10 Steps for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets Like a Pro (+ What Not to Save Money On)

10 Steps for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets Like a Pro (+ What Not to Save Money On)

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You fit into one of these categories:

  1. You just purchased a new home and, after a bidding war, have no money left for home improvements.
  2. You are trying to sell your home, want to get as much money as you can for it but don’t have a lot to spend on sprucing things up or;
  3. You’ve been looking at the same old kitchen cabinets for years, and it’s time for a change.

I feel your pain.

Do you have any idea how much new kitchen cabinets go for?

Home Improvements can be a hassle and cost a ton of money. Money you don’t have.

Who can afford to hire a contractor right now? Look at the price of gas and groceries.

It’s freaking insane!

But what if I told you that you could make your old kitchen cabinets look brand new for short money?

What if I said you could do it yourself, saving you thousands of dollars? And, It’s not as hard as it seems? Would you be interested?

I can show you The 10 Steps for Refinishing Your Kitchen Cabinets Like a Pro (+ What Not to Save Money On). In the end, you’ll have cabinets that look amazing and will increase the value of your home.

Let’s get started!

Before You Begin:

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Refinishing cabinets is not as hard as you think. But it does require some organization, patience, and planning. You don’t have to be Bob Vila or Martha Stewart to get professional results; you just need a game plan.

Kitchen cabinets are nothing more than a box with nice doors (and molding if applicable). The box is typically ½” or ¾” plywood constructed from Pine, Maple, Cherry Wood, or Oak. Some cabinets are made of particle board with wood laminate glued on the surface. No matter the cabinets’ material, I will show you the products you need to get the job done the right way.

Tools Needed (Time to Dig Through the Junk Drawer)

  • Screwdrivers (or screw gun)
  • Pliers (for stubborn screws)
  • Pencil
  • Hammer (for really stubborn screws)
  • Putty Knife
  • Vacuum
  • Razor knife or scissors
  • Dusting brush (old paint brushes work well)
  • Electric palm sander (optional)

#1: Get All The Supplies First Speedy

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Before you “giddyup” and head to the big box store, just slow down there, “Cowboy” (or Cowgirl).

You may think you know what you need, but let’s get a list of everything required to complete this project. Once you get started, you don’t want to run to the store twice a day because you forgot something.

Getting everything in the beginning, will reduce stress and allow the project to be completed smoothly and in less time.

Here’s what you need:

  • Sandpaper (150 + 220 Grit)
  • Blue Painter’s tape (1.5 or 2 inch)
  • 9-inch masking paper
  • DryDex Wood Spackle (not wood filler)
  • Premium 2-inch angle sash paint brush
  • A 2-inch, natural bristle, angle sash paint brush (throw away)
  • 4-inch mini roller handle
  • 4-inch microfiber or mohair mini roller sleeves
  • Mini roller paint tray
  • Paint pot
  • Painters rags
  • Tack cloths
  • Disposable drop cloths (paper)
  • Household degreaser/cleaner
  • Paint thinner
  • Paint stirring sticks (free)

#2: Peter Piper Picked the Perfect Primer

In the title of this article, I hinted that there would be items you don’t want to save money on. The primer is one of those items. Do not skimp on this. Picking the right primer is essential for proper finish coat adhesion and achieving the best results.

Oil-based primers are best to use when refinishing cabinets. They help seal tannin bleed from high-grained wood, such as oak, and provide better adhesion for finish coats.

Do not be influenced by big-box store workers telling you that oil primer is unnecessary. Latex primers are suitable for many paint projects but not for cabinet refinishing. Insul-X Prime-Lock has excellent stain-blocking properties, does not raise the wood grain, and “lays down” nicely for a better finish of enamel top coats.

Image from Amazon

#3:Peter…you get it…The Proper Finish Paint

Any old paint will not do when you want the best results refinishing your cabinets. The finish coat is the other item you don’t want to skimp on.

Get the best finish. Get Insul-X Cabinet Coat, which is available in Satin and Semi-Gloss sheens. It is an Acrylic-Urethane coating that provides a smooth and level finish and cleans up with soap and water.

Image from Amazon

#4: Get Unhinged (not that way)

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  • First, remove all the hinges, knobs, and magnets (if any) and place them in a zip lock bag or an old coffee can. Make sure to store the different hardware components (hinges/knobs etc.) separately, as the screws for each will be different sizes.

Once the hardware is removed and stored in a safe spot, it’s time to mark the doors and drawers.

  • Starting with the top row of cabinets and moving left to right, mark each door separately with a number. Use a pencil to mark the door and the cabinet with matching numbers (example: top door left is #1, top door right is #2, and so on).
  • Mark the door where the hinge was installed and cover the number with a small piece of painter’s tape. Do the same thing on the cabinet face where the door was installed, so it will be easier to match the door to the right cabinet when the project is completed.

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  • Remove the drawer faces to avoid emptying contents when the painting begins. You can mark the draw faces as you did on the doors. Place them in an adjacent room or somewhere out of the way.

You will still be able to access the contents of the drawers as they will not be sitting in the cabinet base.

#5: Prep. The Devil’s In The Details

Proper preparation will produce the best results, so don’t skip this step.

Use some drop cloths to set up an area away from the cabinets where you can place the doors and drawer faces. Next, use the degreaser/cleaner to clean all the surfaces to be painted thoroughly. Wipe down everything with warm water after degreasing to remove any residue.

