Friday, March 21, 2014

How To: Paint Cabinets (Secrets From A Professional)

Hey all, I'm super excited to share this post with you today. I've been working really hard putting all this together. If you don't know me already, let me start by telling you that I am a faux painter. I have been painting for around 14 years, and I have been doing cabinets for about 11 of those years. So I've tried it all, and I made lots of mistakes along the way, and I'm writing this very long post to fill you in on all my secrets to painting cabinets!
Painting cabinets can seem like a really daunting task,  I felt that way when I first started painting them myself. Having the right paint and tools, and being armed with lots of knowledge, is a great way to start. 
So here is all the knowledge you need, plus lots of other stuff you didn't know you needed :)

When bidding out cabinets at a clients house, I get asked two main questions...

 "Are you brushing it on, or spraying it on?"   
Brushing it, verse spraying it...
If you have a spray gun; you know how to use it; you have the perfect place to paint; you can stand covering every inch of your area with plastic; and are willing to wear a respirator, and be covered with paint dust....then go for it. 
I on the other hand, don't like to spray the cabinets . I'm not completely against spaying them, it creates a nice smooth streak free finish, which is great. The problem is how you get there. To use a sprayer with oil based paint, it needs to be thinned out, which changes the viscosity of the paint, therefore making it less durable right off the bat. I can't tell you how many jobs I have done, where I've had to cover up someone else's spray job because it has chipped or peeled of. You can spray two-three extra coats, just to get the same durability as brushing. It also makes it hard to get in the nooks and crannies without over spraying some areas, thus leaving large paint globs. 
If your a pro at a spray gun, then more power to ya. 
I think brushing and a little light sanding between, gives you a more natural look. Yes, it will take a little bit more time. But think of all the time you will save taping up, and covering every square inch of your room with plastic. By the time you do these 1-3 coats, you will have a thick durable product, that will stand up much better to everyday wear.

"Do you take off the doors, or leave them on?"

As for taking the doors off, or leaving them on...I say leave them on for sure!! Especially if your doing fronts and backs. As long as you where gloves, and don't mind getting a little messy, this really is the easiest way. 
If you take off the doors, you need a large space to lay them all out at one time, to do all the fronts. The problem is, the paint tends to gunk up, on the sides of the door while drying...dang gravity! 
So when you flip them over, all the paint has pulled to the edge, and they have a gunky line of paint down the edge. You also must wait until they are completely dry to flip them...which means lots of waiting, and wasting time. I'm not that patient.
 Why not tackle both sides of the door, while they are hanging on the cabinets already. 
Another issue you can run into, especially with older cabinets, is taking off the hinges. When you screw the hinges back onto the base of the cabinet, the screw doesn't find its way back into the same threading, and alot of shifting can occur...I've spent hours fiddling with the hinges, trying to get them all lined up straight...never again! 
Not sure about painting the backs? And what about painting hinges? 
Keep reading, for what to do with all of these tricky situations.

Ok, so lets get to painting...
These photo examples already have the primer coat on them. The primer coat is applied in the exact same way as the base paint I'm about to show you.

Not sure what primer to use?
 Check out my post all about primers HERE, this will help you decide, oil vs latex, and grey primer vs white primer. On cabinets, I ALWAYS use an oil primer.
If you have unfinished cabinets, then you can use latex. But if the cabinets have any stain, paint, or sealer on them, it has to be oil!! Latex will not adhere to a sealed surface. They will most defiantly peel, and chip over time. The primer post, will tell you which are my favorite primers, for each type of project.

When base painting cabinets in an oil, I like to use "Pro Classic" by Sherwin Williams.

When painting in a Latex paint (which occasionally I will do), I use Solo, which is a contractor paint (behind the counter), so you need to ask for it.
I always prefer to use oil, because it is much more durable. I understand some of you are in parts of the country that don't sell oil paint, so maybe use three coats of sealer instead of two here.

Before priming my cabinets, I always give them a good wipe down, I like to use Krud Kutter's "Gloss Off" from Sherwin Williams. You can also use a liquid de-glosser.
Make sure and concentrate around areas that may get more build up of gunk...Vent hoods, Drawers under sinks, pantry cabinets, laundry room cabinets that are near liquid detergent. If not cleaned well, the paint may not adhere, and is much more likely to come off in these areas later..

Before you start your base paint, you'll want to lightly sand the primer coat, sanding in the direction you painted, and pressing lightly. You don't want to take the paint off, but you do want them to be smooth. A  150 grit is good for this. 

Here is a numbered guide to the steps/direction to painting cabinets.

