Matt is a professional painter and freelance writer, sharing his knowledge, house-painting tips, and product reviews.
Using Cabinet Cleaner Before Painting
Cleaning grease off cabinets is a critical step for a successful paint job. If you paint over grease, the paint will not stick at all. Even the smallest bit of grease can cause paint to chip off when it dries. Sometimes you won't notice an adhesion problem right away, but within days of painting, you will start to see paint separating from the surface.
Grease isn't the only contaminant that can lead to paint problems. Dirt and food particles, or even residue from household cleaners, can lead to fish-eye in the finish, or prevent paint from sticking to the surface. I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure you carefully clean your cabinets before priming and painting them, especially older cabinets above the microwave and stove. Those areas are always the worst.
Removing layers of sticky grease from cabinets with a weak cleaner is a challenge. For accumulated grease, a stronger cleaner is needed to dilute and break down the layers. In this article, I'm sharing with you, my favorite products for degreasing and cleaning cabinet doors and frames.
Krud Kutter Cleaner Degreaser
I used Krud Kutter Pre-paint Cleaner before on a cabinet painting project and I wasn't thrilled with the cleaning power. In fact, I don't recommend that product. However, on a recent project I used Krud Kutter Cleaner Degreaser and the results were excellent considering the condition of the doors.
Normally I use Dirtex, but that cleaner wasn't strong enough in this situation. The cabinets I cleaned were layered with nasty grease and food particles, and although I did have to reapply this product several times, the cleaner removed the accumulated grease from the doors and frames after vigorous scrubbing and rinsing with water.
This particular Krud Kutter product is water-based and won't irritate your skin, but I would wear cleaning gloves anyway when working with any chemical cleaner other than dish soap. The odor isn't bad at all. If you're familiar with the smell of TSP, the odor is similar to that.
I used the spray bottle at full concentration without water dilution. I sprayed on the cleaner and let it penetrate the grease for a few minutes before scrubbing with a coarse stripping pad. One spray bottle was enough to clean twenty four cabinet doors and drawer fronts for painting. I will continue using this cleaner for future projects that call for a stronger degreaser. I definitely recommend Krud Kutter Cleaner Degreaser if the cabinets you're painting are really dirty and greasy, otherwise Dirtex powder cleaner works fine too.
Dirtex Powder Cleaner
I've used Dirtex powder cleaner multiple times as a cabinet painting cleaner and degreaser, as well as a cleaner for wood trim and doors I painted. While the cleaner will remove grease, it isn't the best option for heavy grease. To remove thick layers of accumulated grease, I would use Krud Kutter instead, but for dirt, latex paint, and small amounts of grease, Dirtex works great.
You can buy this cleaner in a spray bottle too, but the aerosol version is not the same as the powder version in the box. It is also important to note that the aerosol version is not recommended for pre-paint cleaning. I've only used the powder in the box, mixing about two to three tablespoons with a gallon of warm water. I scrub the cabinets with a cleaning pad, followed by a rinse with clean water.
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For stronger cleaning, you can add more powder to your water mix. Unlike TSP and other degreasing agents I've used, Dirtex doesn't leave behind problematic residue, unless you mix a stronger solution. To eliminate any chance of fish-eye when painting, you should always rinse the surface with clean water after using chemical cleaners.
Dirtex powder cleaner is best for pre-paint cleaning and degreasing, not stripping, or de-glossing. It is less abrasive than other cleaners like TSP. The cleaner does not cause any skin irritation in my experience, and the odor isn't bad at all. I will continue using the cleaner in combination with Krud Kutter for my painting projects.
TSP (Trisodium Phosphate)
Powder TSP (trisodium phosphate) is one of the oldest pre-paint cleaners used for decades by painters to prep multiple types of substrates. In the past, I used TSP a lot to prep cabinets, smoke-damaged walls and even decks. TSP is a strong cleaner that eats through grime and grease very effectively, but it can also do more harm than good when used incorrectly.
TSP cleans and de-glosses lacquered and varnished wood, but on painted surfaces, it will also loosen paint, potentially creating more work, so unless you want to strip off the paint, don't use TSP to clean painted cabinets you're re-painting. The better option is a less abrasive cleaner like Dirtex powder, or another pre-paint cleaner for painted surfaces.
A half cup of TSP powder mixed with two gallons of warm water is an effective solution for grease. Before cleaning, it's important to remove the cabinet hinges and knobs because TSP is corrosive for metal surfaces. Protect floors from drips too, or clean the doors outside.
No doubt, TSP is a powerful and versatile cleaner that will remove nasty grease from your cabinets, but one of the reasons I switched to Dirtex for cabinet prep is because it doesn't leave behind residue. With trisodium phosphate, you must carefully rinse the surface to wash off residue.
Dawn Dish Soap
My final recommendation is a product you might already have in your kitchen, but you probably wouldn't think of using it as a degreaser for cabinets. Dawn dish soap is more powerful than you think. A couple drops of the soap mixed with a gallon of water is enough to clean grease from not only cabinet doors and frames, but also metal hardware too.
For heavy grease though, I would use the Krud Kutter cleaner I recommended earlier, but for small amounts of grease, or just basic cleaning for dirt and food particles, Dawn works.
I painted a set of cabinet doors once with hinges that were completely caked in grease. Installing the sticky and contaminated hinges at the end of the job definitely would have ruined the freshly painted doors, so I used Dawn to clean them beforehand. All I did was soak the hinges in the soap overnight and the grease was totally gone the next day.
With dish soap, a drop or two goes a long way. Don't overdo it. You also have to rinse the surface of your cabinets with clean water because dish soap leaves residue on the surface that can cause problems when it comes time to paint.
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.