Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Repainting Cabinets a Different Color
Whether you're repainting your cabinets to simply change the color or to fix a bad paint job, the preparation process is usually, but not always, easier than working with bare cabinets not previously painted. For cabinets that were already painted with water-based paint, the surface preparation would involve a light cleaning and sanding, followed by a couple coats of water-based paint in your new color.
But if you don't know what type of paint is on the cabinets, it's really important to find out before painting them to prevent adhesion problems. Cabinets painted with a solvent-based coating, such as oil-based enamel, or lacquer, would have to be primed first so the paint sticks without problems.
Tip: To determine if the paint's oil-based, wipe a small area with rubbing alcohol. If the paint rubs off, it's water-based. Oil-based paint doesn't rub off when exposed to rubbing alcohol.
Painting Over Lacquer and Oil-Based Enamel
If your kitchen cabinets are white and purchased from a store, the "paint" is likely a catalyzed lacquer. Cabinet manufacturers don't use paint for the finish. If the cabinets were painted by someone else, the paint could be water-based or oil-based.
If you paint over lacquered cabinets without priming first, you will notice right away that the paint will separate and fish-eye as you're applying it. To successfully paint over a lacquer, or oil-based finish, sand the surface and prime with an oil-based bonding primer like Zinsser Cover Stain. You can apply any water-based paint over oil primer.
Prepping Kitchen Cabinets for Repainting
Cabinets that are in good condition and already painted with water-based paint can be painted again with a new water-based paint and color, but the surface still needs cleaning and a light sanding to help with adhesion. It's important not to clean and sand painted cabinets too aggressively otherwise you will burn through the existing paint and expose the bare wood.
- Remove and label the doors and hinges. The painting process starts with removing the doors and carefully labeling everything, including each door hinge. Don't mix up the door hinges, especially if they're the adjustable type, otherwise the doors won't close correctly. I mark each hinge and store them inside the corresponding cabinet to avoid confusion. This way the hinges will be installed in the exact same place so the door is level and closes fine.
- Clean. The cleaning solution you use depends on the condition of your painted cabinets. Using TSP, or another chemical de-greaser, is good if the cabinets are really sticky and greasy. The alkaline properties of TSP eat through grease, but it also softens and eats through latex paint too if you use too much. Unless the cabinets are really dirty, I would use regular Dawn dish soap, or Dirtex powder cleaner. Savogran Dirtex, the powder version in the box, not the spray can cleaner, works great for paint prep. I've used it many times for cabinet painting.
- Lightly sand. No matter what type of paint you're using, sanding the gloss of the existing paint is important. Don't use sandpaper coarser than 220-grit to sand the paint otherwise the sandpaper will leave scratch marks everywhere. I recommend using a 320-grit sanding sponge to lightly sand the painted cabinet doors and frames. The finer grit won't scratch the paint with a light scuff sanding.
- Prime if needed. For a simple color change, primer isn't needed when using water-based paint over water-based paint, but for a big color change apply a coat of tinted primer so the paint covers in less coats. When painting over a solvent-based finish, use a bonding primer that's oil-based. For tips on working with oil-based primer, check out my article Tips for Priming Wood with Oil-based Primer.
Fixing Poorly Painted Cabinets
Maybe you're repainting cabinets due to a bad paint job. In that case, there's more prep work involved, but you can greatly improve the look of the doors and frames through sanding, skim-coating, or even chemical stripping if it's really bad and you want to start over.
Fixing Brush and Roller Texture on Cabinets
If your cabinets are plagued with hideous brush marks and heavy roller texture, you can smooth out the surface by skim-coating. After cleaning and lightly sanding the old paint, skim coat the surface with a couple thin coats of drywall joint compound. Use the powder version in the bag, not the pre-mixed drywall mud in a bucket.
The best joint compound to use for this purpose is the bagged Easy Sand from the Sheetrock brand. The compound is in powder form and dries in a set number of minutes after mixing with water. To skim-coat a set of cabinet doors, use the version that dries in 90 minutes. The compound will level out the highs and lows from the old brush and roller marks so the new paint looks nice and smooth. Sand the compound smooth and prime the cabinets before painting.
If the old paint is peeling, chipping, and showing signs of tannin bleed, stripping the paint from the cabinets and sanding everything off is probably the best course of action. It's possible the surface wasn't prepped and painted right originally. Sometimes it's best to start from scratch instead of risking having problems with the new paint.
Repainting Cabinet Doors and Frames
I'm a big fan of spray painting cabinets instead of brushing and rolling them. If you've taken the time to remove bumpy brush and roller texture from the original paint job, why create new brush and roller texture when you can spray the cabinets instead for a smoother look? This is not to say you can't get a nice finish with a brush and roller, but you will achieve a noticeably smoother finish painting cabinets with a sprayer. The key is to use a good paint sprayer for your cabinets and the right spray tip size.
If you're simply repainting with the same color, or a similar one, all you need to apply is one coat of paint on both sides of the doors. Two coats of paint will enhance the gloss and durability of the finish. Use semi-gloss, acrylic enamel, or waterborne alkyd enamel. I use mostly paints from Sherwin Williams.
Sherwin Williams paints I use:
Waterborne alkyd enamel has become quite popular as a cabinet coating. If the old paint on your cabinets is cheap latex paint, painting them with high quality acrylic enamel, or waterborne alkyd enamel, is a good upgrade that will improve the hardness and durability of the finish. You can even top coat everything with a clear coat of polyurethane for additional protection.
Painting the Doors and Frames
The best way to paint the doors is on a flat surface, detached from the frames. Since enamel usually remains soft until the day after application, you have to either paint one side per day, or use something like the Door Rack Painter, which is what I use for my projects. I paint the backside of the doors first, flip them over, and paint the other side all on the same day.
If you plan to brush and roll the doors and frames, use an angled paint brush for cutting-in and painting the narrow parts of the panels on the door fronts. Use either a fabric roller, or a foam roller, to roll the wide parts of the panels and frames. A roller 4-inches in length works good. Don't use a roller with nap any thicker than 1/4-inch.
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.