When Tammy Fawcett and her husband, David Farber, purchased their first home in 2009, they had no kids, a tight budget and a kitchen full of bright yellow cabinets.
“The entire cabinetry was painted school-bus yellow, so we needed that to go. Immediately. It just really, really had to go,” Fawcett says. “That was the very first thing we did moving into the house — before we even moved in furniture — was pull off all the cabinet doors.”
In addition to those yellow cabinets, the 1917 home in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood had outdated appliances that the couple needed to replace. “It was an old enough house where every single appliance had to go,” Fawcett says.
The financial outlay for new appliances left Fawcett and Farber needing to cut costs elsewhere, so they elected to re-do the kitchen cabinets themselves, from sanding down the yellow paint to priming and repainting. The project required a ton of time and effort, Fawcett says, plus a good amount of trial and error.
“We didn’t really invest properly in the kind of tools [required for a] DIY project,” she says. “I was just [sanding] by hand, so it would take me a long time — well over an hour for every single door.”
Unsurprisingly, this wore on her patience.
“I ended up doing so much of it by hand that I’d get tired of it, and I’d be like, ‘You know what? This is good enough.’ I didn’t take it fully down to the wood or fully down to the original paint,” she says. “I took it down until I was sick of it, and that was my biggest mistake.”
After priming and painting, they ended up with cabinetry in hues of pale yellow and cream that still grace the home, which now houses their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. But while the family has lived with the DIY paint job for a dozen years now, Fawcett and Farber aren’t fully satisfied with the results.
“It’s not perfect,” Fawcett says. “After all these years, you can see how the paint is really easily coming off, and it’s getting kind of gummy. It was just because of my impatience, because we didn’t invest in any of the tools that we really needed to do it [properly].”
Now, with more money to spend but less time on their hands, they’ve decided to take another crack at it. Fawcett is starting with a few cabinet doors that had been removed during the first painting project but left unpainted. (The cabinets were left doorless during the interim years.) They invested in better tools, including a high-end Festool Rotex power sander. “And that really was the key,” she says.
The family is very happy with the results so far. “They look great,” Fawcett says of the newly painted doors. “So now I need to very slowly start going through all the additional cabinets. If they had been done right the first time, they’d probably still be in excellent shape.”
Taking your time and doing it right from the very beginning is critical for a project like cabinet painting, says Ezequiel “EZ” Pacas Gomez, owner of Kent-based EZ’s Painting.
“It’s all in the prep work,” he says. “If you don’t prep things right, it’s not going to come out right.”
Matt Houghton, owner of Tera Painting in Seattle, says that when it comes to painting cabinets, the quality of your tools makes a big difference in the finished product, as Fawcett and Farber discovered. This can be a good reason to trust the job to the professionals rather than tackle it yourself, Houghton says: With less-than-professional tools, the end product is “not the same level of quality.”
Still, many homeowners choose to paint their own kitchen cabinets, whether to keep costs down, to stretch their skills or to keep the number of people inside the house to a minimum.
Whatever reason, the good news for DIYers is that pretty much any type of cabinet can be painted.
“Whether your cabinet surfaces are wood or laminate, any texture that can be scuffed with sandpaper can be painted, transforming your kitchen with a fresh, new look,” says Gary McCoy, a paint expert with Lowe’s.
If you’re looking to paint your own kitchen cabinets, how should you approach the job to get the highest-quality results? We talked to the pros to find out.
Step 1: Remove the doors and label everything
Begin by taking everything out of your cabinets — you certainly don’t want your dishes in there while you’re trying to paint — and then take off the cabinet doors, drawers and hardware. Be careful, though, not to lose track of any pieces or where they go.
“To keep the hardware organized and avoid misplacing, use bags to store the pieces, and use painter’s tape to label your doors and drawers to match their corresponding cabinets,” McCoy says. “This way, you’ll avoid replacing an incorrect cabinet drawer on a cabinet after you’ve finished painting.”
Pacas Gomez recommends that after you take off the hinges, you write numbers where the hinges sat on the cabinet frames to match the doors that you’ve removed, and cover the number with tape.
“This way, when it’s time to paint the cabinets, you’ll paint over the tape rather than over the number,” he says.
After painting, you can remove the tape, revealing the number underneath. When you put the hinges back on, they’ll cover up the number and keep it from becoming a post-project eyesore.
Step 2: Clean and repair
In the kitchen, cabinets often have grease and other cooking spatter on their surfaces, and it all has to come off.
“If you don’t degrease them, it’s going to be a huge mess,” Pacas Gomez says. “Sometimes you cannot even see it, but when you start scrubbing them, all the grease starts coming out.”
He recommends using a commercial degreaser such as Simple Green or TSP (trisodium phosphate). If the cabinets still feel a bit tacky after one application, go over them a second time.
Now is also the time to make any needed fixes.
“For cabinets that may have a little wear and tear, we recommend repairing any imperfections before painting,” McCoy says. “For wood cabinets with holes or deep scratches, use a wood filler to fill the holes, and smooth out the filling with a flexible pudding knife.”
