Painting your kitchen cabinets is an inexpensive way to completely update your kitchen, and is a project that someone with little painting experience is able to complete. The trick to painting kitchen cabinets successfully as a DIY project is to make sure you choose the right paint and the right preparation.
Although I certainly do not claim to be an expert, I’ve painted a few different sets of kitchen cabinets, and a whole bunch of different furniture pieces, using a variety of different types and brands of paints. Because kitchen cabinets are a high use item and often have a finish over the original wood that is being painted over, there are certain types of paint that I have found work best for cabinets.
Plus, no matter what kind of paint you choose to use, there are a couple of steps you should follow when prepping your cabinets before painting.
Do I need to sand or prime my kitchen cabinets before painting?
Technically, no, you don’t need to prime wood cabinets before painting if they have a finish already applied over the wood and you use high quality paint. However, my recommendation would be to always sand and sometimes also prime the cabinets before painting.
I know, I know, there are plenty of people on Pinterest who say you can paint your cabinets without sanding or priming (which you can, of course, do, because ultimately you can do whatever you want), but I would never recommend painting such a high use piece without first sanding, at the very least. I always, always give my cabinets and furniture a light sanding before I paint. Always. Then, depending on the type of paint I use, I sometimes will prime them as well. This post will answer the much debated question – Do I need to prime my cabinets before painting?
For each of the paints below, I’ll share with you my specific recommendation for priming. Then, I’ll also describe my favorite primers for furniture and cabinets near the end of the post.
The Best Paint for Kitchen Cabinets: Alkyd Enamel Paint
One of my favorite types of paints for painting cabinets is alkyd paint. They now make water-based alkyd paint which allows for easy clean up, but still creates an extremely durable finish without the need for a topcoat. Basically, it has all the great properties of an oil-based paint (dries to a tough finish, levels well), without the “bad” (it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as oil-based, and you don’t need solvents to clean it up). Quadruple win!
I’ve found that alkyd paint adheres better if a primer is used first. It’s well worth the little bit of extra time you’ll put in to keep your cabinets looking beautiful! If your cabinets are prefinished (meaning not unfinished wo0d) or painted, you can use any type of primer for this step. If they are unfinished wood, or made of cherry or mahogany, you’ll need to use a primer that blocks wood tannins. This post describes the best types of primer for furniture and cabinets and will give you all the details you need to choose the best primer for your project.
Although I’d recommend priming before painting with alkyd paint, you’ll make up that time you spent because you don’t need to apply a topcoat! Alkyd based paint cures to a hard finish (similar to a finish that an oil-based paint creates) and it’s definitely tough enough to withstand everyday cabinet use.
There are a couple of companies that manufacture alkyd based paint that is water-based. Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint is alkyd based, and Behr (sold at Home Depot) has an alkyd paint as well. I actually tested both paints for my refaced kitchen cabinets to compare the two brands. Here’s what I found.
Benjamin Moore Advance
Although Benjamin Moore’s Advance paint is more expensive, it comes in more finish options and far more color choices. So, if you’re looking for a custom color for your cabinets, it might be the best option. It’s slightly thinner than Behr’s paint, which did mean that I ended up adding an extra coat just to be sure the coverage was sufficient. It levels beautifully, which means that it’s practically impossible to see brush strokes. I noticed the dry time was quite a bit faster than the Behr paint, perhaps because it had a thinner consistency.
Behr Alkyd Enamel
If you’re planning to paint your cabinets white, or love one of the 60 color choices, I’d recommend using Behr Alkyd Enamel because it will save you quite a bit of money. (*UPDATE – I was at a different store last week and the paint department told me I could custom match most colors in this paint. As long as the color needs a white base or deep base, it can be matched. I’m planning to try this and I will update with what I find.) I found the finish to be just as durable as Benjamin Moore Advance, and it levels beautifully as it dries. Speaking of dry time, it did take quite a bit longer to dry, but once it had, the finish was durable and smooth.
I honestly love both of these brands of paint, and have used both with great success on other projects since painting our kitchen cabinets. No matter which you choose, I think you’ll end up loving them as well!
