You may not need a complete kitchen remodel, but you can still spruce up the look of your space with a fresh coat of the best paint for kitchen cabinets. The process is simpler (and less costly) than installing brand-new cabinets, and it's a DIY that's within the abilities of most homeowners. As long as you choose the right paint for your kitchen cabinet style, you can transform the look of your space while covering up dull, dingy surfaces.
Open the door to new possibilities by painting your kitchen cabinets in a bold, fresh color, or opt for a classic look with a crisp shade of white. Whatever color you choose, you'll need to pay special attention to selecting the best paint for your kitchen cabinets to ensure a long-lasting and easy clean finish. And keep in mind that spraying your kitchen cabinets vs. using a paint brush will yield a more professional finish.
Oil vs. Latex vs. Alkyd Paint
Wondering whether you should reach for old-school oil paint or widely available latex paint for your kitchen cabinets? Learn more about each option, plus the pros and cons of each technique.
Oil-Based Paint for Cabinets
Oil-based paints are known for their resilient finish, so they may be your first thought when considering the best color for your kitchen cabinets. Oil-based paints make a surface super easy to clean. If you open a cabinet with sticky or greasy hands, you can easily scrub away any residue without worrying about wearing out the paint or dulling the surface. However, oil-based paints have some flaws that become especially hard to ignore when painting cabinets.
For one thing, while it goes on smoothly, oil-based paint takes a long time to dry between coats—up to 16 hours. Without good air circulation (which can be hard to come by in a kitchen), you may end up waiting days for the paint to dry. Keeping cabinets empty for days as the paint dries between coats is a nuisance many people aren’t willing to deal with. Additionally, surfaces covered in oil-based paint can take on a yellow tint over time (especially in low-light conditions), so your cabinets may start to look dingy.
Oil-based paints release volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, in higher numbers than other paint options. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, and other long-term effects. Using paint high in VOCs near enclosed food, spices, and eating utensils can be especially dangerous.
Stands up to scrubbing and cleaning
Good coverage over wood grain
Higher levels of VOCs
Subject to yellowing, especially in low light
Up to 16 hours of dry time between coats
Latex Paint for Cabinets
While oil-based paints make a case for themselves with their reputation for easy application and a long-lasting finish that can be scrubbed and cleaned regularly, latex paint is the best choice for most kitchen cabinets since it offers lower levels of VOCs and is quicker to dry.
Advances in water-based paint formulas have made it much easier to use latex paint for kitchen cabinets. Many latex paints are now produced with greater durability for cleaning and can stand up to a good scrubbing. This is a must for a kitchen, so look for paint that is described as washable or scrubbable for your cabinets.
When painting wood cabinets, you'll need to properly prep the surface before using latex paint. While oil-based paint goes on smooth, even over wood surfaces, latex paint is more likely to show variances in the grain or texture. If you want an even look, you'll need to do some prep work beforehand to make your painting project successful.
If your kitchen cabinets are already painted (instead of natural wood), you have an additional reason to use latex paint. A water-based latex formula is the safest option if you don't know what type of paint is already on your cabinets. Oil-based paint won't adhere well over latex paint, but you can use latex on oil-based paint, as it can bind to a surface treated with either type of paint.
Low or no VOC formulas
Adheres to surfaces previously painted with oil or latex paint
Some formulas aren’t durable enough for scrubbing
Requires more prep work for an even finish
Alkyd Paint for Cabinets
Alkyd paint is a water-based paint with an enamel finish similar to the consistency of oil paint, but it contains no oil and behaves differently than oil. It is tougher than oil-based paint; it leaves a hard, semi-gloss finish that is durable without needing a top coat. Alkyd enamel is self-leveling, which means as it dries, it levels out, looking very smooth. When finished, you can't typically see brush strokes using alkyd paint.
Alkyd paints are your go-to product if you want to paint kitchen cabinets like a professional. Alkyd paint is not typically used on walls but is commonly used on metal or wood and cabinets. It is a good choice for cabinetry because it has a hard and durable finish. If you have to paint over alkyd, use another alkyd paint or oil-based paint for the best-looking results.
The downside to using these paints is that they can be harmful if not painted in a ventilated area, and the supplies must be disposed of properly.
Hybrid enamel paint is often considered the best for kitchen cabinets because of its low-maintenance properties. Hybrid formulations do not emit as many fumes or VOCs and are easier to clean up with soap and water. They are strongly adhesive. Alkyd paints require less prep work and without sanding.
Goes on smoothly, even
Thicker cover with one coat
Has hybrid formulations that are better for environment; easier cleanup
Can get brittle
High level of VOCs
Longer drying time
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Types of Kitchen Cabinet Surfaces: Which Paint Is Best?
The first thing to consider when deciding to paint your kitchen cabinets is the type of material your cabinets are made from. Do you have solid wood cabinets, or are they composed of wood veneer over particle board? Are your cabinets made from MDF or laminate? Each of these materials will impact which type of paint you select.