To paint I use what is called a "Chip Brush". You want to use a natural bristle, much softer and forgiving. Make sure it isn't the synthetic plastic kind, these are terrible, though I haven't seen them in a store for quite sometime.
You can go with a fancy brush here, but they are hard to clean after painting all of your cabinets, and a chip brush, you can just throw away. They cost less than $2 for the 3" size I'm using. 
I run a new brush, roughly across my fingers to get out any loose bristles. Do it a bunch of times. There is nothing more frustrating than picking brush hairs out of your nicely paint door! 

You don't need alot of paint on your brush. Less is better here, you don't want it to glob up.

1. To start the base paint, you will want to fill in the deepest area first. Your cabinets may not look exactly like these, but most have some sort of grooved panel, that is similar. Paint this whole area first, going all the way around the cabinet, see the purple #1 in the example above. It should look like the second picture when your done. Don't worry about getting it on other areas of the cabinet. As long as you don't walk off and leave it, you wont see any of those messy spots. 

2. Next you will want to paint the flat portion of the panel. Going in the direction of the grain. Most cabinets should go up and down, but smaller doors like above a fridge or on a drawer will go left to right. See the yellow #2 in the example above. 

3. For the next step you will paint the top and bottom of the cabinet only. This will be in a left to right direction, keeping as straight as possible. You will notice that the sides of the door, and the top and bottom pieces, have the grain going in different directions. It is important to stay with the direction of the grain when doing the door. Overlap the paint just a bit onto the side pieces, like seen in the second picture below. 
This will be the red #3 in the diagram above, do the top and bottom at the same time.

4. Now you will be working on the side pieces,  the orange #4 on the diagram. Do the right and left side. Going in the direction of the grain, up and down.

You will want to take the brush and along the edge of these two seams you see below. Making a straight line down.

5. & 6. Lastly run th brush along the top of the door, the green #5 in the diagram. Then down the side edge, the blue #6 in the diagram. If your painting an upper cabinet, be sure and get the underneath part of the door, instead of the top.

You will want to work on only one door at a time, so not to have any drying lines. I keep both doors closed, until I finish the fronts of both, then move to the back and base of the cabinet. This keeps any splatter from getting in the cabinet.
Hold the door with one finger underneath (preferable a glove covered finger) to paint the back. For upper cabinets, hold the door from the top of the door, with a finger.

If you plan on painting the insides, of the cabinets here are the steps.

Not sure if your cabinets need a coat inside?
Are you painting a drastically different paint color on your cabinets, than whats on the inside of the door? Then do them.
If the inside of your cabinets are particle wood, and you would be left with three colors of cabinets, by painting just the front and leaving the back, then think about doing them.
If you would be bothered by opening them up and seeing the old color, paint the backs.
 If your going for a quick update, and your not really concerned about what is inside, then leave them.

If your not painting the backs, then you can skip to step 2.

1. Start with the deepest groove on the back of the door. Not all cabinets have this, some will be just plain, others will not have a raised panel in the center. Either way, paint this first.

Next, if you plan on painting the hinges, this is when you will do this. If you don't, you need to tape around the hing portion on the door, and on the top and bottom of the pieces mounted to the cabinet itself.
Painting this is a preference thing....I always paint these, I think it's a cleaner look when you open the cabinet door, and it is all the same. If you leave it, make sure and clean up the metal of any paint marks with some "Goof Off".
When painting the hinges, be sure to really get your brush down inside the hinge area.

Some older cabinets have an outside mounted hinge...This is where it gets tricky. The way these types open and close, the metal will always rub against the metal. No amount of prepping or painting will keep your paint from rubbing off in this area. If you do paint them, the paint will gunk off in that area and you will see a chunk of metal coming through.

So what to do then?
 I usually tape of these types, very carefully. A thin roll of blue tape about 1" works well for small areas. I've tried all sorts of tricks, even Vaseline, but nothing works besides tape.
Another option is to replace the hinges, to an inside mount.
If your thinking you may do it sometime...go ahead and do them now. You don't want the unpainted portion, and screw holes showing later.
Sometime this is a cheap and easy fix, other times it's not.
Take the door, with the hinges attached to the hardware store, and compare the size and style of what you have. You don't want ones that will make the cabinet sit away from the base, you'll see a big gap between the door and base when they are closed.  If you decide to go the route of replacing hinges, I would install them first, then paint around them, or over them, filling any old holes with wood putty.

Next I brush between the hinges, on the top and bottom of them, and lastly on the base part of the cabinet that the hinges area attached to.
Then continuing around the door, the same way the front was done.

2. Paint the lip surround of the cabinet. Sometimes this sits flush with the rest of the inside cabinet, if so, a line of tape will help keep your line straight. Or you you can just eyeball it if you have a steady hand.
If there is a lip, or a drop down, you have a little more wiggle room. If your cabinets are already full of stuff, be careful not to run the brush along everything :)

3. & 4. Then just finish the bottom and top portion on the cabinet base, as seen on the diagram above.

Tricky Things...

