The Right Way to Re-Finish Kitchen Cabinets
If you've looked at the price of kitchen cabinets lately then you know they can get costly fast. So if your kitchen is in need of a makeover, repainting is a smart way to give the cabinetry a fresh new look without breaking the bank. Previously-painted wood cabinets are prime candidates, of course, but so are wood cabinets with a clear varnish or lacquer finish: With the right prep work, a quality paint job will brighten up dark pine, oak, and other natural-finished wood cabinets and transform the entire room. Formica or laminate cabinets will need additional preparation and an alkyd or bonding primer to enable the paint to adhere.
Prepwork. First thing you should know is that this is definitely not a weekend project, no matter how small your kitchen! Like any good paint job, the right prep is essential and that means taking the time to remove all doors and hardware. Most cabinets have a gloss or semi-gloss finish that needs to be sanded and it's better to do that kind of work outside or in a workshop where dust is less of an issue. Without the hardware, painting is also a whole lot easier; drips and runs are less of a problem if the doors are lying flat.
But even before sanding, clean all the surfaces with a degreaser. Dish detergent works great, but so do other cleaners such as Tri-sodium Phosphate (TSP) or Dirtex, as long as they don't leave a residue behind. It's possible to sand cabinetry by hand, especially hard-to-reach areas, but an electric orbital sander will speed up the process considerably. You don't need to sand down to bare wood; just scuff up the surface thoroughly with 100 to 150 grit sandpaper. Sanding is an essential step to prepare laminate cabinets.
If there are dings or cracks or holes left by hardware, now's the time to fill them. A sandable putty or filler like Elmer's Carpenters Wood Filler will work well for this. Most fillers shrink after application, so patch, sand (or wipe dry; some fillers are water-reducible), then apply another coat as needed. After sanding the final application of filler thoroughly, wipe down all surfaces with clean cloths dampened with mineral spirits, to pick up any dust. (Afterwards, soak the cloths in water then let dry, to eliminate the risk of spontaneous combustion.)
Primer. Latex primers like Benjamin Moore's Fresh Start 023 or new Super Primer 046, both low-odor/low-VOC products, are good choices for previously painted cabinets--they're easy to use and clean up with water. For better stain-blocking and adhesion, or on formica cabinets, use an alkyd primer such as Fresh Start 024, even if the top coat will be a water-based paint. Either way, if there are any knots or stains, it's advisable to spot-prime with 024 before applying a final coat of the primer.
Sometimes when you've patched deeper holes with a wood filler, dimples will be visible after priming (shining a bright light at a low angle across the surface is a good way to highlight imperfections like this). If so, apply another coat of filler over the dimpled areas, re-sand and tack clean, and then brush on another coat of primer. If this sounds a little obsessive, remember that any minor imperfections in above-counter cabinets will be more or less at eye level.
Finish. Oil-based alkyd enamels have been the traditional choice for cabinetry and wood trim. Benjamin Moore's Advance is a water-dispersible alkyd product that offers the application properties of an alkyd with the ease of soap and water clean up. It dries more slowly than regular latex paints, allowing it to flow and level like an alkyd. Brush marks tend to disappear, leaving a smooth but scrubbable finish.
Like all water-based paints, Advance should be applied with a quality synthetic polyester bristle brush (natural china bristle will absorb water, and should only be used with oil-based paints). Advance currently is available in both a satin and high-gloss finish, but the high-gloss will show more imperfections. So, unless you are spraying the cabinets, opt for the satin finish, rolling it on with a fine nap 3/16-inch synthetic roller one side at a time, and then back-brushing. The roller will speed up application, but follow the grain of the wood when you brush the paint out. (Don't use foam rollers, as they tend to introduce air into the finish and leave bubbles in the dried film.)
On the narrow face-frames of the cabinet boxes, short and small-diameter rollers called Slim-jims are a good option. They're maneuverable and can fit into tight spots. Paint pads are another option, but they tend to scrape the paint off rather than lay a smooth film.
For the smoothest, most professional finish, apply a primer and two topcoats, sanding with 180 to 220 grit paper and wiping the surface clean with mineral spirits between coats. Drying time will vary depending on conditions and the finish, but allow at least 36 hours before reinstalling the cabinet doors. Under less-than-perfect conditions, it might be better to allow as much as 3 to 5 days. Remember, this isn't a weekend job, but compared to the cost of new cabinets, even a week spent repainting your cabinets provides an inexpensive--and beautiful--return on your investment.