How To Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets So It Looks Like You Totally Replaced Them

How To Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets So It Looks Like You Totally Replaced Them

(Image credit: Diana Liang )

Painting your kitchen cabinets is the single most transformative thing you can do to your kitchen without a gut renovation. And, if you do it yourself, it can also be one of the least expensive ways to overhaul the space — just the cost of materials and, of course, your time.

And time it will take. People on the internet like to say that painting your kitchen cabinets is a quick weekend project. Maybe if it's a holiday weekend — and you can take another day or two off work! In reality, it's a project that can take a solid five or six days, depending on the size of your kitchen. (You literally have to wait for paint to dry!)

It's not all that hard, though — as long as you're patient and thorough, the transformation will be amazing. We teamed up with professional painters Chris and Lexi Dowding, of Michigan-based SwatchOut, to paint a real kitchen and distill the steps for you to DIY it. Warning: It's going to look like a lot of steps. And it is! But we also wanted to break down as much possible here, so that you have no questions in real life.

Here's what you need to know in order to paint your old, wooden kitchen cabinets so that they look like brand new (white!) ones.

(Image credit: Diana Liang )

Before we get into the steps, we just wanted to share this before and after. Look at how different this kitchen looks! Sure, the decorations help, but it's really that crisp, clean white paint that makes the room feel brighter, bigger, and just more welcoming.

After
(Image credit: Diana Liang )

The transformation took us five days. The first day was the most work (so much prep!). By days three and four, we were mostly waiting for paint to dry! And on the last day, we just did the fun part: reassemble the cabinets and decorate!

(Image credit: Diana Liang )

A Note on Materials

Plan on spending at least $200 to $600 on supplies, depending on the brand of paint and how many other supplies you need to buy (versus what you already have on hand). While you might be tempted to save wherever you can, Chris and Lexi warn not to skimp out here: "You get what you pay for in terms of materials," they point out. So while it may seem a little crazy to pay $50 per gallon of paint instead of $25, it could save you from needing to redo your cabinets sooner.

In addition to the things you'd expect to need (paint, painter's tape, brushes, rollers, drop cloths, etc.), Chris and Lexi have a few secret weapons they swear by. We've highlighted a few here and link to other suggestions in the instructions below.

  • Elmer's Carpenter's Interior Wood Filler, $6 for 3.25 ounces: Even if your cabinets are only a few years old, they probably have some nicks and dents. This stuff can fill in the obvious scratches or nail holes. Use it like spackle anywhere it's needed before you prime the wood.
  • HDX Painter's Tripods, $5 for 10 at The Home Depot: These little pieces of plastic are almost as necessary as the paint itself. Set up four tripods on a counter or workbench and then lay a cabinet door on top when it's time to paint it. This way, the still-wet underside won't get ruined because there are only small touch points on the surface area.
  • Hawk Craft Tack Cloth, $2 for two at Lowe's: Sanding gets dusty! Even after you vacuum the space and the wood (an important step!), there's still going to be more dust. Tack Cloth is exactly what it sounds like (cloth that's tacky) and can pick up leftover dust with just a few swipes.
  • Kilz White Oil-Based Interior Primer, $6 for 13 ounces at The Home Depot: This is an oil-based spray primer that Chris and Lexi like to use for touch-ups on the doors and cabinet faces. It goes on smooth and even and will blend in better than brush strokes.
(Image credit: Diana Liang )

Why Cabinet Prep Is So Important

With any paint project, it's all about the prep. This is especially true when it comes to kitchen cabinets. The prep is more important than the actual painting. Why? Because any imperfections that aren't fixed will only be magnified once they're painted. So any scratches, holes, or dark spots that show through the primer will show up even more by the time you're done. Take your time to start (the first day will almost always be the longest day). Tape up your floors, appliances, and countertops (to protect against errant drips), fill in the holes, make a map, take the cabinets apart, sand, prime ... do all the things before you even think about opening that paint. You'll be happier in the end.

