Can kitchen cabinets be painted? Experts discuss the pros and pitfalls

Painting kitchen cabinets can transform the look of your kitchen quickly and affordably. With a fresh coat of paint, outdated oak or laminate cabinets can look like new again. But painting cabinets is not as simple as taking a brush to the wood – preparation is key to getting a durable, professional-looking finish. We talked to painting experts to learn the dos and don’ts of painting kitchen cabinets. Here is their advice on the pros, cons, and steps for painting kitchen cabinets successfully.

Should You Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets?

When considering a kitchen remodel, repainting the cabinets is often much cheaper than a full cabinet replacement. Painting cabinets costs approximately $2,000 to $5,000 on average, while new cabinets can run $5,000 to $15,000 or more.

However, as with any major change, there are pros and cons to weigh when deciding whether to paint your cabinets.

Pros of Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Some of the benefits of painting kitchen cabinets include:

  • Cost savings: As mentioned above, painting existing cabinets is significantly less expensive than installing all new cabinets. Even high-end cabinet paint costs far less than replacement.
  • Quick update: A new coat of paint can give your kitchen a fresh, updated look in just a weekend. No need to wait weeks or months for cabinet orders and installation.
  • Color change: Don’t limit yourself to wood tones – paint allows you to choose any color for your cabinets. Go bold with a bright color or keep it classic with a neutral shade.
  • Cover flaws: Paint can conceal worn spots, scratches, stains, and other imperfections in your existing cabinets. It provides a clean slate and makes cabinets look new.
  • Custom look: With paint, you can give inexpensive stock cabinets a more high-end, customized look for a fraction of the price.

Cons of Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Potential downsides of painting kitchen cabinets include:

  • Prep work: Painting requires thorough preparation like cleaning, sanding, patching holes, applying primer, caulk and more. This process takes time, effort and attention to detail.
  • Durability: Paint may scratch, chip or wear over time, especially on frequently used cabinet doors and drawers. It requires extra care and maintenance.
  • Mess and fumes: Painting is messy, smelly work. You’ll need tarps, drop cloths and plenty of ventilation. The kitchen may be unusable during the process.
  • No stain: Paint covers the natural wood grain. Stains allow the beauty of the wood to show through while coloring it.
  • Difficult color change: Once cabinets are painted, it’s a major process to take them back to a natural wood look again.

Consider both pros and cons carefully before deciding if painting is right for your kitchen and expectations.

What Kind of Paint Should You Use?

Choosing the right paint is critical for getting a smooth, hardwearing finish on kitchen cabinets. Specialty cabinet paints are formulated to withstand constant use and frequent cleaning without losing their luster.

Experts recommend avoiding standard wall paints. Instead, look for cabinet paint with these qualities:

  • Kitchen & cabinet specific: Formulated specifically for high-traffic kitchen conditions.
  • Durable: Withstands frequent use without chipping, scratching, or wearing down over time.
  • Urethane-fortified: Contains urethane for a harder, more durable finish.
  • Stain-resistant: Repels stains from water, oil, food and more. Easier to keep cabinets looking like new.
  • Easy to clean: Wipes clean easily without dulling the finish.
  • Low-VOC: Low in volatile organic compounds for less off-gassing and odor. Safer for use in the home.
  • Antimicrobial: Contains additives to inhibit bacterial growth and mold/mildew.

Popular options include latex and alkyd/oil-based cabinet paints. Both have pros and cons.

Latex Cabinet Paint

Latex paint for cabinets is water-based. It’s lower odor, cleans up easily with soap and water, and dries more quickly than oil-based paints. Pros of latex paint include:

  • User-friendly application
  • Available in satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss sheens
  • Provides a smooth, consistent finish
  • Dries fast, speeding up the project
  • Lower odor than oil-based paints
  • Water cleanup

However, latex paint tends to be slightly less durable than alkyd paint. It may require more frequent touch ups.

Alkyd/Oil-Based Cabinet Paint

Alkyd paint contains oil for better adhesion and a harder, more durable finish. Pros of alkyd paint include:

  • Extremely durable, hard finish
  • Stands up to cleaning chemicals without loss of sheen
  • Withstands heat, moisture and scrubbing
  • Ideal for distressed cabinets, pets, high use areas
  • Provides a smooth, glass-like surface

The drawbacks are stronger odor and longer drying times. Proper ventilation is a must when using alkyd paints.

Recommendation: For most DIYers, a high-quality latex cabinet paint is the best choice. If your cabinets are distressed or you prefer an ultra-tough finish, choose an alkyd paint. Either must be specifically formulated for kitchen cabinets.

How Should You Prepare Cabinets for Painting?

