How To Paint Your Cabinets – The cheap kitchen makeover!

The Obligatory Before and After shot


We moved onto the farm a little over a year ago. While we’ve loved it, we were slowly working on making the inside of the house our home. We moved from a somewhat larger home (Approx. 3000 sqft, PLUS and partially finished basement.) to our 2400 sqft Cape-Cod-style house. The house layout was good, but sadly our kitchen was rather, small. (Our old house had a kitchen that was 30ft long and took two full granite slabs to work the counter space.) Since I consider myself to be somewhat handy (Remember Men, if women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find ya handy.)  and we didn’t want to invest $5,000 to replace and hang our own cabinets, we decided to repaint them white to make the kitchen appear larger. After some google searching and some ideas, the following was my experience:

The Up-front:

  • Painting your cabinets is a painstakingly long chore. It took me 3 full weekends working 10+ hours per day and several days in between. THIS IS NOT A WEEKEND JOB.
  • Painting your cabinets: 80% prep work, 20% actual painting.
  • Buy good paint, and buy 2 to 3 gallons of it.
  • You WILL need to prime your cabinets.
  • It’s 85% worth it to do-it-yourself. The 15% percent is deciding on whether or not it’s worth your time.
  • Despite what others have said, you don’t need a sprayer. It does make the job go faster if you have one, however there’s a learning curve and increases prep by 10-fold. We found foam rollers and GOOD brushes to be just as effective.


  • Approximately $300 to $500 for painting.
  • Our project included new uppers, and a new microwave oven: ~$1,000


  • Moderate, but definitely worth it as I’ve seen quotes in the $1500 and over for painting.

Painting your cabinets is a painstakingly long chore. It took me 3 full weekends working 10+ hours per day and several days in between. THIS IS NOT A WEEKEND JOB.

Alright, Let’s Dig Into It:

Step 1: Determining The Scope.

Your first step will be to plan out, both the project and the materials ad nauseam. I started by taking a look at what I wanted to accomplish with my kitchen.

Our kitchen was always dark due to the back porch’s roof and only getting morning sun.

I wanted to lighten up the place, make the small kitchen appear larger, and give it some more “class.” In addition, range hood over our stove wasn’t even vented. It was just a fan to suck everything up and blow it right up into the room, I love to cook, so we wanted to fix that. Finally, we’re packrats so we wanted to make more shelf space.

To accomplish this, I wanted to add new cabinets up top, use a white-based color, and install a proper hooded vent. Mid-project, I determined that I hated the microwave in that location. Since we were doing this on a budget, I didn’t want to face the upper cabinets, just make nice cubby holes. Once everything was decided, I went to determining what I needed.

Step 2: Gather materials, more than what you think you’ll need.

Before I get into the list of what I need, I need to address the second part of the previous statement. I spent several hours, running back-and-forth between home depot getting parts, materials, and energy drinks. That was just wasted time. Wasting time is wasted money. In other words, if you make, let’s say $15/hour and you have to spend 2 hours going back and forth, that’s $30 dollars of your “time”, in a certain way of speaking. An extra gallon of paint may have costed me $50 dollars, but since I had to wait till the store opened, go there and get more, I wasted that $30. So, just be mindful and plan ahead. Extra paint isn’t a bad thing, running low on sand-paper will cause you to skip prep, and not enough energy drinks/coffee will make you rue the day you started the project.

Materials (With Our Pick in Parens):