The space between the door and the base of the cabinet is a tight fit, and sometimes hard to reach from the outside. If you take your brush and smush (technical I know)  it between the two, then run it all the way up, covering any bare areas. This is only if your painting the backs. If your not, a small artist brush will get any areas that are hard to reach.

Between drawers....What I normally do with drawers, is take them all out, stacking them in order. Then I  paint the base of the cabinet, and stick them all back in. Starting at the top I paint each drawer, with the one your working on, pulled out the farthest, so paint wont drip in the other drawers. Lastly, double check the sides and top of the drawers, and leave them propped open.

When painting drawers, I run my brush around the outside of the edges first, then I get the flat portion of the drawer. The helps keep out any wonky brush streaks you may get from doing the edges second. 

If you use to much paint on your brush, this is what will happen.The paint starts to sag.
Always do a double check of the last area you painted, before the paint starts to set up. Just lightly run your bush over the area, to soften out the paint.

If you do get drips, they usually occur just underneath the corners of the door. If  the paint is already set up, wait till it fully drys, then give it a light sanding.

How many coats do you need?
Depending on what color your cabinets started with, and what color your painting them, you may have to do two coats of base paint, over at least one primer coat. Each coat of paint gets easier, and will soften to a more finished look.
Be sure to prop open the doors and drawers for at least 24 hours after each coat. Also try not to use your kitchen during this process, go out to eat even, tell your spouse I said so, my clients love that! Water from sinks can make permanent marks on the cabinets.

Where to stop the paint?
If your only doing the fronts, this is where I stop. Only paint on the facade of the cabinet.
Dont paint the lip (though it is painted in this photo). This is because the lip that the hinge part sits on, cant be painted if your not painting the back of the door. Confusing I know, but it looks more finished this way.

If you are painting the fronts and backs, go to here. Like I did in this photo.

Changing Hardware?
If you know you are changing out the cabinet hardware. Make sure you have the new stuff before you start. With older handles, it is hard to find handles that line up to the same holes. If they don't, you will need to cover all, or some of the holes. Use wood putty in the hole, you may need to do two coats since it will set in a ltittle when it dries. When filling the hole, fill it up good, and make sure you have a bit extra gunked on the outside. Once dry give it a good sand until it is smooth, don't press into the hole, just over it.

When you completely finished painting wait 2 days before drilling new holes. Use a template, to make your life much easier, most home improvement stores sell them.

Door Bumpers?
Most cabinets already have these installed. You may have old gummy ones that seem to stick to the base, or plastic ones. If you are painting the backs of the doors, you must take these off. Clean the area underneath with "Goof Off". If you try to paint over the bumper, the paint from the bumper, will end up adhering ti the base of the cabinet. It's always better to start with fresh plastic, or felt pads anyways, even if you don't paint the back. If you are using felt, you can attach them 24 hours after the last coat of sealer. If your using plastic ones, you may need to wait 48 hours, for the plastic to stick to the oil sealer. Keep the doors open until the bumpers are on, this will keep the door from sticking to the cabinet base.

Cleaning up?
If you don't end up painting the back of the doors, you may end up with a gunky line like this, depending on how careful you are.

To clean this, I take a flat razor blade (buy a small box of these..super useful), and run it down the line of paint. Don't press into the wood, or you'll cut your wood. Whats left will easily clean with a rag and some "Goof Off".

When is it finished?
When you have all of your base coats on, how many ever it takes to have a good solid surface, you will want to seal them. I will dive into sealer on another post, but for oil based cabinets, I use a "Wipe on Poly" by Minwax, in oil based (gold can), satin finish. This does have a bit of a yellow tint to it, and can yellow more over the years. If your using a latex paint, you can use the latex version of this wipe on sealer (silver can).
The wipe on, gives it a natural finish, like furniture. Stay away from a gloss or semi gloss. You apply this with a lint free cloth, or a staining pad, by dousing it with the sealer, and wiping it on.

Leave the cabinet doors propped open for at least 40 hours, even if you didn't paint the backs. You want to be very careful with them for at least 2-3 weeks while the paint cures. When your using oil, it does take longer since the paint is heavier, and you have thicker layers. They will dent and scar if your not careful.
I always tell my clients to add hardware, always.
It's like jewelry for your cabinets, it finishes them off, and it keeps your finger nails, and grubby hands form messing up the cabinets.

Painting a bigger piece of furniture?

If you have alot of large flat surfaces, a small roller with a little bit of texture works well here. Don't use the foam kinds, they don't deposit much paint (which is clearly what I'm using here). 

After you make a good pass of the roller, I lightly brush out the paint in the direction of the grain.
Make sure you don't paint part with a roller, and part with a bush, you will see the difference in texture.

WELL, was that a plethora of information??? I'd say!
If your not ready to tackle your cabinets just yet, "Pin" this, so you have it for when your ready to get working.

