25 Tips For Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Painting your kitchen cabinets is no small undertaking, that's why planning and prep are so important. Read through these tips to make sure you get the job done right.

Painting your kitchen cabinets is a process that requires patience, and you’ll have to be prepared to deal with a bit of chaos and disorder for a few weeks before all of the pieces can be put back together.

Before I share the finished kitchen, here are my top 25 tips from this experience.

  1. Choose the right paint. Everyday wall paint consists of a formula not suited for surfaces like cabinetry. It’s known to chip and it won’t stand up well to repeated cleaning. It costs more, but choosing an alkyd enamel, like Benjamin Moore ADVANCE or Sherwin-Williams ProClassic will hold up better in the long run and since the formulas are self-leveling, will leave you with a smoother finish. Learn more about alkyd-enamels in this post.
  2. Choose a color that will flatter your appliances. Consider this: I had a lot of older, black appliances in the kitchen in my old house. They stood out like a sore thumb surrounded by oak cabinetry. When I stained all of the cabinets dark brown, the black appliances nearly disappeared. Magic! In this kitchen, we have an abundance of almond appliances that aren’t quite ready to kick the bucket, and almond isn’t my favorite finish for appliances, but miraculously, by painting the cabinets a similar light sand color, they suddenly seem to fit in perfectly. When we eventually update, we’ll probably go to stainless steel appliances, which will still fit in nicely.
  3. Remove all of the hardware. All of the hinges. Every last screw. The knob. The magnets that help to keep the door shut. It takes time, but it’s worth it to have a clean slate when you begin refinishing the surfaces.
  4. Take the time to organize the hardware. One of the best tips I came across was to label each door by number beneath where the hinge goes in the frame. Label a plastic baggie filled with that door’s hardware with the same number. Place a small piece of painter's tape over the number on the door, so when the painting is complete, you can remove the painter's tape and see the number. The small place where you had written the number should be inconspicuous enough not to be seen (ideally, it will be hidden behind the hinge hardware).
  5. Pack up your kitchen cabinets neatly. Pack paper bags or plastic bins for each individual “pantry-like” cabinet, so that the contents can be easily returned to their home when the job is through. Stack small appliances out of the way. Keep the cookware you use most regularly (a fry pan, your big pasta pot) on your cooktop. Transfer your silverware into coffee mugs – one for each spoons, forks, knives, and serving utencils – and let them be the centerpiece on your dining room table. You’ll still need them throughout the duration of your project, so best to keep them handy.
  6. Roll up the rugs, clear the countertops and remove the curtain.You’re going to make a mess.
  7. Consider buying or renting a handheld electric sander. Regardless of the surface material you’re refinishing, sanding all of the surfaces is essential to creating the best area for primer and paint to adhere. You’re going to be covering a lot of ground, and an orbital detail sander will both speed up the process, evenly prep the surface, and take a lot of the effort off your own muscles. I was painting over solid wood, but if you’re painting over laminate consider the tips I gave in this post, where I refinished a laminated tabletop.
  8. Buy a lot of sandpaper. Buy multiple packs of sandpaper to fit your palm sander (I used 15 sheets each of 80 grit and 120 grit to prep my 40+ doors and the base cabinetry surface before painting). I also bought a pack of 10 sheets of 180-grit sandpaper, which I used to lightly hand sand between coats while priming and painting.
  9. Buy a lot of tack cloths too. Cleaning the surface is just as essential as sanding the surface, is. Remove all of the dust and debris after sanding by wiping the surface with a tack cloth. It will lift all of the dust while containing the mess (you might want to don rubber gloves for this part – the cloth will make your hands sticky, too). They’re sold in packs of 2-3 for only $2-$3, and if you’re like me, you’ll use 20+ during the course of the project to manage dust between coats.
  10. Use oil-based primer. Kilz came recommended by several painting pros I conferred with – specifically the oil-based formula, not the water-based. With the oil-based formula, the hardwood is less likely to discolor painted white cabinets over time (wood is known to “bleed through” and give the paint a tinge of yellow, especially if it's knotty wood). The oil-based also creates a very well-adhered surface on which to paint. 
  11. Have the primer tinted, if you’re painting a dark color, to lessen the chance of needing multiple coats. I went duo-toned in my kitchen (can’t wait to show you, but get a sneak peek right here). I started by priming the cabinets and doors that would be the lighter color with the plain white Kilz primer. When I finished and was ready to prime the darker color cabinets and doors, I took the half-used can of primer back to the store, and had them tint it close to the shade of my paint. They were happy to accommodate, and it saved me from having to buy a second gallon of primer. 
