Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayHi, guys! It's Mandi here—so excited to share this first peek into our newly remodeled kitchen! When we were house hunting three years ago, it was difficult to find a home in our price range that had a large kitchen and dining room, but that was number one on my shopping list. We ended up finding just the home—a small, mid-century ranch with a good portion of its square footage dedicated to making food and eating it. Perfect for our modern family! Of course, I didn't really like anything about the kitchen besides its layout, and for a while it was really difficult for me to enjoy being in there without wishing it was different. We didn't have the money for a renovation, but that didn't stop me from dreaming about it with every pancake I flipped!

Quite frankly, it wasn't until I faced an unexpected battle with cancer that my priorities completely shifted, and I learned to develop blind spots towards the areas in my home I had wanted to change and simply focus on enjoying the people in our home instead. Now that we finally have a chance to make changes in our home, we've been able to think long and hard about each decision and go into the project with a healthy attitude, understanding that this renovation is a fun thing we get to do to make our home prettier, but it's the food and fellowship that really makes our kitchen a wonderful place to be.

The biggest change our kitchen underwent was the refinishing of the cabinets. I can't believe how different this space feels and the amount of light that bounces around in there now! It's like a whole new kitchen!

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right way.If you've been itching for a change in your own kitchen, I'd wager that painting your cabinets could give you that fresh face you want, without the hefty cost of all new fixtures. It was a little scary, in the throws of the renovation, when the cabinets had been ripped off the wall, the countertop was missing, and the walls needed patched. Maybe it was just living with a busy husband, active toddler, and no sink or stove. But I think a little part of the scary factor was the fact that this was such a BIG job, and I was having commitment issues. Did I choose the right colors? Would I miss the wood cabinets? Should we have just sprung for new cabinets after all?

Now that I'm looking at these before and after photos, I can't believe I even questioned refinishing our cabinets! We saved so much money by keeping our current cabinetry, but the refinishing definitely breathed new life into our entire kitchen. Check out our process below, and I'll share some tips too!

CRefinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayOur simple plywood cabinets were presumably constructed by the previous owner, judging by the not-so-amazing quality of the construction. As we began taking off the sticky doors, I wondered if we were making a mistake in putting time and money into these chipped and crooked cabinets. But working on a tight budget, and not wanting to over-improve our home for the neighborhood, I decided to stick with the plan of painting them. It would just require quite a bit of attention and wood filler. Did I mention lots of wood filler? Yeah. We used two tubs of wood filler for this whole job. More than I've ever used in my entire life.

Selecting a Paint Finish

I knew that I wanted a darker color on the bottom and white on the top of my cabinets, because I liked the interest that the difference in color adds to a space and was really itching to bring more light into our dreary kitchen. But I wasn't sure what kind of paint to get. I was worried about getting a high-gloss paint because of brush strokes showing more easily with the reflected light, but I liked the idea of the cabinets being really easy to wipe clean with a semi-gloss finish. Plus, I'll take all the reflected light I can get.

In the end, I decided to get Benjamin Moore's ADVANCE paint because it's so thick and settles nicely after brushing, so that brush strokes become less noticeable than they would be with a lower quality paint. Because we were spray painting the doors, and there would be no brush or roller texture to be seen on them, I had no qualms about getting a semi-gloss paint finish. I can attest to the fact that they're very easy to wipe clean, though I'll warn you that fingerprints show up so easily, so we're cautious about closing the doors using the knobs instead of our hands.

The top cabinets have untinted white paint, and the lower cabinets have Benjamin Moore's Black Panther, which is like a dark charcoal gray, but not quite black. I decided having no color on the cabinets would age the best and work with any color scheme in the future. Sure, yellow was tempting, but I'm glad I kept it safe with the Black Panther! And the white—Oh, it's so bright and beautiful!

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayPlanning a Timeline

Something that I didn't do in our project, that I wish I would have, was to create a timeline. We had friends and family help out at times, and when they were contributing their own tools to the project, it was a little frustrating waiting days to pick up where we left off because of waiting for their availability. You know the old saying, beggars can't be choosers? It's so true! But I think that my own sanity would have benefited from creating a schedule for work days and what we had planned to accomplish. Our entire kitchen was ripped apart, so in between work days, it was hard to do anything in our home, much less eat anything. If we had consulted with helpers to see their availability and coordinated with them to create a schedule, I'm sure I would have had a much better time with the process, looking at a schedule and seeing an end in sight, and also knowing for sure that people knew which days they were going to be coming over to help, and I could count on it.

