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Pro Tips for Stripping Paint From Cabinets

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Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.

Pro tips for stripping the paint off your kitchen cabinets.

Pro tips for stripping the paint off your kitchen cabinets.

Do You Need to Strip the Paint from Your Cabinets?

There are a few situations in which you may need to strip the paint off your cabinets.

  • Cabinet stripping is necessary if the goal is to stain them.
  • If you're repainting them, but the existing paint is failing, you must remove all of the old paint first. Painting cabinets with failing paint underneath is like building a house on top sand. Eventually the old paint will deteriorate, along with the new paint you worked really hard to apply.

What if the cabinet paint is stained, but not cracked or flaking?

Cabinets with tannin stains in the existing paint, but without signs of paint failure, don't necessarily need to be stripped. Tannin staining happens when oils inside the wood bleed into paint and become visible. This is called tannin bleed-through.

Bleed-through usually happens when wood isn't primed, or when the wrong primer was used. In this situation, stripping paint from the cabinets isn't needed as long as the old paint is intact. You could simply wash them, prime with a good stain blocking sealer, and paint.

What about sanding instead of stripping the paint?

A good sanding, using coarse enough sandpaper grit, will remove some of the paint, but this process will take a lot longer than using a chemical stripper, and aggressive sanding can also damage the profile of cabinet doors.

A light sanding at the end is good, though, to remove the last bits of the old paint from the surface after most of the paint layers have been removed with chemicals.

The Best Paint Stripper for Wood

Heavy duty rubber gloves and safety goggles need to be worn when working with paint stripper. Most contain caustic chemicals, including methylene chloride, a chemical that can burn your skin with direct contact.

Fortunately, there are alternative paint strippers with less nasty chemical components, one of which is CitriStrip, a stripping gel I've used several times to take paint off cabinet doors. This product does not contain methylene chloride, and the orange scent is much more tolerable than other products I've worked with in the past. You need to reapply this product more than once in layers, but it works great. The stripper is thick, like a pasty gel, for easier application on vertical surfaces, and you can apply a thick layer to break down the paint faster.

Products like Zip Strip are very effective too, but this one does contain methylene chloride. The brands Jasco and Klean-Strip have available options too, but I've never used them.

How to Strip Paint From Cabinets

  1. The first step is to remove all of the cabinet doors and hinges and set up a work space in a well-aired spot, preferably outside or in a garage with the door open. The more ventilation, the better.
  2. Make sure the kitchen floors are protected before applying paint stripper, and be very careful not to splash appliances or any plastic surfaces you want to maintain.
  3. I always carefully cover and mask appliances first and move the refrigerator away from the cabinets, if possible.
  4. Always use an inexpensive, throw-away paint brush to apply stripper. No need to ruin a good paint brush.
  5. Pour the chemical into the container of your choice wearing protective gloves and a mask.
  6. Dip your brush into the stripper gel and apply a thick layer over the painted cabinet doors. Paint stripper gel contains wax to help slow down the evaporation process. After about twenty minutes, the paint will start to bubble and lift from the surface. You can speed up this effect by placing sheets of wax paper over the cabinet doors. This will slow the drying.
  7. After the old paint starts to bubble, remove the wax paper and start scraping with a plastic scraper, not metal. Using a metal scraper is more likely to leave scratch marks in the wood. Multiple layers of paint stripper might be needed, depending on the type of paint and how many layers are on the doors.
  8. Repeat the same process for the cabinet frames.
  9. Latex paint is the easiest to remove, but oil-based paint takes a little more time. You can clean up the doors at the end with a light sanding, followed by a rinse with dish soap.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you strip white primer?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Would it be better to sand my cabinets if I have 2 layers of paint and just needs to be refreshed?

Answer: If the paint is coming off easy with your sander then try sanding them instead of using chemicals. You have to be careful though not to damage the wood from using too coarse of sandpaper, or sanding too aggressively.

Question: How would I remove primer from cabinets?

Answer: Using a chemical stripper, or sanding with an electric sander, but you have to be careful not to damage the wood. There are gel stripping products you apply and allow to break down the coating. It's a time-consuming process of reapplying the stripper and scraping. I would try sanding first.

© 2018 Matt G.