Do-It-Yourself Cabinet Painting: Tips from the Pros

Painting cabinets is a tedious but fairly simple do-it-yourself project. However, before beginning the project, there are things to consider before investing valuable time and energy into the project.

Painted cabinets have become very popular. Many homeowners have outdated golden and pickled oak cabinets that they want to get rid of and painting them sounds like an easy solution. In general, painting isn’t hard, however to achieve a showroom like finish is hard.

It is very difficult to achieve a quality painted finish on oak cabinetry due to the soft grain and open pores unique to oak, not to mention the tannin (orange, green and brown stains) that lifts to the surface when waterborne finishes are used, which then requires the use of solvent-based sealers. If the oak has a high tannin level, it can be very difficult to eliminate the problem, even with solvent-based primers. Therefore, when painting oak cabinetry, consider selecting darker colors such as browns, espresso and black rather than lighter colors, such as white. Darker colors do a good job of hiding the soft grain, open pores and tannin stains and allows you to avoid solvent-based sealers. If possible, before beginning the project, make a sample using an old door or the back of a drawer front to ensure that you are satisfied with the end result.

Most of today’s higher-end painted cabinetry, especially lighter painted finishes such as white, is on maple or birch. Maple and birch have similar density (hardness) levels and are free of the issues found in oak and can provide an ultra smooth finish if properly applied. If your cabinets are maple or birch, you should achieve a better result than oak cabinets, regardless of the color used.

Applying a coat of paint to any surface will make it look better for a while, but how long will the new appearance and finish hold up? To enhance the longevity of the cabinet's appearance and finish selecting quality finishes is essential. Today, many paints are all-in-one finishes (primer and paint combined). While these are good for general use, we use a separate primer-sealer and topcoat for our painted cabinet applications.

With all painted cabinetry, particularly maple cabinets, the primer-sealer or basecoat is the most important component to enhance the finish's durability and water and chip resistance, common problems found in painted finishes. We have used many different primer-sealers and found Stix, a Benjamin Moore product, to be among the best. Stix is a premium environmentally friendly, waterborne acrylic urethane, bonding primer-sealer with excellent adhesion, even on glossy surfaces such as glass and tile. Stix creates an extremely hard finish that can be topcoated with many products. After thoroughly cleaning and abrading the doors and drawer fronts, we apply a minimum of two coats of Stix, hand sanding between each coat, followed by a minimum of two topcoats of pigmented (tinted) catalyzed lacquer. Stix can also be tinted to closely match the targeted color, while the pigmented lacquer topcoat is a custom color match. An alternative to solvent-based topcoats is Rustoleum’s Beyond, a premium environmentally friendly, waterborne acrylic enamel that provides a hard, water and chip resistant finish that can be cleaned after it has fully cured, unlike less expensive finishes. As a general rule, when buying finishes for painting cabinetry, more expensive, specialized finishes are generally the best products to use. I recommend always consulting with your local paint dealer.

The next step is to choose the application method: brushed, rolled or sprayed. The application method should, in part, be based on your desired result, as well as the value of the cabinets. If the value is low, then any of the three methods is acceptable. However, if the value is high, or if you don’t have the budget to replace or fix them if the project doesn’t go well, you should then consider renting or investing in a good sprayer.

Spraying is the best method for applying finishes to wood surfaces, especially cabinetry. It is nearly impossible to avoid dust and other debris from contaminating the finish, especially using brushed and rolled on applications. It is even harder to avoid contaminates in lighter finishes, such as whites. However, if applied correctly, spraying can provide a look consistent with new painted cabinetry. There are many sprayers on the market that will a provide a good result, but to purchase a unit (gun, hose and compressor) with enough power to effectively spray thicker paints, expect to pay at least $500. For novices, high volume low pressure (HVLP) sprayers are easy to use. Fuji has a complete line of HVLP sprayers with prices starting at $400; however, I have never used FUJI sprayers. Wagner also carries entry-level sprayers, the 2600 and 2900 models, which I have used and can be purchased for $500 to $600; however, they are not currently available on Amazon. For $900 to $1,300, you can step up to the Graco FinishPro series sprayers. I have had good success with Graco sprayers and they are readily available.

