How To Paint Cabinets With A Paint Brush (and get a near-perfect finish!)

How to paint cabinets with a paint brush (8 steps for a near-flawless finish)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.

Use Zinsser Oil-Based Cover Stain for priming cabinets before paintingWhen 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.

Purdy paint brush - 2 inch XL cub - perfect for painting inside cabinetsThis 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.

Purdy paint brush - 1.5 inch angled sash brush - great for painting rails and stiles on cabinets and cabinet doors

*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.

Floetrol paint conditioner - use with latex paint to get a smooth finish without brush strokes

When I’m using oil-based paint, I use a product from the same company called Penetrol.

Penetrol paint conditioner for use in oil-based paint to minimize brush strokes

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.



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    1. Before painting kitchen cabinets, if they have been previously painted over polyurethane…. How far down would you sand when trying to opt out of using a paint stripper?

    2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Very informative post! I feel confident enough to paint my cabinets now.

  1. Dear Kristi,

    thanks for the tutorial – great advice that I’ll definitely test on my next painting project! As I’m not living in the US, but Germany, it would be helpful if you could please show your brushes without the label in order for me to see what the brush part actually looks like. That way I could hunt down something similar in the shops around here 🙂

  2. Great tips on the process Kristi – fantastic explanation of how it’s done!!!

  3. Thanks for the great tutorial on how to paint cabinets. I am interested in knowing if this is the same approach you take with painting stained, wood trim? I have a lot of dark, scratched wood trim that I would like to freshen/lighten up with paint.

    1. Yep, painting trim would be very similar. I probably don’t take quite as much care with painting trim as I do with cabinets, but if the trim is dark and you want it white, I definitely do the sanding, priming, and then use paint conditioner in the paint.

      I personally prefer to use oil-based paint on trim and doors (as well as cabinets, as I mentioned in this post), but if you’re absolutely opposed to oil-based paint, then latex will work. But if you use latex paint, you absolutely cannot skip the priming step. Most builders use oil-based products in trim (either oil-based paint, or oil-based stain and poly), and you can’t (or shouldn’t) paint over oil-based paint with latex without priming first.

  4. Hi! I think this is a GREAT tutorial. I’ve never heard of paint conditioner before! Would you recommend this same process for laminate cabinets?

  5. I am about to paint a dresser and had planned on using oil based paint for the first time. I want as laquered a finish as possible. Unfortunately, Sherwin Williams couldn’t make the color I want in oil, so I’m going with latex. I am planning on using a 4-inch roller {the dresser is flat for the most part}. I noticed that you don’t use one. Is there a reason I shouldn’t? Also, if I use one, do I need to use the paint conditioner even though there will be no brush strokes?The bottle says that it can lessen the sheen of the paint, and I want a very high gloss finish.


  6. This is a great tutorial! I learned a couple of new things that make a lot of sense. One question: why not use a fan to speed up drying time? Thanks.

    1. Paint conditioner creates the longer dry time which allows the brush marks to level out, making your finish smoother. Also the fan will blow any dust, bugs or other debris in the area into your wet paint before it dries any brush marks into permanency!

      1. Wow. Talk about enlightened. Fabulous indepth tutorial.
        I will concur that latex paint if done properly (I’ve always used latex) will give you a better finish.
        I have used chalk paint to near perfect finishes and had great results but did have to ‘prep’ by thoroughly washing the piece until my cloth picked up nil. Sometimes 5 or 6 passes and waiting 24 hours until the wood was thoroughly dry.
        Thank you again for such a great tutorial…even if I have only seen it now 7 years later😉

  7. What are your thoughts on B.I.N. Primer by zinsser. I have used this for years and much prefer it to the oil based! It adheres really well too!

  8. Beth, if your trying to achieve a glossy finish, I wouldn’t recommend a roller.
    Too much orange peel, follow the same steps here and use a Lacquer paint. Or spray.

