How to Paint Cabinets: A Complete Guide

How to Paint Cabinets

Are you looking for a guide for how to paint cabinets? You’ve come to the right place. My husband and I spent six months of trial and error and developed a system that yielded professional results that even contractors have asked us our secret. Read on for details, or you can skip to the infographic at the end.

Earlier this year, we purchased our dream house. We are suburb dwellers, and we have always loved the good schools and proximity to the city. What we have missed, however, is having a large yard with wildlife and mature trees. We were walking along a local trail and saw that one of the homes that is located right on the trail, across from a small nature preserve was for sale. We jumped in and made an offer, and we owned an incredibly beautiful home with a huge yard on a cul-de-sac. Our cul-de-sac has no home in the center of it, so we have the entire side yard, nature preserve and half of the cul-de-sac all to ourselves. It was an incredible find in a suburb with high housing prices. The reason we were able to go forward was that the interior had not really been updated in many, many years.


Our immediate priority was the kitchen. A simple coat of paint was not going to be enough to bring this kitchen to where we wanted. We solicited quotes from painters that were recommended by friends, and we were quoted – and I’m not kidding – $8,400. Yes, our jaws dropped. We needed a plan B, and quick.

As you can see, these cabinets were pretty complicated. First, each cabinet had trim around it. We looked at purchasing new doors, but it was much more cost effective to paint these cabinets ourselves. We had several issues we had to correct on each door:

  1. The trim. It had to go.
  2. The handles were bright gold.
  3. The handles were in the center.

We decided from the start to spray paint the handles using Rustoleum Satin Nickel Metallic Spray Paint. For less than $7 a can, we were able to transform the gold handles into modern brushed nickel. To do this, we used two coats of satin nickel and one of Rustoleum glossy clear coat to protect from scratches and wear-and tear. We saved hundreds of dollars by using this paint instead of replacing all of the door handles.

how to paint cabinets
Before: A huge kitchen with outdated cabinets

We knew this project was going to take time we simply didn’t have. Then? Covid-19 closed the schools. My husband began to work from home. Everything was closed and even if it was open, we weren’t going anywhere anyway. All of a sudden we had all the time in the world. I decided to go ahead and start the project. We knew this was going to take months, and that we were both going to just have to work on the project a little each day. We ordered a mouse sander, which is a small sander shaped like an iron, with disposable sheets of sand paper that you can easily pull off and replace like velcro when it starts to fade.

Where to Start

First, we removed the door handles and began spray painting them, two coats on each side.

Second, we chose a block of cabinets to start on. We started with the cabinets on the wall with the sink. It was a full wall that consisted of six upper and eight lower cabinets, with six drawers and two drawer faces under the sink. We began by removing the doors on top. We removed the hinges for painting. Next, we used a large Phillips head screwdriver to remove the trip, which had been nailed in with the most frustrating pin nails. Most of the nails were able to be removed with pliers. About thirty percent of them just broke off, so we used a Dremel to grind them down. This is not as hard as it sounds, and it’s really cool. Wear safety glasses and leather gloves, ok?

This is where, if you’re adding new hardware or moving it, like we did, you will measure and drill the holes in the cabinets. I recommend using a sturdy piece of cardstock or durable plastic and drilling the holes in a template, to save you from measuring each time.

Third, after the trim and nails were removed, I used an all purpose cleaner to wipe the cabinets down, quickly and lightly. Many people will use a cleaning solution that preps the cabinets for them during this step, but we decided to not take any short cuts and just do this the old fashioned way.

Fourth, we used spackle to fill in the holes where the handle used to be, and to cover any nicks or scratches that had been left after thirty years of use. This is an extremely important step because without spackling the cabinet’s scratches, the resulting paint job will not look professional.

Fifth, we sanded the cabinets, both sides. Wear a mask to sand. Interestingly enough, due to COVID-19 we had lots of masks around!

Time-lapse of prepping cabinets for paint.

Last, wipe the sawdust with a wet rag. As soon as the cabinet door is dry, it is ready for the first coat of primer.

Each step is pretty easy. It’s when you put them all together that it seems overwhelming. We separated them into tasks as best as we could. I might not have had time to finish a whole set of doors in one day, but I could find time to remove the trim from a couple, or to sand a few. Slowly but surely, over months at a time, we began to make progress.

Start Priming and Painting

Next, and most importantly, we had to select our cabinet paint. Any semi-gloss will do, but since we were doing this on our own we chose a cabinet paint with really good reviews. We chose Nuvo cabinet paint in Titanium Infusion and Oxford Blue for a two-colored look. We chose white for the top because a light color brightens the room and makes the space above the counter seem taller. In order to paint the cabinets, we chose to hang the doors back up and paint them in the kitchen. This saves time by allowing you to paint both sides at once for each coat.

It is not as easy as simply throwing a coat of paint on, however. We had to prime the cabinets first. We have learned from experience that no paint with primer is ever as good as actually just taking the time to do the job right. In order to get the perfect finish on our cabinets, we used two coats of primer on each door, followed with two coats of paint. Yes, it took a long time. Yes, it was tedious. I listened to several very long audio books over the long, lonely weekends of quarantine. It was absolutely worth it, however.

We finished one block of cabinets at a time, and over about six months, we had it completely finished. We learned that trying to use more paint left drops of paint and smears everywhere. It is extremely important to paint with a light hand, and instead of one thick coat, to use two very thin coats of paint. This is how the finish looks brand new and professional. Pay attention to the details, and your project will be extraordinary.

The Finished Product: Before and After

After months of refinishing doors and painting, here is the new kitchen!

To simplify this process for you, I created this infographic. You are able to download the file if you want to save it for the future. You can also bookmark this post, and don’t forget to follow the blog for more DIY projects as we update our dream home.

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