Painting Wood Cabinets White: 13 How to Tricks & Tips

Painting anything in your home can be tricky if you’re inexperienced at the job, but painting cabinets white poses a unique set of problems. Cabinets are often quite prominently displayed in a home, so it’s imperative to make sure they look professionally painted and near perfect.

Remove all cabinet doors and drawers and clean them thoroughly. Sand the cabinet doors to remove any imperfections and visible wood grain before adding a primer coat. Once the primer is dry, apply the white paint of choice to your cabinets, sanding any brush strokes or bumps between coats as needed.

While you can undoubtedly dive right into the project and begin painting, there are quite a few things to consider and plan if you want to do things correctly. White paint does not provide vibrant color to distract the eye from any imperfections in your paint job. However, you can achieve a beautiful cabinet paint job by following a few simple steps, planning things out, and applying a few tips.

A Step-By-Step Guide to Painting Wood Cabinets White

There are many great methods for painting cabinets, all with slight variations between steps. But in most situations, the overall job is essentially the same. Below we’ll outline a simple method to get a beautiful white finish on your cabinets that will last a long time.

1. Disassemble

Before painting any cabinets in your home, the first thing to do is to remove all doors and drawers. Make sure you take pictures of the space before removing anything to have a reference when reassembling your cabinets. 

Cabinet fronts often fit perfectly into the cabinet, so it’s important to label everything so you can put it back in its correct spot. Otherwise, you might end up with cabinets that don’t quite fit back together correctly, which can ruin the look of your kitchen and cause a lot of headaches. Remove and label all cabinet hardware as well. 

During the disassembly phase, it’s essential to be highly organized and have enough space to lay out all the removed doors and drawers. Take more pictures than you think you might need and label everything possible. It can save a lot of time and confusion later, trust me.

2. Thoroughly Clean

The next step is to clean every possible cabinet surface thoroughly, whether you removed it or not during the first step. Even if your cabinets look clean, it’s essential to remove all grime, dust, and oil splatter that can be nearly invisible to the naked eye.

You can use various cleaning products to ensure your cabinets are clean, but soap and water can get the job done perfectly in most cases. You can also scrub your cabinets with mineral spirits to get any tricky dirt spots. Scrub everything down and then wipe it off with a dry rag to eliminate any soap or liquid residue.

Scrape off any remaining gunk or pads on the back of cabinet doors that help them close softly. Once you’ve finished cleaning your cabinets, every surface should be immaculate and ready to prepare for painting.

3. Sand if Necessary

Once your cabinets are immaculate, you’ll want to sand them to create a smooth adhesion surface for the paint. Many people skip this crucial step of the process, but sanding is imperative to create a surface that the paint can adhere to without peeling or flaking off.

It’s essential to sand enough to prepare the surface but not enough to overdo it. Wood cabinets come in many different types and have varying wood grain levels. With that in mind, how much you should sand cabinets depends on wood grain visibility, the finished look you’re going for, how many coats of paint are on the cabinets, and many other factors.

To help remove deep, visible wood grain on cabinets, you can cover the surface with a light layer of wood spackle. Fill in any scratches or dents with wood spackle or caulk. The spackle gets into the tiny ridges and divots in the wood to create a much smoother surface once you sand over the area.

4. Apply Primer

Now that your cabinets are disassembled, cleaned, and sanded, it’s time to apply a primer to the surfaces you intend to paint. Many great primers are available for cabinets, but acrylic-based primers are great because they have low VOC levels and provide a smooth, rich finish.

In most situations, you should use primer on your cabinets as it serves various valuable purposes. Primer helps to block stains, hides surface imperfections, and creates better paint adhesion. Many natural kinds of wood, especially darker woods, have tannins that can seep toward the material’s surface and create unsightly dark spots. A layer of primer can help to prevent these dark spots from forming.

When priming cabinet fronts and drawers, it’s best to start on the backside. Once the backsides are primed and dried, flip them over to carefully prime the fronts. After everything is primed, dried, and cured, you should lightly sand every surface again. Sanding your primed cabinets will eliminate any brush strokes or remaining imperfections that the paint layer will make even more visible.

5. Apply Paint

At this point, you should have entirely clean, smooth, and primed cabinets waiting for paint. Before applying the first paint coat, use a vacuum with a bristle attachment to do a final cleaning of your cabinets to remove any last dirt or wood dust from sanding.

While you can use a paint sprayer on cabinets to get a professional finish, you can achieve a similarly beautiful result using brushes and rollers. Use a microfiber roller to carefully apply paint to the cabinet’s large surface areas and a brush to do fine edge work.

For most cabinets, it’s best to do at least two paint coats. Remember to paint the backs of the drawers and doors first and then move onto the front and sides to avoid ugly drips along the edges. Apply the first coat of paint, make sure it dries, wipe down the surface again, then apply the second paint layer.

No matter how many coats you decide on, you can sand the surface using super fine sandpaper before applying the last paint layer to achieve an extra smooth finish. It’ll add a little more time to the project, but the smooth result is well worth it. In most cases, quality cabinet paint dries hard with a durable finish. However, some may require a protective coating, so make sure to look into your specific product.

