9 Steps to Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Painting & Refinishing Cabinets: 9 Easy Steps

When it comes to interior painting projects, cabinet painting & refinishing are transformative, but large cabinets are labor-intensive, costing between $800 – $6000,00. Painting and refinishing cabinets the right way requires time and demands skill, product knowledge, and a detailed understanding of the process.

On the other hand, refinishing cabinets is extremely rewarding and can transform a kitchen or bathroom in a restorative way. Cabinet refinishing is also less costly than replacing old cabinets with newer, high-quality cabinets.

Here, we go into detail, outlining how to paint kitchen or bathroom cabinets as professionals, ensuring you or your painters are taking the right approach for the best results.

Preliminary Setup & Preparations

Most cabinets are found in either kitchens or bathrooms, and being unable to utilize these areas is a major inconvenience. So, when preparing for a cabinet refinishing project, you want to ensure you are doing all you can, keeping the area clean while painting or restoring.

Floor Covering

Taking on cabinet painting as a DIY project will likely require several days. The step that most homeowners gloss over is the need for added precaution, masking the flooring with paper, plastic, and painter’s tape instead of solely using drop cloths. Precise paper and plastic placement will enable added surface protection, allowing easier cleanup and the ability to maintain clean flooring throughout the process.

Dropcloths will shift and move around under heavy foot traffic, allowing dust and other contaminants to make their way underneath the dropcloth and onto the floor. Dedicated cabinet paints are hard to clean and remove from unwanted surfaces, so the added protection is vital to cabinet painting.

Removing Hinges

Achieving a uniform cabinet finish free from brush marks, laps, or drips is largely what makes cabinet door panels and boxes appear professionally painted. In order to achieve an even finish, cabinet knobs and hinges must be removed. If you plan to install new hardware, fill the existing holes if the new hardware mounts differently.

Determining the hardware configuration is an important part of cabinet refinishing. Knowing if the new hardware size is different and filling the holes before painting will remove the need for future touch-ups.

Door Hanging & Work Space

When there are several cabinet doors, managing where to hang and store them is logistically the hardest part of the process. Professional cabinet painters will paint the doors off-site or set up a paint booth in a large room or garage.

Having or creating a drying rack is the most convenient way of spraying cabinet doors. Using the best-rated paint sprayers will also improve results.

Cabinet Painting Steps

Step 1: Cleaning

So, now that everything has been considered in terms of setup, it’s time to make sure the cabinets are free from oil, grease, and other contaminants that jeopardize paint adhesion. The easiest way to degrease stained or painted cabinets is with soap and water.

With a large rag, gently use Dawn dish soap or mild degreasers to remove cooking oils from cabinets. Never submerge cabinet doors in water; dry the surface with a towel or rag immediately after cleaning.

Cabinets containing raw, unprotected wood must be heavily sanded to remove grease. Saturating raw wood with water will damage the cabinets.

Step 2: Sanding & Deglossing

Thanks to the advancement of paint products, sanding prepainted cabinets is often only recommended when removing paint drips and texture and dulling shiny surfaces to improve paint adhesion. Removing shiny surfaces on cabinets only requires light manual sanding.

Most stained wood cabinets are coated with polyurethane and other urethane enamels. Woodgrain orientation and the existing coating determine how much sanding is needed. Oak wood cabinets have a deep wood grain, requiring advanced sanding. On the other hand, cabinets with older, degraded coatings and smoother finishes require less sanding.

Restoring stained cabinets to a darker or lighter stain requires deeper sanding to remove the existing color deep within the wood. Transitioning from a dark wood stain to a lighter color is not recommended as it requires heavy sanding, degrading the profile and natural contour of the wood.

220-grit sandpaper is recommended for heavy cabinet sanding in this step of the process.

Step 3: Priming

Choosing the best primer is the most important step before painting unfished or stained cabinets. Unfinished or stained cabinets should be primed using oil, bonding, lacquer, or advanced hybrid water-based primers for best practice and are necessary for bonding the first coat of paint or lacquer to the surface.

Premium water-based bonding primers, such as Benjamin Moore Insl-X Stix, reduce the need for extensive surface sanding. When priming is necessary and is not done properly, the finished coat will chip and peel prematurely.

Based on manufacturer specs, expect to apply one or sometimes two primer coats for adequate bonding and coverage.

Step 4: Light Sand After Priming

After the primer coat has cured, a light finish sanding is considered a detailed sanding step needed to promote a smooth finish. Sanding between coats should never be done aggressively, as it will remove or degrade the previous coat.

