A fresh coat of cabinet paint can update the look of your entire kitchen, since cabinets are such a strong focal point. But contrary to what you might see on Instagram or Pinterest, the transformation won’t happen overnight. “This isn’t a lazy Sunday project,” says Sherry Petersik, who, along with her husband, chronicles a variety of decorating projects on her popular blog Young House Love.
We’re not trying to talk you out of this DIY home-improvement project — painting kitchen cabinets really is one of the best ways to breathe new life into a tired kitchen. But if you don’t go about it properly, you could waste hours upon hours and end up with a kitchen that looks worse, not better.
The experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute have decades of experience testing all of the products used in this project, from the cabinet paint itself to paint sprayers, paintbrushes for home projects and other application tools. For this how-to article, we combined those findings with insights from pros who specialize in cabinet refinishing.
It will take some time and effort on your part, but armed with our step-by-step guide, your cabinets will look new again for a fraction of the cost of replacement units.
Step 1: Assess your cabinets
Not all kitchen cabinets can be painted. The best candidates are wood cabinets with plain, simple fronts, often referred to as Shaker style. Cabinets with intricate details and applied moldings will be harder to paint, and pros don’t recommend refinishing cabinets covered in plastic laminate or rigid thermofoil, since paint doesn’t adhere well to those glossy surfaces.
If in doubt, run a test on an inconspicuous area, like the inside of a base corner cabinet. “We’ll apply a small area of primer, let it dry overnight and then attempt to scratch it off the next day,” says Nick Slavik, a professional painter based in New Prague, Minnesota, and the host of the Ask a Painter Live show on Facebook. “If you can’t scratch it off, you’ll have proper adhesion.”
Consider the condition of the cabinets too. “If there’s a lot of water damage, or the doors are falling off their hinges, you’re better off replacing the units,” says Devyn Doyle, owner of VI Painting in Eagan, Minnesota, and a member of the Painting Contractors Association. It’s also important to note any heavy grain pattern, typical of species like oak and walnut, since the texture will likely show through, even after a couple of fresh coats of paint. Fine-grained species, like cherry and maple, have a silky-smooth texture that’s more conducive to refinishing.
Step 2: Come up with a realistic schedule
OK, brace yourself: To do the job right, you need to budget at least 40 hours for the project. But you’ll save a bundle, compared with hiring the job out. “Most kitchens will cost $4,000 to $6,000 for a professional finish,” Slavik says. You can do the work yourself for less than $250. Enlisting a helper or two will make the work go faster, and the extra hands will be useful when handling large cabinet doors and other heavy or unwieldy objects.
Step 3: Gather all the materials and supplies
Having to run back to the home center after the work gets underway is a huge time waster. Here’s a list of the basics:
- Drop cloths
- Painter’s tape
- Drill or screwdriver
- Degreasing agent
- Wood filler
- Putty knife
- Sandpaper (assorted grits)
- Shop vac
- Paint trays and liners
- Applicators (sprayer or brush and roller)
Choosing the right paint is essential to a smooth, durable finish. Pros recommend enamel paints specially formulated for cabinets and other high-touch surfaces. “Standard wall paint will leave you with a soft, tacky finish,” Slavik says. Doyle agrees and usually goes with a European brand called Ilva for its adhesion and durability, but it can run more than $100 per gallon.
Based on Good Housekeeping’s latest paint tests, our experts recommend Benjamin Moore’s Advance, specially formulated with kitchen cabinets in mind. It goes on smooth and easy and cures to an exceptionally hard, furniture-grade finish that can stand up to the busiest kitchens.
Now let’s talk applicators. Every pro we talked to uses a paint sprayer on cabinets. Not only does using the power tool result in beautiful, even coverage, but it’s also about 10 times faster than painting with a brush, and speed is crucial to a pro’s bottom line. Of course, pros are painting every day, so sprayers are worth the investment. But our experts find many other uses for the equipment, from refinishing furniture to painting and staining decks, fences and other exterior surfaces. In our latest tests, the Wagner Control Spray Max was named best value paint sprayer on the strength of its competitive price and versatility, including its ability to spray paint, wood stains and polyurethane finishes.
