Reviving Kitchen Cabinets

When it comes to reviving old cabinets, paint works wonders and white is always a good choice. White cabinets complement both modern and traditional dwellings, from large houses to small cottages. White is classic, clean, current and brilliant, and you can use it to transform 1970s dark-stained wood, ’80s laminates, the ubiquitous golden oak of the ’90s and just about anything else.

Regardless of your starting point, the steps are basically the same: clean, sand, prime and paint. But a single approach does not suit all cabinet styles. The techniques, tools and materials depend on your existing cabinets’ composition and finish.

Cabinet Conditions
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that re-coating cabinets is very different from painting walls. Cabinets have smaller surfaces and multiple corners and crannies, and they invariably sport a coating of cooking grease and smoke as well as residue and oils from hand contact. Thorough cleaning is essential. And because your newly finished cabinets will continue to be exposed to these pollutants, you’ll need to properly prep, prime and coat them with a hard, scrubbable finish. Pack your patience: This is a long journey, but it leads to a fabulous outcome.

Quality preparation and products will save you time and frustration when painting cabinets. If you have questions about how to use a product, be sure to ask your local paint shop.

No Shortcuts
Regardless of your starting point, cabinet refinishing projects share a common route to success:

  • Map out the kitchen cabinets with numbers or letters. Remove the doors and drawers from the cabinet boxes, labeling each to indicate where it belongs.
  • Then remove all hardware and save it in a container to reuse or donate.
  • Thoroughly wash rinse and dry all surfaces using a non-detergent cleaner such as trisodium phosphate (TSP). Soaps or detergents will leave a residue behind, whereas TSP strips away soaps and oils. You must rinse the surfaces well and be sure the wood is dry before priming.
  • Use painter’s tape to mask off inside and outside edges of cabinets.
  • Set up a work surface and drying area in a clean, well-lit space for painting doors and drawer fronts.
  • To apply a coat of primer or paint to both sides of doors in one session, drive a couple of screw hooks into the top edges of upper-cabinet doors and the lower edges of base-cabinet doors. This allows you to easily hang the doors from a cable or pole (or hangers on a portable garment rack) in your work area.
  • Make sure you have a steady fresh-air supply, but do not use a fan, which circulates particles.
  • Fill holes, grooves, cracks, etc., with wood filler. Plan on two (or more) applications for deep voids because the filler shrinks as it dries. (Imperfections become more obvious with a fresh coat of white paint.)
  • After each sanding step, be vigilant about removing all dust from surfaces: Vacuum, wipe down surfaces with a soft cloth, sweep out corners and crevices using a dry paintbrush, and then wipe surfaces again with a tack cloth.
  • Use high-quality tools and materials. It will cost more but will save time and frustration and result in a better outcome.
  • If you are comfortable using a power paint sprayer, it can produce a smoother finish than brushes, and the process will go more quickly — so fast that the setup, prep and cleanup will require more time than the painting.
  • Allow plenty of curing time (a week or more) before returning the cabinets to full use.

Disco Dark
Cabinets from the 1960s or ’70s are likely made of solid (non-engineered) wood such as oak or a tighter-grain wood such as birch, which offers a nice, smooth surface for paint. Two special considerations with dark-stained cabinets are the intense color and the vintage clear coating, which is typically lacquer rather than polyurethane. (More grime may be a concern as well.) These conditions can all be addressed by thorough cleaning (photo, belwo) and preparation.

Aggressively scour the cabinet boxes, doors and drawer fronts using a full-strength TSP solution. Rinse thoroughly and dry the surfaces before you apply primer.

If you can work outside or with windows wide open, I would recommend a shellac-base primer/sealer such as Zinsser B-I-N or Kilz to block bleed-through. People who must avoid solvent fumes can use a water-base primer such as B-I-N 123; but that requires two coats and a light sanding between coats.

If new hardware requires new holes, hide the old ones with wood filler before applying primer. To alter the style of this door, we filled grooves and added molding.

Practically Plastic
Plastic laminates have the advantage of a smooth surface. The drawback is that slick synthetic materials tend to repel new coatings; poor adhesion is your biggest roadblock.

After cleaning with TSP, rough up the surfaces well using 150-grit sandpaper. Instead of priming, we used Krylon Dual Superbond, a new spray paint and primer that adheres to plastic laminates. Its instructions say you do not even need to sand, but we scuff-sanded the surface anyway. An alternative approach is to apply a primer that is designed specifically for use on shiny, hard surfaces (such as tile or laminate) and then apply two coats of satin paint.

To help conceal the different color and textures of the wood trim, prime it with heavy-bodied alkyd primer; then let it dry and sand smooth before applying high-adhesion primer over the entire piece.

Apply light coats of spray finish, moving the can with even strokes and slightly overlapping each stroke. Note the times for re-coating (different from drying times), as there is always a “no re-coat period.”

Golden Oak
Unlike a laminate surface or the tight-grain woods often used in ’70s dark cabinets, oak is not smooth. A typical water-base primer and a couple coats of paint will not mask oak’s grain texture and its thin veins of dark color. In fact, paint enhances these surface irregularities. To best disguise oak, you can use a wood-grain filler (such as Behlen Water Base Grain Filler) available from a woodworking supply store or online. This approach is somewhat labor-intensive and typically considered a job for professionals.

DIYers can achieve a not-quite-as-smooth surface with a heavy-bodied alkyd primer such as Benjamin Moore’s Fresh Start Alkyd. It fills the sliver-size crevices in oak and helps to even out the heavily textured areas, too. I sanded the surface after the first coat of primer was dry. (This product responds well to sanding.) Then I applied a second coat of primer and sanded again. Some wood texture is visible but not obvious. It’s important to use satin paint rather than semigloss or gloss because the higher sheens draw attention to texture.

To help fill oak’s recesses, apply the primer by first brushing perpendicular to the wood grain; then immediately lightly brush the surface with the tips of the bristles (tip off) in the direction of the grain.

Closing Comments
These steps are based on general categories of wood species and finishes. If you’re still lost or need GPS (guidance from a paint specialist), take a cabinet door to a local paint retailer and ask for recommendations that will suit your scenario.

Also, keep in mind that many other excellent refinishing products are available. For example, check out Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations, a system that covers the entire refinishing process, from cleaning to topcoat. I also like Annie Sloan Chalk Paint sealed with a wax finish or with water-base polyurethane (satin or flat finish). Both of these brands offer a white option, or they can be used to create a variety of colors and styles. You can even take your kitchen back in time by adding a glaze.

Annie Sloan Unfolded (Annie Sloan Chalk Paint),
Benjamin Moore (Fresh Start Enamel Underbody Primer, 217; Advance Waterborne Interior Alkyd Paint, satin finish, 792),
Masterchem Industries LLC (Kilz Original),
RPM Wood Finishes Group (H. Behlen Water-Base Grain Filler),
Rust-Oleum Corp. (Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformatons, Ready Patch patching compound, Bulls Eye 1-2-3 Water-Base Primer and B-I-N Shellac-Base Primer), and
Work Tools International Inc. (WhizzFlock 4-in. roller),

Want more?
Learn how to build cabinet doors like a pro here.
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