Preparing your cabinets is the most important step for achieving a smooth, professional painted finish. Proper prep removes grease and grime, roughens the surface for paint adhesion, and fixes any flaws.

Follow these steps to prep cabinets for painting:

1. Empty Cabinets and Remove Doors, Drawers and Hardware

Remove everything from the cabinets so paint won’t stick to contents. Take off all doors, drawers, hinges and hardware (knobs, pulls, etc). Set them aside in a protected area for painting separately later.

2. Clean Cabinets Thoroughly

Use a degreasing cleaner or TSP substitute to remove all grease, dirt and grime from cabinet boxes and doors/drawers. Then rinse with clean water and let dry completely.

3. Lightly Sand Cabinets

Use 150-220 grit sandpaper to scuff the surface of cabinets, doors and drawers. This helps the paint bond tightly. Be careful not to sand too aggressively and go down to bare wood.

4. Repair Any Flaws

Inspect everything closely and fix any gouges, nail holes, cracks, chips or flaws in the wood. Use wood filler, putty and caulk to patch and smooth imperfections. Allow repairs to dry fully.

5. Apply Wood Filler If Needed

If cabinet frames have large gaps or split panels, fill them with wood filler for a smooth surface. Let dry and sand filler smooth.

6. Prime Cabinets

Apply a quality primer formulated for painting cabinets. Primer creates a sealed surface that paint can adhere to. For the smoothest finish, opt for a spray primer if possible.

Allow primer to dry completely before painting. Lightly sand again if any raised wood grains appear.

Thorough prep removes any doubt about the quality of your topcoat. Now cabinets are ready for your choice of paint.

What’s the Best Way to Apply Cabinet Paint?

You can use various methods to apply your cabinet paint, including:

  • Paintbrush – The traditional choice; gives you control but can leave brush marks. Use high-quality synthetic bristle brushes.
  • Paint roller – Faster than a brush on flat cabinet surfaces but won’t work for grooves/details. Use mini foam or microfiber rollers.
  • Paint sprayer – Gives a smooth, flawless finish; however sprayers involve a learning curve plus extra cleanup.
  • Paint pads – Foam pads that apply paint when rubbed over surfaces. Easy to use but won’t work on grooves.

Recommendation: For best results, use an airless paint sprayer if you have access to one and experience with spray painting. The next best option is a combination of brush and microfiber roller. Apply carefully to avoid drips and sags.

Proper painting technique also helps achieve a seamless finish:

  • Maintain a wet edge by brushing from unpainted into painted areas. Work in sections.
  • Apply in thin, even coats. Thick paint will drip and run.
  • Lightly sand and wipe between coats to remove any dust nibs.
  • Work methodically and patiently. Rushing leads to drips and errors.

Apply at least 2 to 3 thin, smooth coats of cabinet paint for fullest coverage and color. Remember that prep work and paint application take time. Rushing the process usually leads to a subpar finish.

How Do You Paint Cabinet Doors Effectively?

The doors are the most visible part of your kitchen cabinets. Take time to paint them properly so they don’t stand out negatively:

1. Remove and Disassemble Doors

Remove all doors from cabinets, take hinges off, and separate door frames from door panels if possible. This allows you to paint door frames and panels separately for best results.

2. Clean, Sand and Repair Doors

Follow the same cleaning, sanding and repair steps outlined above to prep door surfaces for painting.

3. Paint Door Frames and Panels Separately

Paint the inside of door frames first, then outside of frames. Next paint inside of door panels, followed by outer door surfaces. This prevents drips.

4. Paint Cabinet Boxes and Frames

With doors drying, paint the cabinet boxes, frames and any other components. Apply in thin coats.

5. Spray Paint Door and Drawer Edges

For a pro-quality finish, use spray primer and paint on door, drawer and cabinet edges. Avoid brush marks.

Reassembling doors and rehanging them takes precision. Take your time with each step. Thorough, patient prep and painting creates flawless, professional-looking results.

How Long Does Cabinet Paint Need to Dry?

Drying times vary based on the paint used:

  • Latex paint: Approximately 2 to 4 hours between coats; 24 hours for a full cure.
  • Alkyd/oil paint: Up to 24 hours between coats; 3 to 7 days for full hardening of the finish.

Keep these factors in mind when allowing paint to dry:

  • Don’t rush. Follow recoat times on the paint labels.
  • Insufficient drying can ruin paint job. Allow for full curing.
  • High humidity lengthens drying times.
  • Cool temperatures extend drying/curing times.
  • Improve air circulation and ventilation to speed drying.
  • Doors take longer than boxes to dry fully.

The painting experts recommend allowing cabinet paint to cure for several days after the final coat before reinstalling doors, drawers and hardware. This prevents sticking and damage to the fresh paint. Be patient for best durability.

