how to paint cabinets | prep

by | Sep 13, 2017 | All Things Home, home improvement, Painting & Refinishing, Tutorials | 35 comments

I have been sharing some snippets here and there of the process of painting my built-ins and kitchen cabinets on my Instagram Stories and I’ve been getting tons of questions about the process and products I’m using, so now I’m sharing the details on how to paint cabinets here on the blog.

how to paint cabinets | prep work | miss mustard seed

First off, I know painting cabinets is intimidating and understandably so!  They are a fixture in your home and costly to replace if you “mess them up”.  It is also a big project that causes upheaval in what is arguably the most used room in the house.

Here are my tips on painting cabinets, starting with the prep work.  You’ll want to follow these steps if your cabinets have a poly or painted finish and no matter which kind of paint you’re using.

how to paint cabinets | work in sections

In my last two kitchens, I painted all of the cabinets at the same time and it was overwhelming.  There were so many doors and it seemed to take forever.  All the while, the kitchen was ripped apart.

In this kitchen, I am painting the cabinets in four sections – the uppers, the lowers, the cabinets around the fridge, and the island.

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

This way, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel as sections are being finished and put back together again.  It also gives you a chance to fix mistakes or perfect your technique and do a better job on the next set of cabinets.

Small victories are motivating!

how to paint cabinets | remove the doors

Believe it or not, I didn’t do this when I painted the cabinets in our first townhouse.  I just painted them where they hung and it all turned out okay, but there are so many benefits to removing the doors and drawer fronts.

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

First of all, the doors can be painted with a sprayer, if you have one.  If you don’t, at least the doors can be laid flat, which will help the paint level and minimize drips.  It also gives you better access to paint the cabinet frames.

When you do remove the doors, leave the hinges on the cabinets.  Those have been adjusted, so the doors will sit level.  If you remove the screws that go into the cabinet, they’ll have to be readjusted, which is a pain!

how to paint cabinets | clean the cabinets

This part isn’t glamorous or fun, but it is totally necessary.  In every kitchen, even the nicest, neatest, tidiest kitchen, there is airborne grease from cooking that sticks to the cabinets.  And then, more often than not, dust sticks to the grease in places you don’t see or can’t reach to wipe down regularly.

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

So, the cabinets need to be cleaned thoroughly with a degreasing soap.  TSP is a popular choice and there are many TSP alternatives, like KrudKutter.  I used KrudKutter on my last cabinets, but I forgot to pick some up before I started painting this time, so I actually used the SOS Scour Pads I had on hand!

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

No matter what you use, the key is to give them a good scrub until they feel clean when you rub your hand across the surface.  The cabinets should also be dry prior to moving on to the next step.

how to paint cabinets | sand the surface

This step isn’t about stripping the finish off the cabinets, but it’s about roughing up the surface to allow the primer to get a better grip on the slick surface.

I didn’t take a picture of this step, but I used 80 grit sandpaper attached to an orbital palm sander.  This is the one I use

how to paint cabinets | miss mustard seed

This is another benefit to removing the doors.  You can keep the dust outside!  For the cabinets themselves, lightly sand them by hand to minimize the dust.

I just hit the flat surfaces with the palm sander and stay away from the crevices and details.  I’ll then take a piece of 80 grit and sand those details by hand…just run the paper over it quickly to get the bulk of the cabinet sanded.  You don’t have to hit every nook and cranny.  If you use a quality primer, the paint is going to adhere just fine.

Wipe off the dust with a damp paper towel, microfiber cloth, or tack cloth.

Again, use your hands to feel the cabinets and doors.  They can tell you a lot more than your eyes can!  If you still feel dust, dirt, stuck-on food, grease, etc, you need to revisit those places before priming.

The prepping process can take a while, so you may want to plan to do the prep one day and start the priming/painting the next.

Now, your cabinets and doors are ready for primer and/or paint!

