Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Professional painter John Dee shows how to give dark cupboards the glossy, smooth look of factory-finish cabinets without having to order new doors

painted kitchen cabinets
Photo by Brian Wilder

If your kitchen cabinets are solid but dated and dark, a fresh coat of paint can go a long way toward transforming the space without draining your bank account. You can hire a pro to spray-paint them for a thousand dollars or more, but there's a less costly, and less messy, alternative to consider: Use a brush and paint the cabinets yourself.

"You don't need to spray to get a smooth finish," says painting contractor John Dee, who has worked on a number of This Old House TV projects. He often brush-paints cabinets anyway because it gives him more control and avoids the risk of paint spray ending up where it's not wanted. (Surface prep is the same whether you spray or brush.) Brushing is time-consuming, he warns, and could take up to a couple of weeks to complete. But the result is a durable, glass-smooth finish that's the equal of anything from a spray gun. "You just need to use the best materials and take the time to sand and do the brushwork right," Dee says.


Steps // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets
1 ×

Prep the Room

 
Step One // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Prep the Room

before photo of kitchen with dark wood cabinets, inset of John Dee sanding a cabinet door
Photo by Brian Wilder (inset)

Before starting a kitchen paint job, empty the cabinets, clear off the counters, and remove freestanding appliances. Relocate tables and other furniture to another room. Tape rosin paper over the countertops and flooring, and tape plastic sheeting over the backsplash, windows, fixed appliances, and interior doorways (to protect the rest of the house from dust and fumes). Mask off the wall around the cabinets. Finally, set up a worktable for painting doors, drawers, and shelves.

Pro Tip: In kitchens the key to a good paint job is surface prep. "Old cabinets are covered with everything from hand oils to greasy smoke residue to petrified gravy," says Dee. "You've got to get all that off or the paint won't stick."

 
2 ×

Remove Doors, Drawers, and Shelves

 
Step Two // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Remove Doors, Drawers, and Shelves

John Dee removing cabinet door with a cordless driver
Photo by Brian Wilder

Back out the hinge screws from the cabinet frame and remove the doors. Working methodically from left to right, top to bottom, label each one with a numbered piece of tape. Also, number the ends of cabinet shelves and the bottoms of drawers. Set aside the shelf-hanging hardware. At your worktable, remove the pulls and hinges and save what's being reused. On the doors, transfer the number from the tape to the exposed wood under one hinge. Cover it with fresh tape.

 
3 ×

Clean All Surfaces

 
Step Three // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Clean All Surfaces

removing cabinet door with work gloves
Photo by Brian Wilder

Open the windows for ventilation and put on safety gear. Scrub down all of the face frames, doors, drawer fronts, and shelving with an abrasive pad dipped in liquid deglosser. Hold a rag underneath to catch drips. Before the deglosser evaporates, quickly wipe away the residue with another clean, deglosser-dampened rag.

 
4 ×

Fill the Holes

 
Step Four // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Fill the Holes

filling old screw holes with a filler applied with a putty knife
Photo by Brian Wilder

If you're relocating the hardware, fill the old screw holes with a two-part polyester wood or autobody filler. It sets in about 5 minutes, so mix only small batches. (Dee adds a pea-size bit of hardener to a golf-ball-size glob of filler.) The filler shrinks a bit, so overfill the holes slightly. As soon as it sets, remove the excess with a sharp paint scraper. If it hardens completely, sand it smooth.

 
5 ×

Sand, Vac, and Tack the Boxes

 
Step Five // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Sand, Vac, and Tack the Boxes

sanding the old finish on cabinet frames and wiping with a tack cloth
Photo by Brian Wilder

Sand all surfaces with the grain using 100-grit paper. To make sure no bits of dust mar the finish, vacuum the cabinets inside and out, then rub them down with a tack cloth to catch any debris that the vacuum misses. Dee says, "Hand sanding is the best technique on oak because you can push the paper into the open grain, which a power sander or sanding block will miss."

Pro tip: When using a tack cloth, unfold each new cloth fully, down to one layer, then crumple it to get the greatest dust collection surface.

 
6 ×

Prime the Boxes

 
Step Six // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Prime the Boxes

John Dee priming cabinet frames
Photo by Brian Wilder

Slow-drying, oil-based primers work fine on tight-grained woods like maple or cherry, or on man-made materials. But they just sink into open-grained woods such as oak, ash, mahogany, or hickory. Brushing putty, the pudding-thick, oil-based coating Dee used on these oak cabinets, fills the grain as it primes the wood. A couple of caveats: It should be applied with a good-quality nylon-polyester brush, which you'll have to throw away after each coat. And it doesn't become level as it dries; assiduous sanding is required to flatten it out.

Starting at the top of the cabinet, brush on the primer or brushing putty across the grain, then "tip off"—pass the brush lightly over the wet finish in the direction of the grain. Always tip off in a single stroke from one end to the other. Give it a day to dry. (If using brushing putty, apply a second coat the next day and wait another day for it to dry.) Sand the flat surfaces with a random-orbit sander and 220-grit paper. Sand any profiled surfaces with a medium-grit sanding sponge. When you're done, everything should be glass-smooth.