  12. Buy canvas drop cloths. Worth the $10 to buy one or two that you can move about as necessary. I found this process to be relatively “splatter-free” compared to painting walls with a higher-nap roller, but drips and missteps happen, just the same. (Plus, keep the cloths neat and you can make drop cloth curtainsthe best tablecloth ever, and plenty of other rustic-inspired projects.) 
  13. Get disposable paint trays. Ten trays for $5, you can’t go wrong. Place the plastic disposable tray into your “real” tray so you can roll on a firm surface, and then throw it out when you’re done. Easy clean-up.
  14. Buy extra brushes and paint rollers. The enamel paint is easy to clean with soap and water, and those brushes can be reused several times, but oil-based paint clean-up is nearly a deterrent for me. If you hate it too, just spend the extra $20 and buy a few extra brushes to alleviate the pain of clean-up. In any case, cleaning the brushes only works well a few times before the bristles start to go haywire, rendering your ability to do meticulous touch-ups harder and harder.
  15. Use baggies or plastic wrap to seal your brushes and rollers overnight. This is a good tip if you’re going to work 2-3 days in a row, and an especially helpful tip if you’re going to be tossing your oil-based brushes instead of cleaning them. Seal them up and the paint will stay wet on the bristles, ready for the next day’s work.
  16. Choose the right paint rollers – one type for primer, another type for paint. Browse the painting aisle at your hardware store and the packaging will help you determine which rollers are ideal. Look for words like “smooth cabinet finish” and “mirror finish”. I found that high-density foam rollers to be best for the application of the oil-based primer (and cost-wise, it seemed economical that I could buy a “contractor’s pack” of eight for about $10, and not feel bad tossing them out after each use). For rolling the paint itself, I chose the Purdy 1/4″ low-nap “mirror finish” roller specified for use clears and enamels and – best tip ever – I found that the low-nap rollers actually perform better after they sit, used, wrapped in plastic overnight. The nap lessens, it gets “broken in” and the finish is spectacular, which means you can get a little more use out of each roller before tossing it. And for the record, you’ll want to toss these rollers after use instead of cleaning. Even though the enamel should come as clean as it does from the brush with soap and water, the dried roller stayed a bit stiff and did not return to its soft, very smooth self.
  17. Painter’s tape is your friend. It’s not foolproof and I prefer cutting in by hand without tape in most areas like trim and along the walls. But there are some inevitably difficult nooks and crannies surrounding appliances where painter’s tape comes in handy. 
  18. Prioritize the cabinet bases and the backsides of the cabinet doors first. First, sand everything all at once if you can; get it done and out of the way. Then, tackle the cabinet bases and backsides of the doors with primer and paint first, so they have a few extra days of drying than the front of the cabinet doors. The base cabinets and the backs of the doors are what will bang together and make the most contact, so allowing two weeks of solid dry time really helps in the long-run. Bonus, if the front of the door is the last thing you paint, you’ll never have to flip it over to paint the back, risking potential scratching or smudges.
  19. Apply light coats of paint! Avoid applying too heavy of a coat at a time. For one reason, drips happen and the enamel paint wants to begin curing immediately which might leave you with visible drip marks that will have to be sanded out and re-painted. Also, low-nap rollers aren’t designed to handle a lot of paint at a time; it ends up squishing out onto the surface, leaving a stippled finish that too will need to be sanded down and re-painted. The thinner each coat, the better. 
  20. Add a polyurethane topcoat. The extra coat finishes off the surface and creates a barrier for the paint finish to protect it from wear and tear. Use either a high-density foam roller or an “enamels and clears” low-nap roller to apply evenly. 
  21. Don’t overlook the insides of your cabinets. Especially the upper cabinets, which you’ll be looking into every time you open the doors. In the long run, it’s worth the extra effort to sand and paint the insides, including the bottoms of the shelves that you’ll be glancing upwards at when you reach for something on a high shelf.
  22. Decide whether you’re going to use contact paper or paint the inside shelves. Contact paper adds additional cost to your project (those rolls don’t cover as much square footage as you’d think) but are easier to clean and replace over the years, without damage.
  23. Clean all of the hardware. While it’s off, why not? Years of kitchen cooking and knob touching is bound to leave this hardware a little dirty, maybe dirtier than you’d think. To clean metal hardware, mix some water and Bar Keeper’s Friend and then soak it to loosen years of grime. Wipe down each piece with a wet cloth. Be sure to let it dry completely before installing, especially knobs, which can take on water (and turn into hidden mold!)
  24. When reinstalling, attach the hardware to the door first and then install the door to the cabinet. You should still be able to see the old screw holes from when you removed them. Use those holes as a guide for the reinstall, and you should find that the doors fit evenly and accurately, as they always did. 
  25. Have an extra set of hands when you install upper cabinet doors .Lower cabinets are reasonably easy to balance and install by yourself, but having an extra set hands when you’re working over your head makes things a lot easier.

