Do You Have to Sand Kitchen Cabinets Before Painting Them?

updated Aug 24, 2022
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(Image credit: Diana Liang)

Painting kitchen cabinets is a multi-step process that can give you great results — if you do it right! And according to Chris and Lexi Dowding of SwatchOut in Michigan, adequate prep work is the key to success. Labeling your doors, cleaning and prepping the wood, priming, and sanding in between coats of paint are absolutely necessary for a great finished product.

But one thing they say you can skip? You don’t need to sand your cabinets before painting them. In fact, they advise against it. Yes, we realize this may go against everything you’ve ever learned about painting.

Keep reading to find out why they’re anti-sanding and what they do instead.

Why You Don’t Need to Sand Cabinets Before You Paint Them

Chris and Lexi say they’ve never sanded kitchen cabinets before painting them. Why not? “The problem with sanding down to the wood is that it creates the potential for moisture to seep in or out of the wood,” says Chris. Moisture and wood can obviously be a bad combination. And there’s obviously lots more moisture (steam! Spills! Splatters!) in a kitchen than, say, a bedroom where you may want to paint a wooden dresser. “We use a strong resin-based primer that works as a sealer, too, so there’s just no need to sand first,” Chris adds.

(Image credit: Diana Liang)

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of sanding, Chris and Lexi use mineral spirits and a rough scrubbing pad to clean the cabinets thoroughly before priming them. This not only cleans the cabinet (paint doesn’t go on well over grease), but the scrubby sponge also roughs up the surface just enough to make the primer stick. See, the sponge is less rough than sandpaper and just effective enough. And since you’re cleaning the wood anyway, it doesn’t add any more steps to the already-tedious process!

(Image credit: Diana Liang)

When You Should Sand The Cabinets

The only times Chris and Lexi recommend sanding before priming is if the old paint is chipping, you’re trying to change the texture of the surface, or if you’re planning to use a water-based primer.

If the cabinets are in super-bad shape (really scratched or dinged up) or you want to smooth out a wood grain, sanding may be necessary. “I’ve found that most cabinets people want to repaint are in pretty good shape, and they don’t mind if you can see a little wood grain,” says Dowding. If your cabinets are so worn that they need major repairs before painting, it might be a sign that you should be replacing them altogether.

Note: While you don’t have to sand before you prime, you do need to sand lightly after you prime and between each coat of paint. Yeah, it will take a while (probably about an hour and a half for a standard-sized kitchen), but it’s necessary to make sure the next coat goes on well.

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