strokes.

    If you are priming or painting flat doors, start from one side and paint with long overlapping strokes from top to bottom. When priming or painting raised panel doors or anything else laid flat, it’s best to paint the highest parts first, so you can brush out any drips into lower spots. For the front of raised panels, you’ll start with the frame, then paint the center field, and finally the narrow contoured area between the center field and frame.

    When the primer dries, flip the doors and drawer fronts and prime the other sides.

    Prime doors and drawer fronts of cabinets
    The Spruce / David Schiff
  7. Prime the Cabinets

    Use painter’s tape to mask off any adjoining surfaces and areas inside the cabinet that you don’t want to paint. Then “cut in” where the cabinet meets a wall, ceiling, or floor. This is where your tapered brush really comes in handy.

    Dip the brush into the paint, place it down on the cabinet near the wall or another meeting surface, then bring the long end of the taper up against and then down along the wall or ceiling. (Think of the brush as an airplane coming in for a landing and the line you are painting as the runway.) Hold the brush between thumb and forefinger, as you would hold a pencil or pen.

    After cutting in, prime the entire side with vertical strokes, using a square trim brush. Then prime the face frame of the cabinet.

    prime the cabinets to be painted
    The Spruce / David Schiff

    Tip

    Experienced painters sometimes find that painter's tape is more trouble than it's worth. With practice, you can learn to cut in the paint along walls with perfectly straight edges. This technique requires the use of an angled sash brush to ensure good lines.

  8. Paint the Cabinets

    Apply a coat of paint to all the primed surfaces, finishing up with top-to-bottom strokes along the grain. When the paint dries, usually in about four hours, lightly sand the first coat of paint, wipe clean with a tack cloth, then apply a second, final coat of paint.

    paint the kitchen cabinets
    The Spruce / David Schiff

    Tip

    For maximum protection, you can protect the paint by coating the cabinets with a final coat of clear polyurethane finish after the second coat of paint has fully dried. This is an optional step, but it's worth considering with kitchen cabinets that get regular use.

  9. Reattach Drawer Fronts and Doors

    When the paint is fully dry, reattach the drawer fronts to the drawer boxes, then remount the doors and reinstall drawer pulls and door handles.

Oil-Based Paint vs. Latex Paint

Before painting your cabinets, you first need to decide whether to use oil-based or water-based latex paint and primer. If your cabinets were previously painted with water-based latex paint, stick with that; you can use latex paint over oil paint, but oil paint won’t adhere well over latex. This also makes latex a safer choice if you don’t know which type the old paint is. Either type of paint will work over a clear wood finish.

Beyond that, there are pros and cons to consider: Latex paints have improved, but many professional painters believe that oil-based paints still produce a smoother and more durable surface. Durability is important for kitchen cabinets that get lots of use. On the downside, oil-based paints produce fumes you may not want inside your home, and they require that you clean your painting tools with mineral spirits. Today’s latex paints are virtually odorless and clean-up is done with soap and water, which is a lot easier.

Pros of Oil-Based Paint
  • Gives a smoother, more durable surface


  • Excellent finish over previous oil-based paints

Cons of Oil-Based Paint
  • Produces unhealthy fumes as the paint dries

  • Cleanup requires flammable mineral spirits

  • Doesn't adhere well over latex paints

Pros of Latex Paint
  • Easy cleanup with soap and water

  • Adheres well over both oil-based and latex paints

Cons of Latex Paint
  • May be less durable than oil-based paints


  • Finish may be less smooth, due to fast dry times

Once you’ve chosen oil or latex, you need to choose a degree of gloss. For cabinets, it’s best to go with semi-gloss, or if you want them really shiny, a high-gloss paint. The cabinets will be easier to clean than if you paint them with a flat or eggshell paint.

What Is Alkyd Paint?

At one time, the term "alkyd paint" was a synonym for "oil-based paint." Traditional alkyd paints used petroleum oil-based solvents as the suspending agent for the coloring pigments. It was the evaporation of the solvent that caused the paint to dry and harden—and which also made the drying paint so smelly. When latex paints were introduced, instead of oil-based solvents, they used water as the suspending agent, thereby reducing the odor and the flammable fumes.

However, there are now so-called water-based alkyd paints that are marketed as paints that combine the virtues of oil-based alkyds with the easy cleanup of latex. These newer paints are sometimes sold as "alkyd enamel" or "acrylic enamel." These newer water-based alkyds still do contain some VOCs, but at much lower levels than traditional alkyds. Best of all, these paints are easily cleaned up with soap and water.

As with pure latex paints, water-based alkyds can be used with equally good results over both oil-based and latex paints.

Painting by Brush vs. Spray Painting

If you would rather not use a brush you can learn how to spray paint your kitchen cabinets. This is best done with an HVLP (high volume, low pressure) paint sprayer. These sprayers can be purchased for less than $100, but unless you plan to do a lot of painting, many people prefer to rent this tool.

Spray painting cabinets can give a very smooth finish without the brush marks that are left behind with even the most careful brush-painting job. But spray painting requires some practice to master, and it can be frustrating for beginners. And it requires that you wear a special respirator and carefully drape and mask off the room to prevent overspray.