Yes You Can Paint Your Oak Kitchen Cabinets!

Are you one of those people who are bored with your oak kitchen cabinets? I was such a person, but no more! I took the plunge and painted them, and I can tell you step by step how to paint your own and have them turn out beautifully.

But, please heed these words of caution! If you don’t have a lot of time, endurance and patience, or if you know your painting skills aren’t up to par, my advice to you would be to leave your cabinets alone.

I remember a few years back looking at a house that I was interested in purchasing, and someone had done a not-so-lovely job painting the kitchen cabinets. They were destroyed by drips, globbed up hardware and very heavy brush strokes. It kept me from buying the place. I would have preferred to have the outdated, unpainted cabinets that I could have redone myself. A bad paint job on cabinets–or on anything for that matter–is difficult to correct once the damage has been done. And of course it can hurt your home’s resale value so I hope you’ll keep that in mind. But if you believe you have the patience, I say go for it!

I have always wanted a white kitchen, but all of the homes I’ve owned have had stained, usually oak, cabinets. Oak in the kitchens. Oak in the bathrooms. Oak, oak, oak. Enough! I think oak is nice and everything, I’m just in oak overload. My current home is very cookie cutter, and I’m trying to give it some personality. As you can see, I have a teensy, weensy kitchen, but it serves me perfectly. I like having everything within reach and it’s quite functional. But this kitchen is sort of tucked into a windowless corner and feels dark.

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Here’s a brief kitchen history. When I moved in, the countertops were white, with a raised-up section by the bar stools that I had removed to make better use of my limited counter space. (Sorry, no pictures of the old countertops.) I thought the raised area looked really nice, but I needed to be practical with gaining every possible square inch of work space.

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I added the two far right end cabinets (upper and lower pictured below) to give me more storage and more counter space. I had to strip and restain the bottom one since it was brand new and didn’t match exactly to the old cabinets. And now after all that work, I’m painting over it!!

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I also changed my sink from a double bowl to a single bowl, which I love. A large cookie sheet will lay flat in it, and a single bowl takes up less counter space. I also changed the hardware from brushed nickel to oil rubbed bronze. My idea in switching from white counter tops to dark ones was in anticipation of someday mustering the courage to paint my cabinets white. My friend, that day has arrived!

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Since I don’t have a basement to work in, and it’s too cold to work in the garage in February here in Illinois, I’m working in sections in my kitchen. I need enough space to spread out and work on the doors I’m going to remove. I start with all the uppers for my first round. Step one is to remove the hardware and then the doors themselves. Tip: When taking down the doors, remove the top hinge last. Trust me on that one.

As I remove each door, I number them inside the hole created for the door hinge after I pop the hinge out. It’s a much nicer paint job if you remove the hardware as opposed to trying to paint around it.

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Please do not underestimate the importance of this step—especially if you have doors like my lowers that are the same right side up and upside down. This is especially crucial if you don’t have holes drilled for knobs or pulls. Numbering them will save you a trip to your “happy place”. My uppers are curved at the top so at least it’s clear which end is up, and I have pilot holes for knobs which helps too. I label them none the less as I learned my lesson long ago. I like to remove every screw and every hinge and put them in a bag separate from the knobs and handles and their corresponding screws.

Next I remove all the bumpers with a razor blade. If you paint over them, it doesn’t look very nice, and it’s pretty difficult to paint around them. They’re also a place for drips and runs to form if you leave them on. It’s worth the extra time to remove them and put on nice, new ones when you’re finished. If your cabinets are old, I’d bet my first-born that they’re pretty smushed from all the wear and tear anyway.

