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Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Kendall Holmes

We're trying to freshen our kitchen on a budget of $1,000 or less. The finish on our wood cabinets is dark and worn, but the cabinets are otherwise in good shape. Can we paint them? How and with what?

++CTA++Painting is a great idea and you'll have $900 left over to spend on countertops, flooring, lighting, or maybe even a weekend getaway once the paint job is done.

Of course, you may appreciate that mini-vacation by the time you're done: Painting cabinets is a slow project -- one where failure is likely if you skip any of several important (but dull and time-consuming) steps.

To do this job:


  • Start by removing the doors and drawers of your cabinets. Bring them to the cellar or garage, where you can lay them flat to work on them.
  • Next, give the doors, drawer fronts and the cabinet frames a good scrubbing. Use a strong cleaner to cut through grease, grime and dirt. Paint won't stick to your cabinets if any gunk is the way. So scrub hard and use plenty of water. Dry everything with a towel once you're finished scrubbing so the water you've cleaned them with doesn't soak into the wood, causing things to warp.
  • Just as scrubbing is crucial, so is sanding. Paint sticks best to a roughed-up surface. By sanding, you are creating these grooves as you cut through the clear, smooth surface of the lacquer or urethane finish that was applied at the factory. Use a medium-grit paper, sanding until the surfaces are dull.
  • You're almost ready to paint. Before you start, use a tack cloth to clean dust from the surfaces you'll paint. Then vacuum the floors.
  • Now you can prime your cabinets, doors and drawer fronts. Primers come in both oil- and water-based suspensions, just like finish paints. Oil-based primers grip better. This isn't an issue when you're priming bare wood, but your cabinets still have a layer of old finish on them. To be safe, use an oil-based primer.
  • After allowing the primer to dry overnight, you're finally ready to do what you set out to do: Paint your cabinets. Your goal is to create a hard, glossy surface -- one that will look nice and be easy to keep clean

The hardest, glossiest paint readily available to homeowners is the stuff that comes in pressurized spray cans. Don't use it. Spray paint is messy to work with. It runs, it drips and overspray gets everywhere. Plus, the fumes are downright noxious.

Your best bet is to buy a gallon of premium-quality, high-gloss paint. You can use either oil- or water-based paints. Each has advantages:

  • Water-based acrylic paints are slightly easier to apply and clean up after than their oil-based cousins. Plus they don't stink as much when they're drying.
  • On the other hand, acrylic finishes aren't quite as shiny or glossy as those created by an oil-based enamel. Nor is the finished layer quite as hard. And while water-based paints dry to the touch more quickly than do oil paints, they take longer to reach their full hardness.

The bottom line? Oil-based finishes will probably hold up better on your cabinets. Their hard, glossy surface is easier to keep clean.

One final note: Wooden door panels painted during the summer can shrink enough during the winter to reveal an unpainted (and ugly) paint line. The reason is that wood shrinks when the air is dry, swelling when it's humid. So, before summer arrives, get busy and paint!

Ken Holmes is an award-winning print and web journalist and editor, as well as a former contractor.


About the Author
By Kendall Holmes, The Old House Web

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