Pro tip: Follow the underlying structure of the cabinet or door with the brush. Where a rail (horizontal piece) butts into a stile (vertical piece), for instance, paint the rail first, overlapping slightly onto the stile. Then, before the overlap dries, paint the stile. Where a stile butts into a rail, paint the stile first.

 
7 ×

Caulk Seams and Fill Dents

 
Step Seven // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Caulk Seams and Fill Dents

applying caulk to seams in primed cabinets
Photo by Brian Wilder

Squeeze a thin bead of latex caulk into any open seams. Pull the tip as you go, then smooth the caulk with a damp finger. Fill any small dents, scratches, or dings with vinyl spackle, smoothed flat with a putty knife. Once dry, in about 60 minutes, sand again with 220-grit paper, vacuum, and wipe with tack cloth. Spot-prime the spackle, and any spots where the brushed-on primer is "burned through," with a spray can of fast-drying oil-based primer. Wait an hour, then sand the primer lightly with 280-grit paper. Vacuum all surfaces, and wipe with a tack cloth.

Pro tip: The hole in a caulk tube's tip should be no bigger than the tip of a sharp pencil. Slice 45-degree slivers off the tip with a razor until you see the hole open.

 
8 ×

Paint the boxes

 
Step Eight // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Paint the boxes

painting cabinets
Photo by Brian Wilder

Work from top to bottom, applying the paint across the grain, then tipping it off with the grain. For cabinet interiors, apply the paint with a smooth-surface mini roller, which leaves a slight orange-peel texture. Sand all surfaces with 280-grit paper, then vacuum and clean with tack cloth. For the last coat, break out a new brush. When the final coat is dry, replace the shelf hangers.

Pro tip: Brushes pick up dust, so always pour paint into a separate container to prevent contamination of the paint in the can. If any paint is left over, pour it back into the can only through a fine-mesh strainer.

 
9 ×

Prep, Prime, and Sand Doors and Drawers

 
Step Nine // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Prep, Prime, and Sand Doors and Drawers

sanding a freshly primed and painted door with a sanding sponge
Photo by Brian Wilder

The strategy for prepping and painting doors, drawers, and shelves is the same as on the cabinets, except that all the work is done on a table to reduce the chance of drips, runs, and sags. Paneled doors pose some special challenges; here's Dee's approach.

Follow the same prep sequence as for cabinets—clean with deglosser, fill the holes, sand, vac, and tack—and the same priming sequence: in this case, two coats of brushing putty. Smooth the flat surfaces on the panel and the frame with a random-orbit sander. On bevels or profiles, apply elbow grease and a medium-grit sanding sponge. Spackle and sand any dents.

Pro tip: When priming or painting paneled doors, brush in the following sequence to get the best-looking surface in the least amount of time: start with the area around the panel, then do the main field of the panel, then finish with the stiles and rails around the edges. As you go, wipe up any paint that ends up on adjacent dry surfaces. This eliminates the chance of lap marks.

 
10 ×

Spot-Prime

 
Step Ten // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Spot-Prime

John Dee sprays a fast-dry primer on spots with spackle or bare wood from sanding
Photo by Brian Wilder

After vacuuming and tacking all the surfaces, spray a fast-dry primer on any spots with spackle or bare wood where the sandpaper "burned through" the primer. Wait an hour before sanding.

 
11 ×

Apply the Finish Coats

 
Step Eleven // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Apply the Finish Coats

John Dee applying the finish coat to a cabinet door
Photo by Brian Wilder

Remove all dust—first with a vacuum, then with a tack cloth—and apply the finish coat. Tip it off with the grain. When the first coat dries, power-sand the flats; hand-sand the profiles. Vacuum and tack every piece, then brush on the final coat.

Pro tip: To prevent drips on outside edges, pull the brush toward them. To prevent drips in corners, first unload the brush by scraping off the paint, then paint by pulling the brush away from the corner. If a drip laps onto a dry surface, wipe it up immediately.

 
12 ×

Hang Cabinets to Dry Between Coats

 
Step Twelve // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Hang Cabinets to Dry Between Coats

cabinet doors hanging to dry
Photo by Brian Wilder

Painting cabinet doors is a trade-off between perfection and speed. John Dee, a perfectionist, prefers to do one side at a time, keeping the faces flat so they don't get runs. But that's 48 hours of drying time per door—one day per side. Here's his method for painting both sides in a day.

Twist two screw hooks into holes drilled in an inconspicuous door edge (the lower edge for bottom cabinets, the upper edge for top cabinets). Paint the door's outside face as above. Let it dry for an hour while resting flat, then tilt the door up onto its hooks and put a drywall screw into an existing hardware hole. Hold the tilted door up by the screw and paint the door's back side.

When you're done painting, pick up the door by the screw and one hook and hang both hooks on a sturdy wire clothes hanger. Suspend from a shower curtain rod or clothes rod until the door is dry.

 
13 ×

Put Back Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

 
Step Thirteen // Pro Secrets for Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Put Back Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

the finished kitchen with newly painted cabinets
Photo by Brian Wilder

Wait for the final coat to dry, then put back the shelves. Remove the tape over each door's number, install the hinges and knob, then hang it in the opening it came from. Replace the drawer pulls (or better yet, add new ones) and reinstall each drawer in its original opening.

 
 
 

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