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The Ultimate Guide to Painting Kitchen Cabinets

Is Painting Kitchen Cabinets Worth It?

There is a reason why kitchen remodels have one of the highest ROI (return on investment) of any home improvement project.  That reason is because everyone loves the kitchen!  Many life memories are made there.  Regardless of whether you buy a new construction home or remodel an existing home, a new kitchen can make all the difference.  If you are dreaming of a new kitchen, then this blog post is for you! 

Learn step by step what you need to consider for your kitchen remodel project when it comes to options for your kitchen cabinets.  You may also come to the realization that painting kitchen cabinets is enough to give you that change you are looking for.  First, let’s walk through all decision making processes involved with a kitchen.

Kitchen Layouts

The layout of your kitchen design depends on the size of your kitchen space.  Variations of kitchen layouts include galley, u-shape, l-shape, and one wall.  All of these options may include a center island with the exception to the galley kitchen.  The primary workspace should be triangulated between the sink, cooking range and refrigerator.  The distance between each of these locations should not be more than a few steps away vb v n .  If you are content with your current layout, you may not need to replace kitchen cabinets.

kitchen layouts

Kitchen Design Styles

As a rule of thumb, the kitchen design style should be consistent with the architectural style of the rest of the home.  Kitchen design styles can range from casual, contemporary, rustic and traditional.  The style of your kitchen cabinets plays a major role in determining the overall design style of your kitchen.

The three main parts that make up the style of the kitchen are the floors, cabinets and countertops.  You should start by choosing your countertop because that is what you will look at the most as you work in the kitchen.  The decision process for countertops provides more options for patterns and colors to choose from.  When picking a color scheme, try to stick to no more than three colors.  Match the countertop with the floor color and use the color of the cabinets to separate the two.

Choosing a Color Scheme For Your Kitchen

When choosing a color scheme for any room you should use the 60-30-10 rule.  This rule states that you should select three complimentary colors and use them proportionately to the rule.  For example, 60% of your kitchen should be your main color.  The main color is typically the walls or cabinets in your kitchen.  Next, 30% of a room should have a secondary color.  The secondary color could include drapes or curtains, accent chairs, table linens, or painted furniture.  Last, make 10% of the room contain an accent color.  The accent color could include wall decor, counter appliances or towels draped over the oven door.  

color design rule

One variation to complimentary colors is using monochromatic colors.  The monochromatic colors are the variations you will find on the same strip of a paint fan deck or column of a paint chart.  

Anatomy of Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets are made up of base cabinets (lowers), wall cabinets (uppers) and tall cabinets.  Tall cabinets are also referred to as pantry or utility cabinets.  Base cabinets typically include a knotched toe kick at the bottom with doors that open to shelves and have a drawer on top.  Some base cabinets can have multiple drawers from top to bottom.  Additional features within the cabinet system include shelves, racks, and floating displays.

kitchen cabinet dimensions

Kitchen Cabinet Sizes and Dimensions

The standard height of a base cabinet is 36 inches.  The backsplash from the countertop to the bottom of the wall cabinets is 18 inches.  The standard wall height is 8 feet.  Wall cabinets range from 36 inches to 42 inches and typically increase in 3 inch intervals.  Wall cabinets can be made to be flush with the ceiling or left open at the top.

What Type of Wood Are Kitchen Cabinets Made Of?

Cabinets can be made of solid wood or compound materials.  Solid wood options can include alder, birch, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, pine or walnut.  The most important factors you should consider when selecting a wood species for your cabinets are as follows:

  • Density – hardness of wood measured on the Janka Scale
  • Grain Uniformity – open grain vs closed grain 
  • Grain Patterns – straight vs wavy lines, flecks, rays, streaks, knots and pin holes 
  • Color Variations – white, yellow, brown and red hues (light vs dark)
Types of Wood Cabinets

Softer wood is easier to scratch and dent.  Closed grain is better for painting while open grain is great for staining.  Whether it is the timeless look of stained cherry, the natural charm of a clear varnished hickory, or the elegance of a lacquered maple, each wood species has its own unique characteristics.  For more of a contemporary style choose birch, walnut or maple.  If you want something more traditional, select cherry or oak.  For a rustic look choose alder, hickory or pine.  

What Type of Compound Materials Are Kitchen Cabinets Made Of?

Compound materials include acrylic, laminate, thermofoil and hard-wood veneer.  All of these compound materials either have a particle board, medium-density fiberboard (mdf) or plywood core.  Hard-wood veneers options include some of the solid wood options previously listed as well as bamboo.  In the case of bamboo, the shoots are glued side to side to make a vertical pattern and then shaved into veneer layers.

Laminate Cabinets

Laminate cabinets are made of thin layers of plastic resin and paper that are applied with heat and pressure.  The top layer is printed in various colors or wood grain designs.  When the core of a laminate cabinet is plywood instead of mdf it is considered HPL (high pressure laminate).

Acrylic Cabinets

Acrylic cabinets have a high gloss finish that is very reflective and are desired in high end kitchens.  They don’t delaminate and also don’t fade or stain.  However, they can scratch easily and tend to show fingerprints more easily.  It is possible to change color by repainting.  First, the surface must first be sanded with a 120 grit sand paper.  After wiping down the surface with denatured alcohol you must apply a coat of an acrylic urethane bonding primer before painting.  Extreme Bond Primer is a good option.

Thermofoil Cabinets

Thermofoil cabinets are made from a pvc film that is heated and pressed onto an mdf core.  They are available in high gloss colors or high gloss wood grains but are not as reflective as acrylic.  The backside of these cabinet doors don’t match the rest of the door and they have a separate melamine laminate.  

They are the least expensive type of cabinet and became popular throughout the 1990’s.  The problem with them is that they can chip easily and delaminate because they are not heat resistant.  It is possible to glue pieces that have chipped off or have delaminated.  If you want to change the color you can paint them by lightly sanding and applying a bonding primer before painting.  However, if sections of the thermofoil are missing, you are better off removing all the thermofoil and painting the mdf.  If the exposed mdf cabinet doors ever become scratched or chipped you will need to replace the entire door.

Wood Veneer Cabinets

Wood veneer cabinets have a thin layer of high-quality natural hardwood adhered to a lesser quality wood core of plywood or mdf.  They are more affordable than solid wood cabinets and are often marketed as the eco-friendly option.

Wood veneer appears more authentic than a wood grain designed acrylic or thermofoil cabinet. However, a wood veneer cabinet doesn’t have consistent grain patters and colors.  Also, if they delaminate it will be impossible to fix if you want to stain them.  If you are stripping a stained finish you must be careful not to sand too much to remove the thin veneer.  When painting over a stained finish it is necessary to scuff them up with 120 grit sand paper before priming with an oil based primer.

Kitchen Cabinet Hardware

Cabinet hardware includes hinges, latches, drawer rails, knobs and pulls (handles).  Hinges can be exposed or concealed.  Modern hinges add the ability of a soft close.  Soft closing hinges are not surface mounted, they are installed inside of a dado cut. If you want to convert your exposed hinges to concealed you will need to reface your cabinets.  

Traditional style for hardware call for knobs to be placed on doors and pulls to be placed on drawers.  Now it acceptable to have all pulls or all knobs or any combination.  Pulls can be placed on doors vertically or on a 45 degree angle (less common).  

One common question regarding painting cabinets that have exposed hinges is what color should they be.  The current trend for modern kitchens is to paint the cabinets white.  If you are updating the knobs or handles to something currently popular like brushed nickel, it is recommended that you just paint your existing hinges to match the cabinets.  For a more traditional or rustic style, you can match the hinges with the knobs and handles.  All hardware that will not be painted should be removed before painting.

Kitchen Cabinet Door Positions

Cabinet door installation options include full overlay, partial overlay and inset.  A full overlay involves installing a door that completely covers the cabinet frame with zero reveal.  A partial overlay is when a cabinet door only partially covers the cabinet frame with a partial reveal.   The inset installation includes the cabinet door installed flush into the face opening with a full reveal of the cabinet frame.

cabinet door positions

Kitchen Cabinet Door Designs

Cabinet doors consist of a base panel and can include features such as stiles, rails, and an edge profile.  Stiles are the vertical frames on each side of the door.  One variation includes a center stile which is also called a mullion.  Rails are the top and bottom frames.  Another variation includes a center rail.  Base panels can be flat, bead board or raised.  

cabinet door designs

A slab door is a flat panel with no stiles and no rails.  A shaker door is a flat panel with stiles and rails.  Arch style doors have a top rail that has an arch design.  They can include a flat or raised panel with or without an edge profile on the stiles and rails.  Cathedral style doors are similar to arch style doors with a more intricate arch design.  A provencial style door has small inverted arches at the corners of the top rail.  The arch, cathedral and provencial styles all can be made for both top and bottom rails as well. 

Beadboard style cabinets have a beadboard panel and can have a shaker, arch or cathedral style rails.  Craftsman style doors include center stiles and rails in different patterns.  Base panels can also be made of glass.  When painting cabinet doors with glass panels, you must mask all glass when spraying them.

Refinish vs Refacing vs Replacing Cabinets

The benefits of replacing existing cabinets with new cabinets is that you can redesign the layout and pick each design style and element that you want.  You have the option of picking from stock cabinets which can be RTA (ready to assemble) or fully assembled, semi-custom or custom-built cabinets.

If you are content with the design layout of your kitchen but don’t like the design style of your kitchen cabinet doors, then refacing may be your best option.  For example, for a more contemporary style kitchen you can install shaker style doors.  However, you may need to refinish the cabinets as well to update the color.

How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

Refinishing kitchen cabinets is the most affordable option to update the style of your kitchen. However, it is a multi-step process that must be done correctly in order to obtain a high quality result.  The very first step is to thoroughly clean the cabinet surface.  Even a modestly used kitchen will leave a grease residue film on your cabinets which must be removed.

prep your cabinets

Products that can be used to prep the surface for degreasing include a dish detergent like Dawn and trisodium phosphate TSP.  Once the grease has been removed and the surface has dried you should then begin to remove the cabinet doors and all hinges, knobs and pulls.

Next you should begin to identify any scratches and dents to fill with stainable wood filler.  If you will be updating to new hardware that has a different style you must also fill the old screw holes with wood filler.  The following steps will depend on what type of finish your cabinets currently have and what type of finish you will be applying to them.

Painting Kitchen Cabinets That Are Already Painted

Kitchen cabinets are typically painted with an oil-based paint, latex urethane enamel or a catalyzed pigmented lacquer.  Most kitchen cabinets have either a gloss or semi-gloss finish.  Before re-painting cabinets that are already painted you must de-gloss them or scuff them up with a light sanding.  Next, all dust must be removed by wiping down with a microfiber or tack rag.  You can also wipe them down with denatured alcohol to ensure that the surface is completely clean of all dust particles and debris.

Painting Kitchen Cabinets That Are Stained

When painting kitchen cabinets there are many things to first consider if they are stained wood or have a wood grain laminate covering.  Stained cabinets have a clear coat polyurethane varnish finish that can be satin, semi-gloss or gloss.  First, you must apply a de-glosser or create an abrasion on the enamel by using 220 to 320 grit aluminum oxide sand paper.  Next, all dust must be removed by wiping down with a microfiber or tack rag.  If the wood is oak, pine or walnut, you have the option of applying a grain filler, unless you want to see the grain through paint.  

For example, a rustic style would show the grain and a contemporary style would not.  If grain filler is used, you must lightly sand and wipe clean before applying a coat of oil-based primer or wax-free shellac.  If you choose to use a lacquer finish you must first apply a flat lacquer undercoat.  Now that the surface has been primed you should lightly sand and wipe down clean again before painting.  Both primer and paint or lacquer should be applied with an airless sprayer using a fine finish tip or an HVLP sprayer.

Staining Kitchen Cabinets That Are Painted

Cabinet doors that have been removed can be dipped into a ‘caustic soda’ to remove all stain and varnish.  The cabinet frame will need to be hand stripped with a product like SmartStrip™ Advanced Paint Remover.  After stripping all of the paint you should apply an oil-based stain in the color you have chosen. Next you will apply a coat of oil-based varnish followed by light sanding with 180 grit sand paper.  Next you will wipe down with a tack rag and repeat this process for 2 more additional coats of varnish.

How To Endure Everyday Wear and Tear of A Kitchen

The kitchen is the busiest room in your home and kitchen cabinets can take a lot of abuse.  The constant opening and closing of doors and drawers increases the chance of bumps and dings that can chip, scratch and dent the surface.  Regardless of whether or not you use your overhead exhaust fan, there will be a buildup of grease on your kitchen cabinets.

If you want to protect your cabinets and endure the everyday wear and tear then you must use a high quality paint or lacquer and seal the surface.  The qualities to look for in a paint are its ability to dry hard and self level.  A clear coat of varnish also keeps white cabinets stay cleaner.  Oil based paint is more resistant but white eventually turns yellow over time.  A good option is a latex urethane enamel because it is resistant and doesn’t turn yellow.

Can I DIY Paint Kitchen Cabinets or Should I Hire a Professional?

If you have read this blog to this point then you should have a good understanding of what is involved.  Depending on the type of material you cabinets are made of, you may want to consider painting them on your own.  For example, let’s say that your cabinets are thermofoil and have delaminated but you don’t have the budget to replace them.  In this scenario, you could remove the entire thermofoil laminate and paint the mdf yourself.  This could be an acceptable temporary solution until you budget for refacing them or choosing a complete kitchen remodel.

On the other hand, if you have a high quality cabinet system, you should desire a high quality finish.  Following the preparation details that have been listed is most important. Next, you must have the proper equipment such as an airless sprayer or HVLP sprayer to apply a high quality finish.  When you add up the cost of materials and equipment required and the time that is involved you may come to the conclusion that it is best to hire a professional.

If you are in need of a high quality painter to refinish your kitchen cabinets then consider contacting Swell Contractors for a free estimate.

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