  • 2 to 3 gallons of your primary paint color. Pick good paint. Don’t cheap out. I HIGHLY recommend Sherwin Williams. (Sherwin Williams SuperPaint OR Emerald)
    • If you’re doing white, don’t stress out about the “perfect” shade. You can go into any paint place and get samples for $3 to $5 dollars.
    • Also, what we found out with white is that we couldn’t tell the difference between White and Alpine Snow, or the color we decided to go with “Swiss Coffee”. All looked white to us.
  • Primer (Kilz, get it from home depot in the 2 gallon denominations, you’ll need it.)
  • A degreaser/deglosser. (We didn’t use this, I wish we had.)
  • Simple Green. (Don’t use normal soap.)
  • 4 to 6 inch FOAM roller. Has to be foam to get a smooth finish. (See Home Depot)
  • Good-quality paint brushes.
    • You’ll need at least 2 for painting, once again get the BEST. (Wooster Pro Set)
    • 1 for finishing, Best possible. (Wooster Pro, ask home depot for the best one for your finish.)
  • Sand-paper in the following: 80, 120, 220, 320+.
    • I’d recommend also getting the following:
      • Sanding blocks (they look like spongers) in 120 and 220.
      • A replaceable holder for the sand paper. Allows you to change out sheets easily and will save your hands.
    • You can save a lot of effort by purchasing an orbital sander. No need to get the most expensive one, should be $30 to $60 bucks. You’ll need sanding discs in the 80, 120, and 220. (Don’t go over 220, you need to do that by hand with the grain of the wood.
  • A “poly” of your choice in finish you desire: (Minwax Matte Polyacrylic)
    • You NEED to have a protective coating on your cabinets. If not, they’ll be easily damaged/stained.
    • Couple of finish choices:
      • Polyurethane -very difficult for a beginner but if you’ve done this before go ahead. They have a wider array of finishes from matte to satin.
      • Polyacrylic – I love this stuff. It’s easy to apply, very few bubbles, dries in a couple of hours. Also, we got it in matte. We didn’t want “shiny” cabinets. It does add a sheen but no more than eggshell paint. HIGHLY RECOMMEND FOR BEGINNERS.
  • Paintable Caulk
  • Masking Tape, specifically Frog Tape. In my opinion, frog tape is the best for painting. We’ve used the others, all of them. Yes it’s more expensive. Yes you’re going to need like 3-5 rolls of 1″ to 2″. BUY EXTRA. It’s extremely annoying to go all the way back to Home Depot cause you’re 10ft short on tape.
  • Plastic sheets.
  • A roll of paper for taping and coverage.
  • Tack cloth. (basically it’s waxy cheesecloth.)
  • Sponges, rags, washcloths.
  • Paint Respirator with appropriate filters.
  • Eye Protection

Optional for my project:

I hate it when Anna White says she does something that is Pottery Barn-level look for $35 dollars. She doesn’t list everything and tools which many people don’t have.

  • She doesn’t list everything and tool which many people don’t have. Here are some things that I would consider “optional”, since I made new uppers I’m going to list the tools I needed to do so. Why? Because I hate it when Anna White says she does something that is Pottery Barn-level look for $35 dollars. She doesn’t list everything and tool which many people don’t have. I’m not slamming her for this, it’s true that’s what she did and spent on that project. With that being said, I’ll tell you to get paintbrushes, I’m not going to ASSUME you need them or have them in order to complete the task. Since I’m focusing on painting, I’m just going to leave the list for the options:
    • A paint sprayer. (Difficult to use, I tried the first coat of primer and I hated it.)
    • A table saw.
    • Kreg Pocket Hole Jig
    • Pocket screws
    • 3/4″ Birch-faced plywood.
    • Drill
    • Levels
    • Wood Filler
    • ShopVac
    • Beer, lots of beer.
    • A Dremel Oscilating tool.
    • Time
    • Compound Double-Bevel Miter Saw
    • Miter Saw Box
    • Trim
    • 16g Finishing Nailer with 2″ nails.
    • Piping for exhaust from Microwave.
    • Maybe refill that beer.
    • Small moulding trim (something like quarter-round or shoe)


Phase 1: The Prep.

Now that we got everything covered, I’m going to go in order of what I did (including building the uppers) since that’s how my brain is wired and my pictures were taken.

