Chances are you’ve spotted painted kitchen cabinets on Instagram or Pinterest and thought of recreating the striking look in your own space. However, it’s easier said than done, since there are a slew of painted kitchen cabinet mistakes to consider before you even think of grabbing your paint brush. From cleaning the wood thoroughly to sanding surfaces, there’s no way around handling the prep work that’s needed to ensure a smooth paint job without any brush marks. Plus, once you’re finally done painting your cabinets, you need to give them at least a few days to dry to make sure your hard work remains intact. In other words, it’s an involved process.
In an effort to make painting your kitchen cabinets a breeze, we checked in with Nicole Gibbons, founder of the paint brand Clare, for her best tips and tricks. For starters, Nicole says it pays to go bold with color rather than just settling for white. “While white paint can create a clean feeling in a kitchen, there are plenty of opportunities to add more colors that go beyond the basic,” she says. “And remember that upper and lower cabinets don’t need to match. For a lighter, airier feeling, you can go white or neutral on your uppers and opt for a bolder choice on the bottom.”
Ready to learn how to paint your kitchen cabinets? Keep reading for more top advice from Nicole as well as a few other paint experts. Before you know it, you’ll have a new kitchen to enjoy and show off to family and friends in no time.
Mistake 1: You overlook practicality.
Painted cabinets look lovely, but they aren’t going to look totally smooth. “If the cabinets have a visible open grain, the grooves are going to show through the paint,” warns Don Fahrbach, president of professional painting company PNP Craftsmen in New York City.
“Even if it wasn’t super obvious when the wood was just stained, it’s going to be more evident once the paint dries.” You can fill the grain with putty, but that can be time-intensive and challenging to get just right.
Mistake 2. You don’t carve out enough time.
“This isn’t a lazy Sunday project,” says Sherry Petersik, who, along with her husband, chronicled kitchen painting projects on her popular blog Young House Love. She says people often think it’s a weekend job, but it takes at least four to seven days when you build in the proper prep time (and snack breaks, of course).
Mistake 3. You don’t use painter’s tape.
“You’ll need to protect and tape off any areas you don’t want to paint such as your countertops or the inside of your cabinets (if you don’t want the inside painted) using painter’s tape or drop cloths,” Gibbons says. You can also use newspaper to protect the insides of your cabinets.
Mistake 4. You didn’t use the right tools.
“If you’re seasoned and know how to use an airless paint sprayer, this is the best option for cabinets because you can get beautiful, even coverage,” Gibbons says. She suggests using a two-inch angle brush for cutting into the inside corners and crevices of your cabinets and a roller for the flat surface areas. Be sure to pick the right paint roller nap as well, Gibbons advises. “A traditional woven roller will create too much texturing in your finish, so opt for a finer material such as a microfiber option to ensure an ultra-smooth finish,” she says. A mini-sized roller that’s around 4.5” wide is best for a smaller surface area like a cabinet.
Mistake 5: You skip cleaning the wood before beginning to paint.
“No matter how clean you think your kitchen is, you need to wipe everything down with a grease remover,” says Fahrbach. Otherwise, when you add a water-based paint to an oil-covered door, the paint won’t stick. He recommends a paint-prep degreaser called TSP, and a non-scratch delicate scrub sponge for stuck on spots.
Mistake 6: You keep the drawers and doors in place.
This is a crucial first step: Take all the doors off, pull the drawers out and remove the hardware knobs and hinges. Some people try to save time by painting everything — hinges and all — while they’re still in place, but Petersik warns that it’s not a long-term fix.
“Your cabinets and hardware will start to chip and show signs of wear within a month — or even immediately.” Once the paint on the hinges starts to crack, all you can do is sand everything down and soak the hardware to remove the paint, so save yourself the aggravation.
Mistake 7: You don’t label the position of drawers, doors and hardware.
Because what once was hung up will need to go back in the same place, it’s worth using numbered labels to help you remember where everything goes. A piece of masking tape stuck to the back of each piece will do just fine. You should write its exact location (think “above sink, left”) so there’ll be no guessing where it goes later. Then stash screws and hinges in a jar for safekeeping.
Mistake 8: You didn’t sand the cabinets.
Even if your hardwood cabinets are in near-perfect condition, you still have to sand them down to the bare wood finish so the paint sticks, Gibbons says. She recommends sanding them lightly with 120-grit sandpaper or a sanding sponge. “But if your doors are engineered wood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard), you just want to sand lightly enough to rough up the surface for priming,” she says.
Mistake 9: You left dust on your cabinets while painting.
Vacuum up any debris before you even think of dipping that brush in paint. Just a few pieces of dust can ruin the look: “You’ll get a gritty finish and it’ll look like you painted over sand,” says Fahrbach. “To fix it, you’ll have to sand it and repaint it all over again.”
Mistake 10: You didn’t bother elevating cabinets before painting.
If you don’t prop up your cabinets prior to painting, you risk missing edges and corners. Lay doors on painter’s pyramids so you can more easily maneuver a brush around the bottom edges.
Mistake 11: You skipped paint primer.
The last thing you want is for knots to show up on your cabinets weeks or months after you’ve painted them. The best way to prevent this is with primer. “Priming helps paint to adhere to surfaces and is a critical step if you’re painting cabinets,” Gibbons says. Consider Clare’s fast-drying, multi-surface paint primer that can help conceal any imperfections and even block stains.
Mistake 12: You didn’t paint the surface of your cabinets in the right order.
Don’t just jump right in: Gibbons suggests painting the insides of your cabinets first then tackling the doors. Doors typically require a good amount of time, because you need to paint both sides and let them fully dry in between coats. You can begin with the back side of your cabinet doors. Apply one coat, wait 24 hours and then move on to your second coat of paint. After 24 hours, flip the doors over and paint the first coat on your front-facing side. Wait 24 hours before painting the second coat.
Mistake 13: You chose the wrong paint color.
Of course, there’s no right or wrong color for your own kitchen. But for cabinets, it’s important you get it right the first time. “This project is easy, but it’s not the kind of job you’re going to want to redo any time soon if you don’t like the color,” says Petersik.
She suggests painting a big poster board with a tester can in the color you’re considering (you can usually get a small one for just $5). “Hang it up next to your backsplash and your appliances and make sure that’s really the color you want.” If you’re stuck on where to start, check out color paint trends for inspiration!
Step 14: You didn’t use the best paint brand.
You can choose from a slew of paint brands ranging from Clare to a Good Housekeeping Institute favorite, Benjamin Moore Advance, which has a smooth finish that’s kitchen-friendly. While it may be a bit more than some other paints on the shelf, it’s worth it. Gibbons also likes to use a satin polyurethane top coat for durability. It helps your paint dry to a very hard, enamel-like finish.
And you likely won’t be using more than two gallons of paint, so costs won’t be as prohibitive as if you were painting an entire room.
Worried about visible brush marks? Virginia at Live Love DIY follows her brush strokes with a foam roller to smooth things out. And a more experienced DIYer might like the finish provided by a spray gun (like Jenny at Little Green Notebook uses), but it’s a bit more unwieldy than a brush.
Mistake 15: You put the cabinets back too quickly.
Yes, it’s frustrating to wait days for paint to cure. But if you accidentally smudge the paint, you have to sand the door and repaint it (a hard truth any woman who’s rushed to leave the nail salon surely understands). It’s worth the wait though. “Painting cabinets can be tedious, but if you take your time to do it the right way, you’ll be so happy with the results,” Gibbons says.
* Additional reporting by Lisa Freedman
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