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Tips for Painting Kitchen Cabinets White

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

Kitchen cabinets I spray painted white.

Kitchen cabinets I spray painted white.

Should You Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets White?

White is the most popular color I use for the majority of my cabinet-painting projects, with gray coming in second. White is a timeless color and coordinates well with practically any other color in a kitchen, but there are several things to take into consideration before painting your cabinets white.

Dirt and grease accumulation is more noticeable on white cabinets than any other color. Installing knobs is a must if your cabinets don't already have them, otherwise the painted doors get dirty fast from touching them constantly.

If you choose to paint them white, latex paint is a better choice than oil-based paint. Although oil-based paint is more durable, white oil paint does turn yellow over time, changing the color. Acrylic latex enamel, like Pro Classic, is a durable option for cabinets, and it doesn't yellow. Urethane-modified acrylic enamel is also a good choice to consider.

Surface preparation is even more important when painting kitchen cabinets white because imperfections are more noticeable in a light color.

Prepping a Cabinet Door for Painting

Prepping a Cabinet Door for Painting

Clean the Cabinet Doors and Wall Boxes

Surface cleaning is really important when prepping cabinet doors for white paint. Paint doesn't stick well to dirt or grease. If you paint over surface contaminants, you're going to have problems. Before you prime and paint your cabinets white, clean them with de-greaser, soap, or TSP.

The best de-greaser for kitchen cabinets that's worked well for me is Krud Kutter Original and Dirtex powder cleaner in the box. For heavy grease, I highly recommend cleaning your cabinets with Krud Kutter first.

Scrubbing the doors and wall boxes with a rough scrubbing pad works really well. Liquid TSP works well too, but the residue must be carefully rinsed off to prevent fish-eye problems with primer and paint. If you use a de-glossing cleaner, be sure to protect wood flooring below to avoid damage from drips. Remove the doors and clean them outside if possible. My article "How to Clean Kitchen Cabinets Before Painting" provides tips on the cleaning process.

Caulking Cabinet Door Panels for Painting

Caulking Cabinet Door Panels for Painting

Caulking the Door Panels for Paint

Cabinet doors painted white do look nice when they're caulked because the caulk fills the rectangular gaps on the door panels for a seamless look, but I strongly recommend not caulking the doors if you live in an area with very humid summers and very dry winters. Seasonal changes in the weather can cause caulk to split open when the wood underneath expands and shrinks again.

I caulked cabinet doors for many years until I ran into problems and stopped. If you do caulk the doors, it's really important to use premium caulk with more flexibility so it's less likely to crack in the future. Wipe away caulk build-up from the corners with a damp rag as you apply it.

The edges where the wall boxes meet the wall should also be caulked before painting the cabinets white. If you decide not to use caulk, the un-caulked look of painted doors looks fine too as long as you're careful to keep the gaps free from paint globs and debris. I blow out the gaps with my air compressor before I spray paint.

Sanding Cabinet Doors Before Painting

Sanding Cabinet Doors Before Painting

Sand Before Priming

Not sanding is a mistake you don't want to make when prepping cabinets for paint. Imagine a couple months later you try to clean your painted cabinets and the white paint rubs off. Although some primer brands advertise that sanding isn't needed, you should always sand because it provides a better bond and a smoother finish.

If you're sanding the cabinets yourself, use an orbital sander. Sanding doors by hand sucks, and an electric sander does a far better job anyway. The sandpaper grit you choose really depends on the type of wood. For maple cabinets and other types of wood I paint I use 220-grit most of the time. You don't have to use really rough sandpaper for cabinet prep.

Painting Cabinet Interiors

Painting Cabinet Interiors

Don't Use Latex Primer

Unless you're using chalk paint on your cabinets, they need to be primed, but not with a latex primer, unless they're already painted and in good condition. An oil- or shellac-based primer will completely seal the sanded surface and form a strong bond with paint. Latex primer does not seal wood tannin and tough stains.

With white paint too, any bleed-through from wood tannin will stick out like a sore thumb and look horrible. This is even more important when painting open-grain wood like oak that releases tannin from its cracks and pores.

To get a strong bond and smooth white finish, the shellac-based primer BIN is an excellent option if you're spraying. This primer is messy to work with when applied with a brush and roller, but it's great for spraying. When using white paint, you'll get an amazing finish over two coats of BIN. There are many oil-based primer brands that work well too. I always apply two coats of primer.

Painting Cabinets White

The best paint for cabinetry is one that levels when applied to reduce visible brush strokes and orange peel texture in the paint as it dries. The leveling paint I used a lot in the past on cabinets is Pro Classic semi-gloss from Sherwin Williams. I have also used Emerald urethane enamel many times.

Whatever paint you choose, it's best to choose one that dries fast so you don't have to wait long to apply the second coat. Latex is the best choice because it dries faster than oil and won't cause the white paint to yellow. Another advanced option to consider is spraying your cabinets white with pre-catalyzed lacquer, which is what I use now for all of my cabinet projects.