We suggest using 3M 300-grit sandpaper when sanding between coats. Keep in mind one or two passes by hand is all that is needed during this process. Again, do not remove the primer coat by sanding too much during this process.

Step 5: Should You Caulk Cabinets?

Caulking is the most controversial part of the process. The controversy derives from arguing the pros and cons of caulking cabinet door panels.

Caulking cabinet door faces makes the overall appearance of the doors more desirable, removing all visible cracks. However, we do not recommend caulking shaker or raised panel cabinet doors.

Cabinet doors are made in sections often referred to as panels. However, the most overlooked fact is to reduce checking/cracking – panel doors are designed to allow slight movement. Typically, the flat center-facing section of a cabinet door (panel) is separate from the outside structure of the cabinet door. Due to expansion and contraction, caulking will crack and break when applied to paneled cabinet doors.

Temperature and moisture will increase door panel movement, and kitchens and bathrooms are where most moisture in homes resides. We suggest caulking all other cracks and leaving the panel to move freely. If you decide to caulk, make sure it’s done after priming to ensure the caulk sticks.

Step 6: Filling Dents, Holes, & Wood Grain Removal

Painters’ putty and wood fillers serve to fill nail holes, dents, and small cracks around wood knots often found in pine cabinets. If you want to remove wood grain from the cabinet, just know that it’s the most expensive and time-consuming part of the process. Removing all of the wood grain is challenging, and how much visible wood grain is tolerable is subjective, with darker colors showing the wood grain the most.

Fine and easily sandable fillers are best at removing cabinet wood grain, reducing the visible texture by the micron. 400-grid paper is perfect for this part of the process. Most cabinet professionals use sandable wood fillers and spackles in combination with orbital and detail sanders to reduce the strain of extensive finish sanding.

Finish sanding is the final step before the paint application. This step is specific to sanding wood-filled, puttied, or caulked areas. Run your hand over the surface. Make sure there are no rough or uneven areas.

Step 7: Choosing the Best Cabinet Paint

Make sure the cabinet paint is an enamel that is self-leveling, resists yellowing, and is low-odor.

Most homeowners will find waterborne alkyds or acrylic enamels easier to apply and offer cost savings. High-quality household oil paints are also available. We recommend Benjamin Moore Satin Impervo low-luster enamel if you prefer oil-based paints.

Lacquer and polyurethane paint products are the most durable, providing the most premium finish but also costing the most.

Step 8: Cabinet Spray Painting vs. Brushing

We recommend spraying all paint and primers for a more uniform and professional look. If you are painting the cabinets yourself and don’t own a paint sprayer, purchase conventional paint and primers that are applicable using a brush or roller. However, premium paints and manufacturer-like coatings, such as lacquers, are only compatible with lacquer primers, requiring an airless or HVLP paint sprayer.

In most cases, two coats will be needed for almost all applications. Two light coats offer a better finish than one heavy coat. Applying cabinet paint too heavily causes paint stippling, sagging, or paint drips and runs.

Tip: Heavy cabinet paint applications create unwanted texture, which is counterintuitive to the efforts of spending time sanding to make sure the surface is smooth.

Step 9: Drying & Putting Things Back Together

The process of waiting is often overlooked and rushed when using slower-drying paints. Cabinet paint has to be close to cured before handling or hanging doors. Putting on door handles, hinges, or hardware prematurely can cause damage to the paint.

Cabinets painted with conventional oil or water-based paints require additional days before rehanging the cabinet doors, and refraining from touching the cabinet boxes is a must.

Some oil paints require 3-5 days of paint cure time. The benefit of shellac and lacquer is they are dry to the touch within 20 minutes. Lacquer and premium quick-dry paints are less susceptible to paint chips and staining. They also allow kitchen and bathroom use within a day or two. With lacquer, you can literally hang the doors on the same day.

Most oil paints and primers will dry slowly, requiring more cure time. Allow 2 weeks before cleaning or wiping the cabinets. No abrasive chemicals can be used until after 1 – 3 months. After 3 months, enjoy those cabinets.


Yes, it was a process. However, you were able to personalize and salvage your pre-existing cabinets at a fraction of the price it would have cost to replace them.

Looking for a professional? Contact us if you live in Raleigh, NC, and need to refinish your interior kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, or bathroom vanity or transition your stained interior trim to paint. We offer the best warranties. Call us today at 919-426-4928.

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