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. We got a dog. So it took me 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. But this isn’t a weekend project either. Anyone who says it is, isn’t doing it right. This post is all about painting kitchen cabinets well, which includes knowing how paint cures.

I’ve updated this post to include information on how our cabinets are faring 6 years later!

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Why paint your kitchen cabinets?

We bought our house cheap because it was listed wrong. After they jacked the price up no one was interested anymore and we got a deal. Plus it was ugly. Real ugly. Hadn’t been painted in 20 years ugly. Mismatching carpet upstairs 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 oak cabinets. Painting the walls was a no brainer. I got very good at painting without painter’s tape. But I also wanted to paint the cabinets. One of the homes 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 and were not an option for us. And since ours are solid wood, there really was no need for new cabinets.

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.

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 and hardware 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. I did the doors later so I could focus on all the things in the house that needed to happen before we moved in.

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 (at the time) product they had: Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel. There was a scrap board painted with it. She handed me a key to try and scrape the paint off. I couldn’t. That sold me. I wanted that type of durability for painting kitchen cabinets.

UPDATE: I painted the cabinet frames 6 years ago, and the doors 5 years ago. Both have held up beautifully! Anything that gets spilled or splattered on them is easy to wipe off. I’ve used wet paper towels, dish sponges, and gentle cleaners and everything has been fine. The finish has held and the cabinets look like they did when I first painted them. One drawer has a tiny nick on it (picture below). That’s it.

Even though I used Sherwin Williams paint, I used a Behr color – Paradise Landscape, in a semi gloss finish. You can get any paint brand’s color mixed at whatever paint store you use. The enamel is an expensive can of paint ($109/gallon at the time of this update), 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 and have used the enamel paint again (in other colors) on bathroom vanities in our house.

Can we actually paint now?

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

I started with the uppers and used an angled sash brush for everything. Yup, I painted these by hand. You could roll the sides, but there’s so much that has to be done with a brush it wasn’t worth it to me. After I finished the uppers I went back to where I started and gave everything a quick second coat on the same day to ensure that no orange-y oak stain peeked through. On the second day of painting, I did 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. 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. Our new hardware came with new foam circles to replace them with when we hung the doors.

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. As paint dries, the solvents that are used to carry the paint pigment evaporate. The solvents are what you smell when you paint. To be fully cured, all of the solvents that will evaporate need to evaporate. This leaves behind only the hard, solid coating of paint pigment. Once solvent stops evaporating, paint is cured.

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 somewhere 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.

This is why it’s so important to remove the doors of cabinets when you paint. Paint takes time to cure. Temperature and humidity effect cure time. If you’re putting in the effort of a project like this, take the time to do it well.

Doors and frames that aren’t fully cured will stick to each other. I waited to flip doors between painting sides because they can take on the impression of whatever they’re laying on. It’s also why I waited to hang the doors.

Ever get an impression or smudge in your manicure? The same ideas around cure time apply to painting your nails. Next time you do your nails hold your fingers an inch or two from your nose and sniff once they’re “dry”. If they smell, they aren’t cured and can still be smudged.

BOTTOM LINE: Different conditions and different paints have different cure times, so there isn’t a set time to wait before a surface is usable. Use your nose to detect “paint smell” and err on the side of waiting longer rather than rushing.

Here’s a before and after of our kitchen. Painting kitchen cabinets is a lot of work, but the results are so worth it. Don’t let the amount of work stop you and go pick out some paint colors!

(See this post about drilling holes for new hardware and rehanging the cabinet doors.)


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