      1. Hi Beth~
        If you use paint conditioner, you will still get a slight texture, but it will be very slight.

        In fact, when I paint raised panel cabinet doors, I will sometimes use a roller instead of a brush, and the finish is beautiful. You can see more about that here: https://www.addicted2decorating.com/more-painting-tips-painting-cabinet-doors.html

        But as a general rule, I’m not a big fan of those rollers made for smooth surfaces. I personally find that the larger the surface, the harder it is to get rid of the ridges that are left by the edges of the roller. Even if I roll incredibly lightly over the surface to smooth out those ridges, they’re still there.

        I find that on large surfaces (like the top of a dresser or table), it’s a good idea to use the roller just to get the paint on fast, and then go back over with the brush. It has to be done fairly quickly, though, and with very long and smooth brush strokes, because even with the conditioner, latex paint will start to dry and the brush will start to drag if you try to do the entire large surface at once.

    1. As a former sign sign company owner I used foam roller brushes which are very specific industry to get a very smooth nice finish on my boards. Also I was using sign specific paint which is oil based and it flows very easily and flattens out extremely smooth and nice. If there is a sign shop in your area find out where the purchase their supplies. Or look in the phone book for a company that supplies sign shops with their shop supplies and paint. I could never find the rollers at Home Depot or Lowes or any of the big box stores.

      1. Hi Sandy, I had to respond to your post. My Dad owned a sign shop in WI. He was old school and hand lettered his signs. He retired just as decals were coming in. Of course he used the oil paints. I have his old paint kit and the paints are still good with the skin on top. The smell of his painting oils is one that is very nostalgic and takes me back to my childhood. Thanks again for the post and how it brought back memories. Elizabeth

  9. Kristi — You’ve outdone yourself! This is one of your very best posts. I’m a professional housepainter, so I recognize when someone speaks from experience. Thanks for sharing all these accurate tips, especially about the value of sanding. Besides the benefits you mention to sanding before priming, sanding lets you “get to know” every square inch of the piece you’re painting.

    I know your cabinets will look terrific.

  10. Some seriously great tips here Kristi! I am planning to paint my kitchen cabinet doors this fall… was thinking of using chalk paint and then sanding/varathane over top rather than wax. But if I go the tradition route with primer I will definitely follow all your tips. Thanks for them!!

    1. Haha! I just posted two days ago on the A2D Facebook page that among DIY bloggers, I think I’m the last holdout when it comes to using ASCP. I’ve never used it. 🙂

    2. I used it on a bathroom cabinet. It is vary dull and flat but smooth. Didn’t like it for solid painting but is good if you want some antique looking brush strokes here and there. The solid cabinet I did needed to have a coat of varnish or such over the paint which was a step I didn’t think I would have to do.

  11. Thanks so much, Kristi, for this great painting tutorial! I think I am going to be painting my kitchen cabinets this summer(still a little on the fence), but am pretty sure that’s the way I’m going. I have been painting for a long time, but I have never used the paint conditioner. It sounds like the trick to keep things moving smoothly. Thanks for sharing!

  12. This is really a great post. I want to do something with my cabinets in my bathrooms, and this gives so much detail. Do you have any suggestions for keeping the dust down some when sanding? That’s one of the most intimidating things for me.

  13. This post is full of fantastic tips and tricks! We’re working on our kitchen, with the cupboard doors on the list, and I’ll be referencing this post often. Thank you so much for all the help.
    Debbie 🙂

  14. Thank you for this very interesting post. I have heard of the product you mentioned called Floetrol but I’ve always thought it was something that was only used by faux finishers to give them more open time while they were working the paint. It makes alot of sense that you would want the paint thinner to minimize brush marks.