A must-read: The Most Important Step When Painting Your Kitchen Cabinets

How To Paint Wooden Kitchen Cabinets

What You Need

Equipment

Instructions

DAY 1

  1. Empty the space: Grab everything on your counters and on top of your upper cabinets and relocate it for the week. (Plan on lots of takeout or refrigerator meals!) You can leave the things inside your cabinets and drawers.
  2. Clean the floors: Sweep the floors — get on your hands and knees with a cloth, if you have to. Any dirt and dust that's on the floor could be kicked up and settle in the paint while you work.
  3. Cover what's left: Use painter's tape (Chris and Lexi like FrogTape or Scotch Blue Platinum) and sheets of paper and plastic (they suggest Trimaco and 3M brand products) to cover the countertops. Use more tape and kraft paper or drop cloths to cover the floor. Remove outlet covers and vents, and tape up the edges of anything that's not supposed to be painted.
  4. Make a map: Using a marker and a piece of paper, draw a diagram of your cabinets and assign each one a number (1,2,3 left to right, for example). It doesn't have to be to scale or look great — you just have to be able to understand it. This step will ensure that you will eventually be able to put all the pieces back in their correct spots.
  5. Start removing the cabinet doors and drawer faces: Using a hand screwdriver, or working slowly with an electric drill so you don't scratch the wood, remove the cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware (if you have any). Remove one piece at a time.
  6. Label the doors and drawer faces: As you remove each piece, use a marker to number the door or drawer face according to your diagram. Chris and Lexi like to number cabinet doors in the groove where the hinge fits into, then cover it with tape. (Drawer faces can be numbered on the back, which gets hidden by the rest of the drawer when it's reassembled.)
  7. And the hinges and hardware: Label the hinges for each door as you remove them, too. The top hinge for Door 12 becomes 12A and the bottom hinge gets 12B. Those go in a zip-top bag labeled 12. If your cabinets have knobs or pulls, those go into the corresponding bags.
  8. Clean the wood: Clean all the wood pieces you're going to paint with mineral spirits and a scrubby sponge to remove any dirt and grease. This includes the fronts, backs, and sides of every door; the frame of the built-in cabinets (note: painting the inside of your cabinets — where your stuff sits — is an unnecessary and time-consuming task); and the front pieces of your drawers (no need to paint the sides — where the tracks sit — or the insides of your drawers). Clean the doors and drawer faces in a well-ventilated area and open the windows when working inside on the cabinet frame. Gloves are also recommended. Once you're done, the surfaces should have a dull sheen, which means the wood is ready to accept the primer. This should take about an hour and a half for a standard-sized kitchen.
  9. Scrape off any gunk: Use a putty knife to scrape off any remaining gunk and any rubber or felt feet on the back of your cabinets that prevent your doors from slamming — don't worry, we'll put new ones on later.
  10. Tape the inside of your cabinets: Using more painter's tape, tape the inside of your cabinets in order to protect the shelves from paint and everything on them from dust (you'll understand why later).
  11. Check the grain: Slowly run your hands across the grain of your wood. If you can feel the grain, chances are, that grain will show through the paint when you're done, which you might not love. You can use wood filler (Chris and Lexi like Elmer's Wood Filler & Repair) to fill in the obvious scratches, extra-deep grooves, and nail holes the same way you'd spackle a hole in a wall. If you wanted to get rid of the wood grain completely — something we did not do for this kitchen — Chris suggests multiple coats of 3M Wood Filler Bondo Putty.
  12. Set up your painting space: As much as possible, you want to work in a well-ventilated, low-traffic area — like a garage or covered patio. No great work bench or counter out there? If you have a wheelbarrow and a piece of wood, you have a table! Chris and Lexi added a length of kraft paper just to keep things neat. Set up your HDX Painter's Tripods — you'll need four tripods for each door you paint at once.
  13. Set up your drying space: In the same area, lay down a drop cloth or kraft paper, then two two-by-fours and two dowels. You will end up working vertically and stacking your doors with more two-bys and more dowels. Never lay the doors flat on anything like a piece of cardboard, as it can mess up the paint or the doors could stick to the surface!
  14. Prime the backs of doors and cabinet faces: Prime the backs of your cabinet doors and drawer faces. (Our pros suggest INSL-X Prime Lock.) Paint inside any grooves or recessed parts first, then work your way inside out along the flat areas. Work evenly, so that the primer coat is smooth. (Note: Gloves and ventilation masks are never a bad idea!) Stack them on your dowels to dry.
  15. Prime the cabinet frames: Use a paintbrush to cut into all the corners, edges, and areas with decorative molding. Then use a roller — working in long, even strokes — to cover the rest. Be sure to hit the sides of any support pieces (like the wooden bars that break up your cabinets).
  16. Prime the front of your cabinet doors and drawer faces: By now, the backs should be dry to the touch, so it's time to do the fronts and the sides! Once again, paint inside any grooves or recessed parts first, then work your way inside out along the flat areas. Work evenly.
  17. Let dry: Continue stacking your pieces and let dry overnight.