Here's how we ordered each aspect of the cabinet refinishing:

Day One: Empty cabinets and drawers and organize contents into boxes and onto folding tables throughout the house—This took one evening with two people.
Day Two: Take down upper cabinets (optional), remove cabinet doors and drawers, remove hardware, sand away the previous finish, fill holes and chips with wood filler, let wood filler dry, sand down again, do another coat of wood filler, then sand again until smooth—This took one long afternoon and late night with three people.
Day Three: Taping off the drawer sides and insides, spray painting with primer, wet sanding the primer, and adding another coat of primer to all doors and drawers—This took one morning and afternoon with two people.
Day Four: Taping off the inside of the lower cabinets, priming the cabinet faces with two coats of primer, and painting with two coats of paint—This took one evening and late into the night with two people, primarily waiting for paint to dry between coats.*
Day Five: Spray painting two coats of paint on all the doors and drawers and moving inside the garage to dry on wax paper—This took one morning and afternoon with two people.
Day Six: Hanging upper cabinets and adding new hardware to doors and drawers—This took one evening with three people.
Day Seven: 
Hanging doors with new hinges—This took one evening with two people. We also had old latches to add inside the cabinet doors.

*It's important to allow one week after painting before hanging doors and replacing drawers. If you use them before the paint has cured, I guarantee you will have something stick to the paint and then pull it away, ruining your fresh paint job!

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right waySupplies for Refinishing Our Kitchen Cabinets

Materials:
-1 gallon tinted primer (to use under dark paint)

-1 gallon regular primer
-1 gallon untinted, white semi-gloss paint (Benjamin Moore's ADVANCE)
-1 gallon Benjamin Moore's ADVANCE Black Panther semi-gloss paint
-sandpaper—120 grit, 180 grit, and 400 grit wet/dry
-latex wood filler

Tools:
-rags

-buckets
-palm sander
-spray gun (borrowed from my dad)
-air compressor (borrowed from my father-in-law)
-power drill with drill bits
-breathing masks

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayPreparing for Painting

To prepare the cabinets for painting, we removed all of the doors, drawers, and hardware and sanded off the finish of the wood. I used 120 then 180 grit sandpaper for this, ending up with smooth, raw wood ready for priming.

Because I planned to replace the hardware, I filled in all of the door knob holes. To do this, I applied wood filler with my finger, shoving it deep into the holes on the front and back of the doors, then smoothed away the excess wood filler with a damp rag. When it dried completely, I sanded the area that was filled with 180 grit sandpaper. Most areas needed additional wood filler because of shrinkage into the holes, so I repeated the process until the surface was perfectly smooth and undimpled.

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayAlthough we were using new hinges with holes that matched the old ones, we also decided to fill in all of the hinge holes. We did this because we couldn't be sure that every door was drilled the same, and we were certain when rehanging the doors that it would be quite a struggle to get everything lined up evenly using the new holes. We decided that starting with fresh, undrilled doors would be best, and it worked out well in the end.

The drawers were using new hardware that matched the holes from the old hardware, so thankfully we didn't have to fill in any drawer holes! But we did use masking paper and masking tape to protect the area around the door face from paint. We figured, why waste paint on doing the whole drawer when you only see the face?

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayProper Painting Steps

After all of the drawers and doors were prepared for painting, it was time for the fun to begin! We had two people working (my dad and me), with one spray painting and the other one setting up sawhorses and lumber to create a drying area. I moved drawers and doors that were ready to be painted or freshly painted while my dad sprayed them. We worked on a warm, sunny day, so the paint dried quickly.

After the primer had set up, I got to work on wet sanding them. Wet sanding is an important step in painting that is a bit tedious, but definitely worth it! When priming, the little hairs of the wood become raised, giving a bit of a rough and bumpy texture to the finish of the wood, even though it has been sanded prior to painting. Wet sanding knocks down that rough texture while simultaneously smoothing out that grainy texture that shows through when painting over wood. It leaves you with an unbelievably silky surface for the final coats of paint.

I used 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper in the sheets shown in the image below. I cut the sheets into quarters so they were more manageable. Then I would dunk the sandpaper into the water and rub the primed surface with plenty of water to go around. Then I would dunk the sandpaper back into the water to keep the paint from clogging up the sandpaper. One quarter sheet of sandpaper usually would last me through two doors or three drawers.

