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Kitchen Cabinets: Paint ‘em Yourself or Pay the Big Bucks?

Kitchen Cabinets: Paint ‘em Yourself or Pay the Big Bucks?

Thinking of painting your own kitchen cabinets? You can find dozens—hundreds even—of tutorials and tip lists to show you how. They’ll list out the supplies needed and show you the proper techniques for the best outcome. And many of them even get real about just how intensive and interminable the process can be.

Preparation is key when painting your cabinets, and the number of steps you’ll need to follow to achieve a quality finish can seem impossible. You’ll want to remove the doors, drawer fronts, and hardware. Fill in any holes and smooth out any gouges. Degrease, sand, vacuum, wipe, sand some more, vacuum some more, wipe some more. And maybe then you’ll finally be ready for priming—but not painting on the actual color, because that comes after priming.

Frankly, every step is important, and if you miss one, you could end up with a result you’re unhappy with, or a finish that doesn’t hold up. If you’re the type who isn’t likely to finish what you’ve started, perhaps you shouldn’t embark on this paint-your-own adventure. Your old, dated cabinets are still better than half-old-and-dated, half-done cabinets. But if you still want to go for it, at least be prepared for a few realities:

You’re never going to get a look as good as the professionals

You may come close, and you may fool your friends, but there’s a reason you pay professionals a couple to several thousand dollars for something verging on perfection.

Your arms will hate you

Which is not such a bad thing, really. You can skip a few “arm days” at the gym if you really put your effort into it.

You’ll never want to look at another piece of sandpaper again

Get ready for hand cramps. That’s how you know you’re doing it right. Sanding is critical to achieving the look you want and making sure the paint sticks.

“Sand all surfaces with the grain using 100-grit paper. To make sure no bits of dust mar the finish, vacuum the cabinets inside and out, then rub them down with a tack cloth to catch any debris that the vacuum misses,” said painting contractor John Dee on This Old House. “Hand sanding is the best technique on oak because you can push the paper into the open grain, which a power sander or sanding block will miss.”

The dust is NEVER-ENDING

Refer back to all that sanding. Seriously. This is not a job for any old vacuum. You can rent an industrial vacuum at Home Depot, and it’s a good idea to also have a smaller vacuum with crevice tools and more rags for wiping and cleanup than you ever imagined needing for anything.

You need a system for keeping track of every door, drawer, and piece of hardware

Sounds easy, but one mistake and you’re in a world of hurt. If you don’t label every single door and drawer correctly, they’ll get mixed up and they won’t fit correctly. While you’re at it, don’t forget to label your hinges and handles, too.

“I read a dozen blogs that said to label my hinges so that they would all go back in the same places,” said Cori George of Hey, Let’s Make Stuff. “But I figured all the hinges were the same, so why spend the time? Huge mistake. The hinges had worn in specific ways in the last two decades and a half, so that after they were painted and I was putting the bathroom back together, none of the hinges worked quite right. I ended up sort of forcing everything into place, and while the doors work, they don’t work as well as they would have if I’d labeled them.”

There will be smudges. And maybe even an errant hair.

Yeah, it happens. Just remember to breathe as you’re redoing the same cabinet door for the fourth time.

The fumes are horrible

Speaking of breathing…it won’t be easy, depending on what kind of product you use.

When someone else is doing your cabinets, you can escape the fumes by gathering the family in a different part of the house for the couple of days of painting, or, even better, check into a hotel and take a little staycation. The DIY version means you’re all up in those fumes for however long it takes to get your cabinets done, which is likely longer than what the pros can accomplish. The degreaser you’ll likely need to use to get your cabinets cleaned up before applying any primer or paint is stinky, and certain kinds of paint are no better.

“In truth, oil primer and paint adhere the best and give the longest-lasting results on cabinets, but because of VOCs, oil is outlawed in many states,” said Albert Ridge of Ridge Painting in NYC on Remodelista. “A good alternative is water-soluble waterborne paint, such as Benjamin Moore’s Advance, which is something like a latex-oil combo. But note that it dries quickly, so it’s wise to add an extender that allows you to the time to get a nice finish without brush marks. And if you’re painting something plasticky or otherwise hard to paint, Stix is a good primer to know about.”

The good tools are a worthwhile splurge

Professional painters typically want to spray cabinets because the finish comes out so smooth, although some do prefer the control a brush can bring. No matter which option you go with, you want the best tools you can afford. Paint Sprayer magazine tested a number of options, and the top-ranked sprayer is only $129—a small price to pay for a smooth finish. You do want to make sure you practice ahead of time if you’re going this route. Poor spraying technique could result in an uneven finish or lots of drips.