How to Paint Cabinets

Painting kitchen cabinets is one of my favorite projects, it makes a huge impact on a kitchen. What can be better than a beautiful bright white kitchen? If you’re thinking of painting cabinets but not sure how to paint cabinets white and have them look professional don’t worry it isn’t difficult. It takes some time to do it right but worth the result in the end.

These steps work for any color, but white is popular, and tannins and stains show up easiest with white.

Tips for Beautiful Cabinets

  • Prep work is a must. Don’t fall for claims of “no sanding required, no priming required, blocks all stains”. Don’t skimp on the prep work. This is the majority of the work and what helps primer and paint to adhere for great results that last. How to paint kitchen cabinets white
  • Use good quality paint and the right primer. Good quality products will save you time and money in the long run. Cabinets are used often and without a durable finish, the paint will chip off or stain quickly.

This is a kitchen we remodeled. I painted the cabinets to save money. It was about 40-50$ cheaper per cabinet to buy unfinished. The prep work for new cabinets is easier much easier than cabinets that have been stained or painted in the past. Even starting with bare wood I sanded and primed twice before painting. The cabinets turned beautiful and brightened up the entire kitchen.

Prep Work

If you want your cabinets to look professional put the prep work in. You can skip steps but you will end out with an ok result. Painting cabinets is not a one day job.

Remove Doors and Hinges

  1. Take the doors down and remove hinges. Put screws and hinges in a bag. I like using a baggie for each door. I put hardware, screws, and hinges in the baggie and place them in a container or inside the cabinet, it belongs to.
  2. Number the doors. Remembering where each cabinet door goes can be next to impossible. Save yourself some time and number the doors. After removing the hinges write the number in the spot where the hinge was. If you are going to be painting over the number on the door just layout the doors in order. If you are going to paint over the number on the cabinet make a quick drawing of the cabinets and number the cabinets on the drawing.

Clean the Cabinet and Doors 

Clean the doors with a grease remover like TSP. Dawn dish soap may work too. There is also a Krud Kutter that is marketed as a TSP substitute with good reviews. I have yet to try it but it could be a good convenient option. If there is a lot of grease and grime on the cabinets I suggest the TSP. Primer and paint won’t stick to greasy cabinets.

After washing with the cleaner wipe down with water to rinse off the cleaner. Let them fully dry when done.

Fill in Holes

Fill in any holes or deep gouges with wood filler. Don’t overfill else you will have an unpleasant time sanding down all the wood filler after. I prefer wood filler for holes or larger dents since it fills in well and hardens strong.

Some oak cabinets have grooves. You can leave the grooves and paint over them but they will show up after priming and painting. You could use several coats of filler primer and sand in between to fill the gaps. I prefer to use sandable spackling to fill in the grooves and sand for a smooth finish.


This is the step most people dislike. It is time-consuming and a step some try to skip. It doesn’t matter if it is new bare wood or glossy surface, sanding will give you a better surface to work with.

You don’t have to sand down to bare wood. You are scratching up the surface to get good adhesion with the primer. When painting over a glossy surface sanding is the most important step to get the primer to stick.

Get a few sanding blocks 100-120 grit and get to work. I like the sanding blocks with the angle to help get into corners.

Use a shop vac to get rid of the majority of the dust and then wipe clean with a tack cloth. The tack cloth will help get rid of leftover dust and not leave any cloth on the freshly sanded wood.

Priming and Painting

Oil based primers for painting cabinets

Choosing the right primer for cabinets. Not all primers are the same. I made the mistake of using a regular primer the first time I painted cabinets. After several coats of primer, I had tannin bleed through. I ended up sanding down much of the cabinets and repriming with an oil-based primer.

Two coats of the oil-based primer blocked the tannins and my cabinets finally had a nice white finish. I still remember the hours it took me to prim and reprime.

The picture is of the cabinets that were done and then sanded and redone. That was a lesson learned the hard way. But it’s one I will never forget. I always make sure I have the right primer for whatever job I am working on now.

Oil-based primers. I tend to use one of two primers and have had good luck with both. Kiltz oil-based primer and Zinsser oil-based primer.

Zinsser is what I used after the tannins kept coming through. I used 2 coats of Zinsser and the bleed though was gone. Kiltz I have used on new cabinets with no bleed-through problems. I have also used Kiltz on fresh wood with knots and have not experienced issues with tannins or discoloration.

