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Pro Tips for Painting Kitchen Cabinets the Best Way

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Oak cabinets I sprayed. The color is Alabaster from Sherwin Williams.

Oak cabinets I sprayed. The color is Alabaster from Sherwin Williams.

The Easiest Way to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

If you're painting cabinets, especially in a large kitchen with multiple doors and drawers, the method you choose to paint them is critical for not only the finish quality, but also for how long it's going to take. Cabinet painting is time-consuming, detail-oriented work. If the cabinets are not already painted, it is a tedious process getting the doors and frames prepped correctly and ready for paint.

I've done close to 100 cabinet painting projects for clients, fine tuning my process each time and learning from mistakes I made early on. If you're looking to paint your cabinets, I'm going to give you some pointers to make your project go faster and look more professional.

My airless sprayer I use for cabinet painting.

My airless sprayer I use for cabinet painting.

Use a Professional Paint Sprayer

Most people use a brush and a roller with a fine nap, and sure, this combination will get the job done, but using a paint sprayer instead is the best way to paint cabinets for a smoother finish. Nothing beats the sprayed look when done right. Brushing and rolling creates texture, even from those foam and fabric rollers, and rolling multiple coats of paint on unpainted cabinets takes forever, trust me. I painted cabinets that way in the beginning before switching to a sprayer.

You don't have to spend a ton of money on a sprayer to paint your cabinets, but it's worth investing in a quality one that can be used for other projects too. Paint sprayers are huge time savers.

It's also worth noting that some of the cheap paint sprayers at home improvement stores cannot be used with flammable coatings. If you need to spray solvent-based primer, which is flammable, you will need to use a sprayer with a sealed motor to prevent a fire hazard.

Buying a quality airless sprayer will allow you to spray your cabinets faster and take on other painting projects too, including walls and ceilings. Airless sprayers are more versatile. They siphon paint directly from the container instead of using a small cup like the handheld cup sprayers.

The airless sprayer I use exclusively for all of my cabinet painting projects is the Graco GX-19 Finish Pro. I also own the Titan 440 Impact and used it quite a few times in the past for cabinets too. The Impact is more versatile and powerful enough for multiple types of painting projects. The Finish Pro is designed more for fine finishing, not so much for walls, although you can spray walls with it. Both Titan and Graco make excellent sprayers.

Consider Pigmented Lacquer Instead of Paint

One of the best ways to paint your cabinets to maximize durability is not even using paint at all, but instead, pigmented lacquer and a sprayer. White pigmented lacquer on cabinets looks almost identical to white paint, but the sprayed lacquer finish is way smoother. Paint is thick and without thinning or using a fine finish spray tip, it can have a deformed look (commonly called "orange peel"). Pigmented lacquer lays out as smooth as glass and looks amazing on cabinet doors.

The durability and chemical resistance of lacquer is also superior to paint. The first time I sprayed white lacquer on cabinet doors I noticed how much harder the dried finish felt to the touch compared to paint. Paint is noticeably softer and not as durable for washing purposes. I was always concerned about damaging the doors during delivery and installation.

I use a pre-catalyzed primer surfacer and lacquer from Sherwin Williams called Sherwood Hi-Bild. A catalyst is added to the lacquer to increase the hardness and durability of the finish. No doubt, the lacquer odor is unpleasant, but there are now waterborne lacquers available from brands like Renner and others. I haven't tested any of these products yet, but plan to.

If you choose to use paint on your cabinets, I highly recommend using high quality enamel like Emerald urethane, Pro Industrial water-based alkyd enamel, Pro Classic, or Advance. All four of those products are durable and self-level nicely when sprayed, or brushed. Use a fine finish spray tip and an airless sprayer, or a handheld cup sprayer.

A cabinet door I sprayed with white pre-cat lacquer, not paint.

A cabinet door I sprayed with white pre-cat lacquer, not paint.

Don't Skip the Primer

One of the worst mistakes in painting cabinets is not using the right primer, or worse, not using it at all. Unless the cabinets are already painted and in good condition, you absolutely should use the appropriate primer to avoid problems. Are you painting something like bare oak cabinets, or cherry? Natural oils inside the wood will show up in your paint without using primer first to create a seal. Use a good solvent-based primer like BIN, or Cover Stain, and you will have zero tannin bleed problems.

Priming cabinets is important for adhesion and gloss retention too. The gloss on your cabinet doors, whether it's paint or lacquer, will look shinier over a coat or two of primer. I always apply two coats of primer and two for my top coats. Priming is a critical part of cabinet paint prep, along with cleaning and sanding.

Get Cabinet Paint That Dries Fast

The amount of time it takes for paint to dry enough to safely apply the second coat, or to be able to install everything, is really important when you're painting a big set of cabinet doors with multiple drawers. A faster dry time can shave a few days or more off your painting project so you can put your kitchen back together sooner.

One of the reasons I use lacquer to paint cabinets is the insanely fast dry time. I can spray a door and pick it up about thirty minutes later without marring the finish. I can spray the second coat about one hour after the first coat. With the enamel I used in the past, the re-coat time was around four hours, which isn't terrible, but with the lacquer I use, I can easily spray two coats on one side of the doors all on the same day and finish the other side on day two.

Some paints take a long time to dry enough for a re-coat, or handling, without marring up the paint and ruining your hard work. Advance from Benjamin Moore is a good example. The paint has one of the longest cure times compared to similar paints used for cabinets.

One of my racks loaded up with freshly sprayed cherry wood doors.

One of my racks loaded up with freshly sprayed cherry wood doors.

Use a Drying Rack or a Painter's Pyramid

The best way to paint cabinet doors is with a sprayer and a good system for faster production, but you'll also need a way to store the freshly painted doors as they dry. Most people use buckets, or lay them out on boards, but the problem with that is it takes up too much room having doors and drawer fronts scattered all over the place. Buckets and boards can also mark up the freshly dried paint, or cause them to stick from the weight and pressure, because there's too much contact with the door.

The best way to store painted doors is with a drying rack. I own and use three sets of the Door Rack Painter drying racks, along with the rotating spray rack. I use them for all of my cabinet projects. The curved bars minimize contact with the fresh paint to prevent leaving marks in the finish. The design of these racks also allows you to spray one side of the door and then flip the door over to spray the other side using special holding pads. The way I use the racks is I spray two coats of primer first on the back sides and two coats on the front sides the next day. I repeat the same process with the top coats.

A drying rack is awesome too because it saves a lot of room. If you have a small work space this is very useful for condensing doors. Another option is to buy a pack of Painter's Pyramids. These are small triangular holders that let you store painted doors with very minimal paint contact because the holders are pointed on the ends. They do work, but a drying rack is much better if you plan to paint more than one set of cabinets, or have limited space.

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.


BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on May 10, 2021:

Sounds liks good advice.

I havd just painted over cabinets without taking them down and doing it the right way.

Using a sprayer sounds like it might be easier if i had the space.