Painting Oak Kitchen Cabinets

Okay, I’m going to start out this blog post by saying that I am by no means an expert on this topic. I am simply a person that loves to cook, who wants my dream kitchen. However, I am also a very frugal person, so I know that I will never be able to justify the expense that a full scale kitchen remodel demands. Luckily, I have a dad that is very handy, and both he and I spend many hours researching, reading blogs, handyman magazines, etc to figure out how to best be able to complete a job. 

I’m not going to lie, this was not an easy project. Over the course of home ownership I have removed yards of wallpaper, repainted all the walls, and had my dad’s help to put up my own kitchen backsplash. In comparison to all of those jobs, this one was probably the most demanding; however, now that it’s done, I’m glad that I did it, and I’m very happy that I was able to do it for a fraction of the cost of what replacing all the cabinetry would have been. Again, I’m a very frugal person. 

Over the course of this post I’m going to go over the details of what I did to make this project happen, and add in my suggestions for things I would do differently if I were to do it again. 

Stage 1 – Cabinet Door Removal and Cleaning

1. To start the project off, all of the cabinet doors had to be removed, the drawer faces had to be taken off, and all of the hardware had to be taken off. It was really important to have a system of organization during this project. After the doors and drawer faces are taken off it can be very easy to forget which door belongs where. To keep this organized, I took pictures of my kitchen prior to dismantling it. I then used the mark up tool on my phone to write a number on each door and drawer in the picture. As I removed each door and drawer, I took a piece of masking tape and set it on the floor next to where I was placing each door and drawer face, marking the tape with the correlating number in the picture. By assigning each door and drawer a number, this made drilling holes for handles, and putting the kitchen back together much easier. During this step, I would also recommend completely emptying all of the cabinets and drawers. I didn’t do that for my project and I regretted it later. 

Marked up photo on phone and labeled doors after being removed.

2. Once all of the cabinets were disassembled it was time to clean. We used TSP Substitute in a spray bottle. We got rags liberally damp with the TSP and rubbed it all over any of the surfaces that we planned on painting aka anything that was currently stained the honey oak color. After it was cleaned with the TSP, it had to be rinsed down with a wet rag. I would also recommend cleaning the interior of the cabinets at this time. While we didn’t paint any of the shelves, it was shocking to realize how much grime and dust  accumulates on them over time, and if you empty them out, this is a prime time to clean. 

Stage 2 – Sanding and Taping

1. Once the cabinets were clean and dry it was time to sand them. The purpose of sanding them is to remove old varnish so that the primer can stick better. Luckily, only the varnish needed to be removed, so the sanding was easier than it sounds. It didn’t need to be completely stripped down to the original wood. To accomplish this, we picked up Sanding Block Sponges from Sherwin Williams. For this first sanding process we used the 100 Medium Grit Sanding Sponges. This allowed the varnish to be removed without making the surface of the cabinets too rough. Any of the areas that were going to be painted needed to be sanded first. I would recommend wearing safety glasses and maybe a mask during this stage. I didn’t do either of these things, but my eyes were stinging and my lungs hurt from the dust in the air after doing this step. Safety first!!

2. After sanding, it was time to drill some pilot holes for our new cabinet hardware. We had never had handles or pulls on our kitchen doors or drawers so this was an essential step.It was important to make sure to measure carefully before drilling the hole so that we didn’t have any mistakes that needed to be filled with wood putty. (We did buy wood putty just in case though) We also bought a tool that helped this process move a lot faster called a Cabinet Door Alignment Template. This template had pre-made measurements that could be drilled through rather than measuring every time. We still had to make all of our own drawer measurements, but after a quick Google search, it does appear that they make templates that work for drawers too. (Totally wish I had realized this last weekend.)

I was originally unsure of how high or low the door pulls should go, but after doing some research, the general consensus from cabinet makers is that the lowest part of the handle should align with the edge of the framing of the door. See the picture below for reference. This ended up being the 3 inch marker on the Door Alignment Template for me. We made sure to cover all of the other holes on the template with tape so that we didn’t accidentally use the wrong hole ever. 

Cabinet Pull Placement Example

3. After the sanding and drilling of pilot holes was done, we used a Tack Cloth to wipe up any of the dust that was leftover on the surface. We actually did this step twice, first right after sanding, then we took a break for lunch, let the dust settle from the air, and went back a second time to pick up the rest that dropped out of the air during our break. Before our break, we also took that time to knock down the awful scalloped wood feature that was above our sink. Luckily, it was only secured by two nails on each side, so with some wiggling and jiggling this was fairly easy to loosen and pull out.

4. After all the dust was picked up, I used Frog Painter’s Tape to tape off any areas next to what I was going to be painting that I didn’t want to get paint on. This was a tedious process, but it was worth it in the end for a clean finish on all my edges. 

Side Note: There are many different brands of painter’s tape, and I have used a bunch of them throughout both my home projects, and projects I’ve done at the theater. This was my first time using the brand Frog Tape, and I don’t think I will ever use the other products ever again. This tape was clearly superior.