  • Sand all surfaces with 150 grit sandpaper. Remember to sand “with” the wood grain and not against the grain. It’s unnecessary to sand to bare wood, but you want to ensure you get every inch sanded.

Image from quickdrawers.com

Each part of the door (rails, stiles, panels) must be sanded lengthwise “with” the wood grain. Repeat with the cabinets.

  • Dust off everything and wipe down with tack cloths to remove dirt and sawdust. Vacuum the surrounding areas
  • Use the wood spackle and putty knife to cover holes and deep gouges. When dry, sand the patched holes until flat with the surface.

#6: Tape Away

It’s best to use painter’s tape and masking paper to cover any areas subject to drips and spatters. The inside of the cabinets will not be painted and can be “taped off” to ensure a clean job.

  • Use tape and masking paper to cover countertops, backsplashes, and adjacent walls.
  • Pull out the refrigerator or cover it with an old sheet. You don’t want to get paint spatters on appliances, especially stainless steel.
  • Put drop cloths on the floor in front of the cabinets. Use pieces of tape to prevent the drop cloths from shifting.
  • A piece of masking paper can be cut to size and taped to each cabinet opening to prevent dust and spatters on dishes.

#8: Welcome to Prime Time

Just because you taped things off doesn’t mean you can paint like a crazy person. You must apply the primer in the same manner as when you sanded. With the wood grain.

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Open the can of primer and stir thoroughly with a paint stick. Fill the 4-inch roller tray halfway with primer. Place a 4-inch roller sleeve onto the roller frame and “roll” it into the paint tray, making sure not to over saturate the roller.

Pour approximately 2 inches of primer into a paint pot and place the 2-inch natural bristle brush inside.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Work on one cabinet at a time. You don’t want the primer to dry out before using the roller.

  • Lay doors and drawer faces flat on a drop cloth. Paint the edges first, and roll out the rails, stiles, and raised panels. When the first few cabinets are primed, you can go back and flip the doors and paint the back sides. That way, everything will dry at the same time.
  • Move on to the top cabinets.
  • Paint the edges of the cabinet first (inside edges where the doors were installed). Start in the corners and work your way “out.” Finish off the edges with a long brush stroke from corner to corner.
  • “Cut” the top and bottom faces of the cabinet with the brush first. Paint with the grain of each separate piece of wood from end to end.
  • Where rails and stiles meet, each piece must be brushed out or rolled without going “over” the seam in the wrong direction. Then use the roller to “fill in” the main area of the unpainted, flat surfaces. You can see in the picture below how the woman “cuts” in the smaller areas with the brush and then “rolls out” the larger flat surfaces.

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  • After the first cabinet is fully primed, inspect for any paint drips or “sags” that can be brushed flat.
  • Put a small amount of paint thinner on a rag to wipe up any drips and spatters.
  • Repeat the process for the remaining cabinets.
  • Wait until the primer coat is completely dry, then lightly sand everything with 220 grit sandpaper. Sand the same way as with the prep process. If the sanding removes some primer, touch up the spots with the brush or roller.

#9: You’re Almost Home


Now that you’re a priming Ninja, you’ve got some experience and knowledge you can use in applying the finish coat.

Vacuum and use the tack cloths after you finish the sanding.

  • Apply the finish paint in the same way as the primer. Do not apply too thick. It’s better to do multiple light coats than one thick coat.
  • Let the first coat of finish dry completely. Follow the directions on the can but keep in mind that drying times vary with seasonal and room conditions.
  • Very lightly sand again and then apply a second coat.

#10: It’s a Wrap!

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Wait until everything is completely dry before handling.

  • Slowly remove tape and masking paper. Be sure not to let the paint peel as you remove the tape.
  • Start by putting on the hinges to the doors and then install them on the cabinets. I recommend that someone help with the installation to avoid scratching.
  • Re-attach the drawer faces and place the drawers into their appropriate locations.
  • Install knobs and pulls.
  • Touch up scratches and areas where the paint did not cover the primer. You can’t just touch up the “spot” itself because it will “flash” and be noticeable when dry. You must paint the entire rail, stile, edge, or panel that requires a touch-up. Use the roller for the best finish, and watch for drips on the edges.

Bonus Tips

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  • The longer the finish coat is allowed to dry, the better. If you can live for a few days without installing the doors, that would lessen the chance of touch-ups.
  • Leave the doors and drawers slightly opened after installation to avoid them from sticking to the paint.
  • Spruce up your cabinets by changing hinges and knobs for an updated look.
  • Give your cabinets a “custom” look by applying glazing to routed edges and panels.
  • Do not save rags that have paint thinner on them. Soak the rags in water and then put them in the trash on trash day. (follow local regulations and codes regarding proper disposal)
  • Make sure the paint cans are sealed tight and stored inside your home in a cool, dry place. (not in an exterior shed).
  • When changing the cabinet color, have the primer tinted to match the finish for better coverage.
  • Add door bumpers to keep doors from touching the cabinet face.


Way to Go!

Look at what you’ve accomplished.

Before, you were in that bidding war, trying to sell your home, or just wanted to spruce up your cabinets, but who has the money to hire a professional?

With a bit of time and patience, you got the job done. It was well worth the effort.

Either way, you’ve added value to your home by giving your cabinets a professional make-over at a fraction of the cost.

You just saved thousands of dollars that you can use towards other projects or maybe even a night on the town to celebrate!

Pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.

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