How to Prep Your Kitchen Cabinets for Paint

08/03/2017 10:04 am ET

Professional painter John Dee shows how to give dark cupboards the glossy, smooth look of factory-finish cabinets without having to order new doors

Photographs by Brian Wilder

1. Prep the Room

Before starting a kitchen paint job, empty the cabinets, clear off the counters, and remove freestanding appliances. Relocate tables and other furniture to another room. Tape rosin paper over the countertops and flooring, and tape plastic sheeting over the backsplash, windows, fixed appliances, and interior doorways (to protect the rest of the house from dust and fumes). Mask off the wall around the cabinets. Finally, set up a worktable for painting doors, drawers, and shelves.

Pro Tip: In kitchens the key to a good paint job is surface prep. "Old cabinets are covered with everything from hand oils to greasy smoke residue to petrified gravy," says Dee. "You've got to get all that off or the paint won't stick."

2. Remove Doors, Drawers, and Shelves

Back out the hinge screws from the cabinet frame and remove the doors. Working methodically from left to right, top to bottom, label each one with a numbered piece of tape. Also, number the ends of cabinet shelves and the bottoms of drawers. Set aside the shelf-hanging hardware. At your worktable, remove the pulls and hinges and save what's being reused. On the doors, transfer the number from the tape to the exposed wood under one hinge. Cover it with fresh tape.

3. Clean All Surfaces

Open the windows for ventilation and put on safety gear. Scrub down all of the face frames, doors, drawer fronts, and shelving with an abrasive pad dipped in liquid deglosser. Hold a rag underneath to catch drips. Before the deglosser evaporates, quickly wipe away the residue with another clean, deglosser-dampened rag.

4. Fill the Holes

If you're relocating the hardware, fill the old screw holes with a two-part polyester wood or autobody filler. It sets in about 5 minutes, so mix only small batches. (Dee adds a pea-size bit of hardener to a golf-ball-size glob of filler.) The filler shrinks a bit, so overfill the holes slightly. As soon as it sets, remove the excess with a sharp paint scraper. If it hardens completely, sand it smooth.

5. Sand, Vac, and Tack the Boxes

Sand all surfaces with the grain using 100-grit paper. To make sure no bits of dust mar the finish, vacuum the cabinets inside and out, then rub them down with a tack cloth to catch any debris that the vacuum misses. Dee says, "Hand sanding is the best technique on oak because you can push the paper into the open grain, which a power sander or sanding block will miss."

Pro tip: When using a tack cloth, unfold each new cloth fully, down to one layer, then crumple it to get the greatest dust collection surface.

6. Prime the Boxes

Slow-drying, oil-based primers work fine on tight-grained woods like maple or cherry, or on man-made materials. But they just sink into open-grained woods such as oak, ash, mahogany, or hickory. Brushing putty, the pudding-thick, oil-based coating Dee used on these oak cabinets, fills the grain as it primes the wood. A couple of caveats: It should be applied with a good-quality nylon-polyester brush, which you'll have to throw away after each coat. And it doesn't become level as it dries; assiduous sanding is required to flatten it out.

Starting at the top of the cabinet, brush on the primer or brushing putty across the grain, then "tip off"—pass the brush lightly over the wet finish in the direction of the grain. Always tip off in a single stroke from one end to the other. Give it a day to dry. (If using brushing putty, apply a second coat the next day and wait another day for it to dry.) Sand the flat surfaces with a random-orbit sander and 220-grit paper. Sand any profiled surfaces with a medium-grit sanding sponge. When you're done, everything should be glass-smooth.

Pro tip: Follow the underlying structure of the cabinet or door with the brush. Where a rail (horizontal piece) butts into a stile (vertical piece), for instance, paint the rail first, overlapping slightly onto the stile. Then, before the overlap dries, paint the stile. Where a stile butts into a rail, paint the stile first.

7. Caulk Seams and Fill Dents

Squeeze a thin bead of latex caulk into any open seams. Pull the tip as you go, then smooth the caulk with a damp finger. Fill any small dents, scratches, or dings with vinyl spackle, smoothed flat with a putty knife. Once dry, in about 60 minutes, sand again with 220-grit paper, vacuum, and wipe with tack cloth. Spot-prime the spackle, and any spots where the brushed-on primer is "burned through," with a spray can of fast-drying oil-based primer. Wait an hour, then sand the primer lightly with 280-grit paper. Vacuum all surfaces, and wipe with a tack cloth.

Pro tip: The hole in a caulk tube's tip should be no bigger than the tip of a sharp pencil. Slice 45-degree slivers off the tip with a razor until you see the hole open.

For the next steps in the process, visit thisoldhouse.com

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