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I had “Merillat” stickers on some of my doors. I break out the “Goo Gone”, and spray where each of the bumpers and stickers are, as well as areas where I have grease and grime built up. I let it sit for a minute and razor off the adhesive and then completely clean those areas with more Goo Gone and a paper towel. It doesn’t matter what you use to clean your cabinets, but all the dirt and grease has to be completely removed in order to get a good result. I would advise using a cotton rag instead of a paper towel because I have some areas where I rub on the door fronts, and some fine bits of paper towel pull off into the grain. The “fuzzies” will be sanded off in the next step, but an ounce of prevention…

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Next I use the sander (using 100 grit sandpaper) that I borrowed from neighbors George and Deb. Thank you for making my life a lot easier, guys! As always, the idea isn’t to remove all the varnish or polyurethane, but rather to rough up the surface to help the primer to adhere. The areas I can’t get to with the sander, I sand by hand. I wipe all the dust off the pieces, using an old brush to get into the groves. Now comes the time-consuming part. My kids say I’m obsessive compulsive, and this next step might just prove they’re right.

I would like my cabinets to look as close to sprayed as possible, not like hand-painted oak cabinets. The problem is oak has a heavy grain that shows through when you paint it. Sanding alone will not get rid of this. If I just paint directly over the wood, my cabinets will scream, “This lady couldn’t afford new cabinets so she just painted us white–and we’re oak!” How embarrassing to have screaming cabinets. Especially oak ones. And maybe having the grain show through isn’t an issue for a lot of people, but it bothers me.

I did some checking into grain fillers that are designed to fill the grain on woods like oak. It sounded to me like you had to be a professional wood worker, an engineer and a rocket scientist to be able to use it, and I didn’t want to experiment with it on my kitchen cabinets. So this time I have a plan B. I read on the internet that you can float a thin layer of joint compound over grain to fill it.

Drywall tapers and woodworkers everywhere will find that idea amusing I’m sure, but I tried it on a frame of an oak cabinet in my laundry room that I bought for a dollar at a garage sale, and it worked quite well. The cabinets were pretty beat up, but a coat of fresh white paint is a cure-all in my book. I even bought my white porcelain knobs at another garage sale–a bag of 5 for a dollar! So the three cabinets and knobs cost a total of $4. Really. I used to have a wire coated rack instead, but I really needed cabinets for storage. I figured if my grain-filling idea didn’t work out, it wouldn’t matter much on my $1.00 garage sale cabinets, and they’re in my laundry room for goodness sake. Who’s gonna see those? They turned out quite lovely. Sorry I don’t have before pictures. I wasn’t thinking “blog” at that time.

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So look at this picture of my laundry room. Close your eyes and imagine nothing but an overloaded wire shelf above the washer and dryer. There’s your before “picture”. Now open up and look at the picture again and wha-la! Nice improvement, right?

Since the slanted ceiling didn’t allow enough room for a fourth cabinet, I just built a custom shelf to fit the space. I despise dead space in any room where storage and function are needed. The beadboard paneling in the back of the shelf was purchased at a box store, but the rest of the wood was purchased at my local Habitat Restore.

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The final part of this tangent is showing you my space-saving, wall-mounted, super-duper drying rack. Sorry to distract from my kitchen cabinets, but I’m excited. I purchased nothing to construct this since I already had the drying rack, leftover beadboard paneling from the shelf, wood from the frame of the shelf and of course my use-all-the-time white paint. FYI–I used exterior paint since it will be in contact with wet clothing.

Even the screws and bolts I used were leftover from something else. On the very rare occasion where I absolutely cannot salvage something, I remove every screw, washer, nut and bolt and save them. This has been my saving grace when I’ve needed hardware. The drying rack and the built-in shelf are both constructed with simple butt joints. I routed a groove on the back side after I constructed the box for the drying rack so that the beadboard paneling sits down in the box, but you wouldn’t have to do that. It’s just a cleaner finish when you view it from the side. So here’s my drying rack that’s similar to ones that sell for major bucks in the Pottery Barn and West Elm type catalogues. It’s a wonderful addition for a small laundry room, and it’s strong enough, even when fully extended to support a wet, queen-size comforter.

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Now where were we…Oh yes.

Instead of regular joint compound, I use Durabond which is a type of drywall mud that dries much harder than regular joint compound. It comes in a powder form that I mix with water, and it dries more quickly than joint compound depending on which type I choose. I believe you can buy anywhere from 5 minute to at least 90 minute Durabond. The minutes would be my working time before it sets up. It generally sets up before the number of minutes listed, but it depends on the temperature of the water I mix with it, the humidity and other factors. To mix Durabond, I just add the powder to water (as opposed to adding water to the powder) until it’s a consistency of thin peanut butter. Then I’m good to go.

