Tips for Painting Kitchen Cabinets White

Updated on February 26, 2018
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Matt is a professional painter sharing house-painting tips, related product reviews, and his experience in the trade.

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Should You Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets White?

White is the most popular color choice for the majority of my cabinet painting projects. It is a timeless color and coordinates well with practically any other color in a kitchen, but there are some considerations to make.

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.

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

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

Clean the Cabinet Doors and Wall Boxes

Surface cleaning is really important when prepping cabinet doors. Paint doesn't stick well to dirt or grease. If you paint over surface contaminants, the paint won't bond well. You can clean them with de-greaser, de-glosser, soap or TSP.

My preference is Dawn dish soap instead of abrasive cleaners. Scrubbing the doors and wall boxes with a rough scrubbing pad works really well. Liquid TSP works good too, but the residue must be carefully rinsed to prevent bonding problems with primer and paint. If you use a de-glossing cleaner, be sure to protect wood flooring below to avoid damage from drips.

Before doing any cleaning, remove the doors and arrange a work area in a separate room.

Caulk the Door Panels

Cabinet door panels should always be caulked before priming and painting, especially when using the color white. When left uncaulked, the panel cracks get half-filled with globs of paint and look horrible.

Any white caulk works fine as long as it's paintable. I like the Quick Dry caulk (light green tube) from Sherwin Williams. The caulk is ready for paint in less than thirty minutes. The panel cracks on both the front and back side of the doors should be caulked. Wipe away caulk build-up from the corners with a damp rag.

The edges where the wall boxes meet the wall should also be caulked and taped for a perfectly straight, crack-free line.

Sand Before Priming

Skipping sanding, or not doing a thorough job, is a common mistake made when prepping. Imagine a couple months after painting them you try to wipe dirt marks from your cabinet door and the white paint rubs off. Although some primer brands advertise that sanding isn't needed, you should always sand for a strong bond.

If you're sanding the cabinets yourself, buy an orbital sander. They're fairly inexpensive. 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, I find 120-grit to work well. Any grit lower than that starts to tear up the soft surface of maple. Oak is much harder and can be sanded with coarser grits without causing damage.

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. An oil-based, or shellac-based primer, will completely seal the sanded surface and form a strong bond with paint. Latex primer does not seal wood well.

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. This helps reduce visible brush strokes in the paint. The leveling paint I use is Pro Classic semi-gloss from Sherwin Williams. The acrylic version, not the alkyd. There is also an acrylic alkyd hybrid, but I've never used it.

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.

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.

Questions & Answers

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

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

  • Is a sealer needed when painting kitchen cabinets?

    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.

  • How do I thin Pro Classic for spraying?

    You can use Floetrol to thin the paint.

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