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The Ultimate Guide to Painting Kitchen Cabinets

We lived without doors on our kitchen cabinets for over a year. Now before you click away because you’re thinking, “This lady is crazy. I don’t want my kitchen to be unfinished for that long.” I finished painting the cabinet frames before we moved in. Then we went to England. And Bogota. Then got a dog. It took us awhile to swing back around to getting the doors done. If you have your life together, the actual painting part doesn’t take that long. This post is all about painting kitchen cabinets. See this post about drilling holes for new hardware and rehanging the cabinet doors. 

Why paint your kitchen cabinets?

We bought our house cheap. At first it was listed wrong – it had a basement and was priced too low. After they jacked the price up no one was interested anymore. Plus it was ugly. Real ugly. Hadn’t been painted in 20 years ugly. Mismatching carpet upstairs ugly. Y’all I’m talking teal carpet in the bedrooms switching to tan in the hallway as you pass through the door frame ugly. But that’s how we got it so cheap. It also meant a lot of sweat equity for us.

The kitchen was, you guessed it – ugly. Almond colored ancient appliances, crappy linoleum floor, mustard yellow walls, and orange-y builder grade oak cabinets. Just the kind of place you want to entertain friends and family. Painting the walls was a no brainer. I got very good at painting without painter’s tape. This post goes into detail on that. But I also wanted to paint the cabinets. One of the places we looked at while house shopping had teal cabinets that I fell in love with (there’s a picture of that kitchen next to all the paint chips above). New cabinets are stupid expensive. Ours are solid wood, they just needed a face lift.

Our kitchen still has a lot of things I would like to do (new oven, new dishwasher, new floors, new countertops…) but this was a fairly inexpensive update. We paid for paint, new hardware, and a few small tools to hang the hardware with. That’s it. Paint is by far the biggest change to a space for the smallest amount of money. (We updated our fridge in between the painting of the frames and the doors because that nasty almond piece of crap you see here had to go.)

The dreaded prep work.

The absolute worst part about painting is always the prep work. And kitchen cabinet prep work is not for the faint of heart. Chances are you’ll be scrubbing years of grime off your cabinets first. I’m convinced that home-ownership is trips to Home Depot and cursing the previous owners.

Anyway start by taking off all the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. People say you don’t need to do this, but really if you’re going to spend all this time prepping and painting, do it right. This part doesn’t take that long. A piece of numbered painters tape inside the frames and on each door will help you keep track of what goes where later on. While you’ve got the screwdriver out, take the handles off too. I wanted all new hardware so my doors had to come off regardless. No permanently sticky antique brass for me, thanks.

I stacked all the doors and drawer fronts elsewhere and focused first on prepping the cabinet frames. We hadn’t moved in our house yet and I knew I wanted the frames painted before I loaded the cabinets up with dishes and such. Remember the end result will be worth all of the work!

Clean, clean, scrub, sand, and clean again.

You want your cabinet frames to have a clean surface for paint to adhere to. This is the absolute worst part of the job. If your kitchen is like ours was, the cabinets above the oven are sticky, disgusting, and no cleaner seems to remove the grime. That’s when you sand it off. Then the crud clogs up your sandpaper and you curse the previous homeowners. Your hands may never feel like they will be clean again. But they will. Remember skin eventually regenerates and you get new skin. Thanks biology.

In order to reach everything I pulled the fridge out (also cleaning the horrors I found underneath while cursing the previous owners) and removed the drawers from their tracks. I taped the end of the drawer tracks to keep them paint free. I made sure every surface was lightly sanded after it was clean. There’s no need to take things down to bare wood, just a little scuffing to help paint adhere better. Make sure everything is out of your kitchen or you’ll have to clean dust off it too. After sanding I ran a tack cloth over all surfaces to remove any dust from sanding. The tack cloth doesn’t leave behind a residue on the surface of the cabinets, but did on my hands. I found it near impossible to get off, so I kept a paper towel between it and my hand at all times.

The Best Paint for the Job

We bought all of our paint for the house at the same time from Sherwin Williams. It wasn’t cheap, but they were having a 40% off sale and I had big ambitions. I wasn’t quite sure what type of paint to get for the cabinets. The very helpful lady showed me a new product they had: Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel. There was a scrap board painted with it and you couldn’t scrape it off with a key! That sold me. I wanted that type of durability for painting kitchen cabinets. While I recently finished up the doors, the frames have been painted for over a year and a half and have held up beautifully. I can wipe them down when something is spilled on them and they’re like new again.

The color I used is Paradise Landscape from Behr in a semi gloss finish. The walls in our kitchen are Olympus White. You can get any paint brand’s color mixed at whatever paint store you use. The enamel is an expensive can of paint, but it took me less than a gallon to do all of our cabinets. The paint from Sherwin Williams provides excellent coverage and rich color. I highly recommend it!

Can we actually paint now?

You can actually paint now. But chances are you’re tired from all the cleaning and are drinking beer in the shower trying to feel clean again. But you made it to the best part of the project because your progress is much more palpable here!

I started with the uppers and used an angled sash brush for everything. After I finished the uppers I went back to where I started and gave everything a quick second coat to ensure that no orange-y oak stain peeked through. On a second day of painting, do the same thing for the lowers. Make sure whatever you paint on the inside of the frames is consistent all the way around. I did the inside lip on everything.

I laid the doors out in my basement, starting with the lowers (we put them up first since that’s what Gimli boy could stick his nose in). The doors got the same treatment of clean, clean, scrub, sand, curse previous owners and clean again. The backs of the cabinet doors had little foam circles on them that needed to be scrapped off too.

I painted one side, then let them sit a week or 2 before flipping and doing the rest. While painting the fronts, I also painted the edges. To keep the edges accessible, I propped the doors up with books underneath the sheet I laid down. I propped up the lazy susan corners too. Just like with the frames after painting everything I planned for that day, I went back and added a quick second coat to help coverage. For the upper doors I repeated the same process. That means it took me 4 sessions of painting to do the doors over 2-3 months. Each painting session was only an hour or 2 though.

A Note on Cure Times (Ok a Science Lesson)

Paint dries fairly quickly, but takes much longer to cure. Paint is dry when you can touch it and no residue is transferred. But it isn’t cured until it is fully hardened and 100% dry. As paint dries the solvents that are used to carry the paint pigment evaporate. You smell evaporating solvent as you paint. To be fully cured all of the solvents that will evaporate have evaporated, leaving behind only the hard, solid coating of hard paint. Once things stop evaporating you stop smelling solvent.

The internet suggests a fingernail test to check if paint is fully cured. (In an inconspicuous area press a fingernail in to see if it leaves an indentation.) I don’t like leaving dents in my freshly painted projects – even if it’s a backside or something no one will see. Instead I just smell. I’m not talking huffing paint here, but pay attention to your nose. If you still smell paint, it’s still curing.

I waited awhile to flip my doors and hang them. Hanging doors that aren’t cured (especially on cabinet frames that aren’t either) can cause them to stick to the frames or make impressions. The same goes for flipping; they can take on the impression of whatever they’re laying on. The same thing applies to painting your nails. Ever get an impression or smudge in your manicure? Next time hold your fingers a few inches from your nose and sniff. Be careful with your nails as long as they still smell.

Stay tuned for a follow up post about how we drilled holes for new hardware and finished out our kitchen cabinet painting project!

Don’t let the amount of work stop you, you can paint your cabinets! Go pick out some paint colors and pin this post to reference later!

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