Don't Replace Your Kitchen Cabinets - Paint Them

A clean white kitchen.
What You'll Need
100 grit sandpaper
100 grit sanding sponge
Green Scotch scrub pad
Synthetic or Chinese bristle professional brush
Approved respirator
Clean cloths
Chemical deglosser
Sealer brushes
9-in roller pan, roller handle and several thin knap rollers
2 box fans
Professional drop cloths
Mineral spirits or paint thinner

You’re tired of the look of your kitchen, especially the cabinets. They may look dark, dingy, and dirty. You’ve been thinking of replacing them, but don’t want the expense. Don’t replace them - repaint them. A light color on the cabinets will brighten up your kitchen and make it look nice, clean, and brand new. Regardless of the color you choose, you can spray, roll, or brush paint on. With the advances in water-based paint, clean up is a breeze however oil-based options will give you better protection.

Step 1 - Prep and Safety

You will probably need a ladder to reach the top of the cabinets. Never stand on a chair or anything other than a step ladder. Never stand on the top of the ladder and stay off the next step down too. When using an oil-based primer/sealer, you must provide ventilation and an approved respirator, which will cost approximately $25. While you are at the paint store, you should buy all the equipment you will need for this project. You should buy one 12x14 Vinyl/Butyl drop cloth and two 9x12 drops. They are not cheap, but plastic drop cloths just will not do for this job. Also, there will be future painting projects which will go smoother with the professional drop cloths. You will need a finish coat paint brush. Latex paint requires synthetic bristle brushes, oil base paint needs a Chinese bristle brush. Professional paint brushes cost over $20. Cheap brushes are a nightmare. They don’t apply the paint properly, and sometimes shed bristles. Invest in a professional paint brush that will last a lifetime. It will make it much easier to apply the paint. While you are at the paint store, buy three empty metal paint cans.

If your kitchen has a gas range or oven with pilot lights that are always on, pull the range out. There should be a shut-off valve. If it will not turn, soak it with WD-40. If it still won’t budge, soak it again overnight. If it still will not budge, it will need to be replaced. For this, you will have to turn off the gas to the house. Don’t forget to relight all the pilot lights in the house, including water heater, furnace, stove range, and oven.

Step 2 – Empty the Cabinets

You need to empty the inside of your cabinets whether you plan to paint the inside or not. Way ahead of time, get some cardboard boxes at the grocery or liquor store. You’ll be surprised how much is inside your cabinets. Put things in boxes, and clear a table to put things on.

Step 3 – Remove the Doors

Take all the cabinet doors off. When you remove the doors, with a center punch or nail make a small hole in the bottom edge of lower doors and the top edge of uppers. Add another hole for each door, one for door number one and two for two, and so on. Cabinet doors may vary slightly, so they have to go back exactly where they came from.

While you have the doors off, clean any existing paint off of the hardware. An old toothbrush will help with this. To determine what finish is on the cabinets, wet a clean cloth with denatured alcohol. If some paint rubs off, the finish is latex. If not, it is oil base. If it is latex, Goof-off will take off any latex paint. If it is oil base on the hardware, paint remover will take it off, but it may damage the finish on the hardware. Check a small area first to make sure this doesn’t happen.

kitchen with all cabinet doors removed

Step 4 - Clean With TSP

Regardless of what type of finish exists on kitchen cabinets, they will have to be scrubbed with TSP (Trisodium Phosphate). TSP is very caustic. Protect your skin with forearm length dishwashing gloves. Protect your eyes with full size goggles. Your eyeglasses won’t help, so wear your goggles over them.

Fill a two-gallon bucket with water and add TSP powdered cleaner and stir in. Soak a clean rag in the solution and ring it out. Scrub the cabinets to remove all dirt, cooking oils, and stains. Rinse with a clean rag soaked with water, and use a dry rag to wipe it off. If the cabinets have a painted finish, when the cabinets have completely dried, you are ready to paint. If there are any stains and spots you cannot remove, you will need to seal the cabinets with an oil base primer/sealer before painting. If the cabinets are already painted, after you have scrubbed them, you can apply the finish coat.

Step 5 - Remove Wax Buildup

Mix one part white vinegar with one part hot water. Wear your goggles and rubber gloves. Soak a clean cloth with the solution, and wipe it onto the surface of the cabinets. Keep the surface wet, and use a green Scotch pad to break up the wax. Scrub with the pad in a circular motion. As the wax breaks up, wipe the scoured area off with your clean solution of water and vinegar, then use a dry cloth to wipe off the wax. When you have treated all the wood, rinse it with plain hot water. Wipe off the cabinets with a clean dry cloth and blow a fan on them to dry. If there are still areas with built up wax, soak a rag with mineral spirits, and use the Scotch pad to break up the wax, then wipe it off with the vinegar and water solution, rinse and dry. Once the cabinets are completely dry, you will need to seal them with an oil base primer/sealer.