Paint adheres best over a scuffed surface, making true wood cabinets a great candidate for painting. Sanding the surface helps prep it for paint and results in a better bond and smoother finish. This is crucial if your wood cabinets are already stained or have a glossy finish. You will need to get through this finishing layer with sandpaper or a liquid deglosser.
If your wood cabinets are bare, natural wood, they probably need little-to-no sanding. However, know that they will absorb a lot of paint, especially if you go with water-based latex paint. A primer will assist in making sure the coverage is even and thorough.
Wood Veneer Cabinets
If your cabinets have a wood veneer (essentially a very thin layer of real hardwood over a pressed material), you must sand it before painting your kitchen cabinets. Before you break out the sandpaper or paint, inspect the veneer for loose edges, chips, or cracks. Repair these first with wood glue before sanding the surface. Also, don’t sand too much—you’re just looking to make the surface rough enough to give the primer and paint something to adhere to.
It's easy to paint MDF kitchen cabinets as long as you know how to properly prep them. When prepping MDF cabinets for painting, you have two priorities: seal the edge and use an oil-based primer. The edge of MDF is more porous, and if it doesn't already have a finished surface, you'll want to use some drywall compound to seal it and keep moisture from swelling the material during the painting process.
The other important thing to remember is to use an oil-based primer. Due to the more porous nature of MDF, water-based primers can swell the surface. Use an oil-based primer for the first coat, then paint the kitchen cabinets with water-based latex paint without worrying about moisture absorption.
Painting laminate kitchen cabinets is possible, but it's more tricky than painting wood or MDF cabinets. Laminate is a printed plastic that is adhered to a base layer (usually a composite material). The material is slick, so you'll have to ensure you put in the prep work for a quality finish.
To help, opt for a laminate-specific primer or paint. These products are specially designed to bond to the shiny surface of the laminate. You'll still need to sand the surface before and after priming—make sure you use a fine sandpaper and go at it softly to avoid sanding through the laminate surface.
The Best Finish for Kitchen Cabinets
Choosing the right paint finish for kitchen cabinets is essential since it affects the durability of your cabinets in the long run. Cabinet doors and drawers are subject to touching, pulling, and slamming, while shelves routinely have objects being slid in and out. These factors can make painted cabinets subject to scratching and chips, but you can lessen this risk by choosing the right paint finish for kitchen cabinets.
- Semi-gloss or satin: Semi-gloss is the best finish for painting kitchen cabinets. Because it has some sheen, semi-gloss paint will help reflect light and be more durable in the long run, which is essential in a kitchen environment. Semi-gloss paint is often described as washable and more resilient to being scrubbed clean. Semi-gloss and satin finish are similar, but semi-gloss has much more sheen than satin. That means light from windows and lamps will bounce off semi-gloss paint more easily than a flatter finish, like eggshell or satin.
- Gloss paint: Another great option for kitchen cabinet paint, this is the shiniest paint choice. It's great for incredibly bold cabinet colors or super modern kitchens. Gloss paint is also the most durable because more resin and binders are used in formulating glossy paint, giving the paint more of a hard "shell."
- Eggshell or flat finish paint: Avoid using either of these finishes when painting kitchen cabinets. Eggshell and flat paints aren't as washable as semi-gloss or gloss finishes, and you risk rubbing through your paint job the next time you need to scrub your cabinet doors clean.
Best Overall Kitchen Cabinet Paint: Waterborne Alkyd
Generally, you can't go wrong with hybrid alkyd enamel paint or waterborne alkyd. It is a newer hybrid category of alkyd paint and can be used on all kitchen cabinet surfaces.
Waterborne alkyd paint self-levels, looking smooth and even once dry, and cleans up easily. It has lower VOCs than traditional alkyd paint; however, the biggest downfall of this type of paint is it is one of the most expensive kinds on the market.
Tips for Painting Cabinets
- For the best finish, use a paint sprayer over a roller. A sprayer is also better than a paintbrush. A sprayer is contactless and does not leave behind roller texture or brush marks. It's also easier to get thin, even layers, with a sprayer, giving you more consistency. A sprayer is also faster to use, and you usually need less dry time between paint layers.
- If you have flat doors on your kitchen cabinets, you can quickly apply paint by using a roller with a 1/4-inch nap (for a more even application and smooth finish).
- Paneled kitchen cabinets require a little more work; use a paintbrush to evenly coat angled surfaces and inset areas.
- Choose a synthetic bristle brush using latex paint since the water-based formula will swell the bristles of a natural paintbrush.
- Remove any hardware before painting. If replacing the hardware with a new style and not using the same holes, fill them before sanding and painting.
- Get any dried paint off glass-front cabinets by gently scraping it with a razor blade.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.