You’ve heard this before: Painting your kitchen cabinets is the easiest way to make the space look brand-new. But how simple is it, really? Especially if you’ve never tackled such a project before. Or if you have ’90s laminate cabinets or your “wood” cupboards are actually veneer. You may be thinking all hope is lost. But it doesn’t have to be. We tapped the top paint experts to give us all the tools for a successful transformation, no matter what surface or level of experience you’re working with.
From how to prep to choosing the best paint for kitchen cabinets, they gave us the full lowdown. Brighten your space with airy white doors or turn those dark brown wood fronts into glossy navy showpieces—the paint chip deck is the limit.
Clean Your Surface
We know you’re eager to get started, but Mike Mundwiller, field development manager at Benjamin Moore, recommends starting by removing the doors and drawers from the hinges and labeling every piece you take off to make reassembling easier later. Then wipe all the areas with a sponge—Mundwiller suggests a grease-cutting cleaner—to remove any dirt and oil. Rinse with clean water, and once the surface is dry, sand it with 100-grit sandpaper. You can also use a water-based deglosser for this part if you don’t want to put in all that elbow grease (it’s much easier than sanding). Last but not least, grab a tack cloth to remove any residual dust.
Prep Your Cabinets Based on Material
For wood cupboards, be aware of the grain. “Oak can have a deep grain, so if you want a smooth surface, multiple coats of primer may be needed,” says Mundwiller. For MDF, he recommends testing an inconspicuous area for compatibility with your primer (not all of them react the same). The challenge with laminate and veneer surfaces is getting the paint to stick. “After the surface is cleaned and dry, use a bonding primer with superior adhesion,” he advises.
For an ultra-smooth or high-gloss finish, Patrick O’Donnell, brand ambassador at Farrow & Ball, recommends spraying the two top coats instead of using a roller. No matter what method you’re using, don’t forget the applicators. “You can take all the proper prep and use the best techniques, but if you use a poor-quality applicator, your results may not be the best,” says Mundwiller. “Invest in your tools just as you would invest in the products you use.”
Buy the Right Paint
The Best Primers
Despite all that prep, if your cupboards aren’t generally in good shape—be it they’re warped, chipped, or cracked—even a coat of the best paint for kitchen cabinets can’t do much, says Rick Watson, director of product information at Sherwin-Williams. If that’s the case, consider investing in fresh cabinet fronts. Keep the hue you’re using in mind, too. “It’s important to use an undercoat in the same tone as the door color to get a saturated result, especially if you’re going from light to dark,” says O’Donnell.
For laminate or previously painted cabinets: Sherwin-Williams Extreme Bond
For unfinished wood cabinets: Sherwin-Williams Premium Wall and Wood Primer
For veneer cabinets: Zinsser Bulls Eye 1 2 3
For an oil-based look: Portola Hybrid Primer
For hard-to-coat surfaces: Insl-X Stix Waterborne Bonding Primer
For dark colors: Farrow & Ball Interior Wood Primer & Undercoat
The Best Finishes
Some surfaces, like laminate and veneer, aren’t really meant to be painted, but Jamie Davis, cofounder of Portola Paints, has hope: “I have used our Hybrid system in my kitchen over existing laminate cabinet fronts and have had great results. They might not last as long or be as durable, but I was able to completely transform my space. I sanded and primed prior to applying two coats of our Satin Enamel.”
For laminate and veneer: Portola Satin Enamel
For easy cleanup: Sherwin-Williams Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel
For a smooth finish: Benjamin Moore Advance
For quick drying: Insl-X Cabinet Coat
For eco-friendliness: Farrow & Ball Modern Eggshell
For high drama: Farrow & Ball Full Gloss
If the room has a northern or eastern exposure, for instance, it might be a good idea to go darker, advises O’Donnell. “A duck green would look stunning with soft pink walls; painting an ill-lit space in white or a light color can end up feeling dull,” he says. In the end, go with hues you are naturally drawn to rather than trends. “Kitchen spaces are often the most expensive rooms to outfit in the house, so you’ll want a color that has integrity,” he adds. Pick up a paintbrush and get rolling.
This story was originally published on January 13, 2020. It has since been updated.