Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets for the D-I-Y



Cabinets are usually the most prominent feature of a kitchen and greatly determine the room’s overall décor. Peeling paint, nicks and scratches, or a dull, dirty finish can plague older cabinets and really sap the pizzazz out of the living space. On the other hand, a fresh coat of paint can do wonders for cabinets and breathe new life into the kitchen. A repainting project can also save tons of money when compared to full cabinet replacement, which can easily total several thousands of dollars.



Some repainting jobs are relatively simple. Your situation may only call for some light sanding, a thorough washing, and a new coat of paint to renew the color that already exists on the cabinets. This is a fairly straightforward procedure that requires you to remove the hardware and doors, and secure yourself a dust-free location for painting and drying the doors (the carcass can be painted in place). In this case, the actual paint application probably won’t take longer than a weekend, although drying time may take longer. If the project only requires a fresh coat of paint, then consider yourself lucky; a complete refinishing job takes a lot more time and effort.


This article covers a cabinet painting project where we stripped and/or sanded the factory finish off a set of MDF cabinets and covered them with primer and an oil-based paint. Here’s how we eliminated an old, ugly finish and replaced it witha  fresh coat of bright white.

This cabinet painting project was part of a complete kitchen remodel. First we painted the walls a chocolate brown. To offset the dark brown, we painted the cabinets white.



Getting Started

You’ll need a drill/driver to pop off the cabinet doors and unscrew all the hinges, handles and knobs. The brass hardware on the cabinets was very dated, so we discarded the old stuff to replace later with new chrome hardware. If you plan to reuse the old hardware, then make sure to store all the loose components and fasteners in a bucket while you paint.

Remove the doors and all hardware. Label the doors by number to keep track of their placement.


If you have many doors of dissimilar sizes, then label them with painter’s tape. The cabinets in this project had 15 doors of various dimensions, so we labeled them by number to avoid confusion when reinstalling.


Next, fill any dings or dents in the wood with non-shrinking putty. Most types of putty are very hard once they dry, so remove as much excess as possible. And if you plan to use new hardware with different fastener locations, then go ahead and fill the old screwholes with putty, too. Once the putty has dried, the repaired areas can be sanded smooth.


You will need to set up a work area, because removing the old finish is going to be a messy job. You’ll need to arrange a large, flat surface to work on the doors. Use plenty of drop cloths to protect anything you don’t want exposed to wood dust or paint stripper. Some paint strippers may also require open-air ventilation.


Removing the Old Finish

As with any painting job, prepping the surface is critical for any hope of success. The cabinets in this project were made of MDF with a faux wood finish, which was blistered and wearing away in various places. I wanted to completely eliminate this old finish to guarantee a good bond for the new paint. You can remove the finish by stripping the paint with a chemical or sanding the doors down to bare wood. There are pros and cons to both methods. I tried both methods.

One option for removing the old finish is to brush on a paint stripper.


Stripping—If you choose to use a paint stripper, make sure your product is intended for this particular application. The product I used was called Soy-Gel, which I’ve had lying around my shop for a couple of years. The label said it was appropriate, so I gave it a whirl. I brushed it on thickly—a coat about 1-millimeter thick—and allowed it to work its magic on the cabinet door surface. I found it to be some pretty powerful stuff. After about 5 minutes you could see a definite discoloration in the surface as the Soy-Gel chemically broke down the finish. Twenty minutes later, the old finish was dissolved, and the stripper was ready to be scraped away. Use a putty knife, furniture scraper or stripping brush to remove the gooey material and discard it into a plastic bag for disposal. Again, this process is very messy, so use drop cloths, rubber gloves, and have plenty of rags handy for the inevitable cleanup. The Soy-Gel product is very viscous, so when you scrape it off, it comes up in big, sloppy globs. However, it does a good job; after a single application I could scrape away the old finish and see the bare MDF wood fiber beneath it. The stripped surface still required a little finish-sanding, but most of the work was done by the paint stripper.

After about 20 minutes, the stripper had dissolved the old finish and was ready to scrape away.

Stripping brushes work well for removing the stripping product from curves and profiles.


Sanding—In lieu of paint stripper, sanding away the old finish is also a messy chore—but it’s a dry mess. No sticky, goopy liquid, just lots of dust to deal with, so wear a dust mask and safety glasses. For this method, clamp the door to the work surface and use a random orbital sander with a medium-grit sandpaper to remove the old paint or finish down to bare wood. The printed finish on these particular cabinets evidently contained some sort of plastic material, because as I sanded my abrasive pad was constantly accumulating a plastic buildup. It was so extensive that the sanding disc would spin on the plastic buildup without allowing the abrasive surface to contact the wood. This meant I was continually replacing discs—at least 1 disc per door. It also takes a while to completely remove the finish, and the constant tool vibration can get tiring after a while. However, on the plus side, if you do it outdoors or use a sander with a vacuum dust-collection system, the process is much less messy than stripping.

