How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets (Part 1 of 2)

Included in this article:
*Paint – Oil-Based Versus Water-Based
*Preparation. Preparation. Preparation
*Setting Up a Work Area
*Removing the Hardware
*Removing the Old Finish
*Filling Holes

If you want to change the look of your kitchen, painting your cabinets is one of the easiest ways to refresh and brighten the room. You can refinish the old doors or have your cabinets refaced. Either way, you’ll save a significant amount of money if you do the painting yourself. As you might imagine, painting the kitchen is a big job. But I’m here to give you some tricks of the trade….

Paint – Oil Versus Water
Oil-based paint over a well-prepped surface, applied correctly, can lay-out and look like a sprayed lacquer paint job, smooth and glass-like. It’s a durable product made for the wear and tear that a kitchen is likely to see. But there are drawbacks. Oil-based paint will dry slower, smell more and require solvents for clean up. Depending on the brand, oil-based paint will cost a little more, too.

Water-based paint is less toxic, cleans up with water and doesn’t have the strong, lingering smell of oil-based paint. But, water-based paint won’t lay out and flow like oil; you’ll always get some brush stroke lines. There are additives to help water-based paint flow better and slow the drying time. Rest assured, you can still get great results with water based products. The choice is up to you and what is available where you live.

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice. Practice. Practice.

How do you get a good paint job?
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.

Basically, anyone can paint, not everyone can paint well.

Setting Up a Work Area
The first step is finding an area where you can work. Obviously the installed cabinet parts will be painted in place, in the kitchen. But the cabinet doors and drawer faces are best removed to a separate work area. A lot of sanding is going to go on so find an out of the way place with good lighting and proper ventilation. The garage is fine.

Saw horses and a sheet of plywood will make a great table. Put a large piece of cardboard down to help protect the doors and drawers from getting gouged or scuffed.

Prepping the wood for painting is a messy job so you will want to empty your kitchen counters, cabinets and drawers of everything. If you plan to live in the house while this is going on – especially if you have kids — you’ll want to create a dust barrier between your kitchen and the rest of house. This means covering the openings to other parts of the house with plastic sheeting. Just drape and tape. There is a product called a Tarp Zipper Door which works well to seal off a doorway. Just remember to put down an old mat on the outside for wiping the dust off shoes.

Removing the Hardware
Remove all the hardware, handles, hinges, magnet catches, etc. If you have a cordless drill, great. If not, you’re going to build up those guns. If you plan to update the hardware you want to try to match the type of hinge according to the backset and thickness of the door. Different size handles, means filling the old holes, and drilling new ones.
If you have the space, it’s a good idea to keep the doors and drawers in order. Label them with blue tape and number them. Make a map of the cabinets and show the location of each piece. This will make it easier to get things back in the end.

Removing the Old Finish
If you plan to repaint with water-based paint you’ll have to sand more, especially if your cabinets were previously painted in oil-based or a urethane clear coat. A water based primer needs fresh wood to stick to. Oil primers don’t. The chemical nature of oil-based paint allows it to meld into an old surface, provided you’ve scuffed it with sand paper enough to open it up.

It’s a good idea to wash all surfaces with TSP, no rinse, prior to sanding. This will keep grease and other sticky stuff from clogging the sand paper.

Start with 100 grit sand paper and thoroughly sand the old finish. You want to sand with the grain. For oil primer you only need scuff the surface to the point where there’s no longer any shine of the old finish. But for a water-based primer you will need to expose fresh wood.

If the old finish starts to peel while sanding you have to completely remove the old finish to fresh wood. What probably happened is someone painted water-based paint over oil or a clear urethane finish directly without proper prep. With the help of the putty knife, sandpaper and elbow grease you can do it. I don’t recommend a paint scraper for this job as this tool can gouge the surface. An electric palm sander is nice, though.

Filling Holes
If you plan to choose new hardware for your cabinets, now is the time to do so. Hopefully, you can find hardware that uses the same holes. If not you’re going to have to fill the old mounting holes. For this I recommend a product called wood filler.

There are a lot of low-cost brands on the market to choose from. Wood filler is very sticky and may not go on smoothly but it dries hard and wood-like. After it dries, sand smooth and cover any imperfections with a light-weight spackling paste. Spackling paste is very creamy, so a smooth finish can be easily achieved with a putty knife. After the spackle dries, sand it to insure a completely bump-free, smooth finish. Use a small wood block wrapped in sand paper to spot sand. This will produce a nice flat surface.

Inspect the entire surface closely and fill any large chips or dents with wood filler. Use spackling paste for the small stuff and over the wood filler. Sand lightly. Finally, go over the whole piece with 150 grit sand paper. Dust with dusting brush, and wipe clean with a damp rag. Repeat on all doors, drawers, and cabinet surfaces.

Sand, fill, sand, dust, wipe.

Kitchen Prep Supplies:
*Screw drivers (flat & Phillips head)
*Screw gun, cordless optional)
*Drill bits (if you need new holes)
*Sand paper (100&150 grits)
*Steel wool (fine)
*Wood filler
*Light-weight spackle
*Drop cloths (to cover floors; old sheets work well)
*Plastic sheeting (to cover counters)
*Blue painter’s tape, 2”
*Plastic tarps to seal off area

Proceed to Part TWo, of How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets.