How to Paint Unfinished Cabinets in 9 Easy Steps

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Painting unfinished kitchen cabinets does require a little elbow grease, but it's by no means a difficult job. You might have unfinished wood  kitchen cabinets because you made the cabinets yourself, or perhaps you picked them up for cheap because they hadn't been painted or treated by the place that sold them.

Either way, painting cabinet doors is pretty straightforward just like fastest way to paint. Prep, prime, and paint! Thankfully it's not as time consuming as choosing popular cabinet hardware.

Here I show you how you can paint unfinished cabinets in 9 easy steps. 

By the end of this Kitchen Infinity guide, you'll have a smooth, primed, finished kitchen cabinet with a durable polyurethane layer to make sure that the paint stays protected for many years to come.

Let's get to it!

Things You'll Need

In order to start painting cabinets, here are the things you'll want:

  • Basic toolbox
  • 220 and 150-grit sandpaper
  • Wood putty
  • Putty knife
  • Paint brush
  • Paint roller
  • Painting Primer (Water-based or Oil Based primer)
  • Paint (latex-based or oil-based, usually)
  • Polyurethane
  • Cloths/sponges and cleaner (for painting accidents)

This should be everything you'll want to paint kitchen cabinet doors (that are unfinished) with ease!


9 Steps to Paint Kitchen Cabinets


1. Remove any door handles and fittings from the cabinets

Before painting cabinets, remove any hardware and fittings such as door handles and hinges. If you've made the cabinet yourself, you won't need to do this, but if you got the cabinet pre-made for cheap, you may need to do this.

2. Get sanding those cabinets!

Before applying anything, it's crucial to sand cabinets with sandpaper. I used 150-grit sandpaper for this personally. The aim is to smooth out any splinters, roughness, and sharp edges on the unfinished wood cabinets.

There is also a tactic of staining cabinets without sanding them!

The sanding also helps to create additional pores and grooves in the surface of the wood, making it easier for paint and primer to sit in when it comes time to paint cabinet doors. Make sure to sand thoroughly and reach every point on the side panels, drawer fronts, face frame, cabinet surface,corners of cabinet boxes and cabinet frames.

sanding unfinished cabinets
Young House Love

3. Use wood putty for holes and imperfections

If your unfinished cabinets have any holes or imperfections in the surface of the wood, use a wood putty (sometimes called “wood filler” or similar) to fill these holes in.

It's usually a pretty simple process – squeeze the putty into the hole and then use a knife used for putty to smooth the surface over again. Leave the putty to dry for however long the instructions on the packaging specify.

It's not usually very long!

If you've got holes from old door handles in the drawer fronts and you'd like to fill them in so you can put holes elsewhere on the doors, then wood putty is great for filling these man-made holes too.

4. Apply the first coat of primer

Add your first coat of wood primer with a paintbrush, roller, or combination of the two. Many people find it helpful to use rollers for large sections of wood and paintbrushes for smaller crevices, recesses, edges, and hard-to-reach areas.

Also, try to apply your primer in the direction of the grain of the wood.

Once your primer is applied, leave it to dry for at least 1 hour. Check the instructions on your primer bottle, but 1 hour is usually enough drying time.

Once it's dry, lightly sand the unfinished cabinet door with 220-grit sandpaper. This will help to even out the primer and any grains of wood it has raised.

applying primer on cabinet
Image credit: Kitchen Infinity Photo

5. Apply a second coat of primer

Now use the same process to apply the second coat of primer, making sure that you prime the unfinished cabinets thoroughly and evenly.

Once again, leave the primer to dry for the hours specified (at least 1 hour) and lightly sand when it's all dry.

6. Apply the first coat of paint

Okay, now we finally get to paint our unfinished kitchen cabinets!

Start to apply your first lot of paint with a foam roller, paintbrush, or combination of the two. Some people also opt for paint sprayer but let's leave that to professionals since paint sprayers are hard to handle and you might up with a blotched cabinet. As with the primer, you want to follow the grain of the wood as evenly as possible, keeping the paint smooth and evenly applied.

Watch out! You don't want any brush marks and have a nasty looking paint finish!

Latex-based paints tend to be the easiest to work with because they're easy to clean and they dry very quickly, so that's what I would personally recommend. However, some people also like oil-based paints because they're very durable. Just be warned that oil-based paints are hard to clean off surfaces and they take significantly longer to dry.

I would recommend you use either semi-gloss finish or satin finish when you paint cabinets to get that smooth finish. This is because high gloss will easily show wear and tear (there's a lot of everyday damage in kitchens) and a flat finish will easily show dirt and it just doesn't look very appealing. If you'd like to learn more about 4 different paint finishes for kitchen cabinets check out the blog link.

Once your first coat is on, leave it to dry according to the instructions on the bottle.

The whole Latex-based painting process usually need 4 hours before you can apply more paint. Oil-based paints normally need 24 hours before you can apply more paint. Just because it looks dry doesn't mean that you can skip the drying time – it won't be as dry as it appears to the naked eye!

Painters kitchen cabinets

7. Sand and apply the second coat of paint

Once your first coat is dry, lightly sand the unfinished kitchen cabinets with.

Next, re-apply and paint cabinets again with another generous coating of paint. Once again, leave the paint to dry for however long is specified.

When this second coat of paint is dry, give the cabinets another light sanding with the 220-grit.

8. Apply polyurethane for extra protection

When we are painting kitchen cabinets, we want to treat the paint so that it stays durable for as long as possible. After all, kitchens are disaster zones where scuffs, moisture, spills, and other forms of damage are just waiting to happen, so it's crucial to protect the painted wood.

Ensure the type of polyurethane you buy is suitable for the paint you've used.

Apply the polyurethane with a brush or roller, sweeping with the grain to make the finish as smooth and seamless as possible. Leave it to dry for however long the packaging specifies.

9. Reattach all the hardware and fittings

Once your painted kitchen cabinets are finally dry and everything has been applied, it's time to reattach (or attach) all your hardware such as door handles and hinges. Screw holes and make sure to neatly attach the handles to the drawer fronts an cabinets, otherwise it's going to kill the whole look!

If you haven't done this before, you'll need to read another guide or tutorial about installing them!

blue undone cabinets
“Feeling the Blue” kitchen completed by Kitchen Infinity

The Bottom Line

You might assume that it's difficult to paint your kitchen cabinets, but as we've seen, it's actually a pretty simple process. Like with most painting jobs, just be careful to protect your surfaces and cover/masking tape any pieces of furniture or cabinetry that you don't want to be painted.We also recommend checking out  paint finish for kitchen cabinets if you prefer a high end material.

Better safe than sorry!

Hopefully these 9 steps have shown you that anyone can paint kitchen cabinets themselves at home, so why not give it a try? Whatever type of doors and finish you're going for, it's never been easier to improve your home's resale value and painting kitchen cabinets yourself!

Dino Paccino

Dino Paccino

Dino is a lifelong writer and home improvement specialist. He enjoys bringing cutting-edge information on home renovation and remodeling to Kitchen Infinity.

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