Our Cabinet Painting Project
Last fall Meredith and I embarked on a DIY project in our kitchen. You see, we had been living with a half-done kitchen for years. About seven years ago we replaced our original white laminate counters with granite, changed out the square white porcelain backsplash for contemporary gray glass tile, and painted the walls a gray that tied everything together. Well, almost everything. We were so eager to make a change in the kitchen that rather than delay our gratification a little while longer so we could save for new cabinets as well, we just kept the builder-grade oak cabinets, hoping they would at least look better after the upgrade. I’m sure you can guess how that turned out.
In fact, we hated those cabinets more after our update than before. Against the gray tones of our new kitchen, the cabinets looked orange. And by installing granite on top of our old cabinets, we locked ourselves into keeping them.
For years we debated how to best fix the problem. We could pay a refacing company lots of money to change them for us. That didn’t seem like a great idea, since we have lots of other places we preferred to use that money. I suggested that I could reface them myself. I’m pretty handy, after all. Meredith just laughed at that idea, reminding me of the half-finished bookcases I still need to finish in our basement. Or we could paint them. Meredith assured me they would look 10 times better if we painted them. I fought her on it. After seven years of this debate, I finally agreed that she was probably right. We chose a paint color, and I started lots of research about how to paint kitchen cabinets so they will look great and be durable. I’d like to share our process here.
The Tools We Used
Here are the tools we used to get the job done. I’ve listed everything I can think of that went into the project. Some of them may not make sense right now, but I’ll explain.
Klean Strip liquid sander deglosser
lint free rags
3M SandBlaster Pro Edge Detailing sanding sponges – 220 grit
10’x10’ pop up canopy
1 mil plastic drop cloth
10’ electrical conduit
2 step ladders
8’ of black pipe (longer if you have room)
Rockler Sure-Hook 360º
Rockler Sure-Hook Universal Mount
Rockler 35mm paint plugs
Graco TrueCoat 360 VSP airless sprayer
cone paint strainers
Insl-X Aqua Lock Plus primer
Sherwin-Williams Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel
felt stick-on feet
We removed all of the doors and drawer fronts. Since I’m a detail person, I wasn’t about to go about this first step all willy-nilly. My friend Jeff (an engineer) shared with me a thorough written explanation of his process, and I thought his method for doing this was clever. You take each door off one and a time and label everything so it doesn’t get mixed up. I started at the left-most upper cabinet because that’s what made sense to me. I took down the first door and removed the hinges. Because we have European style hinges, there was a little cup where each hinge attached to the door. I wrote a “1” in one of the cups and on one of the Ziplock baggies with a Sharpie. I put the hinges, screws, and doorknob in the numbered baggie and zipped it shut, then I put a small piece of painter’s tape over the “1” on the door so that it wouldn’t get covered by paint. Finally, I made a note on a piece of paper so I would remember which cabinet was number 1. Then I went on to door number 2 and did the same thing.
Once I was done with all the doors, I moved on to the drawers. I chose to start over at 1, but you can do whatever numbering system makes sense. On the drawer fronts there is obviously no hinge cup, so I wrote the number in the center of the back of the drawer front where it will be covered by the drawer when it’s reinstalled, then I covered the number with a small piece of painter’s tape. Also, I reinstalled the drawer handles rather than putting them in the baggies. It was just way too hard to try and pry the drawers open with our fingertips once the drawer fronts had been removed.
Because we have oak cabinets, and because oak is a very grainy wood, we chose to fill the grain on the doors, drawer fronts, and cabinet face frames before we started painting (we chose not to paint the cabinet interiors). This step is optional. You will save yourself several hours of work if you skip it. However, I recommend that you don’t. Let me show you a side-by-side comparison of the back of a door that didn’t have the grain filled (we didn’t fill the grain on the backs of the doors because they aren’t seen all the time) versus one where the grain has been filled.
I tested a few different products to fill the grain. One that comes highly recommended by woodworkers and professional cabinet refinishers is called Aqua Coat. I may not have applied it correctly, but I never got a satisfactory result. I was told that you will never totally fill the grain on oak doors, and I found that to be true, but I wasn’t able to make Aqua Coat work to my satisfaction. My friend Jeff told me that he had good success using Drydex spackle from DAP, so I gave that a try, and it’s ultimately what we decided to use.