I like to use two coats to get good coverage. It may be excessive but I would rather put an extra coat of primer on in the beginning than to redo a project that didn’t turn out good.

Shellac Primer. I have not personally used this but this would be next on my list if an oil-based primer wouldn’t work. If priming over a very dark stain or wood I would go right to this. I would have probably given this a try already if I didn’t usually have Kiltz oil-based primer or Zinsser on hand.

There are other good brands out there. These are just the ones I have had good experiences with. These primers adhere to many different surfaces. If you choose to go with a different primer make sure to look for sealing, stain blocking, and tannin blocking on whatever primer you get.

Warning – All these primers stink! They let off some pretty potent smells that linger. Make sure to work in a well-ventilated area and limit exposure. Having a good mask that filters out VOCs is a good idea.

These primers tend to destroy paintbrushes. I do get mineral spirits and occasionally clean a brush if I plan on priming again within a few hours or a day. I like to do as much priming as I can at once and throw away the roller sleeve and use cheaper paintbrushes.

I know I could save money but with the time and the beating, the roller sleeve and paintbrushes take it is easier to throw them out and get new. Try to avoid getting it on your skin. Oil-based primers stick to everything including the skin and won’t wash off with soap and water as easy as other paints and primers.

Best Paint for Cabinets

I would stay away from regular latex paints for cabinets. Look for paint specifically for cabinets. Paints meant for walls tend to chip and not hold up well. This is a picture of cabinets painted with latex paint and chipping within a year.

What paint not to use on cabinets
Latex wall paint on a cabinet chipping within a year

I suggest looking for a cabinet enamel. Any will work. You don’t need to spend 90-100$ for a gallon of paint but avoid the 15$ a gallon ones. Expect to pay around 40-60$, depending on where you live, for decent quality paint.

I have used the Behr semi-gloss enamel for interior cabinets and trim. I was happy with it.

It dried hard within a few weeks and survived us fixing up the rest of the house around it. I can’t count the number of times I had to wipe dirty fingerprints off the cabinet. 

A few tips about painting cabinets

  • Paint is typically dry to the touch within a short amount of time but can take up to 30 days to cure. When the paint is cured it is at its hardest and provides the best protection. Be careful with freshly painted cabinets. I have seen people post negative reviews about paint stating their paint didn’t last a week after painting.
    • Keep your hands off the freshly painted cabinets!! If you, a spouse, sticky-handed little child, or the grubby dog can’t stay off the cabinet doors don’t install them for a week or two.
    • The paint shouldn’t be wiped down for at least a week and when it is use mild soap and water no harsh cleaners. If possible always avoid harsh cleaners on painted surfaces.
  • The glossier the better protection. Gloss, semi-gloss, or at the least satin should be used in the kitchen.
    • Gloss paint shows imperfections. Just prep the cabinets well and there will be fewer problems with imperfections showing through.
  • Use the right tools. I use cheaper brushes and roller sleeves for oil-based or shellac primers. But for the final coats of paint get a good brush and nice rollers. I like the woodster shortcut angle sash paintbrush it is one of my favorites. Some people use foam rollers but I can’t stand them. I feel like they too often leave roller marks and have better results with microfiber.  I like a small roller 4-6 inch roller with 1/4 or 3/8 in microfiber nap.
  • Don’t use a brush for the whole cabinet. Start with a brush to get into the corners and then roll the rest of it. Brush first and then roll so the brush lines are rolled out.
  • Paint cabinet doors flat. Less drips form and paint levels out better if cabinet doors are laying flat.
  • Get a paint sprayer. I bought a paint sprayer for about 150$ and couldn’t be happier with it. It doesn’t need an air compressor and it is easy to travel with. After a little trial and error and learning to use it I couldn’t be happier. If you want your cabinets to look like a pro did it, get a sprayer.

Saves Money

Painting cabinets instead of replacing them will save you thousands of dollars. Painting cabinets yourself can save you hundreds or thousands compared to hiring a professional to paint.

Put in the prep work. To get a good result that is the key. Even when putting in new cabinets I prep before painting. I sand down new cabinets and remove any splinters or bumps. Starting with a smooth surface gets professional results.

It isn’t hard to get great results. Even if your job has an imperfection or two chances are someone else won’t notice. This is an easy DIY for a flip our your own house that is worth doing. Updating the kitchen or bathroom cabinets with paint can increase the value of any house. The cost of supplies is far less than the value increase if done right.

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