Painting cabinets is a pretty tempting DIY project.  How do the pros do it?

 

I remember looking at my hideous pickled-oak cabinets and thinking, “I should just paint those!  I’ve got time, how hard can it be?”  I used to be pretty handy back in the day, and I’d try household projects all the time . . . no plumbing or electrical, of course, but certainly painting or a little carpentry.  With plenty of time and limited funds, I was the classic DIY candidate!

 

 

If you’re thinking about painting your cabinets, you’ve probably read every how-to article you can find.  Most give you some basic pointers geared to the non-professional, the homeowner on a budget.  Maybe you’ve heard tips like these:  Wash your cabinets first.  Protect your floors.  Get a 6″ roller for the big flat surfaces, and an angled sash brush for the corners and edges.  Sand between coats.

 

But none of these posts or articles shows you what the professionals do when they paint cabinets!  And the process is very different.  If you’re curious to see how the pros do it, we show you here.  We’ll show your our professional process for painting cabinets step-by-step.  Check out our video to see the process in action, and read below to see what we do behind-the-scenes!

 

 

 

 

First of all, why is there such a huge difference between DIY-painted cabinets and a professional cabinet finish?

 

There are 3 dead give-aways to an amateur, DIY paint job on cabinets:

 

 1.  Visible brush strokes, like these:

 

White painted cabinet door with visible brush strokes

 

2.  Visible roller marks, or roller “stipple”, like this:

 

White painted cabinet door with visible roller stipple marks

 

 

3. Visible damage to the wood that didn’t get fixed but got painted over, like cracks, dings, and dents.  Just painting them doesn’t make them go away, folks!

 

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Q

uestion: So how do the pros produce such silky-smooth cabinets?  Answer:  They spray them!

 

 

We at Paper Moon Painting want your kitchen to look as beautiful as you do, so we always spray our finishes, for a smooth look free of brush strokes or roller marks. This is a big reason why painting cabinets isn’t always a great option for a DIY project.  It takes serious paint skills to apply a finish by hand that doesn’t leave roller marks or brush strokes  –  there aren’t even many pro painters that can do it!  And without professional spray equipment, it’s almost impossible to get the smooth, “factory finish” look of new cabinets.

 

And pro cabinet painters use products that aren’t easy for a homeowner to master over a weekend or two.  We usually use professional-grade lacquer because it has a lovely, silky-smooth feel to it, and is what cabinet manufacturers use.  We think it’s the best paint for cabinets, hands-down (although there are some great pro-level water-based options as well).  Nothing else quite matches the gorgeous look and feel of lacquered cabinets, in any color or sheen.   But sprayed finishes, and especially lacquers, can be tricky to master.  The wrong pressure or setting on your spray gun, or the wrong distance you’ve got the spray tip from the surface, or the wrong speed that you’re moving your arm . . . All these things can cause paint to sag, drip, or go on so thin it doesn’t cover well or last long.  Since we’ll be spraying a gorgeous finish on your cabinets, we’ve made the process as fast, reliable, and stress-free as possible, so your cabinets don’t look like an amateur did them over the weekend!

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Every kitchen is different, of course, but most of the time, pro painters like us follow these steps when they’re painting cabinets:

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 1.  We disassemble your kitchen by removing the cabinet doors and drawer fronts.

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We remove all the hardware such as drawer pulls and door handles.   Then we pop off or remove the cabinet doors and take off the hinges.  Each individual door hinge gets labeled, so we can put each one back in the right place when we reassemble.

 

Here’s what the Austin kitchen from the video looked like after we removed all the doors and drawers:

 

Kitchen with cabinet doors removed and masking started for spraying, Paper Moon Painting, Austin TX

 

You can see our painters have started to “mask off” the kitchen  –  cover non-cabinet areas like walls, ceilings, and countertops  –  but more about that later!

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Q

uestion: What about the insides?  Do I have to empty out the insides of my kitchen cabinets first?  Answer:  It depends!

Are the insides of your kitchen or bath cabinets in a light wood with a clear topcoat, or are they painted a solid color, or possibly stained dark?  If they have a clear topcoat, as in the kitchen photo above, those are usually left as-is.  (Most newer cabinets come this way.)  In that case, we’ll paint the outside but not the insides of your cabinets.  This means you can leave any items like dishes in there, because we’ll cover them with plastic to protect them from getting sprayed.   Less work for you!

 

Painting cabinets when the insides have a natural clear topcoat

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However, if the insides of your cabinets are either stained dark or previously painted in a solid color, then the best design choice would be to paint the cabinets inside-and-out.  In that case, everything needs to come out of your cabinets and drawers before we arrive. Silver lining:  this is your chance to go through the contents of your kitchen, keep whatever is still useful or valuable, and donate the rest!