Step 6 - Apply Oil Base Primer/Sealer

painting white cabinets brown

You will need a roller pan, thin nap roller cover, and sealer brushes. Buy some very cheap disposable sealer brushes. Sealer brushes are also called “chip” brushes. The biggest problem with oil base primer/sealer is the fumes. Have a window fan blowing fumes out of the kitchen. You must wear an approved respirator, and periodically go to another room to get fresh air. Roll large areas first, then use the sealer brush to make finish strokes and completely cover the cabinets with sealer. Clean up with mineral spirits or paint thinner. You can also purchase painting gloves so you don’t have to clean the primer off of your hands.

Once the cabinets are all sealed, blow a second fan directly onto them to dry the sealer quickly, and keep the window fan blowing the fumes out. In about an hour, the sealer will be dry to the touch and no longer emitting fumes. You can now paint over the cabinets with two coats of latex or oil based paint. I recommend oil base for a kitchen. It will hold up longer, and kitchen cabinets will be much easier to clean off. If you clean a latex finish, it may dull the surface.

Step 7 - Paint

Depending on the type of paint you're using, the steps are a little different.

Painting Cabinets With Oil Base Paint

You will need a Chinese bristle paint brush, roller pan, a 9-inch roller handle, and a thin nap nine-inch roller cover. Either lightly sand with fine-grit sandpaper, or dull the surface with a chemical deglosser. Only degloss as much surface area as you can paint in ½ hour. Make sure to work the solution into any decorative grooves or sculpturing decorations. Also you should have some empty gallon paint cans. Put about two inches of paint in the “cut” can, and put your brush right into it.

Oil base goes further than latex. It stays wet for a long time, and takes overnight before it can be recoated. You have more time to work with the paint. You will still have to make a finish stroke with your brush to even the paint out, but the brush stroke won’t show. Do not apply excessive oil base paint. You do not need as much paint as you do with latex. If you put on too much paint, it will sag and run. Keep checking for runs for several hours. If there are any, pull them out with your brush. When the cabinets dry for the time indicated on the paint can label, you can apply a second coat.

Painting Cabinets With Latex Paint

touching up paint on cabinet

If painting over gloss or semi-gloss paint, first sand lightly to break the shiny surface. Do not use a chemical deglosser. It gums up and removes latex paint. Just sand with fine grain sandpaper and wipe off any dust with a tack rag.

You will need all the same equipment used for oil base paint, but substitute a synthetic paintbrush for the Chinese bristle. If you are painting the inside of the cabinets, paint the top of the inside of each cabinet. Then blow a fan on the paint. When it is dry to the touch, you can work on the inside of each cabinet without getting paint all over your arms.

Latex is water base paint, and will dry very quickly. Therefore you will need to work quickly. Roll or brush paint on liberally and completely cover the surface you are working on. Then finish off by drawing a straight line from top to bottom or left to right. The brush marks will show, so make them straight. Also, don’t paint over and over, or the paint will be drying as you keep putting a finish stroke on. The paint will gum up and become unworkable after a short period.

When you have finished painting, keep looking for runs for about an hour and pull them out with your brush. Read your paint can information to determine how many hours you have to let the paint dry before you apply a second coat.

A Note on Painting Over Polyurethane

You will need all of your protective gear. Wear your respirator. You will also need a 100 grit sandpaper and 100 grit sanding sponge. Sand all areas to be painted to a dull finish. Use the sanding sponge for sculptured or decorative doors. After you have everything sanded, remove sanding dust with a tack rag.

For a thorough deglossing, besides sanding, you should use a chemical deglosser. Use a clean metal paint can, and put a green scotch scouring pad in the bottom, and saturate it with deglosser. Rub the area you are working on with a clean cloth saturated with the chemical, and wet the area to be dulled, then use the chemical deglosser saturated with chemicals and scour the area. Then wipe off the area you are working on with a clean, dry cloth. Only degloss enough area that will take a half an hour to seal. As you treat one area, seal it with an oil base primer/sealer, then degloss the next area and seal. Keep doing this until you have completely sealed everything. Then you can paint over the sealer with latex or oil base paint.

As you can see, painting kitchen cabinets is quite involved. The project is well worth the work. You will have a new look. It will be like a brand new kitchen without the expense.