By LISA HENSLEY
When we moved into our house last year, we knew we’d be updating the kitchen.
The appliances were fine, but the cabinets were our very least favorite kind–contractor-grade oak cabinets that were at least 20 years old.
After tossing some ideas around, we decided that our tax-return-funded project list was too long to cover the cost of new cabinets. And since I had become obsessed with white kitchens over the winter, we had only one option: Painting the oak cabinets.
After unsuccessfully looking for someone who was willing to do the job for us, I decided to tackle it myself. It’s the biggest re-use project I’ve ever done, and it took a looooooooong time.
But it’s finally done! (Unless you count the miscellaneous touch-ups to be finished, which I totally don’t.) The doors are back on their hinges, the drawers are in place, and the paint sprayer is taking a well-deserved rest.
Here is a VERY ABBREVIATED run-down of what I did and why and how I got from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’.
- The biggest challenge with oak cabinets is the grain. Not only do you have lots of dips in the wood, but the darker parts of the grain tend to soak up paint. After doing a lot of research, I settled on using Aqua Coat clear grain filler. It doesn’t actually fill the grain, but seals it so the paint goes on more smoothly. YOU WILL STILL SEE GRAIN LINES IN YOUR PAINTED PIECE. But they will be textural, not light/dark.
- The second biggest challenge for us was a desire not to see brush marks. I don’t mind them, but it was a deal-breaker for the hubby. So I bought an HVLP paint sprayer at Lowe’s for about $120. It was well worth the money. It’s a little tricky to use, and the finish can have almost a powdery texture to it, but it was so much faster than using a brush! Plus each coat was much more even than I would have been able to get it by hand.
- If you use a sprayer, make sure you use only paints and primers that specifically say you can spray them. Don’t bother getting super-thick, one-coat coverage paint. You have to thin your paint significantly for it to work properly in a sprayer – no point paying extra for thick paint. You’ll just have to add more water.
- My dad has a favorite phrase: Proper Prior Preparation. It is KEY in a project like this. Your first prep step is to scrub down your cabinets and faces with TSP substitute. Get all that grease and gunk COMPLETELY OFF or it will soak right through your paint. Ick.
- Learn to love sandpaper. I used two coats of sealer, two coats of primer, two coats of paint, and two coats of clear poly sealer. I had to sand between every coat. Every. Single. Coat. (OK, sometimes I cheated and skipped sanding between primer coats.) I used 180 grit to sand after scrubbing, then 220 on every sanding thereafter.
- Designate a work space. Outside in the back yard will NOT work. Especially if it’s the heavy pollen and/or rainy season (unless you want that stuff in your paint). I put up this paint cabinet area in our garage to keep the spray contained, and our spare bathroom was my paint mixing and drying area. I also applied the grain sealer inside, since it is a semi-solid gel and water-based.
- Protect your work. I applied two coats of clear Polycrylic sealer to the fronts. (I cheated and only did one on the backs. I was tired.) The container recommends three coats, which I think I did on the bottom cabinet doors. After brushing most of the bottom doors, and cursing the amount of lint that came from my brushes, I switched to spray-can Poly. Not did it solve the lint problem, it went sooooooo much faster! However, if you go the spray route, be sure to use a respirator or you won’t have a brain cell left in your head.
- Take your time. This IS NOT a weekend project. It took me almost two months to complete. Granted, I spent more time than I should have on test doors to make sure I knew what I was doing and what I wanted. And I didn’t work all day, every day. I just couldn’t…life and springtime gardening intervened. But I think breaking it up into small chunks really worked in my favor. I wasn’t rushing to add coats or sand over paint that wasn’t quite dry. On the doors, I did one side at a time, so I could lay them flat and allow the paint to level out as much as possible. The HVLP sprayer blows a lot of air that tends to dry the paint more quickly, so sometimes I really laid it on thick so it would stay wet long enough to level out.
In the end, we saved literally thousands of dollars by painting the cabinets instead of replacing them. The cost for paint, sprayer, and new hinges and knobs totaled less than $500.
Inspired to try it yourself? Or maybe you have stories of your own update you want to swap? I’d love to hear about it, or answer any questions you have!
Visit Lisa Hensley’s Reuse It archive.
Lisa Hensley is a mostly-native Montanan, living in Missoula with her husband, two young boys, and various pets. She spent more than 10 years in the marketing and creative field, but is now Director of Household Operations for the Hensley group. When she’s not herding kids or doing laundry, she’s shooting photos, gardening, baking, reading, or taking classes—sometimes all at once. She also volunteers for Home ReSource, which fits in nicely with her tendency to repurpose pretty much anything.