Stage 3 – Primer and Sanding

1. After everything had been prepped it was time to set up the doors and drawers for painting. I used three sets of horses and large plywood pieces to assemble makeshift tables in my basement that I wouldn’t mind getting paint on. I also laid a large drop cloth beneath the horses just in case. My dad bought Painter’s Tripods or Pyramids. These were a life saver, I wouldn’t do this project without them. About four mini tripods could be used on each door to lift it off the table. That way the edges of the doors could be painted more easily, and large drip run offs could be noticed, cleaned up, and avoided throughout the process. As we laid out each of the doors on our makeshift tables, we made sure to move the masking tape labels next to each door so that they were still numbered and categorized. My dad had also saved large cardboard boxes for this project, and we broke them down to lay across my countertops, oven, and floor so that any spills wouldn’t ruin surfaces that I can’t replace yet. 

Painter’s Tripods
Painter’s Tripods lifting up cabinet doors for easier painting access.

2. After the surfaces had been prepped it was time to apply the first layer – the primer. I used a Multi-Purpose Latex Primer that was suitable for both Interior and Exterior projects. Even though there are special primers made for trim and wood, I was told by the people at the paint store that this is the primer they recommend if you are doing the work of sanding the varnish off ahead of time. They said the other special primer is only necessary if you aren’t following all the correct prep steps. This was a lucky break for me, because apparently there is a huge primer shortage right now, and the trim/wood primer wasn’t actually in stock or available to buy. I had 400 square feet to paint, and I went through about half a gallon of primer. I was surprised by how little I used, but the primer layer didn’t need to be super thick, just enough to cover all of the initial surfaces, so I didn’t need as much as I originally bought. 

Even though the primer layer didn’t need to be thick, it was very important to make sure that every part of the surface was covered. The primer helps the paint to stick, so I didn’t want to miss sections. 

We used two different types of tools for the painting process, and we bought numerous of each because we didn’t want to worry about cleaning the brushes and rollers in between each painting layer. We used mini rollers with Fine Finish High Density Foam Rollers for the faces and backs of the doors. These were incredibly helpful in making the surface look smooth, instead of using the traditional paint rollers that are made from polyester. We also used these rollers on each of the sides of the doors and drawers to give them a smooth and finished appearance. On all of the beveled decorative pieces on the frames of the cabinet doors we used 1 inch angled brushes. On the actual built-in cabinets themselves we used 2 inch angled brushes. But on the small areas such as interior lips of the cabinets next to the shelves we used a ½ inch detail brush.

We always started by painting the back sides of the doors and drawers before moving to the fronts. We made sure to wait at least 5 hours before flipping them and painting the fronts.

Side Note: We found it easiest to use the mini roller to do the edges of the cabinets, but one thing we had to be super cautious of was drips and heavy paint that liked to gather here. Since the edges of my cabinet doors and drawers are at a slant, the paint liked to gather here. We would go back and check our doors and drawers about five minutes after finishing each one. If paint had pooled, we would run dryish roller over it to avoid a clump from drying there. This gave the edges of the cabinet drawers and doors a smooth finish and helped us to avoid errors in the texture. 

2. After the primer had been applied to everything and dried, the entirety of the cabinets needed to be sanded again, but this time it needed to be sanded with a finer grit. We used 180 grit Sanding Sponges for the second round of sanding. 

3. Just like the first round of sanding, we did two rounds of tack cloth for cleaning before starting to apply paint. 

Stage 4 – First and Second Layer of Paint

1. Once the cabinets had been primed and sanded a second time, the actual paint could be applied. For this project we used Urethane Trim Enamel Paint. We chose a satin finish, but another popular choice for kitchens is semi-gloss. This paint was pricey, but still worth it in comparison to the cost of replacing cabinets entirely. We went through 1 ½ gallons for our 400 square feet of painting with two coats of paint. The painting process went super smooth since all the prep work had been done. Just like the primer, we started by painting the backs of the doors, flipped them after 5 hours, and then painted the fronts. We also used the same tools, with the rollers for the faces and sides of the doors, and the brushes for the beveled detail work and for the actual installed cabinet pieces. 

2. We let the first coat dry overnight so that a full 12 hours went by before we started on coat number two. We used the same steps for the primer and the first coat with the second coat. 

Stage 5 – Hardware and Reinstalling the Doors and Drawers.

1. After waiting overnight for the second coat of paint to dry, it was time to put the doors back up. We made sure when picking out new hinges that they were fairly similar to the old ones, but they were still a little different, so this process was slightly tedious for us since we had to make some new holes for the hinges to be installed. This part of the job was probably the hardest part because we had to be so meticulous about making sure everything was level. We even had to readjust a couple of the doors after putting them on because they didn’t end up being level the first time around. 

2. Finally, once all the hinges were on and the doors were back on the cabinets, we installed all of the handles and pulls. 

Final Reflections

Overall, this was a very large project to tackle. We worked Thursday-Monday to get it done, and the total amount of time actually actively on our feet was 40 hours. That doesn’t even include drying time. If I were to do this project again, I would probably want to spread it out over at least seven days instead of five to allow myself some more breaks to rest. I definitely was going to bed sore every night after working so hard each of these days. However, even though this was a challenge, I’m so glad it’s one that Cole, my parents, and I were able to tackle instead of hiring out for help. There’s a certain pride to walking into my kitchen, seeing how beautiful it looks, and knowing that it was my family’s and my hard work that made it look that way. My mom calls this design a West Hamptons Vibe, and all I know is that whatever vibe it’s putting off, I’m so content spending time surrounded by a bright, cheery, more modern environment. 

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