You can bypass the stripper in favor of a random orbital sander.


Combination—After trying both, I determined that neither method was particularly fun or easy, and both are very time-consuming. But I ultimately decided to use a combination of the two methods for this project. Because my stripping product was so viscous, it would stick to vertical surfaces without dripping much. So I used the stripper on the cabinet carcass, where otherwise using the power sander in an upright position would have been exhausting. But to avoid the sticky mess of the stripper, I used a power sander to strip the doors, which I could place on a workbench in a comfortable sanding position.


Finish Sanding

Once the original finish has been completely removed, you should finish-sand the wood to achieve a very smooth surface. Start with 150-grit sandpaper, and then move to 180-grit. The fully prepped surface should be clean, dry, dull and smooth. Remove all wood dust with a tack cloth. Do not use water to remove the dust and do not wet sand. With many types of wood—and MDF is particularly bad about this—water will raise the fibers and ruin the sanding job you just completed.


When sanding edges and curves, you have options. Some tool manufacturers, such as Skil, offer electric finish sanders with specially shaped sanding profiles that match or conform to common curves and irregular shapes. Or, you may opt to hand sand using sandpaper backed by a sponge. Some woodworkers even create their own custom sanding profiles for specific jobs. Not me; I used a finish sander and sponge pad.


Here’s another tip: Because the routed edges of MDF tend to be rough and porous (as with the hard-to-reach inside edges of frame-and-panel doors), I prep these areas with a thin coat of vinyl spackle. Just wipe the spackle onto the areas you can’t easily access with sanding tools. Use a damp, short-bristled brush to remove any excess before it hardens. Once it cures, sand it with a sanding sponge and you’ll have a smooth surface to prime and paint.

Smooth the hard-to-sand edges of MDF cabinets by applying a thin coat of vinyl spackling. Allow it to dry, remove any excess and you’re ready to prime.


Picking Paints

In general, latex paints are considered easier to use than oil-based because they dry quickly and clean up with water. But for kitchen cabinets I prefer oil-based paint because it forms a harder, more durable topcoat and levels out to a very smooth finished surface. As far as cure time, oil paints will take longer to dry initially (roughly 24 hours per application). However, latex paints will take longer than oil-based paints to fully cure to a hard finish (as much as three weeks), and in the meantime can be susceptible to damage. For example, when the doors are re-installed on the cabinets, the uncured latex paint can stick together where two surfaces meet. To avoid this you might have to leave your doors off for quite a while. However, with proper application and cure time, either type of paint will achieve a quality finish. If you opt for latex paint, make sure to use 100-percent acrylic formulation, which is more durable than vinyl acrylic paints.

I used Kilz brand oil-based primer and an alkyd/oil-based paint on the MDF cabinets. Be sure to strain the primer and paint before loading the paint sprayer.


How to Apply

After selecting your paint, the next big question: How to apply it? You can get great results with a high-quality brush, but it will leave visible bristle marks. Most pros avoid painting with a nap roller because it leaves the slightly mottled texture of the nap on the cabinet surface. A sprayed-on finish will achieve the smoothest finish coat. However, spraying the cabinet carcass in place means having to cover everything else in the kitchen with tape and plastic, which can be cumbersome and time-consuming. And when paying a pro to do the work, “time-consuming” equates to “expensive.”

A high-velocity/low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer is a great way to apply primer and paint.

DIY’ers can usually rent spray equipment from a local paint store or home-improvement retailer. Or, you might be enticed to plunk down a little money for a user-friendly HVLP sprayer. For this project, I chose an HVLP sprayer to paint the doors off site, but I brushed the paint onto the less visible areas, namely the carcass and cabinet framing.

I used Campbell Hausfeld’s HV2000 sprayer, and it achieved an excellent finish.


Prime Time

Of course, all good painting starts with priming, so begin the process with a coat of quality oil-based primer. For this project I used KILZ, which dries quickly and covers well. (Never use a water-based primer with MDF; it will cause the fibers to swell for a bumpy surface.) If spraying, then follow the manufacturer’s instructions for configuring the sprayer and loading the paint—it may require you to add paint thinner. Spray on the primer evenly, covering all surfaces completely to ensure top-notch adhesion of your paint coats.

