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Tips for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Refinishing cabinets is an inexpensive way to give your kitchen a major makeover. We asked Nick Slavik, proprietor of Nick Slavik Painting & Restoration Company and frequent This Old House contributor, to take us through his best practices for kitchen cabinet refinishing, from prep to paint, so you can get a picture-perfect, professional finish too.

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

While it may be tempting to rush through—or even skip—the preparation process, if you truly want your finish to look good and last a long time, prep is the most important step. And the techniques you employ, and the products you use, can make or break your outcome. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to a foolproof finish.

The “Before”

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

The wood cabinets were in great shape, but the dark finish was outdated, and made the space feel small and dreary.

Protective Measures

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Start by laying down floor protection, and then cover countertops so they can double as a work surface. You can use canvas drop cloths, but personally I prefer builder’s paper, as it protects well, it’s affordable, and it’s easily discarded/recycled.

Preparation Pays Off

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Yes, some people would say I go a little crazy with prep, but from experience I know that it’s not wasted time. Remove all of the doors and drawers, label/number them carefully (you’ll thank me later), and stage them for cleaning. Plastic and tape off all of the insides of the cabinet boxes to keep dust from getting in, cover all backsplashes with plastic, and seal all appliances to keep them clean.

Degrease

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

On to the cleaning process. Scrape off any food residue from the cabinets and then wash/scrub with synthetic steel wool and soap and water. For tough grease, use TSP (trisodium phosphate) and water; the TSP actually emulsifies the grease and removes it much more efficiently than soap alone. Let dry completely before moving on.

Prep, Part One: SVT

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

This is the key step to prep: SVT (Sand, Vac, and Tack). Sand the cabinets with medium-grit sanding sponges and/or 180-grit sandpaper on a random orbital sander. It’s not essential to remove all of the finish, but you must scuff it to give it “tooth” and promote adhesion. Once 100% of the surfaces are sanded, use a shop vac with a brush attachment to remove the majority of the dust. The last step is to tack-rag off the residual dust. The best method is to use a microfiber rag with water–but remember to wring out almost all of the water, as residual water will leave spots.

Prime Time!

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Choosing the correct primer is so important. The wrong primer will leave you with chipping cabinets, an uneven finish, and even stain bleeding from the wood. KILZ 3® Premium Primer, in my experience, is easy to apply, adheres wonderfully and blocks stains. A major benefit is that it has low odor, so families can continue to live in the house while work is done. (This is unlike most traditional oil primers which have a very noticeable odor.) And KILZ 3 Premium Primer dries to the touch in 30 minutes and can be top-coated in one hour; this will help with achieving a dust-free finish.

Application

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Priming is fairly straightforward: apply as uniformly as possible, and be super thorough. Application can be done with brush, roller, or sprayer. For this project I’ll be demonstrating brush and roller application. The best brush for painting cabinets will have super-fine nylon bristles. This will leave a finish nearly devoid of brush marks. Don’t skimp on this. Expect to pay between $15 and $25 for a good brush. Properly cleaned, it will give you decades of service. When choosing a roller for painting cabinets, I prefer a very high-quality woven cover. This will prevent shedding of fibers and a flawed finish. For the nap, I like ¼” or ⅜”. Anything thicker will leave excessive stipple.

Prep, Part Two: Repeat SVT

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Once the primer is dry I like to repeat the SVT process: lightly scuff-sand to promote adhesion and remove any minor flaws left on the cabinets, and vacuum and tack-rag again before caulking any cracks. I prefer to caulk cracks (where the cabinets meet walls, crown molding, etc.) after priming. Caulk will always stick better to a primed surface than to bare wood. However, never caulk the panels on cabinet doors—they’re actually called “floating panels” and need to move with seasonal temperature and humidity fluctuations. I’ve seen some really bad effects from caulking these panels, such as peeling caulk and even cracked door panels. It’s tempting to caulk these, but you’ll have to abstain—trust me on this one. Let any caulk dry completely before moving on.

Top It Off

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Now that you have a perfectly primed surface, it’s time for the top coat. The application techniques are the same as priming—use a high-quality nylon-bristle brush and/or roller, and take your time to ensure smooth, even coverage. Start by coating the back sides of the doors and lay them flat. Laying doors flat will help with the leveling of the enamel and give you a smooth finish. Once dry, you can flip the doors over and coat the fronts. For the cabinet boxes, try to keep a wet edge (don’t start and stop, allowing the paint to dry). I recommend applying a second top coat for added protection and an even shine.

De-Prep (Almost There!)

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Once everything has dried to the point where you can handle it, start by removing the tape and plastic from the cabinets. Install the doors one by one. (Now, you get to see if your door labeling system was effective!) Save any adjustments of the doors until the end. I use only hand tools when installing doors and drawers; drills tend to strip out delicate screws. Install any knobs or pulls, and make any necessary adjustments to get them all straight. Pro’s Note: Clients love when you install new clear rubber bumpers on the doors and drawers (they were removed during the prep process). It’s a small detail, but well worth the effort.

Photo Finish

Kilz Kitchen Remodel Courtesy Nick Slavik

Take one final walk-through to look for touch-ups; if you’re satisfied, then you can go ahead and remove the plastic, paper, and tape from countertops, appliances, and floor, and consider your job well done!

KILZ 3® Premium Primer is designed for use on interior and exterior surfaces including woodwork, drywall, plaster, paneling, masonry, brick, painted metal, and properly prepared glossy surfaces. To learn more, visit KILZ.com