Sherwin Williams Urethane Trim Enamel
I personally have not tried this paint, but I know others who have with great results. It’s basically the same components as the Behr and Benjamin Moore alkyd paints, but it is the most expensive of the three (a gallon is about $90, but they run a lot of sales, so expect to pay $60-$70).
The Other Best Paint for Kitchen Cabinets: Acrylic-Based Furniture Paint
I’ve also used General Finishes Milk Paint on a set of kitchen cabinets with great success. This is the paint that you might have seen Pinterest posts floating around about that claim you don’t need to sand or prime before applying it. Although it does adhere well to surfaces and you might be okay not sanding before using it, I would personally never recommend it.
Lightly scuffing the surface of the cabinets will create a little extra tooth in the slick finished surface of the wood for the paint to stick to. Whenever I use General Finishes on cabinets or furniture, I always lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper, but rarely prime. The only time I have primed before using General Finishes paint is when I’m applying it to unfinished wood, or there is a water stain or tannin bleed through that I need to paint over.
Unlike Alkyd paint, I would strongly recommend using a topcoat over cabinets painted with General Finishes. The company makes clear acrylic finishes in sheens ranging from extra flat to high gloss that are super easy to apply and give a gorgeous finish. Although I often don’t topcoat my General Finishes furniture pieces because it’s not needed due to the fairly durable finish that the paint naturally creates, I definitely used a topcoat on the kitchen cabinets I painted with General Finishes because cabinets are high use and must endure a lot of wear and tear.
It’s All in the Name
Paint has come a long way in even the last ten years, as manufacturers are coming up with new blends and formulas that are easy to apply and give the best finishes. For example, interior wall paint used to be primarily latex, however now most are an acrylic-latex blend. Most oil-based paint isn’t even available to the general public anymore, but instead they’ve created paints that have the benefits of oil-based in water-based finishes. (“Alkyd” was always an oil-based type of paint, but now these modified alkyds are water based.) With all of that being said – it’s very difficult to find a paint that isn’t a blend of something. Instead, look for key words when selecting paint for cabinets or furniture, and avoid others!
Words to look for when painting cabinets, furniture, and trim:
- enamel – This paint will dry to a tough finish, and you shouldn’t need a topcoat.
- acrylic – I’ve found that acrylic paints (without latex) tend to adhere to finished wood (i.e. cabinets and furniture) much better. They also don’t peel or flake away from the surface over time nearly as much.
- urethane and/or alkyd – These paints were traditionally used for industrial or automotive applications because they are tough, but now with some of the blends that have been created, components are being integrated for easy use in the home.
Words to avoid when painting cabinets, furniture, and trim:
- latex – If it has latex, it means that some of the binders are vinyl resins and the paint peels and flakes more easily. (Remember, we’re talking about painting cabinets and furniture here; latex-based paint is still totally okay for walls, though.)
- oil-based – Let’s save our environment and stay away from oil-based paints that can’t be disposed of, need solvents to clean up, and are highly flammable. Plus, they tend to yellow over time – yuck!
If you are chemistry minded and want to dive a whole lot deeper into this topic, this website breaks it all down way further than I could ever begin to comprehend.
How to Prime Wood Cabinets
I always prime cabinets before painting when I’m:
- painting over unfinished wood (that would otherwise bleed through the paint)
- painting over water or tobacco stains
I sometimes prime cabinets before painting when I’m:
- painting with alkyd paint
- painting over previously painted cabinets
I rarely prime cabinets before painting when I’m:
- painting with acrylic furniture paint (like General Finishes)
- painting over wood cabinets that have a clean, in-tact finish
This post goes into full detail on when you need to prime cabinets before painting AND my personal favorite types of primer for different purposes.
Other posts you might enjoy:
Like what you see? I’d love for you to follow along!
Sharing at these awesome weekly parties!
Join the Refresh Living DIY & Upcycling Community
Join the subscriber list to receive one to two emails per month with updates from the blog. PLUS, you'll gain access to my printables and graphics library. Every new design I create will be added here, and you'll have free access - forever!