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I want to put the Durabond on thin enough that I can see the wood showing thru or else I’ll have a lot of unnecessary sanding to do as well as a much bigger mess. Keep in mind that Durabond is harder to sand than regular mud which is another reason not to put it on too thick. Remember, the idea is mostly to fill the little holes from the grain and cover any raised grain areas. I only floated the frames of my doors on the uppers because I have a process for the panels for later. I was too impatient to wait for the mud to dry on its own so I helped it along with my hair dryer.

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Once they’re dry enough, I sand them smooth, being careful to leave a very thin layer of mud. All this prep work is very time-consuming and very messy but it all pays off. I realize I could have put the Durabond on even thinner than I did. Mental note for when I do the lowers.

Now I get to paint. First I prime the fronts and backs and let them dry. I use a brush where I need to get into the nooks and crannies and use a small mini roller to do the rest. I also prime the cabinet boxes on the wall.

I use 220 grit sandpaper to lightly sand the dry coat of primer before I apply the first coat of finish. This removes any little bits of “stuff” that float around in the primer and get stuck on my project. Since I’m getting to the end of my can of primer, it appears that those little floaties have been multiplying. You can strain your paint to cut down on the little varmints with a paint strainer that you can purchase anywhere paint supplies are sold. I most certainly should have done that.

I’m using Sherwin Williams’ “pure white” in a latex satin. Most people would use a semi-gloss for kitchen cabinets, but I don’t want that much sheen.

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For the center panels on just my upper cabinets I want to apply bead board wallpaper. I tried this out on my laundry room cabinets and was very pleased with it. It actually has raised areas and grooves just like real bead board and there’s no way to tell it’s not the real thing. Time will tell if it’s durable enough to use on my kitchen cabinets. If it gets too beat up or tears, I’ll simply remove it and paint in the panels. I prime the panels before I insert the wallpaper.

I purchased the wallpaper at Menard’s, and it’s plenty wide enough to fill in even the widest panels on my cabinets without having a seam. I follow the manufacturer’s instructions to apply it, which are pretty standard. Wet it, book it and it’s ready to install. It’s pre-pasted, which is nice, but it’s difficult to cut. I use a fresh blade for each cabinet, score it well and still have trouble with it tearing instead of cutting. It’s a bit like cutting wet tissue paper, so I just have to baby it a little. Despite the cutting issues, I still manage to do a good job, and remind myself that I’ll be caulking around the perimeter where some edges are a little rough so it’ll be just fine. You can see a bit of a gap where the “bead board” and the frame meet.

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Pardon my glob of caulk. I tried to slow down so my son could take a picture, thus the glob. Normally you would want a nice smooth bead, and then you want to smooth it with a wet fingertip to make it nice and even and push it into the groove. I use caulk all around each panel where it meets the frame on all the doors.

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I did some research online about this bead board wallpaper before I purchased it. I read some complaints about it coming loose when you paint it so I prepare myself for a bit of a battle, but I don’t have any problems with it at all. I make sure it’s completely dry before I paint over it, and I think that probably takes care of any potential catastrophes. FYI-this wallpaper is designed to accept paint. Otherwise I would NEVER advise painting over wallpaper! If you want to see a painter squirm, mention painting over wallpaper.

Yet another home purchase was knocked out of the running for me because the homeowner had painted over all the wallpaper in the main living areas. Every seam was accentuated and screamed, “Look at me! I’m wallpaper that no one wanted to take the time to remove, and look how obvious it is!”. The only thing worse than screaming cabinets is screaming painted-over wallpaper. Once it’s painted over, it’s very difficult to remove because the paint forms a barrier and makes it harder for the wallpaper to become saturated for removal. Wallpaper isn’t fun to remove under the best of circumstances. No need to add to the misery. If you remember nothing else from this post, I hope you remember never to paint over wallpaper.