This spacious eat-in kitchen has a faux industrial look thanks to a vintage cast-iron table base, Restoration Hardware chairs and a luxe bronze paint on the cabinets. Gaston y Daniela fabric dresses up the kitchen chairs, while a French flea market light fixture over the table pulls the industrial look together.

10 Ways to Color Your Kitchen Cabinets

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Pops of Colors

Who says you can only use one color when painting your cabinets? This retro-inspired kitchen features solid wood cabinets with select doors painted in a variety of shades. To ensure the space doesn't look too wacky, white countertops and a tame backsplash act as a calming presence in the color-filled kitchen.

Photo By: Amy Bartlam

Classic With a Twist

When you think of a cottage-style kitchen, you probably picture all-white cabinets in an all-white space. This kitchen turns tradition on its ear with an island in a vibrant shade of emerald, which pulls out the subtle greens in the wallpaper and complements the blues beautifully. It's no less appropriate to the style and represents an entirely fresh interpretation.

Photo By: Andrea Schumacher

Sizzling Neon

You probably remember them best from the 1980s, but bright neon hues are making a comeback. The trick with these brilliant tones is to use enough to make an impact, yet not so much that they overwhelm the space. Cover a small segment of the cabinetry — perhaps a wine cubby, the frame of an open shelf or even a bank of cabinets like this one — and strike an ideal balance.

Not Quite Neon

Do you love the idea of incorporating neon colors into your kitchen design, but aren't ready to commit to covering your cabinets in them? Opt for a blueish-gray shade that's a statement all on its own while playing perfectly with a bold, neon-filled backsplash and of course, a bright neon stove.

Photo By: Dan Piassick

A Touch of Darkness

Sometimes adding just a few notes of a dark shade can ground any kitchen color scheme and add gravitas to the room. Here, a deep green, base cabinet anchors the space and complements the antique rug in the bright white kitchen.

Photo By: Jeff Herr

Add Some Texture

A variety of natural hues and rich textures create a visual one-two punch that's hard to resist. Here, the raw wood cabinetry stands out against the brick accent wall and cement countertops. Bright white walls accentuate the texture-filled space, creating a bold, well-designed kitchen.

Photo By: Alyssa Kirsten

Unexpected Combos

These days, we have more freedom than ever to break design rules, and that includes conventional notions about colors that do and don't work together. A slice of shocking pink shakes up the classic black-and-white palette in this kitchen. It's the last color many people might think to add, yet its energy spins the more muted tones in a different, wholly appealing direction.

Photo By: Caitlin Murray

Understated Glamour

Black cabinetry is hot in a big way. It infuses a kitchen with a hard-to-duplicate sense of mystery and glamour. But for some, all that darkness can feel heavy and oppressive. Buoy it with a shot of brilliant color, such as the gold fixtures and surrounding white space that are seen in this kitchen.