After the primer has dried, lightly sand it with 180-grit paper to remove any imperfections before applying the topcoats. One coat of primer should suffice. Use a tack cloth to wipe down the primed surface after sanding.

After the primer has dried, lightly sand the surface to a smooth finish.


After everything is prepped, primed and dried, it’s time to apply the paint. Clean out the paint gun, reload it with a quality oil-based interior paint (strained through a filter), and go to town. Quality spray guns, such as the Campbell Hausfeld HV2000 shown, allow you to dial in the gun’s spray pattern. Choose a circular pattern, or a horizontal or vertical ellipse to maximize your coverage. This prevents you from altering the way you hold the gun to suit the object being sprayed.


When using a sprayer, follow this fundamental spray stroke: Hold the gun 90 degrees to the surface, about 6 to 8 inches from the object. Starting 3 inches away from the lower left-hand corner, depress the trigger until the paint sprays outward. Move the gun across the work surface in a straight line until it is 3 inches past the edge. Make a second pass, overlapping the first by 50 percent. Move the gun fast enough to avoid accumulating puddles of paint. Continue until full coverage is completed.

Next, you’re ready to paint. Use plenty of drop cloths. I sprayed on two coats of oil-based paint to each side of the doors, allowing the paint to dry between coats.


Allow the doors to dry overnight. When completely dry, paint the other side of the doors. Bear in mind that you’ll need to have secured a paint-friendly area to do this job. I did most of my spraying on a screened porch, using plenty of plastic drop cloths. This allowed plenty of open-air ventilation for drying, while the screens kept bugs and debris away from the wet paint. By the time I finished painting, each door had two coats on both sides, and in the meantime I had brush-painted the cabinet case in the kitchen.

For the cabinet case, I primed and painted it in place using a brush.



The first step in re-installing the doors was replacing the hardware. The new hinges and knobs were a slightly different size than the old stuff, so I had previously filled the holes and was dealing with a “like new” door surface. The location of knobs or pulls boils down to looks and convenience, and there’s not a hard-and-fast rule regarding where they go. To avoid splitting the wood, avoiding installing them less than 1 inch from any edge of the door. Beyond that, where you place your knobs is up to you; just keep the location consistent from door to door. A general rule of thumb is to locate them within one-third the height of the cabinet.

Use a combination square to make sure you keep the hinges and handles consistently spaced when installing the hardware.


The same idea goes for the hinges: keep the locations consistent and plumb—the hinges must swing open properly. Drill pilot holes for the screws and fasten all hinges, knobs, pulls or handles securely.

Drill pilot holes and then drive in the screws for the hardware.


Next, re-install the doors. You may find it helpful to recruit an extra pair of hands to help you hold the door, the drill and the spirit level to make sure the doors are level and plumb. Make sure your doors cover their respective openings evenly; any offset to the right or left will be noticeable and will likely interfere with installing the next door in line.

Keep a quality carpenter’s level handy; you’ll need it when re-installing the doors.


Hanging the doors is an easier job if you eliminate the spirit level in favor of a laser level (you’ll only need two hands instead of three). Spot the level laser line along the cabinet case, marking the top edge of the door location. Line up the door and screw in place. Double-check with a spirit level.

For this particular project I had the chance to test a really state-of-the-art laser tool from Johnson Level. The company’s Acculine Pro Multi-Beam Self-Leveling Laser Level is shaped like an egg and sits atop a small tripod. It simultaneously projects four self-leveling cross laser lines plus one down-beam. In other words, it shot a level and plumb grid on the cabinet case, allowing me to line up the top and one side of each door with the lasers. Totally cool and futuristic.

One alternative to hand levels is the Acculine Pro laser level from Johnson Level.

Granted, this tool is intended for professional contractors and might be too expensive for the average DIY’er. Still, Johnson Level and Kapro Level both have several other handy laser tools that fall more into the consumer price range.

Johnson’s Acculine Pro Multi-Beam Line Generator produced level and plumb laser lines on the cabinet case to help line up the doors when re-installing.


After all the doors were back up and adorned with the new chrome hardware, the difference was amazing. The kitchen originally had puke green walls and worn out “faux” wood-grain cabinets. After painting the walls chocolate and the cabinets a bright white (and re-laminating the countertops), the kitchen appeared to have time-warped into 2007. And while I had invested a lot of time and labor, it only cost me a couple hundred bucks in paint and supplies. Mission accomplished.

Once all the doors were back in place, we had the look of new cabinets at a small fraction of the price.


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