One of the most dramatic ways to improve your wood kitchen cabinets is to paint them. There are other ways to freshen up weary kitchen cabinets, such as by refacing or replacing them. But both of those methods are far more expensive than painting. Plus, refacing and replacing usually require you to hire professionals. When painting cabinets, you can do it all by yourself, if you prefer.
Before You Begin
Painting wood kitchen cabinets usually means painting surfaces that are visible when the cabinet doors and drawers are closed, though some backs do get painted.
Areas that are painted:
- Cabinet doors: front and back
- Drawer fronts: front and back
- Cabinet boxes: sides and bottom
Areas that are not painted:
- Inside of cabinet boxes
- Top of cabinet boxes
- Cabinet face frame (the horizontal rails and the vertical stiles)
When to Paint Kitchen Cabinets
The quality of the paint job depends a great deal on conditions such as temperature, humidity, and air quality. If you will be painting the cabinets in an open-air covered site, such as under a patio awning, wait for warmer temperatures for better paint curing.
Also, make sure that the air is clear to prevent particles such as pollen from settling on the wet paint. If you will be painting the doors and drawer fronts in a climate-controlled work area, you can paint at any time of the year.
Protect yourself when cleaning, sanding, priming, and painting your wood kitchen cabinets by wearing breathing protection. Particulate masks are sufficient for sanding. If you decide to use oil-based paint instead of the recommended water-based paint, protect yourself against VOCs (volatile organic compounds) with a respirator mask.
Use eye protection. When sanding with the oscillating sander, wear hearing protection.
Equipment / Tools
- 10-inch micro roller handle
- Cordless drill or screwdriver
- Cleaning sponge
- Clean bucket
- Foam sanding block
- Shop vacuum
- Tapered sash brush
- Paint tray
- Water-based latex paint
- Plastic sheeting
- Painter's tape
- TSP (trisodium phosphate) or degreaser
- 120- and 220-grit sandpaper
- 10-inch micro paint roller covers
- Sealable plastic bags
- Shop towels
- Paint tray liners
Prepare Work Area and Tools
Identify and prepare a work area outside of the kitchen where you can paint the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Ideally, this would be a garage so that the large door can be open for ventilation, along with a heating source if you are painting in cooler seasons. Or you may choose a basement or an unused room of your house, as long as either can be ventilated to the exterior.
Lay down sheet plastic on the floor and tape the edges. Set a work table or sawhorses on the plastic. Have all of your tools nearby, including the sander, sandpaper, brushes, roller and covers, buckets, paint, and primer.
Remove Cabinet Doors and Hardware
Attach a short strip of painter's tape to the face of every cabinet door. With a marker, mark a number on each strip of tape to indicate the position of the door. Start at one end of the kitchen, then gradually work clockwise or counterclockwise, numbering each cabinet door. This will help you replace the doors in the same spots at the end of the project.
With the cordless drill, remove the cabinet hinges from the cabinet boxes. Remove the cabinet hinges from the cabinet doors, bagging each hinge with its screws in a sealable plastic bag and identifying their position by marking the bag.
At the time of original installation, hinges are adjusted for the size and swing of the cabinet doors. By taking the time to do this now, you will save yourself a lot of work when it comes time to replace the doors.
Remove all items from the inside of cabinet boxes. Remove or uninstall all obstructions such as lights, hood fans, hooks, or wire racks.
Finally, remove door dampers by peeling them off with your fingernail or by unscrewing. Also, unscrew all fixtures, then bag and identify them.
Remove Drawers and Drawer Fronts
As with the cabinet doors, apply strips of painter's tape to the drawer fronts and mark them with numbers for later replacement.
On the back side of the drawers, use the cordless drill or manual screwdriver to unscrew the drawer pulls and the drawer fronts if they are removable. Most drawer fronts are attached to drawer boxes by four or five screws.
Clean Cabinet Boxes
Leaving the cabinet boxes in place in the kitchen, clean them for painting. Either use a liquid degreaser and thick shop towels or use TSP and a sponge.
If the boxes are not too dirty or greasy, you can use degreaser and shop towels. Spray down the front and follow by wiping down with the towels. Clean the back sides as well. Pay particular attention to areas near fixtures as they have more dirt and grease.
TSP is banned in many communities due to the presence of phosphates in the solution. If that is the case in your area, use substitute TSP.
To use TSP, mix the dry TSP product in a bucket with warm water. Submerge a new sponge in the mixture. Wipe down the cabinets. Because TSP remains on the surface as a light powder, follow by wiping down with a sponge soaked in clean, cold water.
Sand Doors, Drawer Fronts, and Boxes
With the doors and drawer fronts at the work area, sand them down with the oscillating sander and 120-grit sandpaper. Use the sander on all flat areas of the doors and drawer fronts: the fronts, backs, and edges. For bevels or other textured areas, switch to a manual sanding sponge.
With the cabinet boxes still in place in the kitchen, cover kitchen countertops and flooring with sheet plastic and sand the cabinet boxes.
When sanding, your goal is to scuff the surfaces for better primer and paint adhesion, not to sand off all of the coating.
Prime Doors and Drawer Fronts
Use a damp cloth to remove the dust from the doors and drawer fronts. Pour mixed or shaken primer into a lined paint tray.
Dab the trim brush in the primer and paint the detailed areas of the doors and drawer fronts. Follow by painting with a 10-inch roller on the flat areas.
After all materials have dried thoroughly for at least two hours, lightly sand them with 220-grit sandpaper on the oscillating sander. Do not sand down to bare wood. The aim is to smooth down bumps and dried drips in the primer.
Clean the dust off of the sanded cabinet boxes with a damp sponge. Apply painter's tape on the kitchen walls or backsplash to protect them from paint. Prime the edges of the cabinets with the trim brush. Follow by rolling out primer with the 10-inch roller.
Similar to the doors and drawer fronts, wait for at least two hours and then sand the cabinet boxes with finer 220-grit sandpaper on the oscillating sander.
Paint the cabinet doors, drawer fronts, and boxes similar to the way you did with the primer coat. Paint edges with the brush, then paint the large inner areas with the 10-inch roller. Allow for at least two hours between coats.
When everything is fully painted and dried, put your cabinets back together by replacing the drawer fronts on drawers. With the cordless drill or manual screwdriver, screw the drawer fronts back onto the drawer boxes. Replace the doors and drawers, too, by reattaching all hinges and hardware. Screw the cabinet doors back onto the cabinet boxes. Slide the drawers back into place.
Type of Paint to Use
When painting your kitchen cabinets, you can choose either water-based latex paint or oil-based paint. For years, oil-based paint was the logical choice for kitchen cabinets since it sticks well and forms a hard surface, but latex paints have evolved to the point where they work equally well for cabinets. With many communities banning oil-based paints except in small quantities, latex paint might be your only choice.
Cleans with soap and water
Available in 1-gallon or larger quantities
Requires paint thinner
Cleans with petroleum products
Available in 1-quart sizes or smaller
When to Call a Professional
Painting wood kitchen cabinets can be more overwhelming than it first appears. If you are a do-it-yourselfer and your kitchen is larger than the standard 10-foot by 10-foot kitchen, you may want to consider having professional painters paint your wood cabinets.