You can find the second post on how to paint cabinets (priming is the next step) HERE.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  If you want to know what those are, click HERE.


  1. Dale

    Just an FYI, your two most recent posts aren’t coming up at the top of your page: it’s still stuck on the pumpkin cookie picture. I’d been thinking you hadn’t posted in a while since that is what I saw when I opened your page. It wasn’t until I happened to scroll down that I saw two newer posts. Thought you might want to know!

    • Marian Parsons

      my usually posting rhythm was just off last week and I forgot to change out the slide!

  2. Karen L.

    Yes, I noticed the same thing, Dale, so thank you for mentioning that (I thought it was something I may be doing or not doing:). Love the tips, Marian, on painting cabinets which I’ve always been too intimidated to do. I think I’ll try these steps on a bathroom vanity that isn’t so great looking right now. P.S. Do we know who won the giveaway yet?

    • Marian Parsons

      I forgot about the giveaway, too! I’ll have a winner picked and announced Monday!

  3. Patti

    Same here…thought it was odd as I always count on a daily dose of Marian! 😺

    • Marian Parsons

      Thank you!

  4. Linda Greiss

    Marian, My cabinets are made of MDF. The top coat of paint is scraping off from wear because the cabinets were painted with white paint first, not primer, and then painted moss green. Do you have any suggestions on how to repaint ? Is it any different than wood? Thank you so much!

    • SWard

      Mine are too. I can’t afford to get new cabinets right now but would love to paint them after I remove the laminate. Any tips would be appreciated!

      • Marian Parsons

        You can paint laminate as well. They key is using a high quality adhesive primer, so the paint sticks.

    • Marian Parsons

      You can definitely paint MDF! My first cabinet doors were made out of MDF and they painted up great. Just follow the same steps as you would for wood.

  5. Barbara Costa

    your blog loads perfectly for me…enjoyed the article…thanks

  6. Dale

    It’s working fine now!

  7. NJ

    Since we are talking about the blog– please also know that all the ads along with the Miss mustard seed TV and stuff often do cause my computer, chromebook, and android phone to freeze. Often enough that I have come back to check you out LESS. Sometimes I have to shut the whole device down. Maybe its because you are using apple and my stuff is not that? I know you have to make a living, and I know I could do my part and use a program that blocks ads. Just thought you should know– sometimes more is not more.

    That said, I am so glad I can use SOS pads instead of going out to search for TSP! Always have that or a brillo under the sink 🙂

    • Carrie Schindler Schwab

      Yes, it often freezes for me, too, using Firefox or Chrome on a Windows 10 machine. I often have to shut the browser down and re-open it, and then it often still doesn’t work. I get the ‘there is a script running on this page’ error, and then can choose ‘stop script’, ‘continue’, and one other choice. No matter what I choose, once it’s at that point, the only solution is to close down the browser (and whatever else I had open on other tabs). Hope this helps!

      • Marian Parsons

        Let me have my tech guy check on that, because that shouldn’t be happening regularly. There may be a plugin causing a conflict or something.

    • Jenn

      Hi NJ! You can try clearing your browser’s cache, which may help pages like Marian’s blog to load faster for you. I think Marian even wrote about why she has ads on her site. While they can be cumbersome for us as readers, you totally hit the nail on the head – she does this for a living and this is how she earns income. If you think about it, we see commercials all the time on TV and see ads in the paper. Her blog really isn’t any different. But, try clearing your cache and seeing if that helps!

    • Marian Parsons

      Sorry about the technical trouble! I am going to ask my tech guy and ad guy about it to see if we can fix it. Ads are one thing…a site freezing up is different! Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Paula Arndt

    I am so glad you mentioned prep work BEFORE painting and also removing doors when painting – two very important steps if one wants to get a more professional look. Too many people want to rush these projects and the end results always look like it too (DIY amateurish and corner-cutter).
    I love what you are doing BTW – so inviting and fresh.

