Painting your cabinets is by far the easiest, most budget-friendly way to spruce up a kitchen. While cabinet replacement can easily add up to thousands of dollars in labor and materials, repainting your cabinets yourself can achieve a similar result for around a couple hundred bucks. Best of all, even an amateur painter can achieve a professional finish by following a few simple steps and picking the right color.
Whether your kitchen cabinets lend a dated look to your kitchen or simply need a refresh to return to their former glory, prepping, priming with a bonding primer, and painting with high-quality latex paint will do the trick. When done properly, you can repaint and give your cabinets a new, durable finish that will last for years to come.
Before You Begin
Because kitchen cabinets come in a variety of materials, it is wise to familiarize yourself with yours before starting. Common materials include wood, laminate, and thermofoil, and the process of painting can differ slightly between materials. Most finishes will require a simple cleaning and scuff before priming, but others may require stripping for the best results. Oil-based finishes will also require an oil-based primer to allow latex paint to fully adhere.
What Is Thermofoil?
Unlike the name suggests, thermofoil cabinets contain no foil. In actuality, thermofoil is a complex name for a common type of laminate cabinet. Typically, these cabinets feature an MDF (medium-density fiberboard) core with a thin sheet of vinyl laminate covering the exterior.
Doors and drawers are much easier to work with on a designated work area, so it is a good idea to set up a table or bench with a drop cloth and a means of elevating the doors and drawers, such as painter’s tripods.
Lastly, choose your paint. You may have heard that cabinets require special paints like chalk paint or heavy-duty oil-based paint, but this is not the case. With proper preparation, a high-quality latex paint will do the trick, which makes repainting your kitchen cabinets even easier. To determine how much paint you will need, use this handy tool:
Whenever sanding and painting, proper safety equipment should always be worn. Eye protection and a face mask rated for dust and fumes are a necessity. This is even more crucial if you are working with existing lead-based paint. If you have any reason to suspect your cabinets could be coated with lead-based paint or if the home was constructed before 1978, conduct a test before moving forward.
Equipment / Tools
- Medium-grit sanding sponge or sandpaper
- Tack cloth
- Drop cloth
- Painter's tripods
- Mini paint roller
- Caulking gun
- Paint tray
- Handheld paint cup
- Putty knife
- TSP (trisodium phosphate)
- Plastic bags
- Wood filler
- Paintable caulk
- Bonding primer
- High-quality latex paint in satin or semi-gloss
- Painter's tape
- Paint stirrers
Thoroughly clean all surfaces of the cabinets using a mixture of water and TSP (trisodium phosphate) following the manufacturer’s instructions. Cleaning the cabinets is an important step to ensure the primer adequately bonds with the surface. Once clean, wipe dry with a rag.
Trisodium phosphate, or TSP, is a powerful cleaning agent that should be handled with care. TSP is harmful when swallowed, and improper handling can lead to eye and skin irritation. To avoid this, eye and skin protection, as well as waterproof gloves, should be worn.
Remove Doors, Drawers, and Hardware
Remove all doors and drawers and place in a designated workspace. Use painter’s tripods to elevate the doors from the workspace when painting. Remove all hardware from cabinets, doors, and drawers, and organize in plastic bags. If your cabinets feature removable shelves, it is wise to remove them, as well.
Scuff Cabinet Surface
Using either folded medium-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge, scuff the surface of the cabinet frames. The amount you will need to scuff will be dependent on the cabinet’s current finish. In general, most sealed woods and painted finishes require a light sand just to roughen up the smooth surface. When working on thermofoil cabinets, use extra caution to not sand through the laminate finish. Repeat the scuffing process on the doors and drawer fronts.
Clean off All Dust
Once scuffed, vacuum the debris off the cabinet frame, doors, and drawers, then use a tack cloth to remove any remaining dust.
Tape off the area around the cabinets and coat the entire surface of the cabinets with a high-quality bonding primer with stain-hiding qualities according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For small areas, apply the primer using a paintbrush, but switch to a mini roller for large flat surfaces.
If the existing finish is oil-based or you suspect it could be, use an oil-based primer to ensure the latex paint will adhere. Shellac-based primers are another great option for creating a strong, durable bond on a variety of surfaces. Repeat the priming process on the doors and drawer fronts, but refrain from painting the sides of the drawers to prevent an improper fit when reinstalling.
Fill Any Imperfections
Once the primer has dried, examine all the cabinet fronts for dings and use a water-based wood filler to fill the holes. Simply smear the filler in with your finger or switch to a putty knife for larger holes.
Sand and Spot-Prime
Once the wood filler has dried, use medium-grit sandpaper to lightly scuff the entire primed surface and smooth out any excess filler. Spot-prime the filled holes and, once dry, lightly scuff once more. With most primers, a full second coat is optional, but it is not a bad idea. Thoroughly clean up dust and debris with a vacuum and tack cloth.
It is finally time to paint. Coat all surfaces with high-quality latex paint in either a satin or semi-gloss finish. These two sheens strike the balance between durability and shine and are perfect for this application. As with the primer, use a brush to coat small areas and switch to a mini roller for larger areas.
While painting, carefully watch for drips and runs, especially around corners and in millwork details. Once the frame, doors, and drawers are coated, let dry and determine if you need a second or even a third coat. High-quality paints tend to cover more on the first coat, but additional coats will add significant durability, which is incredibly valuable in this application.
Reinstall Doors, Drawers, and Hardware
Once the paint has fully dried, reinstall all door and drawer hardware and mount the doors and drawers back on the frames.