Published on April 6, 2020

It’s hard to make a neutral space look fresh—but when done right, it can be anything but boring. A large part of this comes down to building the right foundation. Painting kitchen cabinets white sounds like a basic enough task in theory, but there are so many little choices to make that can have an impact on the end result. To iron out the details, we turned to the experts. 

Turns out, there’s a lot more to white cupboards than deliberating cool versus warm tones: Between picking the right primer, layering on enough coats, and finessing the application technique, you have much to consider. If you’re up for a little DIY—might we suggest a weekend project?—keep these tips and tricks in your back pocket: 

white kitchen with marble backsplashPin It
Photography by Aaron Leitz ; Design by Jessica Helgerson

Don’t: Get Caught Up in Temperature

There’s a big difference between cool and warm tones—and there really isn’t a right answer. However, while it all comes down to personal preference, it is important to be mindful of your surroundings. “The shade you pick should complement the rest of the items you’ve selected for the room,” says Space Exploration Design’s Kevin Greenberg. “We look at the countertop material and color, because the counters exist in such close proximity to the cabinets.” 

Though if you’re feeling stuck and still can’t make up your mind, go warm. Katie Hackworth prefers it over a more blue-tinted white, which can end up looking sterile and commercial if done improperly.

Do: Your Homework

“Before you paint, the surface should look as smooth as glass,” says Hue Painting’s Mike Snelson. “I usually say these projects are 90 percent prep and 10 percent painting.” Fill in any and all dents or scratches, and go over it all with fine-grain sandpaper; the prep work really is the most crucial step. “If you have too many old coats of paint, you will need to apply a stripping agent,” adds Hackworth.  

Don’t: Overlook the Material

The type of wood you’re working with is crucial for determining the right primer. According to Greenberg, most mill workers will build out fronts in MDF (medium-density fiberboard), since it’s not prone to warping. For new, raw wood, Snelson suggests oil-based primers; go with a hybrid, like Benjamin Moore’s Advance. If you’re not sure what you have, he says most homeowners can usually get away with water-based primers—he likes XIM UMA.

Do: Use Enough Coats

It’s unanimous: Two to three coats—depending on how dark your cabinets are and how opaque your primer is—is standard. 

Don’t: Forget About the Backing

Just because you’re painting your kitchen cabinets white doesn’t mean minor discrepancies in tone won’t be visible. “Make sure the backs are the same shade as the doors, otherwise you’re likely to see a contrasting finish at the seams between the doors and drawers,” warns Greenberg. It’s a small detail that can really make the finished space look professional. 

Do: Expect Wear and Tear

Food and coffee stains are pretty inevitable (even in kitchens with Monica Geller–level cleanliness), and in lighter paints, they show up even more. Hackworth’s solution: “Make sure the varnish used can hold up to mild soap and water—typically a satin finish is recommended.” If you’re not up for regular wipe downs, Snelson recommends opting for flat-panel doors over something with grooves, like Shaker-style cupboards: “They collect dirt on the corners that is difficult, if not impossible, to remove.”

Don’t: Randomly Pick Your Painting Equipment

A hand-brushed finish that shows brushstrokes will feel more tactile than other application techniques. However, if you’re going for a more contemporary or minimalist look, Greenberg suggests a lacquer or even a spray-painted finish. “It will give a more even, uniform appearance,” he says. After all, when it comes to white paint, it’s these tiny differentiators that make it feel fresh. 

See more tips for painting your kitchen cabinets:
Everything You Need to Know About Spray-Painting Kitchen Cabinets
So You’re Thinking About Painting the Kitchen Cabinets Yourself
6 Kitchen Cabinet Options That Stack a Lot of Style

Discussion