  9. Darla B

    Marian, Just one question… the cleaning product you mention TSP, do you know if that product is good to use for just everyday cleaning of kitchen cabinets? I’m not painting my already white kitchen cabinets but do notice that light airborne grease dust from time to time, and sometimes it seems like hot soapy water doesn’t always clean it completely.

    • Paula

      Just a tip. If you never use processed vege oils for cooking, then water, soap and a soft rag will clean off all the buildup.
      We switched years ago to only natural fats, butter, lard, tallow and coconut oil, and were shocked to find that the hard buildup never occurs with natural fats. Made me really ponder hard what it really is what is clogging so many arteries today 🙂

    • Marian Parsons

      No, I wouldn’t use it for everyday cleaning. Just for prep for painting. Just a good cleaner, like Mrs. Meyers, a vinegar/water mix, etc. would work.

  10. Elizabeth

    The cabinets look sensational! It is giving me the courage to attempt to do the same thing in my house.

    Also, to the person asking about using TSP as a sometime cleaner. BE VERY CAREFUL!
    My sister used TSP on her cabinets and it took the finish off.

  11. Susan

    TSP would not be a good general cleaner for cabinets on a regular basis. Much too harsh. Try adding vinegar to soapy water to help cut grease. Interested to see what you have to share about spraying. I’ve done 4 or 5 kitchens now with roller and brush, would love to switch to spraying but have been too intimidated

    • Marian Parsons

      Oh yes, definitely just for painting prep!

  12. NJ

    Yeah. Nah that’s not it because cache is cleared regularly. On all devices.

  13. Gail

    I have very large cabinets in my kitchen (no soffits-they go to the ceiling) and since I am retired can not afford to replace them. I have been toying with the idea of painting them. I even bought a really good sprayer and did extensive research on self leveling non-yellowing cabinet paint. I have had other projects going on so haven’t gotten to the kitchen yet. I hope your paint job inspires me to pursue this project! Looking forward to seeing/learning from your project!

  14. G.R.

    A funny aside about TSP. “TSP” stands for “trisodiumphosphate.” The last container I bought (labeled “TSP”) had a statement on the container: “Contains no trisodiumphosphate.” Go figure.

  15. Karen

    For the computer issues discussed here – Try using Firefox, instead of Google Chrome. When I attempted to use Chrome as my browser, ads appeared all over the blogs I was reading, so many of them that it was no longer fun to read the blogs! I went back to Firefox..problem solved.

  16. PJ

    Can you give any advice on painting laminate cabinets? While most of my cabinets are solid wood, I have a section of cabinets that are laminate made to look like wood. The finish has changed in some areas causing them to look quite awful. I would love to paint them a lighter color. Thank you!

  17. Alice A. Crawford

    I came up with a easy way to clean the top of my cabinets, I didn’t have a soffit so those tops were exposed so there was an appreciable amount of gunk up there. I sprayed WD-40 on the surface, let it soak in for a few seconds before I wiped it down with a paper towel (s). The grease seemed to melt away. After that I followed up with a mix of warm water and Mr. Clean which smells divine.

  18. mcgrathinnola

    Love your cabinets and how all is looking so far!. On another note, some time back you mentioned how to get insta stories on your laptop. I successfully did so and was enjoying your videos for several weeks and now all of a sudden I can no longer get any insta videos on picture snaps. Any thoughts as how to fix…..desperately missing your/all my insta stories…help!

    • mcgrathinnola

      Meant receiving only picture snaps, no videos

  19. Catherine Hauter

    Hi! Thinking of painting my kitchen cabinets with chalk paint, any advice?

  20. Claire

    Looks like quite a bit of hard work! Love the pictures! (P.S. all those pots above the island are gorgeous!!)

  21. Lucy Kalaj

    I am about to paint old cabinets, the owner wants to make it like Ikea type colored surface, whats the best way to do that. The brush will work or spray is best?


Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…

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