  • Pick a 3-4 week period and don’t make plans. We almost didn’t hit our deadline of my sister’s wedding on the farm. I worked 14 and 16 hour days to keep up.
  • Remove EVERYTHING from inside and outside your cabinets. Everything. Even if you’re not doing the insides of the cabinets (Which I still think you should do). Clear off all your countertops. Move everything out of the room. Do not use your stove, oven, you’re going to be eating out a lot.
  • Clean your kitchen. Deep clean your kitchen. Simple Green all surfaces. Clean out the sink. Clean your fridge. Make it a good spiritual start.
  • Use a bucket of hot water and simple green concentrate together with either the back of the sponge or a separate 3M scrubby sponge. Use a concentrated amount of simple green. We’re trying to get all the years of dust and grime off these things. Scrub hard. Scrub Long. You’ll hate this part but TRUST ME, it’s very necessary.
  • Using a clean rag and a bucket of clean hot water to rinse the cabinets. Repeat again.
  • Allow everything to dry. You’ll be happy cause you have a perfectly clean kitchen.
  • At this point, if you bought a chemical deglosser, you’d be following those directions. To skip the cabinet uppers, scroll down to step 14.
  • I began by making new uppers. I made boxes out of the 3/4″ plywood and kreg pocket holes. I would then place it to check alignment. Note: When you measure this stuff, make sure you’re measuring the cabinets and NOT the faces. Cheap cabinets (like mine) are made from particleboard then faced with either laminated or real hardwood. We’re basically doing the same thing with the birch. Why birch? It’s not as porous as other woods and since we’re painting that’s good. I removed the original moulding from the top carefully as to not break it, I wanted to re-apply it to the top.20170521_131209
  • I then continued and kept dry-fitting all of my boxes around the top, making sure they aligned with the cabinet housing and not the cabinet faces. 20170521_180806.jpg
  •  Note: Walls are wavy and not straight, your cabinets were built with that in mind. You may need to put shims in to keep them flowing together. Don’t worry about small gaps at the end, we’ll take care of those later. I discovered as I was screwing the last cabinet of the day that my screw suddenly “stopped” followed by a hissing sound. Turns out my stud finder found a piece of copper pipe. This was a big issue so take your time. Also do stuff when stores are open. In my case, I had to cut a hole in the wall, repair the pipe, then mud it on. Costing me money but more importantly time.

    Disaster Strikes: When you’re locating studs on the wall, try and anticipate where electrical and most importantly plumbing may be.
  • Once I had finished dry fitting and securing the cabinets, I worked on making the trim pieces for the front of the cabinets. Using the front vertical trim of the cabinet under it as a guide for width on each piece. I did the “outside edges” (meaning edges with no joined cabinet with thin pieces. The insides (where two cabinets meet) was a wider strip to cover both. Then I cut stripes for the bottom, these were 1″ in width and fit between the two verticals. All pieces were put in place by the finishing nailer. Once I had verified alignment,  I began finding all the studs, and using different screws of different lengths secured the upper cabinets to the lowers and the back wall. Using shims, I did my best to keep the top trim on the original cabinets and the bottom piece of trim on my new ones. There are discrepancies of course, no one has noticed and really the “farm house” style (meaning I can get away with imperfections) is kinda in, so there’s that. . Using the wood filler, I filled in all the gaps I had between the cabinets.
  • Then, the crown moulding as added back into place. This was kind of difficult cause the crown moulding needed to be nailed down to the top of the cabinet. Since I didn’t have the clearance necessary for my nail gun, I instead used a common board cut to length (actually, they had this already on the top of the old cabinets on the long run, and I repeated where necessary. You WILL have gaps if you do it this way. Not to worry, I used the small shoe moulding to create a more sophisticated transition, AKA, hide the imperfections. Any remaining gaps were filled with paintable caulk. 20170524_093840
  • The next step was to solve the problem of my flame hood and that huge black microwave sticking out. My original plan was to build new uppers over the oven  and simply have a black pipe going up and vent it out the roof. The previous owners simply had a shelf that the microwave sat on, and it probably stuck out just as far as the fridge. Extremely annoying and made that area small.
    What to do about that range good?

    So, the wife and I worked out a solution. We got a KitchenAid MicrowaveConvection oven that was able to be vented. This was a must for me as I tend to use cast-iron and cook inside when making pan-seared steaks/fajitas. Smoke would inevitably rise into the sealing setting off the smoke alarms. Some microwaves will re-circulate the area using charcoal/grease traps but they’re no where NEAR as good as just pumping it outside. The flame good was removed and the new microwave set up.

    The “fun” design part had to be modified and so were my plans.

