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Paul Bianchina, Some tips for a great paint finish on kitchen cabinets

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If you’d like an upgraded look in your kitchen but replacing all the cabinets isn’t in the budget, you might want to consider painting them instead. Painted cabinets are very much in style right now, and this is a project that most DIYers can tackle.

However, I do want you to be forewarned about a couple of things before you break out the paintbrush. Painting an entire kitchen’s worth of cabinets is going to require patience and a fair amount of effort. You can’t rush the process or cut corners if you want good results, and you can’t go cheap on the materials you use!

Getting ready

First, completely empty all the cabinets. Box up what you won’t need for the next couple of days, and what you will need can be set up in a temporary kitchen space in another room.

Remove all of the doors, hinges and knobs. Store the hardware in zipped-top bags so nothing gets lost. I would suggest making a quick sketch of the room and numbering all the doors on the sketch, then write the corresponding numbers on the doors themselves so they go back in the same place later. You can write the number where it’ll be covered by a hinge or knob, and then protect it from paint with a small piece of tape.

Finally, cover all the counters and backsplashes with protective painter’s paper, which you can purchase wherever you buy your paint and other supplies. Cover the floors with painter’s tarps.

Degrease, sand cabinets

Next comes the prep work, and this is really the key to how well the rest of the paint job will go. Skimp here, and you’ll see it in the finished product.

Begin with a thorough degreasing of the cabinets. Use a sponge with an abrasive surface, and wash the cabinets inside and out with a solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP) and warm water. TSP is a great general cleaner and degreaser. Follow the mixing, usage and safety instructions on the package. Allow everything to dry.

After cleaning, you need to lightly sand the surfaces of the wood so the paint will adhere. Use 120-grit sandpaper, working with a combination of an electric pad sander, sanding sponge, and hand sanding. Sand in the direction of the grain as much as possible. You don’t need to get carried away with the sanding, you just want to roughen the surfaces, not sand down to bare wood.

If your cabinets are an open-grain wood, such as oak, now you have a choice to make. You can leave the grain as is, which means it will show through the finished paint to some degree; how much depends on how many coats of primer and paint you apply.

If you want a totally smooth surface, you’ll need to take the extra step of filling the grain. This can be done with a commercial grain-filling paste, or just with spackle. Apply the material with a broad putty knife, let it dry, then sand it smooth to 120 grit. Intricate moldings and other curves will require extra work to get smooth.

Once everything has been sanded, with or without the grain filling, vacuum all the surfaces with a shop vac equipped with a soft brush. Then wipe everything down with a clean soft rag, and do a final wiping with a tack cloth. Tack clothes are simply rags that have been treated to make them slightly sticky, and they do a great job of removing the final traces of sanding dust without leaving any residue on the cabinets. Remember that any dust left behind will show up in the finished paint surface.

Priming

For best adhesion and best finished appearance, apply a primer coat before applying the finished color. Primers are designed to create a bond between the wood and the finished paint, a step well worth taking. Primers are typically white, so if the final color you intend to apply is dark, the paint store also can tint the primer to a color that’s closer to the final paint color.

After the primer is dry, check all the surfaces for defects. Fill any small dents or holes with spackle, then sand smooth. Finally, sand all the surfaces again, this time with 220 grit paper, and then repeat the vacuuming and wiping down steps.

Painting

You’re now finally ready to paint, and you have the choice of applying the paint with a brush, roller, sprayer, or a combination of those. One combination worth considering is to apply the paint to larger flat surfaces such as cabinet sides using a foam roller or very low nap paint roller, then brush the paint out with a good quality brush. Use the brush for smaller areas such as face frames.

For doors and drawer fronts, you can use the same method, or consider setting up an area in the garage and using a small electric sprayer to apply the paint. Spraying is much faster and results in a smoother, more even finish, but it requires a bit of practice and a masked-off work area to contain overspray. Small electric sprayers can be purchased for a reasonable price or rented.

There is much debate as to the virtues and drawbacks of different latex paints, latex additives and oil-based paints, and I’m going to stay out of the fray on that one. My best suggestion is to deal with an experienced paint store — I’d avoid the home centers for this one — and go with their specific recommendations for a paint and compatible primer that’s going to be durable, washable, hard-drying and easy to apply with whatever method you choose to use.

Final considerations

When you’re all done, take a close look at the hinges and handles before putting them back on. At the very least they should be cleaned and degreased before reinstallation, but you might want to consider really freshening things up with new hardware, as well.

Have a home repair or remodeling question for Paul? He can be reached by email at improvingyourhome@ykwc.net.

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