The best and fastest way to paint them is with a sprayer, which does take a little practice, but provides a superior finish. Spraying in the kitchen requires lots of masking to protect the walls and appliances. An alternative is to roll the wall boxes with a foam roller and spray the doors. The doors should always be removed and painted in a separate room.

The doors also need to be stored on a drying rack after painting each coat. A drying rack not only saves space, but using one with curved bars also allows both sides of the doors to be painted and stored on the same day, saving a lot of time. You can store them on boards and flip them over when the paint dries, but this method takes a lot longer.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: My cabinets were painted a sage green by the previous owner. They are older original cabinets from the 60’s. What primer would you recommend to paint my cabinets white, and can I just finely sand them?

Answer: You have a few different options. First, clean and sand the cabinets with 220-grit, or 320-grit, to reduce the gloss. If the existing paint shows no signs of stains or tannin bleed, you can prime them with a quality latex bonding primer. Sherwin Williams sells a latex product called Extreme Bond primer. Note: Latex primer won't prevent bleed through. I only recommend it if the cabinets are in good condition. That bonding primer I recommended is also good if the existing paint is oil-based. It will provide a solid bond to prevent cracking and peeling with the new paint. If the existing paint shows signs of bleed through, use an oil-based primer (Cover Stain) or shellac-based (BIN). If the cabinets are peeling, or badly chipped, strip them, clean, sand, prime with either product I mentioned, and paint. When you paint your cabinets white, you might see things that you don't see now because they're green, so if you want to be totally safe, you can just prime them with oil-based primer to eliminate any chances of bleed through with your new paint.

Question: What shade of SW white do you recommend for painting kitchen cabinets?

Answer: I've used the Sherwin Williams color Snowbound many times on cabinets. The color Alabaster also looks nice. It's more of a cream white.

Question: What's the best paint for the cabinets Benjamin Moore or Sherwin Williams?

Answer: Both have good paint, but I've always used Sherwin Williams.

Question: What do you think of using Satin over semi-gloss to hide imperfections while painting kitchen cabinets?

Answer: Satin paint will hide wood imperfections more than semi-gloss simply because it's less glossy. If hiding imperfections is a concern with your older cabinets, a satin, or even an eggshell finish, will help with that. You can also use paint with good hiding properties.

Question: Will polyurethane turn my newly painted white cabinets yellow or should I go with polycrylic?

Answer: Polycrylic is better, but you should check first with the manufacturer of the paint you're using to confirm the product can be top coated with a clear coat.

Question: Is a sealer needed when painting kitchen cabinets?

Answer: Yes, you can apply sealer over stained, or painted, cabinets. But if you're applying sealer over paint, make sure the sealer is compatible with your paint.

Question: I’m using Sherwin Williams emerald paint for my cabinets, do I need to seal them after I paint?

Answer: The paint is washable without a sealer, but if the cabinets will take a lot of abuse, or be cleaned constantly, you can apply a clear coat.

Question: How do you recommend sanding cabinets that have molding on the doors? There are so many little crevices that an electric sander wouldn't be able to get.

Answer: The angled sanding sponges by 3M work great for sanding corners and molding on cabinet doors. You can buy them in various grits.

Question: How do I thin Pro Classic for spraying?

Answer: You can use Floetrol to thin the paint.

Question: How do you move the freshly painted doors from wherever you sprayed them to on to the drying rack without leaving finger indentions?

Answer: With the drying/spray rack I use and recommend in the article for cabinets, the rack comes with special holders for carrying a wet door to the drying rack. When carrying a door, the holders grip only the corner edges on the sides of the door so it doesn't leave marks. The holders have a rough texture on them to prevent the door from sliding off. All three of the racks I own came with two different size holders for big doors and smaller ones.

© 2018 Matt G.


Matt G. (author) from United States on August 30, 2020:


I have several articles on cabinet painting and prep. Check out my article list. Use a 310 spray tip. I've never used Wagner sprayers. Thin the enamel if needed. Aqua Coat grain filler is good. I have a full review article on that. I don't recommend caulking cabinet doors anymore. The caulk can crack from wood expansion, but if you do caulk them, Sher-Max caulk is good (Sherwin Williams). The caulk is very flexible and less likely to crack. Clean, sand, fill, prime and paint.

Allie Hunter on August 30, 2020:

Will Emerald paint flow thru Wagner Pro 130 airless sprayer? Which tip? 210, 311? Which wood filler is best and won't crack? What is best caulk?

I m painting kitchen cabinets priming with Cover All 2 coats ,sanding in between all coats, caulking, using filler for heavy grain. Is there anything in my process wrong? Thanks in advance

Matt G. (author) from United States on April 02, 2020:

It's not the color causing the yellowing, it's the primer. If it's latex primer, that's why there's tannin bleed. Remove the primer and prime with oil-based primer, or white shellac primer. Sherwin Williams Pro Block oil primer is good, or Zinsser Cover Stain.

Victoria on April 01, 2020:

Hi there I started painting my cabinets with BM primer when I saw yellow tannins. I cleaned and sanded then used the primer before I read that BM whites can yellow which is the color we want to use. If I switch to SW pro now, do I need to sand all this primer off? What SW primer should I use? Thank you!!