6. Reassemble

The exact times vary depending on the paint used, but most cabinet paints dry reasonably quickly, within 4 to 8 hours. Once everything is dry, you can start to reassemble everything and reattach cabinet hardware.

If you did the first step of this project correctly and disassembled everything carefully, reassembling your cabinets should be a complete breeze. Simply reattach everything where you labeled it to go, using before photos as a reference when needed. However, if you rushed and skipped that first step, you’ll likely have difficulty getting things in their correct places and working correctly.

Once you’ve finished reassembling your cabinets, it’s essential to be very careful using them until the paint has fully cured. Depending on the type of paint you used, the curing process could take up to 60 days.

Best Tips and Tricks for Painting Cabinets White

The process of painting cabinets white is relatively straightforward as long as you follow the necessary prep work steps to ensure an excellent finished result. But like most things, there are many pitfalls and tiny nuances that can easily trip you up along the way.

Below are a few crucial tips and tricks that you can use when painting cabinets in your home white to make the process easier and quicker.

  1. Photograph and Label Everything – One of the easiest things to skip but crucial to your success is labeling and photographing your cabinets before you disassemble them to paint. Most cabinet fronts fit precisely to a single cabinet box, so it’s essential to match them again to ensure a seamless fit.
  1. Remove Cabinet Hardware – Some homeowners try to leave their cabinet hardware on when painting to save time and effort. To properly clean, sand, prep, and paint your cabinets, you must remove all hardware. Remember to label any removed hardware to know where to reattach it once you’ve finished painting.
  1. Take Your Time Doing Prep Work – Prep work is essential to paint your cabinets successfully. White paint accentuates painting and surface imperfections, so prep work is vital to help remedy these before painting. Additionally, proper preparation helps paint adhesion and can make your cabinet’s paint last much longer without flaking or peeling.
  1. Use Spackle to Remove Wood Grain – Deep, visible wood grain absorbs more paint than other areas of your cabinets and can create unsightly dark spots. You can apply a light layer of wood spackle to the fronts of your cabinets before sanding to help fill in areas with visible wood grain. The spackle fills in the tiny cracks and divots in the wood, creating a more cohesive and smooth finish.
  1. Clean More Often Than You Think – Cleaning all oil splatter, dirt, dust, and grime from your cabinets before painting is essential to creating a beautiful finished product. In addition to a deep clean at the beginning of the project, it’s always good to wipe down your cabinet surface every time you sand, paint, or apply primer. 
  1. Always Sand Your Cabinets – To save time, many homeowners try to skip sanding their cabinets when they decide to paint. While you can skip this step in a select few situations, sanding the fronts of your cabinets ensures the surface isn’t too slick or uneven for the paint to adhere. Sanding before painting makes your cabinets look better and can make your paint last much longer without peeling or flaking.
  1. Generously Apply Primer – There are selection situations where a primer coat is unnecessary when painting cabinets, but it’s an essential step most of the time. Primer creates a cohesive surface for paint application, improves adhesion, helps prevent wood tannin dark spots, and can help fight against unwanted stains.
  1. Choose the Best Paint Base Type – Oil-based and water-based are the two primary paint base categories that you’ll commonly see. While oil-based paints produce a very rich and desirable finish, their high Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions make them unideal for painting indoor cabinets in most situations. It’s typically best to go with low-VOC water-based paint, such as acrylic or latex.
  1. Select an Appropriate Paint Finish – Generally, the five primary paint finishes to choose from include matte, eggshell, satin, semi-gloss, and high-gloss. You’ll typically want to use a higher gloss paint finish for cabinets, which allows for easier cleaning and better resistance to moisture, oil splatter, and temperature changes. Satin and semi-gloss paints are popular for use on cabinets.
  1. Avoid Using Foam Rollers – Foam rollers are extremely popular for household painting, but they are often not the best option for cabinets as they tend to spread paint quite unevenly. When painting cabinets, smooth and even application is incredibly important, so microfiber rollers are better suited for the job. 
  1. Apply Thin Coats of Paint – When painting cabinets, it’s much better to do multiple thin layers of paint instead of fewer thick paint coats. Thin coats of paint allow you to better control the surface finish and sand over any imperfections between layers. There’s less drip, it’s more manageable, and overall you’ll be much happier with the final result.
  1. Do Not Clean Newly Painted Cabinets – Most paint dries relatively quickly, but it takes longer to cure. Depending on the type of paint you use, it could take anywhere from two weeks to two months to cure, and it’s essential to avoid cleaning your newly painted cabinets until that time is up. Cleaning your cabinets they have cured could result in streaks, peeling, or flaking that could ruin your beautiful paint job.
  1. Add Cabinet Felt Pads – Adding felt pads, sometimes called feet, to the inside of your cabinet doors can help prolong the lifespan of your paint job and make using your cabinets much more enjoyable. The felt stops the doors from scratching the paint when closing and creates a much quieter shut. It’s important to use felt instead of rubber pads as the rubber can easily peel your fresh paint.
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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
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