If you go the manual route, experts recommend a two-inch angled brush for cutting into the inside corners and crevices of cabinets and a roller for flat surface areas. Be sure to pick the right paint roller nap:
“A traditional woven roller will create too much texturing in your finish, so opt for a finer material, such as a microfiber option, to ensure an ultrasmooth finish,” says Nicole Gibbons, founder of the paint brand Clare. A mini-size roller that’s around 4.5 inches wide is best for smaller surface areas, like cabinets.
Step 4: Remove the doors and drawers
With a schedule set and your supplies in hand, you’re ready to get started. First things first, empty the cabinets, clear the counters and move any furniture that’s in the way. Then cover the backsplash, counters and floor with drop cloths, builder’s paper or plastic tarps.
Many DIYers make the mistake of trying to save time by refinishing their cabinets in place. Don’t do it! “Your cabinets and hardware will start to chip and show signs of wear within a month — or even immediately,” Petersik warns.
Instead, use a drill or screwdriver to remove all the doors, drawers and hardware. Because they’ll need to go back in the same place, use numbered labels to help you remember where everything goes. A piece of masking tape stuck to the back of each component will do just fine. Write its exact location (e.g., “above sink, left”) so there will be no guessing where it goes later. Then stash screws and hinges in a jar for safekeeping.
Step 5: Prep the surfaces
Good prep work starts with a thorough cleaning. “No matter how clean you think your kitchen is, you need to wipe everything down with a grease remover,” says Don Fahrbach, president of professional painting company PNP Craftsmen in New York City. Otherwise, when you add a water-based paint to an oil-covered door, the paint won’t stick. He recommends a paint-prep degreaser called Klean Strip TSP Substitute and a nonabrasive scrub sponge for stuck-on spots.
Once the doors and drawers are clean and dry, use wood filler to repair any cracks or chips. Then hit every surface with sandpaper; the goal is to knock the shine off so that the new coatings have something to grab onto.
“We start with 180-grit sanding sponges, catch the dust with a shop vac, then use a damp microfiber rag to remove any last dust,” Slavik says.
Next, apply the primer coat, either outdoors or in a well-ventilated part of the house. This will help conceal any stains or graining and help with the adhesion of the finish coat. Before reaching for the sprayer or brush, it’s important to sand the surface again, this time with an ultrafine 220-grit sandpaper. These extra steps stretch out the project, but they’re the only way to get proper adhesion and an A-plus finish.
Step 6: Apply the paint
All right, time to add some color. Speaking of which, given how time-consuming cabinet refinishing is, you won’t want to do it again anytime soon. Experts advise painting a poster board with a sample can of paint in the color you’re considering. Then, hang it next to your backsplash and appliances to make sure it really works.
Whether you’re using a paint sprayer or brush, start with the doors and drawers; they take the longest, since you need to paint both sides and let them fully dry in between the two top coats. Beginning with the back sides, apply one coat, wait 24 hours, then move on to the second coat. The following day, flip the doors and drawers over and paint the first coat on your front-facing sides. Wait 24 hours before painting the second coat. Use the drying time in between coats to paint the insides of the cabinets.
Step 7: Reassemble the cabinets
Wait 24 hours (or several days, if you can) after applying the final coat before reinstalling the doors and drawers. This will give the paint time to dry and cure to a hard, enamel-like finish. If you rush the process and accidentally smudge some of the paint, you’ll have to sand the door and repaint the surface. Trust us, it’s worth the wait.
“Painting cabinets can be tedious, but if you take your time to do it the right way, you’ll be so happy with the results,” Gibbons says.
Senior Home Editor
Monique Valeris is the senior home editor for Good Housekeeping, where she oversees the brand’s home decorating coverage across print and digital. Prior to joining GH in 2020, she was the digital editor at Elle Decor. In her current role, she explores everything from design trends and home tours to lifestyle product recommendations, including writing her monthly column, “What’s in My Cart.”
Chief Technologist & Executive Technical Director
Rachel Rothman (she/her) is the chief technologist and executive technical director at the Good Housekeeping Institute, where she oversees testing methodology, implementation and reporting for all GH Labs. She also manages GH’s growing research division and the analysis of applicants for the GH Seal and all other testing emblems. During her 15 years at Good Housekeeping, Rachel has had the opportunity to evaluate thousands of products, including toys and cars for GH’s annual awards programs and countless innovative breakthroughs in consumer tech and home improvement.