How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets, in 7 Doable Steps

Home Improvement

If you’re wondering how to paint kitchen cabinets, these tips from RealSimple.com will definitely help! Giving your cabinets a makeover can dramatically change the look and feel of your kitchen, whether you’re opting for a clean white paint or a more adventurous dark or colorful hue.

Before you get started, there are some key things you need to know about how to paint kitchen cabinets, as the process is different than learning how to paint a room or how to paint a wall. For one, it almost always takes longer than you think—often twice as long, says Hunter MacFarlane, project expert with Lowe’s based in Mooresville, N.C.

Second, if your cabinets are not made from wood or have a very intricate design, you may want to call in a pro. (You’ll want to do the same if it’s time to start considering refinishing kitchen cabinets.) If you’re dealing with fairly straightforward wood cabinets, though, there’s no reason you can’t DIY. Here, two experts share the step-by-step process for painting kitchen cabinets.

1. Start small

The kitchen is a central spot in any home and is probably heavily trafficked. That’s why MacFarlane recommends testing out your cabinet-painting skills in a smaller, less noticeable room first. “If you have a small bathroom with a vanity that needs repainting, that’s a good place to train yourself,” he says. “It will require the same steps, but in a not-so-obvious spot.” If you start here and feel like you’re over your head, you may need to call in a pro for the kitchen cabinets.

2. Prepare the area

“Preparation is everything in painting,” MacFarlane says. Many people want to jump right in because they’re excited to see how it will look (and who can blame them?), but it’s imperative to cover every surface, empty all drawers, and move everything out of cabinets (and the appliance garage, if you have one) and into another room in the house before getting started.

If you can, move appliances over or out of the way, making sure you have access to the sides of any cabinets that will brush up against them, MacFarlane says. Cover your countertops with a heavy duty plastic tarp, overlapping up the wall if possible to avoid any splatters there. (Keep those beautiful kitchen backsplash ideas safe!) Novices may also want to tape off the ceiling and any spot where the cabinets meet the wall with painter’s tape, just to be safe.

3. Remove and clean all cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware

These don’t have to be painted in the kitchen. It’s better to move everything that you can to another location, such as an attached garage, MacFarlane says. Then wipe them down to remove grease and prepare them for painting. You’ll also need to remove the hardware from all pieces, so this is a good time to clean it, as well. Soak hardware in a mix of warm water and Dawn dish soap to remove grime and buildup, then dry and store in labeled plastic bags.

A word of caution when removing cabinet doors and drawers: “You think you know where everything goes until you remove them all and start getting confused,” MacFarlane says. Save yourself the headache by lightly labeling where each one goes in pencil; it can be as simple as labeling each piece from 1-18, for example, and also writing the number on the corresponding cabinet shell.

4. Decide if you need to sand

Cabinets can get beat up over time—particularly lower cabinets, thanks to pets and small children (and maybe using your foot to shut them every now and then). “If you have holes or dents, you don’t want those to show up after you paint them,” MacFarlane says. You don’t have to sand the whole unit; you can use a feathering technique with sandpaper only on the trouble spots. Don’t sand more than you need to: You don’t want to create a divot in the wood. If your cabinets have no nicks or dents, you can probably skip sanding—with one caveat.

“If [your cabinets] are stained and have a thick layer of polyurethane, you should sand that off,” says Ricky Hernandez Kolody, sales director with Perco Painting in Allen, Texas, as seen on Thumbtack. If sanding in the kitchen is your only option, make sure to close the register for your HVAC unit as well as the return unit before getting started, MacFarlane says—otherwise you may find dust covering your entire house.

5. Apply primer

MacFarlane says he’s “old school” in recommending always using a primer on cabinets before painting. It adds another step to the process, but it does a great job of sealing the cabinets and preparing them to receive the final paint, he says. Start inside at the back of the cabinet frame and work your way out. Cover all surfaces and edges inside the cabinet at the same time and be very careful not to overpaint them or put too much paint on your brush.

A good rule of thumb is to never dip your brush more than a half inch into the paint, MacFarlane says. He advises using a brush called a sash tool, or an angled brush. Brush strokes are very important when painting cabinets: You should drag your brush a minimum of 12 inches at a time in one smooth, long line, rather than going back and forth, to ensure a smooth finish. Your local hardware store will be able to recommend a good primer, but Hernandez Kolody says his favorite is the Extreme Bond Primer from Sherwin-Williams.

6. Apply the first and second coats of paint

First, choose the right paint finish: a durable semi-gloss or gloss is best for kitchen cabinets because a sheen makes the paint harder, and therefore more resistant to nicks and chips, Hernandez Kolody says. Again, it’s important in this step to not put too much paint on your brush. If you do and the paint drips, it will be hard to correct if you don’t see it right away (you may even need to sand it again after letting it dry). To protect yourself from paint fumes, wear a mask that covers your mouth and face. After you apply the first coat, wait at least eight hours—or preferably overnight—before applying a second coat, MacFarlane suggests.

“It might be dry to the touch, but still not completely cured against the surface,” he says. It’s pretty much a guarantee you’ll need to apply a second and perhaps even a third coat, as you’ll likely see fine streaks with a single coat. (You’re probably beginning to realize by now that painting kitchen cabinets isn’t the weekend project you hoped for.)

7. Put the kitchen back together

Let the final coat dry at least eight hours (or overnight) before putting the cabinets back together. A good way to check if they’re ready: Put the first drawer in and push it closed, then open again. If it makes a “tick” sound, that means the paint is sticking and you haven’t waited long enough, MacFarlane says. Once you’re sure you’ve waited long enough and you’re putting everything back in its place, you’ll be thankful for the preparation you did in labeling each cabinet and drawer.

Feeling well-educated on how to paint your kitchen cabinets? You should: You’ve got this.

How much does it cost to paint kitchen cabinets?

The answer is that it can be pretty affordable—$100 or less, the pros say, when you paint yourself. A gallon of paint covers about 400 square feet, according to MacFarlane, which goes a long way when painting cabinets, and the only additional tools you need are a few simple brushes or rollers. The one thing to remember is that, if you’re looking for speed, you may want to consider hiring a pro for this job. Professional painters make short work out of painting kitchen cabinets because they do it all the time, but beginners will need to take their time to get the desired results.