Now that you have selected your finish and application method, it's time to begin the finishing process. Many painting contractors and homeowners like to paint the cabinets in place (not removing the doors and drawer fronts from the cabinet frames). Another method is to pre-number and remove the doors, drawer fronts and trim for refinishing off-site (finishing facility or garage). Finishing the cabinets in place is a faster approach, while off-site finishing yields the best results. Off-site finishing also allows for quick preparation (cleaning and abrading) and a smooth, run-free finish.

Following are the general steps that we take when applying painted finishes to older cabinetry. To avoid being overwhelmed, larger projects can be broken into smaller, manageable projects:

  1. Pre-number and remove the cabinet doors and door fronts (trim and panels also, if possible);
  2. Remove all cabinet hardware; this is a good time to clean, paint or replace the current hardware including the exterior screws;
  3. Thoroughly clean the cabinet doors, drawer fronts and trim; for painted applications, we use TSP, mineral spirits or denatured alcohol and 3M 7447 Scotch-Brite Maroon hand scrubbing pads; please note that water will raise the wood grain, especially on oak; allow the cabinetry to thoroughly dry (at least 24 hours);
  4. Thoroughly abrade (sand) the entire surface (fronts, backs, edges and recessed areas); an orbital sander will expedite the sanding of flat surfaces; use foam sanding pads for the edges and crevices; we use between 80 (maple and birch) and 120 (oak) grit sandpaper to ensure proper adhesion (please wear a dusk mask or respirator while sanding); remove the sanding dust with an air compressor or by hand with a microfiber cloth;
  5. Fill gashes and other surface imperfections with wood filler and allow the filler to thoroughly dry and block sand until smooth;
  6. Repeat Step 5) if the wood filler shrinks;
  7. Apply the first coat of bonding primer-sealer (the first coat should be the thinnest to ensure good adhesion; thin waterborne primer-sealers with water and solvent-based primer-sealers with mineral spirits; allow the doors and drawer fronts to dry completely; lightly hand sand the entire surface, including edges and crevices, until smooth with a 220 grit sanding pad or sandpaper (be careful to not over sand); complete the cabinet backs first; please note that the doors should remain on a flat surface during the entire refinishing process to avoid warping and never lean doors against walls over long periods of time;
  8. Repeat Step 7) one to two times, until an appropriate primer-sealer build has been attained; a proper primer-sealer build is usually attained after 2 or 3 coats;
  9. Apply the first topcoat; usually the first topcoat is the thickest because it is hand sanded until smooth with 320-grit sandpaper prior to a lighter second (final) coat and third coat (if needed); always complete the cabinet backs first;
  10. Repeat Step 9) one to two times, until an appropriate topcoat build has been attained; a proper topcoat build is usually attained after 2 coats (3 coats if needed); please note that Steps 7) through 10) primarily relate to finishing the cabinet fronts; generally, cabinet backs only require 2 primer-sealer coats and 1 heavy topcoat;
  11. Allow the doors and drawer fronts to properly cure after the final topcoat (usually 48 hours);
  12. During the Step 11) curing period repeat steps 1) through 10) on the cabinet frames, panels and trim; when using spray equipment, properly mask off adjacent walls and floors and ensure the area is properly ventilated; box fans are an inexpensive alternative to professional ventilation equipment;
  13. After the cabinet frames and panels are cured reinstall the refinished doors and drawer fronts; consider wearing latex gloves during reinstallation as finishes take a month or longer to fully cure and are susceptible to fingerprints;
  14. Enjoy your project!

Our final advice is to take your time. Painting cabinets is a detailed process and takes a great deal of time to achieve a showroom like finish. Allocating adequate time to the project will show in the results. Good luck on your project. I hope the article helps

About Cabinet Solutions

Cabinet Solutions serves St. Louis, Southern Illinois and surrounding areas and offers cabinet refacing, cabinet refinishing and several lines of new cabinetry. Call 314-305-0976 or click below to schedule a personal in-home or showroom consultation.