Painting kitchen cabinets

22 Replies

I just found you guys, what a great community!

I've been running a successful cabinet painting business in Raleigh, NC for the past 5 years or so and have seen varied advice and suggestions about how, when and when not to paint kitchen or even bathroom cabinets. I'd like to add my 2 cents in here and see what everyone else thinks as well.

I've done work in inexpensive homes and very-expensive homes, and sometimes I wonder what the person who picked the cabinets was thinking! Especially in homes built between 1990 - 2010 there was apparently a bunch of designers who thought they should spec out dark wood floors and dark wood cabinets. The problems with that are 1. It makes a kitchen feel dark and heavy unless it's flooded with light. 2. There is no defining line between the cabinets and the floor and it can look muddled.

I would say 95% of the cabinets we paint are dark-ish and the homeowner wants them to be some shade of white. We're usually in the $2K to $3K range for medium to medium-large kitchens and we're in and out in 7 days. All we've ever used is water-based products, the lower the voc rating the better. We spray the doors and drawer fronts at our shop, and our crew of talented ladies paints the face frames by hand. That means the homeowner never loses the use of the kitchen! They like that.

I'd love to hear what you think of when you hear someone say "painted cabinets", what your feeling is on the ROI of painted cabinets and if you've ever done it, recommended it or warned against it (and why).


In our lower end flips we'll often paint our cabinets if they are still in good condition.  I.e., drawer fronts are still good condition.  We typically spend about $4k for cabinets plus installation costs if we replace them.  If our repair and painting costs come close to 50% of buying new ones, we'll typically just replace them rather than paint them.

I've seen quite a few but none of them impressed me. I would like to see pics of what you've done esp the high end.

The worst example I saw was on a HGTV show where the young woman took over her grandmothers home & painted all the old white appliances Rustoleum 'stainless' steel to get the 'new look'. The cabinet painting was just as bad.

I've not been a fan of painted cabs, especially white as it usually yellows. I put white thermofoil cabs in my own bath with poor light, and the carcasses are badly yellowed a decade later.  That said, I painted a kitchen with old but custom built-ins, same as you, sprayed doors in my shop and brushed the faces. I used white BM Advance waterborne alkyd for it's superior wetting out.

I think most tenants in my area paying ~$1500 are comfortable with light to mid wood cabs and are not looking for the latest trend. I think some things are timeless, not cliches. I also do white subway tile baths with pinwheel floors. Old fashioned, that's me.

Painted cabinets will only turn yellow if oil based paint is used. And not a lot of cabinet painters these days are still using oil based paints thankfully. Mostly since the advances in water based paints gives you the same leveling, durability and adhesion without any of the fumes, toxins or horrible cleanup.

With that being said, the paint I use (currently using McCormick Interlock) can last indefinitely if treated right. If someone's a slob and they're constantly banging into things of course it won't last. But if you're in the habit of wiping food off, and using your handles to open the doors, it can last forever. And the beauty of painted cabinets (unlike stained cabinets) is that if someone does bang it up, it's fixable.  Stained cabinets would require refinishing.

@Kristen Buckley I had a look at some of your work, those cabinets are stunning! Thank for your informative post. My husband and I are looking at painting our kitchen and bathroom cabinets white, they are currently a golden oak color. My only concern is that we will be renting the property out when we move later this year, what are you thoughts on painted cabinets for rentals? 

@Jessica Franco I think that would depend what price bracket your rental is in.  In my experience, the lower cost rentals tend to take a bit more abuse than the higher end homes.  With that being said, having more attractive cabinets (and home in general) will definitely help to attract better renters.  If you get a renter that tends to beat things up, they'll probably do that to unpainted cabinets as well.  And at least with painted cabinets any damage is fixable.  

@Kristen Buckley Thank you for your response, I totally agree with you. I'll upload a picture of our current cabinets. We've looked at other rentals in our area, it looks like a few of them have better looking kitchens. We will be listing it for rent later this year and want to justify the rent price with an upgraded kitchen, without spending an arm and a leg of course. 

@Kristen Buckley Those cabinets are stunning! I wish you were in my area! Cabinets "matching" the floor is one on my pet peeves. (Really I hate wood-toned cabinets with wood floors) Do you have any pics of the cheapest cabinets you have painted? We run into a lot of 80's and 90's oak and melamine buying rentals. We're usually glad if we don't have to replace all the hinges too.  We've been having good luck with that rustoleum cabinet transformations Don't know how long it will hold up long term but we're up to 4 years on the oldest. What do you think about that kit? Do you think paint is a better option even for a novice?

@Jessica Franco My suggestion, to boost the look of that kitchen, would be to 

(1) paint the cabinets, 

(2) add some inexpensive pulls. Maybe something like these: They come in lots of colors so think about doing matte black or even brushed gold, which are both really popular right now.

(3) install some shiplap as a backsplash. If you rip the boards yourself, you can just get 1/4" ply and it's a really cheap upgrade.

