How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets Like a Pro

Choose a dry day, dig out an old T-shirt, and get to work.

July  6, 2020
Photo by Mark Weinberg

I absolutely adore my apartment, and often joke that I’d like to live there for the rest of my life. The bathroom used to be my one big bone of contention upon moving in, but I've since updated it to be much less visually arresting. I have, of course, begun fixating on smaller, less offensive features in my home, because why be content when you can drive yourself delirious with projects, right?

Currently, my never-satisfied gaze has settled upon my kitchen cabinets, which are a perfectly serviceable Colonial-style (raised center panels with a cathedral arch) oak, finished with a warm stain and shiny varnish. I’d rather them be closer to Shaker style—which is not really within the realm of rental possibility—but would settle for a nice coat of matte paint, should my landlord allow it.

As with almost any home reno project, I turned to my dad. Aside from having done all our home improvement projects himself over the years (building an in-ground swimming pool from scratch, flooring every room in the house), he’s also a woodworker with three decades of experience in the cabinet-making industry. So, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I interrupted him as he built a 3D printer (yes, you read that correctly), to get every last detail on how to properly paint cabinets yourself.

Professionals usually paint cabinets with a two-part catalyzed finish, he says, but that requires a spray booth, expensive equipment, and lots of practice. However, if you follow the below steps precisely, you can get a professional-looking result on your first try. Choose a dry, temperate day (humidity spells trouble for painting), dig out an old T-shirt, and get to work.

Tools of the Trade:

Let's Get To It:

  1. Remove all the doors by unscrewing them from the hinges and take all the hardware off, being careful not to strip any screws. Put the hardware, screws, and hinges in a storage container for later (you don’t want to lose them!). Lay cabinet doors out on a tarp, preferably outdoors, if possible.
  2. If there’s old paint on any of the hardware, gently remove using a stiff brush, and, if necessary, follow with a very fine grit sandpaper (such as 500) to buff it out.
  3. If you’re adding new hardware in different positions on the cabinet doors, fill old hardware holes with body filler, such as Bondo Wood Filler. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to mix the two parts and smooth over old screw holes with a scraper, let set, and sand smooth.
  4. Degrease the cabinet doors and frame with a degreaser like Purple Power. This will get residual grease from cooking and handling off the cabinets, better preparing it for painting.
  5. If your cabinets have layers of old paint (hello, pre-war rental) and you want to start from scratch, you’ll need to apply a chemical stripper. Professional-grade chemical strippers usually contain a chemical called methylene chloride, which is highly corrosive and gives off toxic fumes (read: unable to be used indoors). For this reason, you’re better off using a product like Citrus Strip, which is much less harsh and can be used indoors. As a precaution, open the windows wide and run any fans you have during stripping, sanding, and painting. You’ll also want to be wearing gloves, safety glasses, and a respirator mask if you have one. Apply the Citrus Strip with a paint brush over the entire painted surface and let it sit until it bubbles. Carefully use a scraper to remove paint from larger areas—this part is so satisfying—and a handheld stiff brush to get into all the nooks and crannies. Wipe any residue clean with a slightly damp rag and let dry completely.
  6. Once the cabinets are totally dry (yes, 100 percent dry), sand the surface of the doors and frame with Scotch-Brite Maroon pads. This will create a “tooth” on the surface, which essentially means roughing it up to allow the paint to better stick. Unlike sandpaper, Scotch-Brite pads won’t clog up with finish, grease, or leftover paint, but you can definitely use sandpaper if that’s what you have on hand (starting with 100 grit, and going up to about 300). Get into the nooks by cutting a piece of Scotch-Brite or sandpaper and wrapping it around something that fits—like a scraper or flat head screwdriver.
  7. After sanding, remove all debris by wiping down the entire surface with a very lightly damp rag, and let dry completely (completely!).
  8. Follow up by wiping with a tack cloth (a sticky cheesecloth embedded with beeswax) to remove any remaining dust and particles and create a smooth, blemish-free finish. Open the cloth fully, bunch it in your hand, and wipe all the surfaces.
  9. Tape off your walls, backsplash, and floors with painter’s tape, and line the floor with a tarp or drop cloth. Even the most steady hands slip up sometimes, so you’ll likely appreciate this extra step in the long run.
  10. Phew, it’s finally time to paint! Using a natural hair paint brush (2 inches will get the job done), apply primer (like this one) in a thin, even coat. You can use a small foam roller, too—just be sure to offload as much paint as possible before applying in “W” formations.
  11. Once the primer is completely dry (have I emphasized the importance of patience yet?), thoroughly mix and apply interior cabinet paint (like this one) in smooth, thin coats, using a smaller paint brush for detail work if necessary. Drying times vary between brands—and depend on humidity levels and temperature—so refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to determine wait time between coats.

    And...your work here is done. All that’s left is for you to stand back and admire.