    So, since I had to modify my original plan, had to make a faux top shelf for the microwave to mount through. Then we ran the piping outside using a Dremel, some aluminum tape and southern ingenuity. (Aka, the directions asked for parts no one had so we modified it to work.) We were then at a loss for the cabinet, but that’s okay, I closed it off in a sense with another board, made more trim and created a blank top. (We’re come back to that blank top.

    Created a new panel for a design.

    Using the shoe trim, I created another box to add some texture.
  • After finishing all new construction, it was time for sanding. Remove ALL doors. Remove the hinges from the doors/cabinets. On each door on the inside of where the hinge used to be, write with a sharpie the cabinet number and keep track of what door goes wear with a master guide on a piece of paper. Cover that number with a piece of frog tape. This is so later when you’re re-assembling everything you’ll be able to know which door goes where. Once you’ve got everything removed, now’s the time to sand, sand, and more sand. If you feel the de-glosser did a good enough job on your cabinets, you can use that but in order for primer and paint to stick well, it needs a rough surface. Use 120-grit and work your way to 220. This is the longest and honestly most difficult part. It takes forever. Your home gets dusty, luckily since I have a more traditional closed-concept home I created a dust zone and vented everything outside with a box fan. Take the doors outside to be sanded. It’s also nice to pickup little painting pylons from Home Depot or you can search on how to paint cabinet doors specifically so you can find various apparatus that work for you. I ended up taking bits of 2x4s with screws to have make-shift painting blocks. I then put sheets of plywood on saw-horses to make a useable table to paint on. For shaker-style cabinets, you’ll need to get into the crevices really well as dust/dirt/oil/grime really get down in their. 3M makes a sanding “sponge” with a sharp edge that works well for getting in there. TAKE YOUR TIME. THIS PART SUCKS.
    You can see I combined my orbital sander with my shop vac to ease dust collection.

    We also covered everything with plastic as we were spraying. IF YOU’RE SPRAYING: COVER EVERYTHING WITH PLASTIC. TAPE EVERYTHING DOWN. 


  • The nearing the last stage of prep: Wait. You’ll need to wait overnight and stop all airflow into the room. This allows all the dust particles to settle, then my wife’s least favorite part, cleaning again. Except this time, use just plain water with a damp rag. Remove all dust. Then wait for it to dry again. Using the tack cloth, wipe all surfaces down. Then can get the particles the wet rag left behind. The doors get the same treatment outside.
    Since is the the last time we’ll clean, make sure it’s a good deep cleaning again.

    Now you’re ready to finishing putting up all plastic.

  • Since we were spraying on our primer, we covered EVERYTHING we could. I’ll write a lesson’s learned article as well however, I over-sprayed causing a lot of drips which increased my time to re-sand, re-clean, and re-paint all areas. We also didn’t do a good enough jobs cleaning/degreasing which is why I’m telling you the emphasis on it. The paint will not stick over the oils and it’ll have a “bleed through” effect, where really its just where paint won’t stick and gets shoved aside. Spraying also took over 12 hours to fully dry. Honestly, it’s easier to just use a foam roller. Also, it’s tempting to get a “Nice thick coat” however, you’d be doing yourself a favor doing several light coats, (2 or 3) as it’ll dry quicker, it’ll be more even, and less of a headache. The doors get the same treatment outside. I don’t recommend during this during a hot-humid summer as it’ll take forever to dry and bugs like white. Fall/Spring is better.
    Here we have a nice primed cabinets. We sprayed the first coat. Even with the prep we did it STILL wasn’t enough. We switched to foam rollers.

    After you finish priming, you’re going to use the 320 grit sandpaper and lightly rough up the primed coat. Then wipe everything down with tack-cloth. Fix any imperfections by completely sanding down the area and starting over. Where you have “globbed paint” it won’t totally be dried until a good 24-48 hours, so it’s easier just to start over from scratch than to fix it later.

