If you missed part one of my series on painting kitchen cabinets and you’re following this as a tutorial, you need to read that post first.  I know we want to get right to the good stuff, but your painted cabinets will look crappy if they aren’t prepped properly.  Take the time to put in the elbow grease before you crack open a can of paint.

You will be happy you heeded my warning.

So, now let’s talk about priming.  Using a quality primer is every bit as important as using a quality paint.  It may be ever more important, because it is the foundation that will help the paint grip the pre-finished surface of the cabinets.

For this project, I used Zinsser’s Smart Prime.


For the doors (since they were removed), I applied the primer with a paint sprayer.  I have a Graco HVLP Finish Sprayer 7.0 that I bought about 8 years ago when my business was focused on decorative painting, murals, and custom-painted furniture.  It was a worthwhile investment at the time, because I was painting several pieces of furniture each week.  It’s a huge investment for someone just doing a couple of painting projects.  If you compare it to hiring a professional, it’s a bargain, but there are less expensive options out there.  I’ve only ever used this one, though, so I can’t offer a review on those budget-friendly options.


I’m spraying them in the Homeright Spray Shelter, which has been working well.  It doesn’t take too long to set up and it definitely contains the overspray.

A few tips on spraying…

  • Dress for spraying head-to-toe.  The overspray could possibly get on your shoes, your clothes, in your hair, etc, so wear old clothes and old shoes.
  •  Wear a respirator mask.  This needs to be an actual respirator mask, not just a dust mask.  A dust mask just isn’t going to catch all of the fine paint spray and it’s very important to protect your lungs.
  • Practice first.  Practice with the sprayer by just running water through it and spraying it on a piece of cardboard.  This will help you get used to the way the sprayer works.  When you’re doing well with that, start spraying primer, but still practice on a piece of cardboard until your sprayed paint looks smooth and even.  There shouldn’t be drips (too thin) or splatters (too thick).
  • Thin the primer/paint.  Add water to thin the primer or paint, so it goes through the sprayer without splattering.  I like to mix my paint until it’s thin enough to run off a stir stick in a steady string.  (Most paint runs off in a ribbon, which is too thick for a sprayer.)
  • Start spraying in the air.  Pull the trigger on the spray gun when it’s not pointed at what you’re painting.  Splatters and drips are most likely to happen right when the paint starts coming out of the nozzle.  These drips will just fall on your drop cloth instead of on your cabinet door.  So, start spraying and then move it over the cabinet in smooth, even strokes until the door is covered in a thin, even coat.
  • Keep the spray gun moving.  Don’t leave the spray gun pointed in one spot for too long or it will cause the paint to have an “orange-peal” texture.  Also, rotate the thing you’re painting, so you spray it from all angles.

If necessary, sand your primed piece with 220 grit paper after the primer dries.  This is just to smooth out any drips that might happen or any texture left from the sprayer.  A good sprayer with the right consistency of paint, applied properly, will be perfectly smooth.  Sometimes, though, imperfections can happen and it’s worth smoothing them out now.

Since the cabinets themselves are in the house and our house has furniture and people in it, I can’t use the sprayer inside.  That means the cabinets need to be painted by hand, with a brush and a roller.

I used a brush (a 2″ angled sash is my favorite) for the trim and small parts of the faces of the cabinets.  Work in long, smooth strokes and continue to review the paint you’ve applied to check for drips.

For small recesses, like on this detail molding, push a small amount of paint in the recess and then brush the excess away.

Pull the brush over the flat areas to level it all out.

For the larger areas, like the cabinet sides, I used a 4″ micro plush roller to minimize roller marks.

I use a paint bucket called a Pelican by Wooster to hold the primer.  It has a “ramp” for the 4″ roller, but it’s a bit easier to work with than a traditional roller tray.  I do use the liners, but I let them dry out when I’m done and I keep reusing them.

Generously load the roller with paint, but roll slowly to prevent splatters.  Roll in a narrow W shape to distribute the paint over the cabinet.  Once the paint is applied in an even coat, roll back over it without reloading the roller with paint.  Use light pressure.  This is just to smooth out the primer and knock down any edges caused by the roller.

And I’ll throw out a warning, so you’re not alarmed.  Primer always looks ugly.  It looks messy, you can see brush strokes and roller marks, but it’s okay.  What matters, at this point, is how it feels, not how it looks.  And I’m not referring to how it feels in your heart and soul.  I mean how it feels to the touch.  It should feel smooth, even if it doesn’t look it.

Once the primer is dried, it’s time for the paint…

You can find the nest post in this series HERE.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  You can see what that means and how they work HERE.


  1. Brenda

    What do you think of the paints that have the primer In them already? Like Behr Ultra? Would you still prime? I’m getting ready to paint my cabinets and I want to do it right. It’s such a big job and I don’t want to have to redo it! I’ve agonized over the color for months! You’d think I was painting the Sistine Chapel instead of a small kitchen in Tennessee!

    • Miss

      I am not a fan of primers and paint in one. I think it’s important to have a primer that is made to be grippy. And then have a paint that is made to be scrubbed, is hard wearing, etc. It’s just too much to put it into one product and have it perform as well.

  2. Terri

    Marian, I notice the inside of your cabinets are already white (which is great!). If not, would you paint the inside as well?

    • Miss Mustard Seed

      I know, that’s so nice!! No, I wouldn’t paint the cabinet interiors. I think it’s a waste of time and product, but that’s just me! 🙂 If it’s behind a closed door, it just doesn’t bother me.

  3. Kim

    The newer use-anywhere, “smart” primers that are cross-linking polymers and water based are miraculous. I have used them on everything you can imagine, even for painting vinyl flooring and plastics. Several brands to choose from out there. I would definitely use them for any cabinet project!

