Tutorial: Cabinet Painting

She Says:

When we started this project, I had very little experience with painting cabinets, or any furniture of any kind. Since we were going to be looking at these cabinets every day for a very long time, I wanted to make sure and do this right.


Mouse Sander
120 Grit Sandpaper
Paintbrushes (I prefer the Purdy 3 Pack)

Zinsser Cover Stain Primer

Sherwin-Williams ProClassic Oil Base Paint, Semi-Gloss

It was surprisingly difficult to find painting techniques online.  Oh, there's plenty of step by step, but they spend huge amounts of time on the sanding and the priming, and then the paint step usually reads:  "Apply 2 coats of paint."  End of story.

Don't get me wrong, the prep work is so important.  So let's get to that first.

1.  Remove Hardware and Doors from Frames
As we mentioned here, we sourced unfinished oak cabinets for our kitchen.  Because these are new cabinets, the hinges are obviously the only hardware to remove.  There are *a lot* of cabinets in this kitchen, so I numbered the cabinets and doors so I could keep them straight and get the doors back where they belonged.

2.  Sand

I used 120 grit paper on my mouse sander.  The mouse is nice because it can get into all the nooks and crannies on the door panels.  Then I hand sanded the edges, again with 120 grit.  Assembly lines are great for this project- sand the fronts of several doors, then the backs, etc.

3.  Clean

Here's a tip: before wiping down each door with my tack cloth, I brushed the excess sawdust away with an old, dry paintbrush:

This gets all the dust out of the corners, and adds to the life of your tack cloth.

4.  Prime

The Zinsser Primer is the way to go.  It sands nicely, and gives you a smooth surface that the paint can bond to.  And although we're painting unfinished wood, the Cover Stain version also works really well on older cabinets that are being repainted, or painting over stain.

I needed a lot of space for this project, and inside the construction zone of the house was just not an option. So I worked outside.  Upside: plenty of space.  

Downsides:  varying temperatures and the occasional bug:

The bugs were dealt with in the next sanding step.  As for the temperature, on very cold mornings, I thinned my primer with mineral spirits,  just enough to keep it flowing until I was through with all my brush strokes. (See step 6 for actual painting technique)

5.  Sand Primer

Just like Step 2, except sanding primer instead of bare wood.

6.  Paint

Now maybe I'm just too OCD (okay, I know I am) but this was the step that I really needed some guidance on.  So after many, many painted cabinet doors, I'm going to share my technique with you.  If you're one of these smartypants who already know how to paint, you can just skip to the end, or just play The Flintstones in your head.

I start with the inside corners of the frame front and give a generous coat all the way around, especially in the corners.  Then I paint inside the frame, going with the grain, all the way from top to bottom, in one stroke.  If the paint starts to feel thick or draggy, or if my brushstrokes are too visible, I dip my brush in mineral spirits and brush across the wet paint in the same direction as the grain and my previous brushstrokes.  I tend to be very generous with the mineral spirits- it gives the paint a chance to spread out and end up in a smooth finish.   This really comes in handy when painting large surface areas, like say the whole cabinet that houses the fridge.  I just kept the paint really juicy and wet by going back over it with the mineral spirits, and it came out beautifully.  Lastly, I paint the raised portion of the the frame, always with the grain, and then the edges, watching for edge drip.

Wait 24 hours.  Repeat.

Another tip: start with the back side of the doors.  That way, you can practice your technique and get the finish product that you're looking for without "experimenting" on the side everyone's going to see...

7.  Dry

Oil base paint will dry to the touch within 24 hours, but it will stay soft for several days.  You can move doors around and even paint the other side, but be careful with them as you can leave gouge marks.  They're completely dry when you can no longer make a mark in them with your fingernail.

8.  Don't Sweat

The nice thing about using an oil based paint is you can always sand down a drip or other mistake (such as the aforementioned bug) and give it another coat.

Other Thoughts:

If you look closely in the sanding picture above, you can see those little yellow painting pyramids.  You're supposed to be able to paint one side, then flip the door over and set it on those pyramids and paint the other side.  I don't get it.  First of all, you need 4 for every door, and there are over 30 doors in this kitchen. Second, they leave a mark, just like you'd expect, from the little point of the pyramid.  And that was if I didn't accidentally bump the door and move it across the tip, leaving a nice scratch.  Now, it is certainly possible that I wasn't using them correctly.  My advice: don't bother with them.

Enjoy yourself.  I know some people that hate painting, but I find it very soothing, and talk about (relatively) instant gratification...

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  1. Wow, thanks so much for the tips! I never thought to use mineral spirits during painting... I hate it when the paint dries too quickly and shows brush strokes! I'm going to try your technique next time! Stopping by from SITS - Happy Sharefest!!

    Cher @ Designs by Studio C