How Do You Get a Smooth, Professional Paint Finish?

Achieving a smooth, flawless painted finish on your cabinets requires careful preparation, painting and drying:

  • Thoroughly clean and sand cabinet surfaces to ensure paint adhesion. Fill any flaws.
  • Apply primer to create a sealed, unified painting surface.
  • Use high-quality cabinet paint designed for durability, stain-resistance and easy cleaning.
  • Brush/roll/spray paint smoothly and evenly in thin coats.
  • Sand lightly between coats to remove any imperfections.
  • Maintain clean edges by feathering in paint from unpainted to painted areas.
  • Work in sections to prevent thick coats that can sag and drip.
  • Paint cabinet parts separately – boxes, doors, drawer fronts, etc.
  • Spray paint cabinet edges for an ultra-smooth finish.
  • Allow proper drying times between coats and final curing before reassembling.

Rushing any part of the prep or painting process can compromise the quality and appearance of the final finish. Patience and care result in painted cabinets with a flawless factory finish.

What Mistakes to Avoid When Painting Cabinets?

Painting kitchen cabinets seems straightforward, but many beginners make mistakes that result in a disappointing or short-lived finish. Avoid these common errors:

  • Using the wrong paint – Standard wall paint won’t hold up on cabinets. Use only kitchen cabinet paint.
  • Inadequate prep – Don’t shortcut sanding, cleaning, repairs, etc. Proper prep is crucial.
  • Applying paint too thick – Build up thin coats instead for a smooth finish without drips.
  • Failing to sand between coats – Light sanding ensures each coat bonds tightly.
  • Not allowing proper drying times – Rushing the drying process often causes tacky paint or damage.
  • Working in a dusty area – Dust sticks to tacky paint, marring the finish.
  • Drips and brush marks – Work slowly and carefully to prevent telltale drips and lap marks.
  • Rehanging doors and drawers too soon – Let paint fully cure first to avoid sticking and imprints.
  • Cheap brushes and rollers – Use high-quality tools to prevent brush marks and lint.

Rushing, skipping steps, using incorrect materials or poor technique often leads to a disappointing paint job on cabinets. Take your time and use the right products for success.

How Much Does It Cost to Have Your Cabinets Professionally Painted?

If your busy schedule doesn’t allow time for a DIY paint job, consider hiring professional painters. Cabinet painting services typically charge:

  • Small kitchen (up to 30 sq. ft. of cabinets): $500 to $1000
  • Medium kitchen (30 to 60 sq. ft.): $1000 to $3500
  • Large kitchen (60+ sq. ft.): $3000 to $5000+

Cost depends on factors like:

  • Cabinet square footage
  • Choice of paint – higher-end paints cost more
  • Number of coats needed
  • Amount of prep work required
  • Special finishes like glazes or distressing
  • Regional labor rates

While pricier than a DIY project, pro painters have the skills, tools and experience for an immaculate finish. They also handle the mess and hassle. Consider your budget, skills and how much time you have.

Frequently Asked Questions About Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Painting cabinets generates lots of questions for first-time DIYers. Here are experts’ answers to some of the most common FAQs:

Should I paint cabinets white?

White cabinetry provides a clean, bright backdrop in any kitchen. However, white shows every flaw. The painting process must be flawless – from thorough prep to multiple smooth coats to achieve an unblemished finish. Any shortcuts show up immediately on white cabinets.

How do I get a smooth finish on painted cabinets?

As outlined above, the keys to a smooth, pro-quality paint finish are patient preparation, high-quality primer and paint, proper brushing and rolling technique, allowing ample drying time between coats and final curing before reassembly. Rushing the process usually compromises the results.

What sheen is best for cabinet paint?

A satin or semi-gloss sheen provides the right balance of durability and aesthetics for cabinetry. Gloss shows imperfections while flat finishes lack durability. Satin or semi-gloss offer shine while hiding minor flaws.

Should I take doors off to paint cabinets?

Yes, you should remove doors, drawers and hardware before painting. This allows you to paint the cabinet boxes easily without catching doors and hardware on wet paint. It also enables spraying or painting door/drawer edges for a pro finish.

How do I paint cabinets without brush marks?

Quality synthetic bristle brushes are key for minimizing brush marks. Use mini foam rollers on flat areas. Spray painting and paint pads also avoid brush marks but have downsides. Sanding between coats also eliminates many imperfections and creates a smooth finish.


Painting kitchen cabinets can transform the entire room quickly and affordably. Done properly, painted cabinets look fresh, clean and updated, often with results rivaling new cabinet installation. With careful preparation and application using the right paints and tools, even novice DIYers can achieve flawless, professional-looking results. Pay attention to the details outlined above, take your time, and you can paint cabinets like an expert.