Prep Work is Everything

Before starting, remove doors, drawers and all hardware. Doors and drawers should be identified in an inconspicuous spot (mark the bottom edge of a door, for instance) to avoid mixing them up later.

"Surface prep," says sales representative Brett Shinn, of Harrison Paint Corp., "is at least 75 percent, maybe as much as 90 percent, of the success of a repaint." When the existing finish is a clearcoat, according to Benjamin Moore do-it-yourself product coordinator Bob Bonadies, the best route is to strip the finish to bare wood before painting. Some painting contractors agree. Stripping cabinets to bare wood eliminates a potential adhesion problem between the old finish and the new paint. Finishes typically used on manufactured wood cabinets include catalyzed lacquer and conversion varnish, both extremely hard when cured.

If stripping is the option you choose, Bonadies suggests a light sanding with 150- or 180-grit sandpaper after the old finish has been removed. Sanding dust should be removed with a tack cloth or a soft cloth dampened with odorless mineral spirits.

Stripping may be ideal, but it is not always practical and, according to some painting contractors and manufacturers, is not absolutely necessary (particularly if your cabinets have already been painted). If the job is intended as a short-term improvement, a thorough cleaning, followed by a light sanding, is all you need to prepare the surface for new paint. Ordinary household cleaners should remove most grime, but if that doesn't do the trick you might want a stronger cleaner, such as trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is sold at hardware and paint stores. Just make sure you follow safety precautions on the container and use rubber gloves and eye protection. Some home centers also offer a TSP substitute, but this product does not etch the surface as well.

Once cabinets are clean, they should be rinsed thoroughly with clean water. Edward Cseh, a technical-services representative with Glidden, warns that if you plan on using an alkyd paint, it is best to avoid any cleaner containing ammonia. There is no effective way to neutralize the cleaner, Cseh says, and ammonia lingering on the surface will cause paint topcoats to yellow.

Nicks and dings should be filled with nonshrinking putty. Most types of putty are rock-hard once they dry, so removing as much excess as possible as you go along will save time later. Once the putty has dried, cabinets can be sanded. Many painters use 120-grit paper, although 150- or 180-grit leaves a slightly smoother surface. When the prep is complete, what you should have, according to Cseh, is a "clean, dry and dull" surface.

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