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  18. Hi Kristi
    How true about the sanding and conditioner; just finished all the trim and new doors in our 34 year old house. Just a word about a light sanding between finish coats as well with 400 grit sandpaper and wiping down with a damp rag ( not a tack cloth as that is for oil based paint). We had to apply two coats of Bin primer over the old pine trim work and sanded with 160 grit between coats then 220 after then the 400 between finish coats. Although the new mdf hollow core panel doors were said to have been primed it took three to four coats of acrylic furniture finish paint. I Wish I had primed them with an adherent primer. I did use the Purdy brush you described. The Floetrol conditioner has a pretty loose description for quantity proportions. I used one liter for a gallon of paint. I am painting a French 12 light door black . I thought I would use a roller on the larger parts. It looks terrible with all the roller marks showing so I will sand it and paint with the brush. Yyes the lights are all covered in the factory with an adhesive plastic so it makes light work of the edge painting. Love your posts.

  19. Excellent advice on the prep…you cannot skip those steps. I don’t use brushes (except for tight corners and such) because I use the 4 inch mini rollers (microfiber or velour only…NO FOAM) Personally, I think they are the greatest inventions for painting in forever…akin to ‘sliced bread’. And don’t feel alone in not using the chalk paint… I am also a hold out because you get a stronger finish using paint/urethane than flat paint/wax. Love your site!!

  20. So Awesome Kristi! I have used penetrol and floetrol for years! I lived next door to a man who rehabbed life guard boats and he was the person who taught the Crandall’s about the Awesome product. As far as brushes go – My garage is FULL of Purdy brushes. I love, love, love them and you can get no better brush period. Thanks for this as my kitchen cabinets are coming up to paint soon!!!

  21. Kristi,
    This post was perfect timing. We have just purchased a second home in Northern Michigan and I can’t wait to get started on the reno. I will reference your blog many times as this project grows. Thanks

  22. I just bought a house and I need to Paint the cabinets I am using all your suggestions here I see you use oil base paint for them but do you use interior gloss semi gloss flat or exterior on them??
    Thank you

  23. This may be a very elementary question but why do you sand again after priming? I thought you just sand before priming?

    1. Sanding before the primer get rid of imperfections on the surface of the furniture or cabinets. Sanding after the primer gets rid of imperfections in the primer. 🙂 You can even sand after the first coat of paint, although I seldom do that.

  24. Hi, I found this very interesting, as i am planning on painting my bathroom vanities and kitchen cabinets this summer. I was following another blogger who also used the same primer that you use, and she also made note the importance of sanding. She, however uses a self leveling paint in multiple coats and the finished product looked amazing. She did not use the flotrol, and she did use a foam roller for flat surfaces and a purdy brush for the edges. I am now wondering if the paint she is using is new to the market and might present a new approach, or if it has been around and is just a different way of achieving the same results? Any thoughts?

  25. Hi there, I have followed these instructions to a T but can’t seem to figure out if you recommend two coats of the oil paint. I can’t decide if I need two. Can you clarify this for me? Thank you! I love your blog.

  26. Kristi – I loved this post. This is exactly how I have always painted cabinets also – except for the paint conditioner. And I agree that sanding is key, and seriously, it’s really not all THAT much work, and worth every minute spent. Question for you though, I have always used Ben Moore paint, and their Advance paint is awesome and really does flow well. Have you tried it? And did you find that adding the Floetrol was needed? I will be doing some more painting and wanted to see what you thought about BM Advance and paint conditioners. Thanks so much. I LOVE TO PAINT!!

    1. Benjamin Moore Advance paint is what I used (and am still using) on my kitchen cabinets, which I hope to be finished with this week. My only complaint about that paint was the sheen. I used the satin finish, and it looked more semi-gloss to me. And I did NOT want semi-gloss paint. So I ended up spraying all of my cabinets with a topcoat of Rust-Oleum water-based polyurethane in a matte finish. It’s gorgeous.

      The sheen might not have bothered me in another color, like white or another light color, but in the dark green I used it was awful. But as far as how the paint went on, it was very smooth without a paint conditioner. I probably wouldn’t ever use a paint conditioner with the Advance paint unless I was using leftover paint that had been sitting a while and had gotten a bit thicker than it is when it’s new.