  4. Kathryn

    What paint brand are you using that doesn’t also contain primer? That product is hard to find. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  5. Sindy Anderson

    I paint furniture for my store, shows, family and friends and I’ve been using this Home Right C800766 Finish Max Fine Finish HVLP Sprayer https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003VKFDEO/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1 It’s been a workhorse. It’s completed the reno of my beach house in Tybee Island, Ga, My store in Conyers, as well as various college dorms. 2 girls that moved EVERY year and needed new furniture and headboards compliments of their handy, dandy mom~ Oh and I also used it to paint all the furniture in my little Condo at the beach, forgot about that reno~! So as long as you CLEAN it afterwards it’s awesome~for a Great little price~!

  6. Sharon

    I am using this series as a tutorial to DIY my kitchen cabinets. I got a $4200 quote to paint my Kitchen Cabinets, so I am going to do them myself. I am also getting all your recommended products, except a less expensive sprayer. The link you had for your 2″ angled sash brush went to a mask instead. Is your favorite brush a Wooster brand like the rollers?

  7. Debbie

    I’m so intrigued by this series of posts on painting your cabinets. The dentil molding brings to mind a fellow who worked for my husband, who is a builder. Andy dubbed it “toothy” moulding. Seems he couldn’t remember “dentil”…

  8. Judy

    Hi Marian, thanks for the info. It’s so helpful! If we don’t have a sprayer, would you use a brush or roller for the cabinet doors? Do you think the doors can look as good with these other methods? Thank you!

    • Marian Parsons

      Yes, you certainly can. Still take the doors off and paint them flat, use the roller and brush I linked to, or something similar, and use a self-leveling paint, like Benjamin Moore’s Advance. Also, just take your time to carefully brush out the paint and watch for drips. You’ll get a nice finish, even with a brush and roller!

      • Sharon

        The link you had for your 2″ angled sash brush went to a mask instead. Is your favorite brush a Wooster brand like the rollers?

      • Judy

        Hi Marian, thank you so much for all your insight and inspiration! We just ordered the products that you recommend, and are starting our painting next week! I am so excited! Happy New Year!

  9. Elizabeth

    Wow, can tell you’ve primed once or twice! The level of detail you offer, including the warnings, is far beyond that of most diy instructions. It’s enough to make me fel like (a) I could actually do it, or (b) I had better hire a pro. Thanks for the great tutorial.

  10. Jodi

    I love that you blogged about this so quickly!! Your cabinets look amazing!!!

    Thank you for all of the he tips!

  11. Susan

    Your cabinets look great!! We will be painting our cabinet frames within the next 6 months and your information and tips will be referred to often. I’ve already put your product mentions in my amazon cart.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration!

  12. Jean Q

    I painted the inside of my cabinets because they were so dark inside. I really like it light.

  13. Jan Fusco

    I noticed that the end of the cabinet you rolled primer on looks very thin. Will you put a second coat of primer or is one enough?

  14. Marian Parsons

    No, one coat is enough. Primer is made fro adhesion, sealing, etc., not for good, even coverage. That’s what the paint will do!

  15. Angie

    Would you Prime if the cabinets are painted and you are just adding another coat? I am going from creamy white to bright white.

    • Miss Mustard Seed

      I would generally say no, but with kitchen cabinets, it’s a good idea to sand a prime, just to make sure everything sticks well.

  16. Perri Geaux Tigers Williamson


    While I ❤️ all of your posts there are some that I would like to be able to reference and return to more easily. My drug dealer, Craftsy (an online community for craft addicts), recently launched the ability to favorite blog posts that members want to return to. With each post there is a little open heart icon. When you click to favorite the post it can easily be referenced. Perhaps you could look into this when you need a break from painting the trim that stretches ’round the world. I would definitely favorite this post.

    Thank you for sharing!

  17. Judy

    Thanks so much!

  18. Rebecca Neustel

    I just bought one of those, because it seems to me the funnel thing you use to check the viscosity of the paint takes the question out of whether your paint is thin enough.

  19. Rebecca Neustel

    I was referring to the Home Right Fine Finish sprayer. I’m going to paint a couple of small things before attempting my cabinets.

  20. Susan

    Do you paint the inside of the doors? The humidity is finally dropping here so I’m gearing up to start my kitchen.

  21. Terri

    Marian, the link for the 2″ Angled Sash Brush refers me to the respirator mask. I’m assuming the brush I bought from your shop will do the job? Thank you for the tutorial. I’m in the middle of priming after several days of prep!

  22. Jamileh Horan

    Two questions, one I accidentally bought the 1-2-3 bull’s-eye zinsser primer instead of the one you linked. Do you think it’s a big enough deal that I should go and swap it? Also, I have lots of paint left over from doing our doors and baseboards. On the can it says Kwal vinyl acrylic stipple enamel. Is that a bad idea to use that on the cabinets? Thanks!

  23. Laura Scott

    Not sure if you will even see this question at this point, but I will try…

    I like the idea of the Wooster bucket you link to and the rollers also. Which roller frame do you use? I see they have a jumbo Kotex roller frame at 4.5” or is it the Sherlock fram at 4”?

    • Laura Scott

      Koter. Oh boy, I need to preview and edit in a more thorough way.

  24. Lisa Pitchers

    I purchased a painted gray vanity (MDF) and I really want to paint it white for more flexibility. Would I apply this Smart Primer to my new vanity directly over the finish? Not sure what process the manufacturer may have used for the finish and I am nervous as heck I will ruin the cabinet.

    • Marian Parsons

      What kind of paint will you be using?


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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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