After wet sanding, the primer on the corners and edges of the wood had been sanded off, so we gave the doors and drawers another coat of primer after they had been rinsed and dried.

Refinishing kitchen cabinets— the right wayAs you can imagine, carefully priming, then wet sanding, then priming again took quite a bit of time! In fact, it took an entire morning and afternoon. We opted not to paint into the evening because that's when the bugs are more prevalent and apt to ruin a paint job.

IMG_8665Using a Spray Gun

Air compressors make me nervous (I always wear sound-cancelling headphones around them and any pneumatic tools), so in the past I preferred to buy cans of spray paint for my paint jobs that needed something smoother than a brush or roller. Or I would bring something large over to Dad's house, and he would kindly paint it for me with his spray can hooked up to an air compressor.

But this kitchen project was my baby, and I decided it was time to put my big girl pants on and learn how to use a spray gun! It's surprisingly easy, folks. I will say, though, there are a lot of parts and pieces that need cleaning, and when you're painting all day, the paint will dry on the can and require lots of elbow grease, and sometimes paint thinner, to remove later on. It's also confusing reassembling the parts if you're not familiar with how they go together. But the actual painting part is easy. The worst part is how physically tiring it can be lifting your arm while holding a paint can to paint. It's a good isometric exercise, for sure!

For our setup, we had a pneumatic spray gun that required an air hose and air compressor to spray the paint. The first day we were held up by waiting for the air compressor to power up after a while of painting, which was a bit of a time waster. So for the second day of painting, we used two air compressors! If you're renting equipment and trying to do this all in one day, keep that in mind when selecting an air compressor. You'll want one with a higher capacity in order to work quickly.

I was very interested in the hose-free sprayers that are on the market these days, but since my dad already owned a pneumatic setup, I decided to go that route because, hello, you can't beat free! But I've heard good things from my father-in-law and other bloggers about the spray guns that don't use hoses or air compressors, though they will be heavier and more difficult to lift.

IMG_8639When using a spray gun, you will need to dilute the paint. There is no set-in-stone formula for this, since every kind of paint is of a different consistency, but what you're aiming for is a runny consistency that doesn't cling to the paint stirrer when you lift it from the can. When working with oil-based paint, you need to dilute the paint with paint thinner. We were able to use water because we were using latex paint.

Something I noticed when diluting our semi-gloss paint was that the finish ended up being a little less shiny than it was when I rolled or brushed it onto the lower cabinets. Because of this, we tried to dilute the paint as little as possible, but we still had to add quite a bit of water. This apparently can be a problem when working with water-based paints, but isn't an issue when working with oil-based paints. I still think the easy clean-up and low odor of the water-based paint is worth it!

IMG_8654After painting all of the cabinets with two coats of paint, we brought them into our garage which had been cleared out to make room for sawhorses and lumber stretchers. We laid out strips of wax paper to rest the cabinet doors (the inside of the doors face down) for a few days while the paint cured. If you're in a high humidity area, though, you'll want to let the paint cure indoors where there is better temperature/humidity control.

IMG_9430Selecting Hardware

Hardware is the jewelry of the kitchen, so it deserves the same attention at selecting an engagement ring. Think I'm kidding? I'm not. In the market to get engaged? Eh, you might want to disregard that statement. I'm afraid most women might not be as apathetic about ring bling as me and might not care as much about their kitchen hardware as I do! But the point is, new hardware will make a huge statement in a kitchen and sets the feel for the accessorizing to come later.

I love that brass is coming back into kitchen fashion, and it works well with the existing brass fixtures in my 1959 home. So I selected these brass bar drawer pulls which I had planned on installing on every door and drawer in the kitchen. Except when I added up the cost, it was way out of my budget! $660, folks! Yeah, I had to make some adjustments. I selected smaller bar pulls for all of the drawers, but from the same manufacturer, and then I went to the hardware store and found small brass door pulls that looked like they would coordinate with the drawer pulls. They don't match exactly, but for a savings of $452, I think I can deal with it. Now that we've been using them, I can say that I really like the variety and prefer this look of mixing knobs and bar pulls rather than having bars on all the doors and drawers.

