DIY Painting Your Kitchen Cabinets the Right Way

Kitchen before and after
I’m going to admit something. When I sat down to write this I felt pretty good that I didn’t have to go out in my garage and paint any more kitchen cabinets. I am really happy with the final product but the actual project takes a lot of patience and space. I have four kids, I work and I’m usually found chauffeuring my kids around. My husband also works a job that keeps him away from home 48 hours at a time. It took me a few weeks to paint all of our kitchen cabinets and I did them in three phases: bases, uppers, then just the bar. If I was able to do all the doors and drawers at once I probably could have done this project in 3-4 days – depending on how motivated I was and how much help I had with the kids. Why am I telling you this? Because if you think you can’t do it, you can. This is the 2nd time I’ve painted an entire kitchen of cabinets and I doubt it will be my last. I created a list of products that I’ve decided I wouldn’t do the project ever again without, check it out here.

Here are the Cliff Notes (scroll down for pictures and greater detail):

  1. Remove doors/drawer fronts and all hardware. Store the hardware and screws all together in a big tuperware or ziploc. Some people like to label everything at this point with some painters tape. Working from left to right or right to left (whichever side of the brain you use I guess).
    Example: BDR1 (base drawer 1) UDO1 (upper door 1). I didn’t do this. Since I worked in 3 phases I just removed all the bases in one direction and kept them in the same spots when I painted them. Then I did the same for the uppers and then the bar. It worked just fine and nothing got mixed up. But it is worth mentioning for those that are taking on the entire kitchen at once. You just stick the tape to the side you aren’t painting then move it to the other side to paint that side.
  2. If there are rubber/silicone bumper pads on the backs remove them now don’t try and paint over them. Once you remove them use Goo Gone to remove the sticky residue they leave behind. Then clean the doors/drawers and frames using TSP or dish soap and water and scrub off all of the dirt and grease. Don’t skip this step. Just do it. I know, prep work sucks.
  3. Lay your doors/drawers out on styrofoam cups to elevate them off of the floor or tables or where ever you have designated as your “drying” area. I used 4 cups per door and 2 per drawer front.
  4. Using a tack cloth or a sponge, wipe the liquid sander/deglosser over all the door/drawer fronts wait 10 minutes, repeat. Flip them over and do the same to the back. During the 10 minutes of dry time for the fronts wipe the deglosser onto your cabinet frames and then come back and do it again while your backs dry. Tired yet? I usually called it good for the first day here. If not keep going cough cough overachiever.
  5. Thin your primer using Floetrol and water – I find my sprayer works best when I thin to 40 seconds. (Scroll down for thinning tips). Spray all of the backs first. While they dry go and prime your cabinet frames. I brush the primer on my frames using a nice finish trim brush – 2.5″ with an angled tip.
  6. After the backs are dry to the touch (about one hour) flip them over and paint the fronts. When you flip them over, place squares of wax paper onto the styrofoam cups – this will keep the cups from sticking to the paint and leaving marks.
  7. Let them dry over night or for at least 6 hours. Then lightly sand them with 220 grit paper. You aren’t removing much paint here – just the little dust bunnies. A good rule of thumb is to just run the sand paper over your fronts 2 or 3 times – with the grain. Wipe them down with a tack cloth. Do the same to your cabinet frames.
  8. I only paint 1 coat of primer. I’ve visited a lot of professional paint forums and have family/friends who are professionals and most say that 1 coat of primer is all that they do. I’m good with that. If you are covering a very dark finish and going light – you may need 2 coats of white primer. If you are going from light to dark you may need 2 coats of a tinted primer. I was going from natural wood to white. So medium tone to white. You can see the coverage from one coat of primer on the base frames:
    paiting kitchen cabinets primer framesprimer bases up close
  9. Thin your paint using the same process as with the primer. Paint the backs first. Here is where the patience is really necessary. Ben Moore Advance needs 16 hours to cure. Don’t paint your second coat before this! The long and short answer is the solvents have to evaporate so that the paint cures, if you don’t give it enough time to do this the solvents will get trapped between your coats of paint and you will be left with tacky – not fully dried and not strong paint. After 4-6 hours you can flip your backs over onto the wax paper/styrofoam cups and paint your fronts. Then step away from your cabinets and go paint the frames.
  10. 16 hours later – lightly run your 220 grit sandpaper over your doors/drawer fronts and cabinet frames. I don’t get into the detail parts of the doors/trim, this is just enough to lightly scuff the surface. Only sand the fronts if you plan on painting just one coat of paint on the backs – like me 🙂
  11. Double check your paint and make sure it is still 35-40 second paint – if it isn’t thin as needed and if it is paint away! When you’re done go paint the cabinet frames.
  12. Wait 4-6 hours (if you have a lot of patience – wait 3-5 days) and apply those little silicone bumpers on the corners opposite the hinges on the doors and on all four corners of the drawer fronts. Carefully re-install all of the doors and drawers. The paint will take up to a month to come to it’s final hardness. You don’t need to coat it with polyurethane because the paint is an alkyd and dries like an enamel. It actually feels like it’s coated with poly when it’s fully cured. It feels amazing under hand – not tacky at all.