DAY 2

  1. Cover your cabinet openings: The primer should be completely dry to the touch by now. Have some coffee and then use kraft paper to cover the openings to your cabinets. Do it. You're about to make a lot of dust and this is easier than taking everything out of your cabinets and then cleaning them. Luckily, the paper should stick to some of the tape you put in yesterday! Cover your stovetop while you're at it.
  2. Sand everything: Lightly sand your primed cabinet frames in a circular motion. (Wrap your sandpaper around a sanding block or scrap of wood for better grip.) This will smooth out any paint bubbles or brush strokes. If you skip this step, those imperfections will just be magnified as you add coats of paint. Sand everything you primed. Ventilation masks will keep you from breathing in all that dust!
  3. Clean up the dust: Use a vacuum with a bristle attachment to vacuum the wood and a normal hose attachment to clean up the floor.
  4. Wipe the wood with Hawk Craft Tack Cloth: Wipe the wood with this sticky fabric-like material to pick up any leftover dust.
  5. Touch up the primer: Go back and look for any places where the sanding exposed the wood. Use a small paintbrush to dab on primer to fill in those spots.
  6. Caulk and fill any holes: If you can see any dark wood (think: around molding or other embellishments), use a caulk gun to fill in those spots.
  7. Paint the first coat on the cabinet frames: Use a paint brush and a roller to get your first coat of paint on the cabinet frames. (Benjamin Moore Advance is strongly recommended by our pros.) Work in long vertical strokes. Be sure to get the sides of the cabinet support bars, too.
  8. Sand the cabinet doors and drawer faces: Do this just like you did the cabinet frames. Get in the grooves of any embellishments. Sand the fronts and backs.
  9. Clean up the dust: Use a vacuum with a bristle attachment to vacuum the wood.
  10. Wipe the wood with a tack cloth: Wipe the wood with a tack cloth to pick up any leftover dust.
  11. Caulk and fill any holes: If you can see any dark wood (think: around molding or other embellishments), use a caulk gun to fill in those spots.
  12. Spray with Kilz: Notice any wood spots that are showing through after your sanding? Spray them — in a light, even motion — with Kilz, which will help to hide them and hold the paint when it's time.
  13. Paint the first coat on the doors and drawer faces: Paint your first coat of paint the same way you did the primer — inside any grooves first, then working your way out. Paint the fronts of your cabinet doors and the faces of your drawers (don't forget the sides). You want a smooth, thin coat; if the paint is too thick, it will pool up in the corners and drip off the edges.
  14. Let dry overnight: You may be tempted to flip the cabinet doors and paint the backs today, but do not! You'll ruin your nice paint job. Even though the paint looks dry, it will still be soft and susceptible to damage. This is not a process you want to rush.

DAY 3

  1. Look for any imperfections and tag them: Look for any imperfections — anywhere the dark wood might be showing through. Tag the spots with a piece of painter's tape.
  2. Sand those spots: Lightly sand them until the sheen around each spot goes away.
  3. Reprime: Using a small paintbrush, dab on some more primer to cover the spots.
  4. Paint the backs of your doors and cabinet faces: Flip the cabinet doors and give the backs their first coat of paint. Note: In the interest of time, we only painted the backs once. One coat gives decent coverage, and it's not like many people will see the backs of your doors. If you want to paint the backs more than once, you will need to add another day.
  5. Sand the cabinet frames: Lightly sand your first coat of paint, specifically targeting any brush strokes or paint bubbles.
  6. Wipe up the dust: A microfiber cloth should get the job done.
  7. Give the frame a second coat: Apply your second coat of paint to the cabinet frames.
  8. Check your doors and drawers: If the backs feel dry to the touch, you may be able to paint the second coat on the fronts today. Ours weren't tacky to the touch, so we knew we were in the clear. (But we were still careful!) If your cabinets feel tacky, wait and do the rest of these steps tomorrow! Sand the fronts lightly.
  9. Wipe up the dust: Again, using a microfiber cloth.
  10. Paint the second coat on the door and drawer fronts: Just like you did the first coat, but being extra careful of the backs, which might not be totally dry. (The only reason this is okay is because these are the backs and people won't really see them!)