Step 3: Sand, sand, sand
After you’ve cleaned the cabinets and removed (and labeled) the doors and hardware, break out the power sander or sandpaper and begin working on the doors and frames.
“Sand everything really good,” Pacas Gomez says. “You’ve got to sand it all.”
McCoy adds that you should “follow the grain of the cabinet texture.”
Even if the cabinets don’t have paint to be removed, sanding is a vital step. “You’re trying to create some roughness,” Houghton says, so that your primer and paint will stick to it. He recommends using 150-220 grit for this job.
As Fawcett found with her cabinets, the tools you use can make a big difference in the amount of time this process takes. Still, while power sanders will shorten your sanding time dramatically, they’re not strictly necessary.
If you choose to sand by hand, McCoy says, “use a medium-defined grit sandpaper folded in half, or a sanding sponge. We’d suggest a sanding sponge: It’s easier to hold and enables you to get into the corners of cabinets.”
Step 4: Clean some more
Once everything is fully sanded, it needs a thorough cleaning with a vacuum and tack cloth to clear away the dust and sanded material.
“There’s an acronym we use: SVT,” Houghton says. “It stands for Sand, Vac, Tack.”
Use a vacuum hose to remove the dust, then wipe everything down with the tack cloth, which is material that has been treated with a tacky substance to lift off dust, lint and other particles.
Be thorough with this step; you don’t want those particles on your cabinets when you start priming.
Step 5: Primer time
“Once you’ve completed the prep work, the next step is to prime your cabinets,” McCoy says.
But be careful which kind of primer you choose.
“A basic primer is not going to do the trick,” Houghton says. Depending on what kind of cabinets you’re working with, he recommends either a bonding primer or an oil-based primer.
There are two aspects to priming. One is to bond the paint to the cabinet, and the other — if you’re working with wood cabinets — is to block tannins in the wood. Bonding primer will be great for bonding the paint, Houghton says, but not so good at blocking tannins.
If you’re working with cabinets with tannins in the material, Pacas Gomez says, an oil-based primer is a better choice because it will prevent anything from bleeding through. Oak cabinets are especially rich in tannins, but even maple and mahogany call for an oil-based primer.
If your cabinets aren’t wood, bonding primer may be a better choice — and some surfaces require it. “While there are a variety of cabinet surfaces, if your cabinets are laminate, you’ll need to use a bonding primer to ensure the paint will stick,” McCoy says.
To apply the primer, McCoy recommends using a slanted paint brush and a mini foam paint roller. “Start off with your frames by using the slanted paint brush to get the detailed areas of cabinets, using an up and down motion following the grain of the wood and spreading evenly,” he says.
Next come the cabinet doors. Using painting tripods to raise them off your work surface will make it easier to reach nooks, grooves and other tricky spots.
Once you’ve primed one side of the door, allow it to dry thoroughly before priming the other side. “Remember, primer doesn’t have to look perfect, it just needs to cover your cabinets,” McCoy says.
After all of the primer has dried, “use a fine-grain sandpaper and give it another sand all over,” Pacas Gomez says; otherwise, “little imperfections will be magnified.”
He and Houghton both recommend 220 grit for this light sanding. Then wipe away the sanded dust again.
Step 5: Paint
“Do not use cheap paint,” Pacas Gomez says. It’s imperative to use high-quality paint — nothing heavily discounted or from an unfamiliar brand, he says.
In his professional projects, Pacas Gomez likes using Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel by Sherwin-Williams. Houghton says he often chooses Benjamin Moore’s Advance brand.
McCoy suggests using an acrylic, latex-based paint in a semi-gloss or satin finish.
“Acrylic, latex-based paint is durable and easy to clean,” he says. “On the other hand, avoid using a high-gloss or flat finish. High-gloss can show imperfections, while a flat finish can be more difficult to clean.”
If you’re able to acquire a paint sprayer like the pros use, you’ll see much better results over the brush-and-roller technique. “A roller and a brush are never going to give you the same look as a sprayer,” Pacas Gomez says.
If you don’t have a sprayer, McCoy recommends using an angled brush to paint the detailed areas and a mini foam roller for the larger spaces. Apply paint in the direction of the wood grain.
Paint from the inside out, starting with the door’s panel and working your way out to the rails on the door.
As with the primer, allow all pieces to dry completely. For an additional level of durability and ease of cleaning, McCoy says, “you can add a coat of polyurethane once the doors and drawers are dry.”
After everything is fully dried, use the hardware to reinstall the doors and drawers, using the labels from Step 2 as guides.
One thing to be aware of is that if you start the job yourself, you’ll likely have to finish it yourself. Pacas Gomez cautions that if you decide to turn a half-finished project over to professionals, they’ll likely start the whole process from scratch.
“Once you start a project, no painter’s going to want to come in and finish it for you,” he says.
To be sure, doing a painting job on your kitchen cabinets is a high-effort endeavor. But with time, patience and quality tools, you can produce cabinets you’ll be happy to live with for many years to come.
And Fawcett found that there are personal benefits to the journey, too.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction when you can look at a part of your home and know you did that. You took care of it, you repainted it,” she says. “It’s something that gives you additional ownership in your home, which I’m really proud of.”