Before we started the application, we cleaned all of the face frames, cabinet sides, doors, and drawer fronts with Krud Kutter to get rid of excess grease and oil that had accumulated over years of handling. Once cleaned, we applied a liquid deglosser to prepare the surface for spackle and primer.
We used a putty knife to apply the spackle on the smooth surfaces and used our fingers to get it into the profiled areas on the doors and drawer fronts. The profiles proved incredibly time consuming to sand after applying the spackle in this manner, so if I were to do it again I would make sure to go over the profiles with the putty knife to remove as much extra spackle as possible.
After we let the spackle dry, we sanded all of the cabinet face frames and then set up a table in our garage to sand the doors and drawer fronts. We used 3M edge detailing sanding sponges because they give a sharp edge to get into the edges of the door profiles. When we got to the corners, I would use a 1/2” chisel to remove the excess spackle. The goal is to remove about 95% of the spackle that was applied so that only the wood grain is still white.
Once you have sanded a door (or drawer, or face frame), you want to run over it with a vacuum cleaner with a dust wand attachment to get the loose dust. Then go over each with a tack cloth to pick up the stubborn residue that the vacuum couldn’t get.
This is a time consuming process. Meredith and I spent a combined total of about 8 hours just sanding our 32 doors and 18 drawer fronts. In the end though, I think it was worth it.
Once all of the surfaces were prepared with grain filler, it was time to set up my paint booth. I searched the Internet for a spray booth and didn’t find anything large enough that was economical, so I came up with my own design. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a 10’x10’ pop up canopy like you would take to a picnic. I put the canopy together in my garage, then I used 10’x20’ 1 mil plastic drop cloth to wrap around the canopy and create a booth. I couldn’t get tape to stick to the canopy top, but I found that if I put a small strip of duct tape on the plastic and then stapled it to the canopy, the duct tape gave me a sturdy enough surface that the staple wouldn’t tear out.
The next concern was how I would vent the overspray from the paint sprayer so I didn’t have particles floating around the booth. I purchased cheap disposable furnace filters roughly the size of our box fan and taped one to the bottom of the far wall of the booth. I then cut out the plastic covered by the filter and put the box fan in front of it, creating a filtered stream of air exiting the booth. When the first filter got clogged, I cut out the filter material, leaving the cardboard frame taped in place on the booth wall. Then I just set a new filter in its place. The force of air from the fan held the new filter in place.
The final step in booth construction was to create a rod to hang the doors and drawer fronts on so they could be painted. I tried using galvanized or black pipe, but it was too heavy for the construction of the canopy. It kept trying to collapse on me. I ended up using a 10 foot length of 3/4” electrical conduit. It was light enough not to collapse the canopy, but strong enough to hold a couple of doors at once.
I needed a place to hang doors and drawer fronts as they were waiting to be primed/painted and to let them dry. For this I placed two step ladders in the garage next to the booth and placed a length of black pipe across the ladder steps. I used an eight foot length of pipe because that’s what I had on hand, but if you have more room, use a longer pipe. I ended up filling up the space I had on the pipe and hanging doors and drawer fronts from the garage door tracks.
I needed a way to hang the drawers and door fronts in the booth so I could spray them. I found that Rockler makes hangers and hinge cup plugs exactly for this purpose. They are kind of expensive, but I wouldn’t consider doing this project without them. You can see them in action in the photo above. Because the hangers rotate 360 degrees, I was able to hang a door or drawer front in the booth, spray the front, back, and sides, and hang it back on the drying rack in about 2 minutes. And the hinge cup plugs prevent paint buildup from making the cups too small to reinstall the hinges when you’re ready to rehang the doors.
I could have saved myself lots of hassle by starting this project in the late summer, but because I procrastinated and didn’t start until mid August, by the time I was ready to start spraying I needed to borrow a torpedo heater from a friend so that I could raise the temperature in my garage to the appropriate temperature for applying primer and paint according to the manufacturers’ recommendations. As it was, I had to fire up the heater for 10-15 minutes, then open the garage door a few feet for the last 5 minutes to vent the carbon monoxide before I shut off the heater, closed the garage door, and started spraying.
