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Monday, January 10, 2011

Advice from the Pros:

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.

Prepping kitchen cabinets

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.


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Hi Mai!

For unfinished maple, you may prime the wood with either Fresh Start® High-Hiding All Purpose Primer 046 or Fresh Start® Interior Alkyd Enamel Underbody 217 and then toop coat with Advance.

Best of luck with your project!!

I realize this was posted a while ago but it appears as though you are still responding to comments. I was going to purchase Advance paint (flat) in "simply white" to paint our kitchen cabinets. The cabinets are currently an unfinished maple. The paint shop does NOT stock the Advance primer but does have a variety of other BM primers. What primer would you recommend underneath the Advance paint for unfinished maple?

@Vicki - Advnace can be tinted to black. We do make some products that are available (off the shelf) pre-made in black such as our Satin Impervo C235, which is an oil-based finish. This product would provide you with great results. If you choose to use C235, prime your cabinets with Fresh Start All Purpose Alkyd Primer 024.

I am thinking about painting my kitchen cabinets black. What type of black paint do you recommend. Currently they are stained a light color.

@Nancy - To apply Advance through a sprayer, here are our recommended specifications;
Spray, Airless: Fluid Pressure — 1,500 - 2,500 PSI; Tip — .011 - .015 Orifice

Spray vs. brushing will always leave a slightly different finish. To help with the flow and leveling on the brushed areas, try adding a small amount of water and use a soft Nylon/Polyester brush

Hi - am planning on painting our kitchen cupboards using a sprayer for the doors & brushes for the rest. Any suggestions on how to have the finish/texture look the same? Any issues using Advance in a sprayer? Thanks for your help!

I am thinking about painting my kitchen cabinets black. What type of black paint do you recommend. Currently they are stained a light color.

Hi - am planning on painting our kitchen cupboards using a sprayer for the doors & brushes for the rest. Any suggestions on how to have the finish/texture look the same? Any issues using Advance in a sprayer?
Thanks for your help!

I have wood plywood cabinets stained dark walnut. Is it feasible to strip and refinish with a light stain? Or is painting a better option? Please advise. Thanks


@Shona - being that your stain colour is dark; the yellowing affect of an oil-based polyurethane will likely be unnoticeable considering the amount of light your kitchen gets. We would recommend using oil for the durability.

I am refinishing birch kitchen cabinets in an expresso colour. I've used an oil based stain. What would you recommend for finishing/top coat? I'm concerned about them yellowing over time. There is lots of sunshine - the kitchen is surrounded by windows and I want to avoid the too coat cracking or peeling.

Good Information. Thank you for sharing and I want to share information about Shop for Ace Hardware Paint Supplies like Paint Rollers, Paint Brushes, Interior Paints, Glues, Lubricants, Glass Cutting Tools etc..

@Chris - What is on your cabinets now? Finished wood, previously painted? Generally a primer would have some advantages however we would need more information on what you are painting over. Thanks!

I went and bought some Advance today in a color called Fieldstone. I was going to get the Advance primer but they didnt have any that could be tinted. I was going to get the fresh start but the paint associate said I didn't need it. He said I could just rough up the surface of my cabinets and use two coats of the Advance. Will this work or am I going to have a problem with adhesion and durability?


Great insights,Thanks for this tips it will make our work easier because we have guidelines in order to achieve it's total finishing to replenish smoothly before painting.

@Nick - you should use the paint as is, out of the can. If anything, a small amount of water for water-based products may be added.

First time painting kitchen cabinets (white), after reading comments, not sure if you have to cut paint with water if thick or just go with thick paint?

Posted by: Nick Venero | Friday, January 13, 2012 at 01:21 PM

First time painting kitchen cabinets (white), after reading comments, not sure if you have to cut paint with water if thick or just go with thick paint?

Before you even begin to measure up to their search. Without knowing the amount of free space you have for what you buy may end up with too large or too small unattractively, remodeling project.

Keep up the good work!

awesome web site, keep up the good work!

Hi Nikki, you may want to check with your landlord as if you are re-doing the cabinets it is something that he may not have to replace down the road for the tenant. Paint is a fairly permanent solution to re-doing your cabinets, so perhaps adding trim to the doors and using a pre-pasted wall paper would work. That could be removed with minimal damage. We do think speaking with the owner of the property first would be your best bet, and maybe they will allow you to redo the cabinets. Best of luck!

I rent and I know if I paint these boring cabinets it'll cost me when I'm ready to move. Any ideas on how I might be able to paint or redo the look of the cabinets without hearing any crap later on down the road?

Make sure you have every tool you need before beginning. Being right in the middle of a cabinet refinish is not a good time to have to head to the store.

It's seems beautiful. I also want to change the color of my Kitchen Cabinet in to black. It helps me a lot.

Great of you for posting such informative article. However in certain instances, finishing touches can be added.

Margaret, it is unusual that Advance is drying that quickly. Also it is one of our thinner products in general as compared to our conventional wall paints. We would recommend making sure the paint is stirred thoroughly before application. You may add a small amount of clean water to thin the product a little. As for your application method, brushing works well although it is best to apply the paint and leave it alone. Try not to brush back into paint that has a chance to set up. Please let us know if this helps you

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