Photo By: Michael Hunter

Natural Wood Goodness

Torn between the beauty of wood grain and the power of paint? While we love the look of painted cabinets, there's just something extra appealing about natural wood. The light quality of these floor-to-ceiling cabinets make the kitchen have an almost spa-like atmosphere. The marble, waterfall countertop acts as the perfect accent to this high-impact, low-fuss room.

Photo By: Chad Mellon

Lightly Hued

A soothing shade of light blue covers the cabinet surfaces, invoking the feel of a charming French chateau. If you love the look of an all-white kitchen, but want to step it up a notch, immerse yourself in the world of color by starting with something simple, like designers did in this space.

Photo By: Troy Thies Photography

New Take on Neutrals

There's a reason neutral hues are perennial favorites: Not only do they work with all design styles, they're outrageously versatile. But think beyond the typical white and ivory shades used for kitchen cabinets. Stronger neutrals such as this steely gray possess the multifaceted qualities of their color cousins, while offering a more commanding presence. Adding additional finishes, fixtures and textures, like the faux fur stools and pendant lighting seen in this space, is another way to bring any neutral space to life.

Photo By: Jennifer Boomer/Getty Images

Subtle Two-Tone

When combining different hues in a kitchen, you don't always have to go for high drama. In this kitchen, the few upper cabinets are shrouded in white, camouflaged against the white wall, while the dark gray base cabinets balance the matching range hood. The lighter color on top helps to open up the space and prevent the upper cabinets from feeling too weighty — the overall look is cohesive and gentle.

Photo By: Jim Tschetter

Contemporary Blue

Contemporary-style cabinets deserve a contemporary color scheme. A bright, flat blue color coats the cabinets in this kitchen. The uninterrupted lines and dark wood accents evoke retro charm. Blue can be used in any space to both energize and to calm — giving you the best of both worlds.

Photo By: Kris Tamburello

Hunter Green Sheen

Looking to try something daring without the risk of a grave design faux pas? This contemporary kitchen features sleek, forest green cabinets. Matching upper and lower cabinets create a cohesive look that's pulled together with the geometric backsplash. Gold accents, like the cone shaped pendant lights, add the perfect finishing touch to the creative cooking space.

Photo By: Caitlin Murray

Farmhouse Feel

Natural, rustic wood cabinets line the wall, welcoming a bit of the outdoors into the space. The farmhouse feel extends through the rest of the kitchen with the wood paneling that covers the walls. Although the space is filled with dark-hued wood, the large window, stainless steel tabletops and the open shelving ensure the atmosphere remains bright and welcoming — like a quintessential country farmhouse.

Photo By: Julie Soefer Photography

Beautifully Monochromatic

Never underestimate the power of an all-white kitchen. In this kitchen, transom windows blend in seamlessly, almost disappearing completely, thanks to a monochromatic color palette that unifies every element in this space. Even though it's white, the cabinet-filled island defines the kitchen from the rest of the open living area.

Photo By: Tessa Neustadt

Uniquely Two-Toned

Thinking two-toned, but want it to be unique? This kitchen features a bright, robin's egg blue on the base cabinets, and a creamy white on the uppers. Using a color like this, although it's not a neutral, gives you the ability to fashion a look of your own without the fear of creating an overly-intense atmosphere.

Photo By: Mary Costa Photography

Caramel-Colored Kitchen

In this kitchen, a matte black backsplash acts as a backdrop to the caramel-colored oak cabinets. Finished with a matte seal, the cabinets look luxe and sophisticated. Onyx countertops and matching accent walls are the key to tying this space together. The use of natural wood creates a place where any design style could take center stage.

Photo By: Thompson Photographic; Interior Design by Claire Ownby, Ownby Design

Daring + Dark Blue

Dark blue-gray cabinets ground this open kitchen; the white counters, backsplash and upper cabinets give a sense of lofty height. This classic light-dark combination, although incredibly on-trend now, is certain to stand the test of design time.

Photo By: Haris Kenjar

Creamy Take on Neutrals

With the kitchen opening to the main living area, this space needed some visual parameters. An ever-so-calming shade of gray was used for the cabinets, making them barely distinguishable from the walls they're encased in. The best color for fixtures and hardware? Gold. They pop against this gray.

Photo By: Studio Jaki Photography

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