The paint sprayer I started with was a Wagner FLEXiO sprayer borrowed from a friend. It didn’t have enough air pressure to keep the primer from sputtering as it came out, so I bought a Graco TrueCoat 360 VSP airless sprayer. I love that thing. It sprayed evenly and was super easy to use. Just run the primer/paint through a cone strainer as you fill it and you’re good to go. My only complaint is that the canister on the sprayer wasn’t big enough to spray a coat on every door and drawer front I had waiting, so I had to stop and refill several times throughout a coat’s application. If I had it to do over, I might have splurged for a model that just dips in a gallon can and sprays directly.
The first two coats I applied were Insl-X Aqua Lock Plus primer. My friend Jeff used Insl-X Cabinet Coat on his cabinets and had great things to say about it, so I looked into their primer and found great reviews. They make two primers—Prime Lock Plus and Aqua Lock Plus. I chose Aqua Lock Plus because Its durability and application were rated similarly to Prime Lock Plus, but Aqua Lock Plus cleans up with water. Because we chose a medium gray for our paint color, I had the primer tinted so that it wouldn’t take extra coats of paint to cover it later.
While we were waiting for doors and drawer fronts to dry in the garage, we used paint brushes to apply primer to the front and inside edges of the face frames. These also got two coats.
Once we had two coats of primer applied to everything, it was finally time for paint. I mentioned earlier that my friend had great luck with Insul-X Cabinet Coat. I understand it’s a very durable product, and I would have considered using it if not for the fact that I wanted to match the color in another room of our house, and I wasn’t sure the custom color would match in that paint base. Because the color we wanted to match came from Sherwin-Williams, I chose their Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel so I could ensure a color match with the other room. Emerald also sprayed evenly and was easy to clean up with water. The re-application time was significantly longer than the primer (eight hours vs two), but otherwise I was happy with it. We sprayed two coats of paint on the doors and drawer fronts, and we brushed two coats on the cabinets themselves.
The first house we bought had painted cabinets (which was probably a source of my reluctance to paint these), and I think they just used a latex wall paint. In the summer when that house was a little humid, the cabinet doors would stick to the face frames. With this in mind, I wanted to make sure we didn’t have the same issue with our newly painted cabinets, so after everything was painted, we propped all of the doors and drawer fronts against the wall in the basement and let the paint cure for a week.
This was in some ways one of the most challenging steps. We could see how close we were to being done, so to just let everything sit for a week was difficult. However, I am convinced that the paint got harder in that week’s time as it cured. Plus, after almost two weeks of priming and painting, I was happy to have a little break before hitting the home stretch. At least the booth could come down and we could pull our cars into the garage again.
After our week of rest (for ourselves as much as the paint) it was finally time to put it all back together. We pulled the painter’s tape off of the doors and drawer fronts to reveal their numbers, grabbed the matching bags of hardware, and reinstalled everything. We added stick-on felt pads to all corners of the doors and drawer fronts to prevent two painted surfaces from ever touching. And we just couldn’t do all of this work and then keep the same drawer handles and cabinet pulls, so we replaced them with newer hardware to complete the transformation.
The final step was to paint and install new toe kicks. Because our original cabinets had cheap vinyl covering the toe kicks, I bought new toe kicks in eight foot lengths at Lowe’s and painted them. Then I just had to cut them to length and install them with finish nails.
The Finished Product
We are so happy with the finished product. Meredith assured me it would look 10 times better, and she was so right. And after about two months of use I have noticed no signs of paint chipping or getting scuffed. The Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel has proved to be quite durable so far.
We had the tile floor replaced in our kitchen as the start of this makeover before we started the cabinets. We would like to replace the white appliances with stainless steel before we consider this project complete, but here is the “after” shot.
This was a longer project than I anticipated, taking nearly three months for us to finish. However, we saved thousands of dollars over hiring a company to paint our cabinets, and we have the pride of knowing we did it ourselves.
I hope this has been helpful if you have been considering painting your kitchen cabinets. If I can help you in any way with your own project, please reach out to me. I’d love to help.