How to Paint Smooth Cabinets

Imagine painting those old cabinets and loving them! Painting cabinets is a high-effort job, but it also promises a high reward, if you do it right. 

By the time you remove the doors, sand, prime, paint, and replace everything, you will have many hours invested in this job. However, as any homeowner can tell you, freshly painted cabinets look amazing.

We’re here to help you avoid the nightmare of doing all that work and ending up with crooked brush lines and bumpy textures. You can make those cabinets look smooth and professional. Here’s how to paint smooth cabinets.

Step 1: Gather your supplies

You’ll need: 
  • Painters tape
  • Drop cloths
  • Degreaser or TSP
  • Rags and tack cloth
  • Paintable putty or wood fill
  • Foam sanding blocks or sandpaper
    Get some medium (about 150) grit sandpaper and some fine (220) grit sandpaper. Foam sanding blocks make it easier to get into crevices and corners, but they cost more.
  • Two or three 3-inch foam paint rollers
  • Medium-quality 2-inch to 3-inch paintbrush for applying primer
  • High-quality 2-inch or 2½-inch angled paintbrush for applying paint
    We like the Purdy ClearCut for oil-based paint and the Purdy Chinex Elite Glide for water-based or acrylic paint.
  • Screwdriver to remove hinge and hardware screws
  • Primer
    Oil-based primer may give higher adhesion and durability. If you choose to use a water-based primer, we recommend a high bonding primer. If you plan to apply a dark paint, you can ask the paint store to tint the primer. It may save you an extra coat of paint in the end.
  • Paint
    If you used oil-based primer, you can choose water-based or oil-based paint. However, if your primer was water-based, be sure you choose a water-based or acrylic topcoat.

Oil-based paint fumes are dangerous! Make sure your room is well ventilated.

Step 2: Remove the cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware

As you remove the cabinets, label them using painter’s tape and a numbering system. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to get all the cabinets back where they belong. Put each door’s hardware in a separate sandwich bag and number the bags to keep track of where they belong.

Put the doors on a rack where you can paint them and let them dry. You can make a rack by laying two 2x4 boards across two sawhorses.

Stand the drawers vertically on a drop cloth, with the painted side facing the sky. Be careful that the wind can’t blow them over.

Step 3: Clean every surface with TSP or KrudKutter

Step 4: Use painter’s tape to protect areas that won’t receive paint

Step 5: Use painter’s putty or wood filler to fill and patch any holes or imperfections

You can leave the hardware holes if you plan to replace the knobs and hinges you took off.

Step 6: Sand every surface with 150-grit sandpaper

Use an electric random orbital sander to speed up sanding flat surfaces. For the crevices, use a foam sanding block. 

No need to completely remove the old paint or finish. Just sand enough that the new paint will adhere.

Clean up all the dust with a damp rag, shop vac, or tack cloth.

Step 7: Apply high-quality, high-bond primer

Use a foam roller to lay on a thick coat of primer then use a medium-quality brush to brush off the drips using light strokes following the grain of the wood. Use a cloth to wipe drips from the edges.

Let everything dry for up to 12 hours, then turn the doors over and prime the other sides using the same method.

Once the primer is completely dry, lightly sand and clean the cabinets one more time. This time use fine-grit sandpaper (220 grit).

Step 8: Apply paint to one cabinet door or drawer at a time

To get a super smooth finish, go through these steps on each door or drawer before moving to the next. Start with the backs of the cabinet doors so you can practice your method before you paint the high-visibility surfaces.

A) Use a small foam roller to cover the entire surface with paint. Don’t worry about being neat in this step, just lay the paint heavy on the surface. You’ll clean it up in the next step. You may have to angle the roller and press a little to fill all the cracks and designs that most cabinets have. If pressing the roller makes bubbles in the paint, gently roll them out.

B) Use a high-quality paintbrush to brush the paint smooth. Brush along the grain of the wood, typically from top to bottom. Use long, light strokes with your paintbrush. Don’t push the brush; let it lean against the surface. You’ll probably be taking paint off the surface in this step, and that’s good. If your brush is full of paint, wipe it against the rim of your paint bucket. Keep brushing until the surface is smooth and drip-free.

C) Use a rag to wipe drips from the edges of the painted panel. If you’re using acrylic or water-based paint, dampen the cloth with water. For oil-based paint, use mineral spirits.

Step 9: Repeat steps A, B, C

Once you have one cabinet panel looking smooth, repeat steps A through C for the next panel, then the next. By the time you finish painting the back side of all your cabinet doors, you’ll be a pro at painting smooth cabinet doors. 

Give the panels plenty of time to dry before you flip them over and paint the front sides. In high humidity, this could be more than 12 hours. Make sure they don’t feel tacky at all when you flip them. 

If necessary, give each cabinet a second coat of paint following the above instructions.

Step 10: Replace the doors, drawers, and hardware.

Good job! You made it to the end. Painting cabinets is quite a task. If you live in our area, we’ll be glad to come out and give you a free estimate. You can leave the hard work to us and have confidence that your cabinets are going to look great.

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