For my drawers, I kept in mind the dimension of the existing holes when selected new hardware. To make less work for myself, I wanted to keep the same center dimension (the distance from hole to hole), which fortunately are set standards that are easy to match from manufacturer to manufacturer. That was a huge relief!

As far as hinges are concerned, I didn't want them to make a design statement, though I can appreciate that style in kitchens, like this one I linked on my kitchen Pinterest board. So I selected hinges in the same color as the paint—white for the upper cabinets and black for the lower cabinets. It's possible to do hidden hinges, but that would have been more work than we really wanted to get into, with routering holes and whatnot, so we just decided to stick with the style of hinges that were originally on the doors.

IMG_9425So that's where we're at! I'll also be sharing about how we reconfigured our cabinets to get a fresh look, installed our own butcher block countertop, and dealt with the brick wall on the other side of the room. I can't wait to show you the grand reveal! Let me know if you have any questions about refinishing our cabinets, and I'll be happy to answer in the comments below! Mandi

Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson. Photos edited with Spring of the Signature Collection.

  • Could you post a link to the drawer pulls you eventually went with? The one’s shown in the picture! I have been on the hunt for sleek brass pulls just like those.

    Thank you for sharing this reno!

  • Hi Mandi,

    Your kitchen has such an uncanny similarity to his– I just had to ask. His style is great, like yours, and the design choices that he makes (like yours) are usually based on a tight budget which I like (It makes the content of your writing more relatable. I like that you both work with what you have (gut rehabs tend to underwhelm me).
    -Liz

  • Mandi, I always look forward to your projects. You are so creative and know how to do it on a tight budget. I love how this came out! You knocked it out of the park, girl! Also, that hardware pops so perfectly!

  • I definitely will be using a spray gun next time I do our cabinets-if their is a next time!! It was way too much work painting them!

    Dannon @ Like The Yogurt Fashion. DIY. Beauty

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  • Where did you find your faucet? I like the industrial look, but I haven’t found one that looks like it will hold up over time…

  • I actually refinished the cabinets in my old apartment, and it wasn’t the worst thing. But our apartment was built in the 1920s, and had sooo many layers of paint on the doors. We wore respirators (because of lead paint) and used a heat gun and metal spatula to scrape off the old paint layers before sanding, priming, and spray painting. That part was a pain. But the cabinet body, we just painted over the existing paint. It wasn’t the simplest job, but because the kitchen was small, we had a lot less cabinet space to deal with.
    -Mandi

  • Usually, regarding permits, it’s better to inquire with your local township instead of risking it. Every job is different, but especially when electrical and structural things are concerned, permits are probably required. It’s for the safety of those who live in the space currently and in the future. 🙂

    -Mandi

  • The sink is a round butterfly sink— something we couldn’t find in stores or online to replace. They just have square butterfly sinks now, it would seem. Anyway, we wanted to reuse our old sink to save money. We chose to cut out two circles in the counter for the undermount sink, instead of exposing the sink divider, because of two reasons: 1. The sink divider had holes in it for our old fixtures (particularly the sprayer) which would be visible because we weren’t using the same fixtures and didn’t need the existing holes. 2. The round butterfly sink style isn’t easy to cut around the two round sink sections like it is with just a rectangle. It would have looked weird.

    Also, we ended up cutting the sink in two and moving the basins slightly further apart to give more space to the mitered seam in the countertop, but then we goofed up and accidentally routered out space for the miter joint fasteners too close to the sink, so we had to move the basins even further apart! That was unintentional, and also resulted in me having to buy a new faucet that had a further reach. I’ll share more about that whole process when I get into the countertop. But no, we don’t have problem with water getting everywhere.

    -Mandi

  • I love it!! Thanks for sharing all the steps, it really helps give perspective (both reality check and encouragement) for those interested in doing something similar. We’re renting (and probably will be for the foreseeable future!) but since our landlord is gracious I keep begging my husband to ask him if we can paint the kitchen cabinets. They ARE already white thankfully (but mismatched!) but some have a supposedly decorative chocolate brown in the center of each cabinet. It’s a messy paint job too…he liked to paint in eccentric colors and places…anyway, I’m hoping I could just get the white of the cabinets color-matched and sand, prime, and paint the center. Does that sound crazy? No matter what it’s going to look like a cute but old little house, and I think all-white cabinets would really brighten and open the tiny kitchen, even if they weren’t perfect.

  • You can be so proud of yourself. I love the way you handled things (and life). The kitchen is beautiful! It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it, it looks spectacular!