 

Stained insides of old cabinets are included when painting cabinets

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Then we remove the drawer fronts.   Sometimes the fronts are made to unscrew easily from the drawer “boxes”, which is the ideal scenario.  We remove them and leave the boxes themselves in place (which means you can leave items like silverware inside the drawers during the whole process).  Here we’re unscrewing a drawer front, from the kitchen we painted in Austin, TX that we show in the video above:

 

Removable drawer front being disassembled before cabinet spraying, Austin TX project

 

But if the drawer fronts aren’t removable, we pull out the drawers, mask off the drawer boxes to protect them from paint overspray, and stack them all up to get ready for painting.

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Drawers stacked, cabinet painting in progress, Paper Moon Painting, Austin, TX

 

 

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uestion: Do you ever leave the cabinet doors on and just paint them in place?  Answer:  Professional painters take the doors down to paint them, and here’s why . . .

We’ll always paint both sides of your doors, both sides of your drawer front pieces, and the outsides of the cabinet bases and frames themselves (whether or not we’re painting the insides).  It’s a classic DIY or amateur move to leave the doors hanging in place and not have to remove all the parts and label the hinges.   Or dealing with finding a place in your home to spread out all the cabinet doors so you can paint one side, then wait for them to dry enough so that you can flip them over and paint the backs . . . ad nauseam, for multiple coats.  Plus trying to paint both sides of the doors and drawer fronts while they’re still in place is extremely tricky, and it’s almost impossible to get a smooth result without getting paint on your hinges or leaving brush strokes on every surface.

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The pros don’t do it this way.  We remove the doors and drawer fronts and either use a specially-made rack to hold the doors while we’re working, or take them off-site to our cabinet spray shop for spraying.  This way, you’re guaranteed a smooth, professional finish on BOTH sides of your cabinet doors.

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2.  Next, we mask off your kitchen to get ready to spray the base cabinets.

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We cover everything that won’t get painted – countertops, backsplash, appliances, floors – with either masking paper or plastic. If we’re not painting the insides of your cabinets, we tape paper or plastic over the openings where your doors and drawers go, protecting the insides from any overspray. And we’ll “tent off” your kitchen with vapor-barrier plastic, to contain any dust or odors while we’re spraying. We put in zippered walk-through openings in the plastic “walls”, so you can still enter your kitchen when we’re not working, and access your refrigerator, sink, and pantry.

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Here’s the Austin kitchen from the video, after it’s been masked off.  We used brown masking paper here, but most often we use plastic sheeting to mask off the cabinet openings, as you’ll see in the next photo:

Austin, TX kitchen masked off with paper for spraying

 

Kitchen with doors removed, insides masked for painting

 

 

Q

uestion: Is there going to be a strong smell?

Ah, here’s where we’re really proud of our process!   We go the extra mile to make the whole project as comfortable for you as possible.  We think the best paint for kitchen cabinets is lacquer, but if there’s a downside, it’s that lacquers are smelly while they’re being sprayed, there’s no way around it.

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But we’re on it!  Not only do we tent off your kitchen to contain the smell, we use heavy-duty air scrubbers with both carbon filters and HEPA filters. We vent everything out to the fresh air outside.  Plus the air scrubbers clean your air on a continuous cycle within the spray area.  If there’s a way to reduce smell and make the process easy for you to live with while we’re in your home, we’re doing it!

 

Here’s a photo of one of our Austin branch managers showing off one of the air scrubbers we use:

 

Air scrubber with HEPA and carbon filters used while painting cabinets, Paper Moon Painting, Austin TX

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And just ’cause he’s so cute, here’s the homeowner’s English bulldog pup, in the tented-off part of the kitchen:

 

Kevin the bulldog in cabinet spray booth tent area, Austin

 

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3.  We’re not painting cabinets yet!  Next is the “prep”, and it’s critically important.

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Let’s face it, most kitchens can get pretty beat up!  Everyday cooking grease, dust and grime accumulates over time, even with the best of housekeepers.  Every surface that we’re going to paint gets cleaned, degreased, and “scuffed”.  (Scuffing is a quick, light sanding to remove the top glossiness of the existing finish.)   This helps the primer bond to your cabinets, and is a critical step! If there are any light repairs that need to be done, such as dings or deep scratches in your cabinets, we address them after priming, when they’re easier to see.

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Scuffing and sanding cabinets before painting

 

By the way, ineffective cleaning and scuffing is the single biggest reason why most DIY cabinet painting projects fail.  (Well . . .  that, and the visible brush strokes or roller marks you get when you don’t spray them.)  Even the best paint for kitchen cabinets won’t stick to grease and grime.  This step isn’t fun, and it won’t give you the thrill of progress, but it’s absolutely critical when you’re painting cabinets!