Have you ever painted your own kitchen cabinets? Tell us how it went!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lori
  • John
  • Richard Anderson
    Richard Anderson
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    sonja thomas
  • tia
Caroline Mullen

Written by: Caroline Mullen


Lori August 8, 2020
Try chalk paint. I recently tested out Behr’s version on the smallest bathroom. After a month it’s still holding up and we shower in it daily. Extremely easy to use: no stripping or using toxic products — just light sanding to knock off dirt and grime and to rough up any areas with laminate (kick boards and the side). Sealed it with a polyurethane rather than a wax.

Chalk paint goes on smoothly and dries quickly (it’s water-based too) — minimum 2 hours between coats of paint; Longer for the sealer. Bathroom completed in 3 days (I did 3 coats of both paint & sealer plus down time for having a bad back :(

Google Chalk paint for tips and techniques.

PS Behr‘s chalk paint didn’t smell. There’s other boutique brands available but I was too impatient to mail order.
John August 8, 2020
The problem is not in the smell. It’s in the toxicity of the paint itself. I have letters from many folks who were sickened with the use of this paint. To each his own. Chalk paint is lovely. I do not use toxic products in my home due to chemical injury. I have extensive research background (11 years) that has prepared me to understand how our health is impacted by toxic indoor air quality. I highly advise anyone concerned about health to use non-toxic products from start to finish. Once a product is applied, it’s too late to remove it. Don’t be in a hurry. This is your family. This is your health. Polyurethane is toxic. There are non toxic sealers @ green build
Caroline M. August 9, 2020
Hi Lori, I absolutely LOVE chalk paint, and how easily it covers all imperfections. My dad’s a traditional guy, though, and I went with his suggestion! Annie Sloane is my favorite :)
John August 7, 2020
When I see: respiratory mask & paint stripper, I’m outta there! These are extremely toxic! My neighbor did this project and her house was so toxic that windows and doors had to be open. She came over to tell me something and I nearly passed out from her clothes due to the chemicals from this cabinet makeover. Toxic. Do not expose your kids, your pets, or your family to these potent harmful chemicals. Just go buy non-toxic solid wood cabinets or paint them yourself with non toxic paints & finishes by Vermont Natural Coatings. Also Go to green building and ONLY PURCHASE SAFE NON-TOXIC home materials. The owner of this company, Joel, is a wealth of knowledge. Call them. They do not sell anything toxic. They have beautiful cabinets. Eco advisers will give a wealth of information over the phone & guide you to safe remodeling. Amazing company.
Caroline M. August 9, 2020
Hi John, yes, chemicals like paint and stripper are toxic, and it’s totally up to you about whether you’d like to use them! Thanks for the tips!
Richard A. August 7, 2020
As a contractor in business for 30 years, this is terrible advice. First off, removing any previous finish is hours and hours of tedious and hazardous work. Second, there are cabinet doors made from various materials. They need to be treated in different ways. Solid wood cabinets are the most common, and it is not necessary to remove the previous paint, just sand with 120 grit sandpaper prior to a new finish coat. Third, never use Behr paint!!! It's the worst paint on the market, It pours out of the can like water. Use a professional paint. Either Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams. Fourth and most important, use an oil based paint and add Flood Penetrol brush line reducer. It will require more coats, but the finish will have a factory look finish.
Arati M. August 7, 2020
Hi Richard, Thank you—we appreciate our community chipping in with tips of their own. The writer spoke with someone who has decades of professional experience, and he has provided a basic step-by-step DIY guide for painting wood cabinets (as opposed to hiring a professional). I'm sure there are always supplementary pointers we could all use. Thank you for your feedback.
John August 7, 2020
Good advice, esp., about not using Behr...but not for your reason. It’s toxic. I have read numerous letters from folks who used this and could not stand going into the room w/o getting sick. My niece used it. She began not feeling well. The list goes on. My painter refuses to use Sherwin Williams for the same reason. Benjamin M. Is a safe(r) choice. They have paints that have very low toxicity. Incidentally low voc or no voc is NOT an indicator of toxicity as paints have mildewcides, biocides, etc., which are toxic. The best paint that will not kill you is ECOS - developed by a man who understands chemical sensitivity. I painted my entire interior with this. No headaches, no toxicity, no regret.
sonja T. August 7, 2020
Yes, labeling the drawers and doors is key so they go back where they came from. You also need to lightly sand the primed cabinets before applying the paint.
tia August 6, 2020
I painted my kitchen cabinets (ugh, 90s oak and melamine) and I regret nothing. I wasn't sure it would make a difference; that horrible fingerboard is still there, but it really did, and I like it a lot more now. Lessons learned:

- number the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Mine all looked the same, but they were actually sliiightly different dimensions on every single one. Numbering everything saved me a ton of time when it came to reassembly.
- plan on this taking a while. Repainting my cabinets took most of my free time for an entire month
- keep some of the extra paint. You ARE going to ding the cabinets, and you'll want to be able to touch it up.
- if you have cats, they are definitely going to leave footprints on the doors if they walk on them.
Arati M. August 7, 2020
These are great tips, Tia. And numbering the clever! I would've never thought of that.