Here is some cabinet inspiration to get you motivated.
These are all cabinets I have done over the years. Mine all have some sort of glaze, or process over the base paint. Hopefully I'll get to the how-to on that, sometime soon.

These are my Kitchen cabinets. You can see the whole kitchen makeover here.

Bathroom cabinets can always use some color.

Islands are the perfect space to add some color to a kitchen, or go neutral in a darker room. This helps it stand alone, like a piece of furniture.

Think about mixing the colors up.

You can even go dark with your base paint, do black cabinets in a kitchen, make sure you have enough light in our space, to support this decision though.

I hope I covered most everything. If you have questions about any of this, or something I didn't cover, please feel free to ask it in the comments section at the bottom of this post. I'll try to answer what I can.


  1. Hi. Thanks so much for this amazing tutorial. Could you please tell me what color paint you used for the gorgeous turquoise cabinets below the wood-stained ones? It's time to repaint our bottom cabinets and our color scheme (that'd we'd like to keep) is quite similar.

    Thanks so much:)

  2. How do you give it the "Antique look"? Do you use a Glaze? What color Glaze do you use and how do you apply it?

    Thank you!

    1. Here is the follow up post on glazing cabinets

    2. I have been toying with the idea of painting my kitchen cabinets for sometime now and was finally going to give it a whirl. I'm so glad I found your post. I can see I would have been dissatisfied with my efforts when done. I feel very informed after your tutorial. Thank you for sharing your gifts freely with others. Wouldn't the world be a nicer place if we all did that. God Bless.

  3. Also wondering the antiquing process...

    1. Here is the follow up post on glazing cabinets

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Wow, what a great post! Thank you for sharing so many great tips. I am planning to paint my kitchen island soon and wanted to use the exact color you used on the turquoise island above (2nd to last pic) you mind to share the color you used? Looking forward to hearing back from you.
    rhonda :-)

  6. love the kitchen, also if I can ask what kind of flooring do you have, I think that would brighten up my kitchen...

  7. What kind of white did you use for the tutorial?

  8. Hi, great article. For the lower grade cabinets with veneer sides will the oil based primer work on there as well or do we have to sand first?

  9. terririjos1@yahoo.comJune 8, 2015 at 4:36 PM

    Looooooove the turquoise island. I too would love to know what paint color you used.

  10. What color paint was used to paint the turquoise colored island ?

  11. Very detail instructions. Thanks. And your kitchen looks really nice.

  12. This is a great tutorial. I can hardly wait to get started. I was also wondering how to do the antiquing. Do yo have a tutorial on that also?

    Thank You

  13. What is the name of the green paint on the cabinets shown at the bottom?

  14. I am a "chalk painter" (furniture). How do you feel about using chalk paint for cabinets? If so, since it is water based, what sealer or finish would you use PRIOR to glazing. I'm trying to avoid waxing after paint but I know I need a finish coat before I can glaze. Please help....I have a client that wants this done....I want to do it right!
    Thank you, Dee

  15. Painting & antiquing/glazing new cabinets/raw wood----kitchen, bathroom, and entertainment center. What type of paint should I use oil based paint or latex/water based paint and sheen of paint? Thanks

  16. My cabinets are currently very dark. Do you recommend waiting the 2-3 weeks to let the paint cure before I glaze for the distressed look?

  17. I love your tutorial. Just a couple questions I am a little confused about from reading other articles. the first is about painted hinges. I have read that the paint will chip off from the rubbing. My cabinets are painted with oil base enamel and my cabinets doors were left on while they painted. They sanded first before priming but did not de gloss the cabinets. Just want to make sure my hinges and cabinets in your opinion will be ok

  18. My hinges on my kitchen cabinets were painted white when they sprayed as he did not take the doors off. I've read other articles where that could cause paint chipping and stickiness. It is oil based enamel. Also the painter did not de gloss first just sanded before priming then sanded again before painting.Just wanted your opinion if you think my cabinets will be ok.

  19. Hi Alyson. Thank you for such a detailed post. I have just arranged to have a custom kitchen island built in our small kitchen & to save $$ on the project (almost $1000) I am painting it myself. I am not new to painting but certainly no expert. Your post referred more to refinishing an existing cabinet. Curious what steps you'd take for a brand new piece. It will be made from Alder. It will come pre-sanded & I am painting in a medium shade of blue-on the darker aside. My assumption is this: I will prime the cabinet with a water-based primer (one coat I was told is enough?). Next I will do the first coat of paint, let dry, lightly sand it off, do the second coat, let dry. Next I plan to antique it a bit with some darker glaze. Then, I need to add a finishing coat (poly?) since it will be used in the kitchen. far off-base am I? Anything you'd recommend/change/add? I'd like it to look professional but I don't want a flat look with no character. Thanks so much! You do amazing work!