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How to Clean Kitchen Cabinets Before Painting

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Matt is a professional painter who owns and operates his own painting business, specializing in interior and exterior house painting.

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Cleaning Cabinets Before Painting

When you prep your kitchen cabinets for paint, don't skip the cleaning, even if your cabinets look clean. Kitchen cabinets get really dirty from cooking and touching the doors and drawers. Grease and food particles end up on the surface, and all of these things can cause paint problems, especially grease. Never paint over grease.

Cabinets near a garbage can, above the stove, or below the sink, are usually the dirtiest because those areas take a lot of abuse. If you boil and fry food often, I guarantee the doors above the stove are sticky to the touch from grease.

What Happens When You Paint Over Grease?

Paint doesn't stick to grease, at least long term. If you paint over grease, the paint is likely to eventually crack and peel because it's unable to form a bond with the wood underneath. Cooking grease is oily too and most water-based paints won't stick to it, which can lead to fish-eye and other problems while painting. Cooking grease can also bleed through paint and leave noticeable stains in your finish. The stains show through paint as brown spots.

My go-to paint prep cleaner for kitchen cabinet painting.

My go-to paint prep cleaner for kitchen cabinet painting.

What to Clean with Before Painting

Choosing the Right Cleaner for Your Cabinets

Finding the right cleaner is confusing when you visit the store and see twenty different products on the shelf, but I'm going to share two of my favorites. If your cabinets are covered in cooking grease, a heavy-duty degreaser is best to make the cleaning faster and more effective. Some surface cleaners are too mild and do nothing to break down and remove heavy grease.

My Favorite Cleaner for Cabinet Painting

The best degreaser for kitchen cabinets that I use on my painting projects is Krud Kutter Orginal in the spray bottle. I used Krud Kutter to clean cabinets once that were covered in layers of nasty grease. The doors were so greasy that I had to wear gloves when handling them. I had to reapply the cleaner several times and scrub with stripping pads, but it removed all of the grease and restored the surface, and the paint finish turned out flawless without any contamination problems. I definitely recommend that cleaner if you're dealing with a lot of grease and grime.

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If your cabinets aren't super greasy, Dirtex powder cleaner works great too for removing dirt and other contaminants. Dirtex works on grease, but not heavy layers of grease. I also like it because it doesn't leave problematic surface residue all over like TSP does. This cleaner is very inexpensive and a good paint prep cleaner for wood.

Don't forget to clean cabinets above the stove before painting.

Don't forget to clean cabinets above the stove before painting.

Cleaning Painted and Unpainted Cabinets

Don't clean your cabinet doors without detaching them from the frame first. The doors and drawer fronts should be removed for painting anyway, and the cleaning is easier from a work table than climbing up and down a ladder. Use a drill to detach the hinges from the doors and frames. Bag up the screws and label each door so you know exactly where they go at the end of the project.

  • Protect the floor and countertops. Don't ruin your floor. Drips from chemical cleaners and de-glosser can eat through the finish on your floor and cause permanent damage. Clean the doors outside if possible. Before cleaning the frames, cover the floors with a leak-proof floor protector, not canvas drop cloths. Liquids can leak through canvas. Protect the countertops and appliances too.
  • Clean the cabinets before sanding. Sanding greasy and dirty cabinets spreads contaminants all over the surface and ruins the sandpaper. On wood with an open grain, such as oak, sanding before cleaning can force grease into the grain holes that's difficult to remove.
  • Use the appropriate cleaner. The two cleaners I recommended in the beginning of the article are both good options, but if the cabinets are unpainted and really greasy, use Krud Kutter Original instead of Dirtex. A commercial strength cleaner is needed to remove layers of accumulated grease. Don't use abrasive cleaners on painted cabinets because it could loosen the existing paint you're painting over.
  • Scrub the cabinets with a drill brush attachment. Scrubbing by hand is tiring when you have to reapply cleaner multiple times on dozens of doors. You can buy drill brush attachments online and at most home improvement stores. Brush attachments make cleaning so much easier, and you can usually buy a set that includes different sizes. If you don't have a drill, Scotch-Brite pads work great too, or stripping pads.
  • Always rinse with clean water. Some cleaners are advertised as "no-rinse," and while that sounds great, not rinsing is a bad idea when you're cleaning dirty cabinets for a paint job. Rinsing with clean water is important for removing any remaining dirt and residue. Use a separate cleaning pad for rinsing to avoid cross-contamination. Change the water and wash off the cleaning pad multiple times.

How to Clean Painted Kitchen Cabinets

What if the cabinets are already painted? Maybe you're repainting them a different color, or the paint job is worn and needs a re-coat. The cleaning process is the same for painted cabinets, but use caution when choosing a degreaser because a strong cleaning solution can actually loosen the existing paint and create a huge mess. The goal is to keep the original paint intact.

Don't use TSP to clean painted cabinets because it's too abrasive. Cleaning painted cabinets with Dawn dish soap is one of the best ways to safely remove dirt and grease without compromising the existing paint. To avoid scratching the finish, use a microfiber cloth and scrub lightly. Dawn soap works great as a paint prep cleaner. I've used Dawn multiple times to clean cabinets before painting.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Matt G.

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