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.4.  We prime everything.

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Here’s where you’ll start to see a difference! Regardless of the final color chosen, your kitchen cabinets will now look white after priming. It’s always exciting seeing the transformation start to happen!

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Here’s our Austin branch manager Lex in front of the kitchen from the video, after priming:

Austin branch manager Lex in front of primed kitchen cabinets

 

Q

uestion: If lacquer is the best paint for kitchen cabinets, then what do you use for primer?  Answer:  It depends on how grainy your cabinets are!

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Different projects call for different primers.  Are your cabinets made of oak or hickory, or any porous wood with a deep or heavy grain?  In that case, we use a special heavy-bodied primer that is designed to fill 95% of your cabinet’s grain.  Otherwise, your painted cabinets will still have the texture of the wood’s grain underneath.  Will the primer fill the grain 100%, over every square centimeter?  Well, we think it’s the best primer for kitchen cabinets if you want to fill grain, but it’s not a miracle product!  Not every last bit of grain is always filled.  But it will fill almost all of it, enough that your cabinets will look smooth and lovely, especially on the front faces of your cabinets where it matters most.  (We paint our cabinet door samples on grainy oak, so you can get a real-life example of how beautiful they’ll look once we’re done.).

 

And if your cabinets are already smooth, such as maple cabinets?  Then we use primers that are specially modified to bond to smooth surfaces.

 

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5.  We take care of any obvious surface imperfections.

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Dings, cracks, or other imperfections are easier to see after priming, so we take care of them now.  Everything we’ve primed gets inspected, including the cabinet bases and both sides of the doors and drawer fronts. We fill dings and sand out rough spots, taking extra care on the “fronts”, or visible sides of your cabinetry. And if your project estimate includes filling any existing hardware holes, we do that now too.

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6.  We sand and then typically apply a second primer layer.

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By the time we’ve fixed any small imperfections and sanded the primer layers, your cabinets will feel smooth as butter!

 

Pro painter spraying a white painted cabinet door, San Antonio, TX

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7.  Now for the most exciting part of painting cabinets:  We spray the color on!

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Here’s a very poor shot, but you can see the dark muted green color (Sherwin Williams No. 7047, “Porpoise”) already sprayed on the cabinets in the upper left:

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Kitchen primed and color started

 

Once the final color goes on, you can really start to envision how beautiful your kitchen will be.  Since your cabinets are already fully prepped, primed, and sanded smooth, painting cabinets in the final color goes surprisingly fast.

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8.  The “messy” part of painting cabinets is over.  Now we reassemble everything!

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First we remove the plastic or paper masking from the door openings, as you can see in this photo where we painted the cabinets in a soft white (you saw this kitchen earlier, masked off in plastic):

 

Kitchen cabinets with doors and masking removed, ready to reassemble

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Your newly-painted cabinet doors go back up, we put your drawer fronts back in place, and we reinstall your cabinet hardware (drawer pulls, door knobs, and handles).  Since we had already labeled the hardware hinges earlier, this step is pretty straightforward.  Here we are putting doors back up, in the kitchen from the video:

 

Cabinet painter reinstalling door after painting, Austin project

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9.  We unmask your kitchen and get it all cleaned up and pretty!

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Ta-da!!!  At last you can see your finished kitchen.  We take down all the paper and plastic, remove all our equipment, and clean up the whole area.  If this were an HGTV show, this would be the “big reveal”!

 

 

 

Kitchen cabinet painting project, Sherwin Williams SW 7047 Porpoise, Austin TX

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Painting cabinets in Austin TX - final result with Sherwin Williams 7047 Porpoise.

 

 

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uestion: That’s a detailed list of steps.  How long does all this take?

Answer:  It’s pretty amazing, but we rarely take longer than a week to transform a kitchen! In fact, if yours is a small to medium-sized kitchen, we’re usually done in 3 days.

Although there are lots of steps involved in painting cabinets, it’s a process we’ve researched and practiced over and over to get the best results.  We’ve done hundreds of kitchen painting projects, and we’re very proud of our streamlined system!

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Want more?  Read about our cabinet painting services, browse our gorgeous project galleries, and see some fun before-and-after projects.  And because we think your cabinets are too great an investment in your home to leave to just anyone, learn how to evaluate and choose a good painting company here.  (And check out our Google, Angie’s List, and Houzz reviews to see how our customers are thrilled with their “new” kitchens!)

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Want to see how we can transform your kitchen?  Just schedule a free in-home estimate, with either our Austin or San Antonio locations.  Painting cabinets is our specialty, and we’d love to show you how beautiful your cabinets can look!