  • I’ve been there with small children, a busy husband, and a kitchen renovation. It isn’t easy. There’s only so much you can cook in a microwave set up in the dining room… doing dishes in a very small pedestal sink in the bathroom:0 But it is very rewarding in the end. Good point about the thinning the paint for a sprayer!!

  • I’m about to tackle my own kitchen renovation too! It’s exciting and scary! Did you need any permits for the work that you did?

  • I think the butcher block looks beautiful with the cabinet refinish. It might be one of those ‘better because you had no choice’ things.

  • Thanks for these detailed posts. You give me hope that it can be done! Unfortunately my boyfriend is not too keen on renovations (the mess, the smell etc) but the after is so lovely!

  • I love the look of your kitchen so far, especially the worktop.I love how the sinks are with it. This project really inspires me, it makes a kitchen renovation seem much more doable. Thanks for sharing.

  • I keep going back and looking at his kitchen now! It’s extra fun because I had originally wanted to do white subway tile, but it was too pricey and time consuming, so we went with the plank backsplash which I’ll share more on later. Also— I even bought the same soap dispenser and have been eying that white enamelware at West Elm!
    -Mandi

  • I just googled Daniel Kanter’s kitchen, and you’d think I am! But no, I hadn’t seen it until just now. I have pinned a lot of images that inspired me on my Pinterest Kitchens board (http://www.pinterest.com/makingnice/k-i-t-c-h-e-n/).

    I’d definitely say my biggest inspiration has been this space (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/212091463676529339/), and I wanted to do faux marble Corian countertops which would look more like that kitchen in the photo, but we just couldn’t afford it. That’s how we settled on a less expensive butcher block— not my first choice. This open shelving in this space (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/212091463676160717/) has also been a big inspiration.

    Since deciding on dark lower cabinets and white uppers, I’ve been noticing it more often on the web. I think it’s definitely a trend, but it works really well in our home, and we love it, so I don’t mind that it’s a bit trendy. 🙂 It is only paint, after all.
    -Mandi

  • It’s not so difficult as much as it is time consuming. It’s really stressful living without a kitchen! But if you plan well, it doesn’t have to last for too long.
    -Mandi

  • What is going on with that divided corner sink in the first pic?? Is that actually what is going on or are my eyes playing tricks?
    The kitchen looks awesome and I adore the hardware you chose but how practical is that sink layout? Having a divided sink that isn’t sub-set and has that much counter between the basins seems like it is asking for water to go everywhere – especially since butcher block doesn’t have the edge lip.

  • Yes Yes yes! I’m working on my kitchen painted cabinets posts as we speak! We started thinking we would destain them but soon after they weren’t sanding down properly I called it quits and we went for the paint! I’m glad we never looked back! Now I’m on the hunt for the hard wear! They look AMAZING!!!

  • Looks nice, definitely an improvement. You haven’t mentioned it but are you drawing your inspiration from Daniel Kanter’s kitchen?

  • Hats off to you, lady! What a project to take on and it looks like you did so fabulously. I can’t wait to see the whole kitchen! I also can’t wait for the day when we buy a house and will [I’m sure] follow suit and rip apart old, ugly versions of things for bright, new and beautiful – but things come when they do, right? 🙂

  • I love bright white kitchens…your look amazing, look at all the light that magically brightens up the room now! Can’t wait for the grand reveal!

    xo
    agoldentulip.blogspot.com

  • I wish we could re do our kitchen like this. But ours is so old fashioned that we need to add in new cabinets for extra storage & replace a wall oven that takes up way too much space. I won’t be holding my breath that it will ever get done. *sigh*

  • Wow, I’m so impressed you guys tackled such a big project! I love seeing kitchen redesigns, especially when they go from being “heavy” dark spaces to lighter and more spacious feeling. Love it!

    Cat
    http://oddlylovely.com

  • Have always admired your ‘can do’ attitude, right from your ‘candimandi’ days, but nonchalantly mentioning a battle with cancer and making a kitchen reno seem so easy? Hat off to you. Good on you, girl.

  • Thank you for sharing!! I have thought of painting mine and now I know I can!!

    Mandi- I would love to hear more about your battle. I know its very personal, but would love to hear how you kept life going with a young one! How did your fiends and family react when given the news. did you share with everyone once you found out? I know that’s a lot of questions. I hope your war is won.

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