(4) Get some Ikea butcherblock counters (like this: ).  Just add some polyurethane for added protection.  Yes, wood counters can be damaged by hot pans etc, but so can laminate, which is what you currently have.  And these counters are so cheap that you can rip them out in a few years if you're ready for an upgrade.

(5) If you're handy, I'd rip down the bar height counters. Those are going out of style cuz no one uses them for anything but junk these days. They're a catch-all space.  If you lower the height to counter height, you've instantly doubled your countertop surface and made it much more usable.

@Jill F. We paint 80s and 90s cabinets all the time. Especially the builder-grade oak cabinets. They definitely take a bit more prep, to seal the oak, but they can still be beautiful in the end.  When you say melamine, do you mean the melamine cabinets with the oak pull/edge?  Or do you mean thermofoil cabinets?  We've actually done both.  I've had excellent luck painting both.  One thing to note is that i always add handles when I'm painting cabinets.  i find that the less the customers actually have to touch the painted surfaces the less chance they'll have of banging them up accidentally.  Less dirty/greasy finger prints too!

@Kristen Buckley

Your work looks great!

There are many budget conscience investors like myself who have DIY cabinet painting that have turned out really well.

For me 2k-3k is better spent on a major systems roof, plumbing, electrical because those are big capex items down the road. 

Just my opinion.

@Kristen Buckley You are awesome! Thank you for the info :D 

Definitely going to be painting the cabinets and adding hardware. We were thinking of getting rid of the bar countertop but there are some outlets on the other side that we would need to get an electrician to move (I don't trust myself with electrical work) Funny, my uncle and brother are electrical engineers but they live in South Africa so no chance of them helping out. 

I also like the idea of the butcherblock counters but I heard that they require some upkeep, would love them in my own home but not sure about a rental. I was thinking maybe solid surface, granite or quartz at a somewhat decent price 

@Kristen Buckley Those cabinets look great! I don't typically have a good gut reaction when I hear someone say "painted cabinets," because I don't often see such a quality job when people decide to paint them. However, I definitely prefer painted over stained when it comes to repairing damage to cabinets. I'd much rather be able to paint over damage than have to refinish. The neighborhood and the price bracket of the unit are a big determining factor for me on choosing whether or not to paint cabinets as well. 

I have painted cabs on a couple of flips that were otherwise going over budget on some other part of the house. It has not really seemed to affect resale ( or ability to find tenants) but came in at a big savings considering new cabs would also typically involve new counters, sink and related plumbing. Painting and getting rid of gold pulls that used to be popular goes a long way. Also amazed how many kitchens I see with no pulls at all. Just looks incomplete.

Unfortunately, the majority of my properties had cabinets that were beyond saving or originally arranged by a complete putz. I remember a small hand full of houses that had brand new kitchens and my wife and I agreed we would still have to tear it all out and remodel because the design so absolutely awful. Didnt buy any of them though because they wanted "new kitchen" money for the house.

I guess just because you know how to hang a cabinet, doesn't mean you know where to place all the appliances and fixtures.

@Kristen Buckley

I’ve done it a few times with old but well built ones. Just did a set last month: I’ve switched to INSL-X cabinet coat for product. I use It for all doors trim and cabinets now. Amazingly user friendly product. Forgiving. I’ve been using Titan HEA tips for a while now and this last time I just shot them with a 311 and it went fairly well.

@Kristen Buckley

I think painting the cabinets is a great way to instantly renew an old kitchen. I've done it using the same method, spraying drawer and doors and brushing/rolling the frames, and its turned out great. Well worth it. And cheap (couple hundred) as opposed to a few thousand to replace the cabinets. Of course this is only of the cabs are in good shape. I personally don't think I would pay for this service at this stage, but I would definitely recommend it if it meant saving thousands of dollars with a very similar end result. As @Damaso Bautista said, that money can be better spent elsewhere.

@Kristen Buckley Oil based isn't the only paint that will yellow. Water base will yellow as well, and it's tied to some of the same reasons oil will yellow. Mostly moisture control and bad prep - sometimes on materials they used (low VOC is more likely to have issues). Not all oil based paints will yellow though, it depends on the oil base they use. Veggie oil bases are more likely to yellow, usually cheaper paints. You're probably not seeing yellowing with water based because you're in controlled environments and you're using good paint. If you're painting in your shop, and it's not climate controlled, the primer needs to have some extra time to dry out during especially humid times. Thick coats also exacerbate the problem. But like you've said, you have experienced this, and you've been doing it for a while.

I've painted a number of wood cabinets, the cost savings is pretty good in larger kitchens, less in smaller ones. I usually do an oil primer and then water base color on top, this helps with wear. Wear around heavy traffic pieces is the main issue I've had (around pulls or doors that get used a lot); high gloss and good paints help but I still have to repaint the color every four-five years. It's hard to match color after that length of time, as the UV has changed the tint slightly. I also spray and only brush when I have to. Helps with wear, somewhat faster, and looks better IMO.

EDIT: Forgot to add, another good reason to paint is it makes it easy to change pull formats. Remove the old pulls, fill with wood putty, drill new ones. THAT can make a huge difference, makes $2k cabinets look like $4k cabinets.

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