When you have older, beat up cabinets you don’t always have to go whole hog and spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace them to make your kitchen look amazing. There are easier options like cabinet refacing (where you replace just the doors but keep the cabinet boxes) or even simpler than that cabinet refinishing.
In this post, I’ll show you how to easily refinish your cabinets to make them look great again. The cost? A couple sheets of sandpaper and a gallon of paint and primer. Whether you are looking to spritz up your kitchen for an easy sale of your house like I was or you want a kitchen you don’t hate to look at anymore cabinet refinishing is something you should definitely consider.
Cabinet Refinishing Step by Step
In my kitchen, I refinished my cabinets in just one weekend with ease, and I created this tutorial based on the process I used ensuring it’s DIY friendly. You can do this even if you are a beginning DIYer. Probably the biggest challenge will be using a spray gun of some sort for your paint. If you have a big air compressor then an HVLP spray gun might work, or if you prefer an airless spray setup might be a good option. If you don’t have access to either of these consider buying one because the cost savings of refinishing your own cabinets will more than pay for the sprayer and then you have it for future projects.
Step 1 Hardware Removal
The first thing you need to do when getting ready to refinish your cabinets is to remove the hardware. If you have a simple layout and hardware then simply putting everything in a ziplock baggy is probably fine, but if you have complicated hardware then taking a picture of everything as it is may be helpful as well.
Place each piece in it’s own bag and labeling the bag may be a good way to keep the hardware as to which cabinet or drawer it belongs to works best. Don’t forget to keep the right screws with the right hardware.
You can keep the hardware that is attached to the boxes (the built in part of the cabinet) where it is since we’re not going to be painting the boxes which leaves less work for you later. Knowing where each piece goes will make the reinstallation process soooooo much easier so make good notes of how and where your hardware is installed.
Step 2 Door & Drawer Removal
Next comes your cabinet doors and drawer faces. These are usually attached from the inside of the drawer by a couple screws. Open your drawer and remove those screws so the drawer face can be removed and labeled on the back side. Again, label everything in an unseen location so you know where to put it back.
For cabinet doors you need to unscrew the hinges from the door leaving the hinge attached to the box. I prefer to label the doors under where the hinge will go so it won’t be seen later.
Step 3 Sanding
My cabinets were made of MDF, which is possibly the most ridiculous product to make cabinets out of since they will spend their lives in a wet area like a bathroom or kitchen. As the paint chips and moisture gets into the MDF it swells and looks like absolute trash. The only good thing about MDF is that it is super easy to sand due to its softness.
I sanded all the cabinets with 120-grit paper using a random orbit sander, though a SurfPrep sander would have been my preference since it has a compressible foam pad that can easily get into the molding profiles to sand the areas that I had to do by hand.
Step 4 Priming
Once everything was completely smooth to the touch I blew off any sanding dust and wiped the cabinets down with a tack cloth to get them ready for priming. For these I used a water based primer called Ben Moore FreshStart. It sprays easily and lays down nicely.
If you are spraying make sure you wear a mask and have a well ventilated area out of direct sunlight to work in. I have a shop, but for most people setting up in the garage with the door open works best. Use painter’s plastic to cover anything you don’t want paint on and put drop cloths down across the floor or you can use a pop up tent in the driveway to keep things out of the sun.
I applied my primer using an HVLP (High Volume Low Pressure) spray gun, but like I mentioned earlier you could also use an airless sprayer. If you’ve never used a spray gun then I suggest practicing on a scrap piece of wood first.
I may run a big historic restoration company, but I rarely do paint spraying and I’m a relative novice with a spray gun. I know how they work, but my technique I’m sure leaves a lot to be desired. That just makes me all the more confident that any DIYer can get the same results as me here with my relative lack of spraying experience.
Thin the primer about 10% with water to get good even coverage and avoid drips like the plague. I let it dry for a couple hours while I grabbed lunch and then came back with a fine sanding sponge to knock down any areas where the primer causes the raw MDF to raise a bit. You want a buttery smooth texture where you can’t feel any rough spots or texture.
Step 5 Painting
Once I had a perfectly smooth primer coat I blew off the sanding dust again and made sure the cabinets were completely clean and ready for paint.
Using the right paint here was pivotal. Some paints are sticky and are a terrible choice for cabinet refinishing. They cause blocking and sticking paint as you open and close things. You want a hard enamel paint for cabinets that can be easily cleaned and will hold up to the abuses cabinets are put through.
I chose Sherwin Williams ProClassic Acrylic/Alkyd paint which is one of my favorite paints for trim and cabinets. It is a water-based paint that dries like an oil-based paint so it’s extremely hard and durable. It also lays down better than almost any paint I have found. Meaning it avoids brush marks or spray texture like a pro making it very easy for a beginner like me to get a completely smooth finish.
Step 6 Installation
I let the cabinets dry overnight and then brought them back in and began putting the puzzle back together just like I had taken it off. During installation be extremely careful since the paint is still fresh, and though it’s dry to the touch, it can easily be marred for the first 30 days while it fully cures.
Put your hardware back on or change the hardware if you want for an even greater impact.
After installation do you best to baby the cabinets until that first 30 days has passed. Avoid cleaning them or doing anything rough with them. This is a serious challenge is you have 3 kids like me!
With this cabinet refinishing tutorial you’ve just done in one weekend what you’d typically pay a professional painter several thousand dollars to do. That’s huge and a huge boost to your home’s value that you should be proud of.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.