Since I live in a condo, and have no place to use a paint sprayer, I’m always stuck painting cabinets with a paint brush. I really don’t mind it (except that it takes a lot longer than a sprayer), and over the years, I’ve actually learned how to get a near-sprayed-on, almost-brush-stroke-free finish using a paint brush.
Since this is one of the most frequently asked questions I get, I’d like to share with you my tips and steps on how to paint cabinets with a paint brush and get a near-perfect finish. It sounds like a lot of work (and perhaps it is), but ask yourself this: How often do you plan on painting your cabinets? Probably not very often, right? So it’s worth it to take the time to get it right!
*Prep-work is key!! Don’t skip the sanding…
Most people who write to me for guidance on how to paint their kitchen cabinets, or their bathroom cabinets, want desperately to skip the prep work. Nobody likes sanding (which is understandable, of course!), so most people want any info I have to be able to skip this step.
There are products on the market now which allow you to skip this step, such as Rustoleum’s cabinet refinisher kit. I’ve never used that product, and I’ve heard great things about it. But for me, sanding is about more than just “giving some tooth” to your cabinets so that the finish will stick. It’s also important for:
- Removing or minimizing dings and scratches on old cabinets;
- Smoothing out any imperfections in the old finish, such as paint drips or runs;
- Minimizing the wood grain (I’ve found this especially important on decades-old oak cabinets);
- Removing any debris that may be on the cabinets after years of use;
- Removing rough surfaces and splintered edges on raw wood stock cabinets (note: on raw wood, it’s often easier to prime first, and then do the first sanding after the primer is dry).
So as you can see, sanding the cabinets is about much more than just “giving some tooth” to the cabinets so that the new finish will stick. For this reason, I never, ever skip this step.
I generally do this step by hand, using a 120-grit or 150-grit sandpaper. In some cases, such as with old oak cabinets with raised grain, or cabinets with bad dings or deep scratches, I might use the electric sander.
*Use a quality primer
My absolute favorite primer is Zinsser Oil-Based Cover Stain. I swear by this stuff!! And it can be used with both oil-based paint and latex paint.
When you’re brushing it on, it will look like the finish isn’t going on smoothly. You do want to make the finish as smooth as possible, but don’t be too concerned if you see brush strokes.
*Sand the primer
After the primer has dried completely, I always give the cabinets and doors one last sanding. I use 150-grit sandpaper, and I sand by hand.
The key thing here is that you want to be sure that the primer is thoroughly and completely dry. As you’re sanding, the primer that is sanded off should look like very dry, fine chalk dust. If you’re not getting that, and if the primer is instead rolling and pilling up as you sand, then it’s not dry enough. Let it dry for a couple more hours, before trying again.
*Use a quality paint brush
The paint brush that you use will absolutely make a difference in the finish you get on your painted cabinets. Don’t go cheap on this on this!!
My brand of choice when it comes to cabinets (and just about anything else) is Purdy. If I’m going to be painting the inside of the cabinets (with shelves), then the 2-inch XL Cub is absolutely necessary. The short handle makes it easy to paint the inside of cabinets without a long handle hitting the shelves.
This is really a great all-around paint brush, and if I were to only choose one, this would always be my go-to brush.
However, I do find that a brush that’s just a bit smaller is easier for painting the stiles and rails on cabinets and cabinet doors. For that, I like to use a 1.5-inch angled sash brush. It just seems to be the perfect size to get the paint into and onto all of the right places, without being so wide that it pushes paint over the edges causing paint build-up.
*Always use paint conditioner
I would simply never, ever consider painting cabinets without using paint conditioner. Never.
The type you use will be determined by the type of paint you’re using, as there are conditioners made specifically for oil-based paint (oil-based paints are always my first choice for cabinets), and there are paint conditioners specifically made for latex paints.
These are available at paint stores like Sherwin Williams, and also at home improvement stores like Home Depot. For latex paint, I personally use a product called Floetrol.
When I’m using oil-based paint, I use a product from the same company called Penetrol.
Be very careful that you mix in the paint conditioner according to the directions!!!! If you just try to eyeball it, and you end up using too much, it’ll make the paint too thin and you’ll end up having to paint additional coats, which just creates more work for you. Ask me how I know.
So what does paint conditioner do?
It thins out the paint just a bit (but not like adding water to…please don’t try to achieve this by adding water to your paint), it makes the paint “glide” onto the surface better, and it extends the drying time of the paint. It doesn’t sound like much, but it really does make a bit difference.
One thing that I have learned is that if I’m working on a large project — one where my paint can will be open for a few hours at a time — and I find that the paint eventually stops “gliding” on as smoothly (i.e., it start to be a bit more “sticky” causing my brush to drag and leave brush strokes), it’s okay to add a bit more paint conditioner so that it’ll start “gliding” on easily once again. But again, it’s always better to add a little bit at a time, rather than adding too much.
*Place the doors horizontally to dry
I don’t always follow my own advice here (mostly because in this tiny condo, I don’t have adequate space to have cabinet doors lying around), but I do notice that when I place the cabinet doors horizontally to paint and dry, gravity takes it course, and helps to minimize the brush strokes even further.
*Do not…EVER…use fans to speed up the drying time!!!!
One of the benefits of using paint conditioner is that it extends the drying time of the paint. That, coupled with painting the doors horizontally and allowing gravity to smooth the brush strokes (and having longer to do so) will give you an almost flawless finish.
If you thwart that process by using fans to speed up the drying time, you’ve completely defeated the purpose of the conditioner and placing the doors horizontally to dry.
Also keep in mind that if you’re painting outside, and it’s a windy day, this will work against you as well. It’s best to work in an area where your doors will be protected from wind.
*Always paint the back of the door first, and the front of the door last
Obviously, the front of the doors are what will show, so you don’t want to take any chances on scratching the paint on the part of your newly-painted doors that people will actually see. To avoid this, always paint the backs of the doors first, let them dry completely, and then flip them over and paint the fronts.
And that’s it! When I use these steps (both on furniture as well as on cabinets), I get a nearly flawless, almost-completely-brush-stroke-free, near-sprayed-on finish.
It sounds like a lot of work (and in all honesty, it is), but really, how often do you plan on painting your cabinets? Most people don’t paint their cabinets more than once every ten years, so I fully believe that taking every step necessary to get a good, quality, flawless finish is totally worth the effort.