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How to Refinish Cabinets Without Sanding

Want to save time on a kitchen update? Consider painting your kitchen cabinets without having to sand them first. Read our tips to learn how.

Painted Kitchen Cabinets Without Sanding iStock

If you want to give your cabinets an instant update, a new paint color is an easy and cost-effective weekend DIY option. To make the project go a little faster, you can get by without sanding the cabinets first. It just takes a little advance planning.

Can You Paint Over Cabinets Without Sanding?

Skipping the sanding step is OK if you’re making a change from one newly painted surface to another, or painting raw, unvarnished wood cabinets.

If your cabinets are damaged or have peeling paint or really shiny surfaces, either from the material or a shiny coating, you’ll probably need to lightly sand ­to help the new paint bond better. But if the doors are smooth (not slick) to the touch, you can likely skip the sanding step, as long as you do a few bits of prep first!

If you don’t want to sand before you prime, use some mineral spirits and a rough sponge to clean and lightly rough up the cabinet area you’re painting. This doesn’t open up the wood cabinet material as much as sanding but does get you some additional grippy area for the primer to adhere to.

Steps for Painting Kitchen Cabinets (Without Sanding)

Follow these steps for painting your cabinets without the added step of sanding them down first.

  1. Buy a cabinet painting kit and get the paint tinted to your preference. Good commercial kits contain a de-glosser to remove any older coats of paint on existing cabinetry. The de-glosser eliminates the need to sand or prime surfaces that are already finished.
  2. Make a diagram of the cabinets, numbering each cabinet and drawer front. Before you remove the cabinet doors and drawer fronts, tape the corresponding numbers to them.
  3. With soap and water, wash and wipe clean cabinet doors, drawer fronts, and cabinet surfaces to be painted, paying extra attention to greasy spots.
  4. Remove cabinet doors and drawer fronts and remove any bumpers.
  5. When working on each door and drawer front, remove the number but keep the tape nearby so you don’t lose track of which door or drawer front goes where.
  6. Wearing gloves and using a scouring pad, rub on the de-glosser liberally in the direction of the grain; then wipe cabinets down. Using a wet rag, wipe the surface, making sure you’ve removed all the finish. Switch to a clean, dry rag and wipe the entire surface. The finish should now be matte.
  7. Let it surface dry for about an hour.
  8. Make sure you’ve masked off areas in the kitchen you don’t want to get paint on.
  9. Apply bond coat with a 2” synthetic brush in the direction of the grain. (Make sure to smooth out any drips on edges before they dry.)
  10. Apply bond coat to cabinet frames.
  11. Let the bond coat dry for 2 hours.
  12. Apply second coat and let dry for about 2 hours.
  13. Apply final protective (poly) topcoat (this adds a little sheen and some protection).
  14. Let dry for 12 hours.
  15. Put hinges and drawer pulls back on (or affix new hardware) and reinstall cabinet and drawer fronts.

Best Paint for Wood Cabinets

Start with the right primer. You’re going to want that great paint to really grip the surface of your cabinets. Primer helps it hold on and covers up old stains and dark colors—helpful if you’re going from dark to light shades.

Make sure your primer is designed for use on cabinetry (instead of plaster walls). Look for formulas with “bonding primers” built for hard-to-tackle surfaces.

The better quality paint you can buy, the better your results will be. In the kitchen, you also want a hard-working paint that can really take the heat (and moisture) of your daily culinary endeavors. Look for formulas with high percentages of titanium dioxide pigment, instead of the cheaper calcium carbonate.

For kitchens, much like bathrooms, we recommend moisture and mildew-resistant paint that won’t peel, even when it’s subject to lots of steam. A satin or semigloss paint works best in the kitchen. (For paint recommendations, Read This Before You Paint.)

Made especially to address for the smells of an active kitchen are new paints and varnishes that claim to absorb new odors, not just mask old ones.

Some Options Include:

Materials Needed for This Project

You don’t always have to sand, but you should make sure that your cabinet surfaces are very clean. You wouldn’t want to go through all the trouble of painting only to have it flaking off months later!

  • Clean all surfaces with a good grease-cutting soap, like dish soap and water. You can also use a mixture of vinegar and water in a spray bottle. Or use straight vinegar left on for about 5 minutes, to soften any hardened grease.
  • Get a gentle scrubber. Need to attack a bit of angled cabinet trim? You can get at those pesky grease splatters and dried spaghetti sauce with a microfiber sponge or a product like a Mr. Clean magic eraser.
  • Choose the right paintbrush for the job. To apply your primer and paint to cabinetry, we like a 2½-inch angled brush and a small 4-6” roller.

Watch Kevin walk you through an alternative process using a kit in our video How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets Without Stripping.