DAY 4

  1. Have some coffee: You're almost done!
  2. Sand the cabinet frames: Lightly sand the second coat of paint, specifically targeting any brush strokes or paint bubbles. Wipe up the dust.
  3. Reprime: Using a small paintbrush, dab on some more primer to cover the spots.
  4. Give the frame a third coat: Two coats of paint might be enough, but if you want more coverage, Chris and Lexi suggest adding a third coat. We added a third coat to this kitchen.
  5. Sand the doors and drawer faces: Lightly sand the second coat of paint, specifically targeting any brush strokes or paint bubbles. Wipe up the dust.
  6. Inspect the doors and drawer faces: Look at the wood to see if any dark spots are showing through. Inspect from a few different angles, so you can inspect in all different types of light.
  7. Give the doors and drawers a third coat of paint: This is the last time you'll have to paint!
  8. Let dry overnight: Go get some rest. Warning: It will be hard to sleep because you'll be so excited.

DAY 5

  1. Remove the paper and the tape: Using a box cutter, slice the tape anywhere it seems like paint might have stuck to it. Carefully remove the tape.
  2. Wipe up any errant paint: With a damp cloth, wipe up any paint that bled under the tape. The paint will be dry, but soft enough to be wiped up.
  3. Pull off the painter's tape that's covering your labeling system: Starting with one drawer face, peel off the painter's tape that you used to cover the piece's number. Then find its corresponding bag of hardware.
  4. Reassemble: Get out your diagram, and use it as a guide to replace the drawer faces. Repeat until all the drawers are back together.
  5. Pull off the painter's tape from your doors: Again, working one piece at a time, peel off the painter's tape that you used to cover your labeling system.
  6. Screw the hardware back into the door: Find the corresponding hardware bag and screw the hardware back into the door. Make sure you put the top hinge in the top hole and the bottom in the lower hole. This is why you labeled so carefully before! Pro tip: Put down a drop cloth, a sheet, or some microfiber towels before you put your door down. This will help protect your paint.
  7. Reattach the door to the cabinet: Be careful with your drill, as to not chip or scratch the paint and always do the top hinge first. Repeat until all the doors are back on.
  8. Add felt feet: Look to see where the doors and drawers hit the cabinet frames and add felt feet — one in each corner. This will make them quieter when they close and also help prevent the paint from chipping. Note: You may see rubber feet at the store, but those could stick to the fresh paint and peel it off. Stick to felt!
  9. Replace electrical outlets: Time to put back any electrical outlets or vents that you had removed.
  10. Be careful: The paint will be dry but will continue to cure. Be gentle for up to five days! Or maybe just take a five-day nap. You've earned it!

Notes

  • Some sites may tell you to rent a paint sprayer, but we say skip it. Not only is it an added expense, but it can also be hard to find a good place to use it and it can make the process more complicated.
  • Stay away from using foam rollers, as they tend to distribute paint unevenly and will leave lines if you don't use them correctly. Chris and Lexi swear by mini microfiber rollers.
  • When priming and painting your cabinet doors and drawer faces, only do the sides of the wood when you're doing the front coats. If you do them while painting the backs, you risk drips running onto your otherwise smooth fronts.
  • The best way to clean your brush between coats is to use your fingers to work the bristles under warm, soapy water until the water runs clear. Then, shake it out or spin it with the handle in between your palms. Hang dry.
  • You may have noticed that this project has a lot of steps. While you can certainly DIY it, you might not be down for all this work. If you want to find a professional in your area, try Porch. That's how we found Chris and Lexi!
(Image credit: Diana Liang )

Shop Our Final Look!

(Image credit: Diana Liang )

About Chris and Lexi: They're a husband-and-wife painting team based in Mason, Michigan. Lexi's family was always in the painting business and Chris has a long history in construction. After they got married in 2015, starting SwatchOut together was a no-brainer.

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