Special conditions and lengthier instructions:

  • Filling old holes. If you are changing your door knobs/pulls and the new holes won’t match up you need to fill the old holes with wood filler. I use Minwax wood filler to fill the holes. This dries as hard as wood and can be re-drilled for new holes.  I let the wood filler dry over night. I usually did this after the whole washing/deglossing part in the process. The wood filler doesn’t sand nearly as smooth as Crack Shot so I used CrackShot to just even out the surface and make the hole nearly invisible an hour or so before I started priming. The CrackShot or any other drywall compound cannot be used to fill the entire hole – don’t do it! Holes filled with CrackShot are not strong enough to be drilled and too much will chip off over time.

1. Fill the hole from the front first.
minwax wood filler front1
I use a credit card or club card or whatever I have lying around that will work – today it was a Victoria Secret coupon that was on a heart shaped card – it was made out of plastic. Don’t be messy this stuff can be difficult to sand off later. Wipe up the mess with a wet paper towel. You want the hole and any blemishes left by the old hardware to be covered up with the filler – it should be over filled by just a hair so that you can sand to perfection later.
minwax wood filler front
This is an okay amount of “mess”. Not the best, but not the end of the world either. Sands right off.
2. Flip it over and fill the hole from the back. This helps push the extra out in the front and lets it “bubble” out so that you can sand it down later.
minwax wood filler back
3. Let it dry over night. Store your filler like the pic below with plastic wrap or wax paper over the base so that it doesn’t dry out or get crumbly.
minwax wood filler storage
4. In the morning sand it down with 150 grit then 220 grit until smooth and flush with the surface.
5. If there are still small marks that are noticeable, fill these with CrackShot or a similar filler. Wait the allotted time on the product instructions and then sand down. At this point you should have a really hard time figuring out where the hole is once paint is applied.
6. Wipe it all down with a tack cloth to remove the sanding debris. Move on to the primer step.
If you want to remove the grain – like with oak cabinets – you would use the minwax wood filler and wipe it on the entire door with a credit card – using the longest edge to scrape it over all of the grain – filling every void. Then you would have to sand the entire door. I like the grain so I wouldn’t go the extra mile to do this – but you can. You can skip the liquid deglosser step if you are going to sand the entire door.