  • After you’ve finished with your primed layer it’s time to start painting. Using your thinest angled brush, go over over all the inside corners of the cabinets. Next, use your foam roller to paint the insides. Remember, we’re doing several light coats. If you’re painting them white, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “White is White” earlier, you won’t be able to tell a big difference between somewhere you’ve primed vs. where you’ve painted. Using your brush, go over the and crown moulding. Pay attention to brush-stroke direction. You want to go with the natural grain of the wood for areas that will only get brush attention. Then go over the outside. The outside goes quick. By the time you’ve finished with your first light coat, wait 30 more minutes, everything will probably be dry enough for a second coat. Lather-rinse-repeat as much as you’d like. You want to build up a couple layers for nicks and scratches. After you’ve finished painting, rip everything off. You’d think you’re done but we’ve still got a couple more things to do. After you’ve got rid of all the plastic, you’ll see areas around the edges where the paint dried over the Frog Tape and when you peeled it off, it left areas where it ripped the paint off. That’s fine cause now we’re going finish it. Next, go outside and paint the doors. I hear both good things about painting doors horizontally (meaning flat) and some people making contraptions that they “hang” on. Just remember, doing light coats is your best bet.
    Already looks MUCH better here but check out the right side. There’s where the paint ripped off. Some places it’s more dramatic than others.


  • Now, re-tape around the edges of your cabinets. Get a wet rag, and PAINTABLE white caulk. Anywhere there are gaps, you’re going to put caulk into them. This includes around the edges where they connect to walls. As I said before, walls aren’t straight, they’re wavy. Putting this paintable caulk in there will fix that and make each cabinet look perfectly fitted. Caulk take a while to perfect the technique, but you’ll want to make a small then bead of caulk, get your finger nice and wet with the rag, then run your finger along the corner. It should “smoosh” it into the crack and making a bevel. Wipe your finger off and repeat. BEFORE THE CAULK DRIES, go ahead and remove the frog tape. This will make a nice crisp line and the caulk won’t have the same problem as the paint earlier. After everything is dried, replace frog tape you removed around the edges. Then using your brush, go over where you’ve caulked or fixing the paint. Once again, BEFORE THE PAINT DRIES remove the frog tape revealing another crisp line. You should be okay with only 1 coat and we’re just blending but if you want, feel free to repeat.
  • Finally, finish your doors in the same manner. Doors are a bit trickier however because you have two planes in which you want coverage, the tendency with this is for you to brush from edge to edge. Every time you do this, you’ll leave a higher deposit of paint at the edge of the door. You’ll need to stay on top of that. Most likely, you’ll need to wait for them to completely dry, sand them down, wipe them off, and re-apply. I painted the door on top of of 2x4s that I cut into small chunks. My friend made a hanging system to do the same. There isn’t necessarily a more right and wrong way I can say however that don’t do it when it’s humid outside, it’ll take FOREVER to finish.
  • Finally, we’re in the home stretch and this is the easy part but most important for making your paint job last. Grab your finish, if you’re using the polycrylic, you’ll have a really easy time with this part. Polyurethane ,I find to be much more difficult. Basically, get the best brush you bought. You’ll want light coats on the fronts. You can go quickly by first doing all of the outer/horizontal surfaces. By the time you’ve finished, check the beginning part, it’ll probably be dry enough to go over.  (I used the polycrylic, polyurethane is going to take a lot longer.) You want to build up a solid coverage for this. The reason is that latex-based paints are great when stuck onto rough surfaces but the more smooth a surface (or you’ll like me and didn’t spend enough time sanding) it’ll be more prone to flaking off and bubbling. Also, it’s very easily nicked by putting in/out pots and pans. The polycrylic dries hard protecting that and from stains/scrubbing. So, same as before you may want to do 3 or 4 THIN coats. Places where it’s like to get a lot of splash, say under a coffeemaker or sink, you’ll want to go ahead and do more. If you have left overs, go ahead and keep adding layers to the door.
  • And there you go! You’re all done! Now add your hardware and mount your doors. Remember that tape we put in the holes of the doors earlier? If you peel that off, you should have everything you need to put the doors back in their correct locations. 20170611_191638

This was a long process and a very long article. So, it’s not here really for daily reading. The most important thing I want to get across is taking your time and doing the prep work. Also, like Reading Rainbow, don’t just take my word for it, browse around on Pinterest and other blogs.

My next article will be on my lessons learned on this project. I’ve somewhat integrated them into this, but there were a ton of “last minute things” I wish I knew.

Till next time!