Painting Bathroom Cabinets: Step-By-Step Guide

Painting Kitchen and Bathroom Cabinets
Getty / Johner Images

Painting cabinets is necessary to any cost-effective bathroom revival project. Given the steep cost of new cabinets, homeowners who detest painting start to entertain the thought as soon as they receive giant estimates for new cabinets.

Home improvement TV shows style this as an easy, weekend-only project, a joyous lark that you and your partner take on while sipping coffee. Magically, by Sunday afternoon, the cabinets are glowing with a fresh, vibrant color.

Hardly: it is a painstaking job that often stretches several weekends past your projected finish date. To make the job go smoother and faster, absorb these tips.

What to Expect

While this guide encourages and illuminates you on how to paint cabinets, you should be aware of a few of the realities:

  • Multi-Component: Each cabinet is composed of many pieces--shelves, shelf brackets, fixtures, hinges. Every piece must be removed.
  • Fixes Appearance, Not Function: Painting will not solve the problems of poorly functioning cabinets: balky drawers, misaligned doors, warped boxes, etc. New cabinets solve those problems in one fell swoop.
  • Insides: What do you plan to do with the insides of the boxes? Leave as-is? Paint?
  • Cabinet Disintegration: It is easier to paint cabinets when they are removed and placed on a sawhorse. Yet removal often causes older cabinets to disintegrate. Sink base cabinets especially tend to experience years of slow water damage and rot. 

Keeping Your Sanity During This Project

  • View this as an on-going, multi-weekend project. Do only one or two cabinets on the first weekend.
  • Remove wall (upper) cabinets and paint them in a workshop, basement, or outdoors.
  • Treat the process of cleaning the cabinets is a project all by itself.
  • Save all hardware that you intend to keep in Ziploc bags, labeling each bag with a Sharpie so that you know which cabinet they are associated with.

1. Clearing Cabinets and Masking

  • Clearing: Remove all objects from the cabinets and drawers. Spread a drop cloth or drop cloths around the work area to avoid getting paint on your floors. Also, apply masking or painters tape to any surface (such as countertops where they join the cabinets) that you don’t want to get paint on.
  • Labeling: Place a small piece of masking tape on the interior of each cabinet door and drawer. Number each piece or identify it in a way that will help you remember which cabinet the door or drawer was removed from. Do not use too much pressure when applying the tape; you will need to move it as you prime and paint each side of the door or drawer.

2. Remove Fixtures

Use a screwdriver or reversible drill to remove the doors and hinges from the cabinets.

Drawer fronts may be difficult to remove, depending on the model. You may choose to leave the drawer fronts attached.

Remove hinges, knobs and pulls from the cabinet doors and drawers. You might consider replacing all of the hardware during the project to give your cabinets a truly fresh appearance.

3. Cleaning, Filling, and Sanding

  • Cleaning: Old cabinets can have so much built-up grease, fingerprints, dust, and muck over the years, that it is difficult to clean them down properly. TSP (trisodium phosphate) is a white powder you mix with lukewarm water, which helps to cut the grease. Vigorous scrubbing with TSP can give your cabinets a clean surface for painting.
  • Filling: Inspect the cabinet bases, doors and drawers for nicks and dings. Use a putty knife and putty to repair any damage. Smooth the putty with the knife and allow it to dry, then sand it smooth.
  • Sanding: Lightly sand the outside of the cabinets as well as the doors and drawer fronts. Use medium- to fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the primer and paint adhere to the surface. Wipe down the surfaces with a damp cloth to remove dust. For a really clean surface, use tack cloth

4. Paint the First Coat

Paint each door and drawer front with primer using a sprayer, roller or brush. A sprayer, which you can rent at some hardware stores, works best for this job. If you use a brush, paint with long, smooth, even motions so the brushstrokes are not visible. Do not forget to paint the edges of the cabinet doors. Allow the primer to fully dry before proceeding.

Turn the cabinet doors over so you can prime the unfinished sides. Apply primer and go over the edges a second time. Allow the primer to dry.

Apply paint to the cabinet doors. If you are using latex paint, use a synthetic paintbrush or sprayer. Oil-based paints require a natural-bristle brush or sprayer.

Do not forget to paint both sides of the doors, but allow the front to dry before painting the back. Paint the cabinet bases and drawer fronts and allow the paint to dry.

5. Paint the Second Coat

Apply a second coat of paint to all surfaces and allow it to dry.

Attach the doors to the cabinet bases and reattach the drawer fronts if necessary. Slide the drawers back in.

Tools and Materials

There are two types of paint that you can use for this job: latex or oil-based. 

Oil-based paint dries to a durable finish that works well in high-traffic areas and is less likely to show brushstrokes than latex paint. However, oil-based paint takes longer to dry, and painting equipment must be cleaned up with chemical solvents. Oil-based paint should be applied in an extremely well-ventilated area.

Latex paint dries quickly and can be cleaned up with water. Use a semi-gloss, satin or gloss paint; these are durable and easy to clean.