In addition to caulking around all the panel edges, I need to caulk the cracks where all the separate cabinets meet on the boxes so the cracks don’t jump out at you. (We don’t want them screaming too.) They’ll show up as black against the white paint. Pretend not to notice the prescription drugs. Oops.

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Here’s a crack caulked halfway up so you can see how much better the caulked area looks.

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For clarification, I want to prime, let dry, lightly sand, apply the wallpaper, let dry, then caulk, apply a finish coat, let dry, lightly sand again and then apply my last coat of finish. Order is important here because I don’t want to be sanding right after caulking or I’ll mess up my caulk. Remember the sanding after priming and then between coats of finish paint is with a high grit like 200 or 220. And after sanding each time, I need to brush off all of the sanding dust so it doesn’t end up in my beautiful, smooth paint job.

FYI–I also had to redrill the pilot holes for the hardware because they filled with Durabond when I floated them. No big deal because the holes show on the backs of the doors where I didn’t do any floating, so I know exactly where to redrill.

So after 14 hours of labor, I complete the upper cabinets. Yes 14. Yikes. This was for 7 doors. Keep in mind it took longer because of my OCD with the grain issue, but I’m thrilled with the smoothness of the wood. They’re as close to looking sprayed as you can get. That’s what we want!

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Now for the lowers. Deeeeep breath. Some of my drawer fronts don’t want to come off because I realize my pilot holes for the screws that I installed a year or two ago for new hardware are too small. The screws are in the wood so snugly that they won’t budge. I can’t even remove them with a hammer. Live and learn.

So I’ll have to paint some of the drawer fronts while they’re still attached to the drawers. And a huge pain in the patooty is working around the random screws that were too stubborn to come out. As you can see, I’ve put tape around the threads so as to not fill them with Durabond or paint. I’m careful not to get too much paint built up around the screws so the paint won’t pull off when I remove the tape. Sorry about the blurry photo.

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I float mud on both the frames and the panels this time since I’m not inserting wallpaper on the lowers. Again, it’s a lot more work—and mess–than just painting them, but well worth it for this DIYer’s peace of mind. This picture is after I floated the door.

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This photo shows how little Durabond is left after sanding.

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Again I prime, lightly sand, caulk around the inserts and the cabinet boxes, apply finish, lightly sand, and apply the final coat of finish paint.

Here’s a picture of my paint shop, aka workbench, aka kitchen table.

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I decide not to keep track of my hours for the lower cabinets because it’s way too scary. All the DIYer’s whose blogs I read before I decided to go through with this all said they wished they’d done it sooner, and I whole-heartedly agree. They also warned of how very time-consuming it is, and I agree there too.

There will always be the oil verses latex, satin verses semi-gloss, to polyurethane or not to polyurethane debates. I have painted many vanities and pieces of furniture over the years, and I did a lot of research on the internet about different processes people use to paint their cabinets, but ultimately decided on what works best for me. I’m expecting to have to do touch ups on my paint job over time just as I have to touch up my interior doors and trim that are currently painted white. I love the crispness, brightness and contrast that white paint adds to my deep wall colors, and am willing to do the work to keep it that way. Check out my before and after photos.

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I hope if white cabinets are your heart’s desire, that you’ll give this a try. It does take some time to do it correctly, but if you break the job down into manageable sections, it’s not quite so overwhelming. There’s no reason why you can’t do a section, take a break for a few days or a week or two and then start again. If you have a basement or garage to work in, that would be a huge plus, but it can be done in a tiny space like mine too. And if you do it yourself, it’s immensely cheaper than investing in new cabinets. Everything I needed for this project, I already had on hand so I didn’t have to buy anything. But had I gone out and purchased the wallpaper, primer, paint, caulk and sandpaper, it would have cost less than $75.00. Now I feel like I have a new kitchen. Why did I wait so long?!!!

This post was written by Tracy Evans who is a Certified Home Stager, Certified Redesigner and Journeyman Painter servicing the Central Illinois area. Feel free to visit her website at www.HelpAtHomeStaging.com to view her portfolio for more before and after pictures of her projects. And if you enjoy gardening, you may want to visit her gardening blog at MyUrbanGardenOasis.