  • Thinning paint/primer. I thin roughly a quart of paint at a time. I pour a quart into a 1/2 gallon plastic bucket add 2 “cupfuls” (the cup that came with my paint sprayer) of floetrol then 1 cup of clean water. I slowly add more water until I reach the 35-40 second thin mark. I always mix the water and floetrol into the paint/primer with a handheld mixer. This thoroughly mixes the paint and is key to getting a consistent spray from your sprayer. Once thinned, I keep it separate from the base paint. I store any leftovers in an air tight container so that I have it ready for the next spray coat. I also like to brush on the base paint/primer onto the cabinet frames without any thinning – unless it’s really hot – but hopefully you have air conditioning or heating and you have “ideal” paint conditions inside – so that thinning isn’t necessary. The Advance drips/sags when painted onto vertical surfaces when it’s thinned – it’s best applied full strength onto vertical planes. When you spray it make sure you dry everything laying down and when you spray the paint it’s best applied onto a horizontal surface too – don’t stand or hang them up to spray them – just lay them flat. This brings me to my next point.
  • Spray onto a horizontal plane. What does that mean? Well here’s a pic to show you. painting turntable
    I made a makeshift turn table out of an office chair base, a piece of plywood, a few screws and a washer, and an old milk crate. I laid an old towel on top of the milk crate and then would place each door onto it. This allowed me to spray the doors/drawers on all four sides while only spraying in one directions against one wall of my “spray booth”. You can’t really see the base because I covered it with plastic…you can just make out the little handle that raises and lowers the chair. You can do the same thing with a side table and a lazy susan – you know the table top ones that you buy at the dollar store. Just lay an old towel over it and twirl away.
  • Create a Spray Booth. My spray booth consists of 1 Easy-up pop up and a bunch of vinyl shower curtains duck taped to each other, the sides and then a tarp or plastic on the floor. I left one side open for ventilation and positioned that side towards my garage door – which I left open while I was spraying. If I wanted to really dial it in I would have installed two box fans with air filters taped to their air inlets. One would be positioned to push air into my booth and another would be positioned to pull air out of my booth. Then I could have sealed my booth shut – minus a “door” to go in and out. The filter would trap the paint and other debris that ends up floating around in the air from the hvlp sprayer. I also made my drying station in the booth – this isn’t really necessary – you just need a clean area with very little traffic for everything to remain undisturbed while it dries. Regardless, you need a spray booth unless you don’t mind the 2 mil thick coat of paint that would coat everything in a 20′ radius of your paint sprayer.
    easy up spray booth2
  • How to use a paint sprayer. This one really deserves an entire post all on it’s own. Read your manual. Get to know your sprayer before you put any paint on a single door/drawer. Adjust your sprayer each time you use it to spray just enough paint for the speed of arm movement you like to do. When you spray, spray the edge in front of you first, then spray the face. You will want to be about 5-8″ from the surface of your door and always move your body and arm over the surface keeping the same, even distance. When you start at one side, spray in a straight line to the other side. For example spray from the right side to the left side, when you get to the left side spray off and onto the floor so that you don’t linger too long on the left edge move up a half a spray length and then change directions and spray to the right side, when you get to the right side spray off of the edge move up about a half a spray length and spray to the left edge. Repeat this pattern working from the edge that is closest to you to the edge furthest from you. I use the spray pattern that create a | from my tip. Then rotate the door 90 degrees and repeat the same process. Do this until you are back to the edge you started with. Carefully lift the door and move it to your drying area – keeping it horizontal the whole time. Take a wet rag and wipe the gummy paint off where the paint comes out of the sprayer. You don’t want so much paint on your door that it bubbles, you want just enough that it shimmers in the light – like a light, even misting of rain. If you put too much on you can wipe it all off using a damp towel and then trying again. Or you can let the paint dry and hope for the best. I’ve done both. Both have worked out just fine with the Advance.
    home right finish sprayer
    One more tip on using your sprayer, make sure your white straw is in like the pic above. This allows the sprayer to draw paint in even when you are spraying horizontally. You would only have it in the other direction if you ever planned on painting overhead.
  • How to brush on paint like a boss. The key is to get all the paint onto the section you are painting – using any brushstroke you like – dab it, slap it, glob it on – it all works and then lightly “tipping” in one long, brush stroke with the grain. Cabinet frames are made of wood joined together with grains intersecting. You can apply the paint against the grain but make sure you tip with the grain. Work in small sections and keep a wet edge. Ben Moore Advance is very forgiving and has a much longer open time than other paints I’ve used – but once you’ve tipped it – leave it alone. The one exception is with drips. With Advance you can lightly pick up the drips with the tip of your brush. Unlike other paints that you have to wait until it’s dry, sand it out and then paint again, I found that drips could be picked up with the tip of the brush using a very light hand and leveled out just fine. I also do not paint the inside or shelves of the cabinets. Just the frames, sides and bottoms. When painting pay attention to the tip of your brush and where it’s heading. If you’re trying to get a crisp edge – like between the wall and your cabinet – don’t take your eyes off of the very tip of your brush. In fact, get your face at eye level with the tip of your brush and keep it that way. Or use painters tape. If you are painting a two tone on anything – like stripes or whatever and want a perfectly straight line the best way is to use painters tape to create the line, and then, before you paint, use paintable caulk (the cheap DAP stuff) and apply a bead of it where the painters tape meets the surface you plan on painting. Use a damp cloth to level the caulk out and make it invisible. Then paint away. When you remove the tape you will have a line that looks like you used a straight edge.