      1. Thanks for replying Kristi – I won’t try the paint conditioner then when I use BM Advance. I also used a dark green (pine something or other) on my cabinets in the satin but it didn’t look too glossy. I love the idea of the polyurethane in matte on top though, and that’s a really great tip. I do have a few dings on my cabinets that I bet would have been prevented with a top coat of poly. Lesson learned. Overall though, the BM Advance is pretty tough stuff. I also used it on all the cherry paneling in the kitchen – in BM Snowfall white. (I know, I know – you’re probably wincing at the thought of painting cherry paneling. BUT – seriously, the kitchen was dark, dark, dark and felt like an old fashioned dark den – not pleasant to work in at all.) Everyone that comes in can’t resist running their hands over the paneling and they just love it. Tons of work. Hand to clean it with a TSP solution, then wipe down with a deglosser because it was super glossy, two coats of BIN, and two coats of paint. This is the first time I didn’t do the sanding, for three reasons: it was nice and smooth already, it would not take the beating that cabinets/furniture would, and I was working with one arm in a sling after falling down the cellar stairs and breaking my shoulder/dislocating my arm. I caved to the ease of skipping the sanding that time. It still looks fabulous after 3 years. Go Ben Moore!!!

  27. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the time you have put into making this helpful and informative web site! I started my first paint project today assuming that it would be quite simple if I just sanded and used good products…. Brush strokes everywhere! Feeling defeated I have spent HOURS on the internet trying to find a solution. Your site was the first place I have been to with cut and dry helpful information. I will sand down the primer and invest in some paint conditioner. Thank you so much you have saved my furniture, my nerves, and quite possibly my marriage lol!
    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

  28. Hi Kristi,

    Thank you for the tips. I have a question. I actually bought the rust-oleum cabinet transformations kit, but i’ve ended up sanding and priming my cabinets (oddly enough the exact primer you suggested). I decided it wasn’t worth taking the shortcuts. It feels so great to see this blog and realize i was good to take the “long route.”

    I wanted to ask about the paint conditioner. I want to add it to the bond coat but i’m not sure if that’s a good idea because I can’t really tell if this is a paint or a stain and if it’s oil based or latex. It doesn’t say anywhere on the can.

    Can you offer any advice?

  29. I’ve followed recommendations from this site and others and I STILL have visible brush marks on my new cabinet doors. (Fortunately, I’ve only painted the backs of two doors.) I’m using good paint (Benj. Moore Satin Impervo), I’ve mixed in the recommended proportion of Penetrol scaled to the quart-sized container I’m using, I’ve used a good oil-based primer, sanded both primer and first coat of paint and I’m using a good brush for oils. All I can figure out is that the former sun porch I’m using (which has no air conditioning, just windows and closed blinds), is too hot, as in Texas in July. It’s pretty discouraging. I’m not sure what else to do other than practice on some scrap lumber in an air-conditioned room to see if the high room temperature was the culprit.

  30. “To avoid this, always paint the backs of the doors first, let them dry completely, and then flip them over and paint the fronts.”

    A cabinet maker had a time-saver for this. If a few little dots won’t matter, he would paint the back and then flip them over onto a drying board right away. His drying board was a piece of scrap material with 4 long nails driven right through. The back sat on the points (not the heads) of the nails. It had airspace to dry while he was painting the front. He ended up done in half the drying time, with only 4 little dots where the back rested on the points.

  31. My experience with Zinsser Cover Stain was the opposite of Kristie’s. It went on thick and looked and felt like corduroy when dry. (I used a good quality brush designed for oils.) It was very hard to sand smooth. Luckily, I only used it for touch-ups and didn’t ruin my whole project, an unfinished, paint-grade maple cabinet door. I immediately went back to Kilz Original, which sands easily and smooth. Others online have also had trouble with ZCS. One, who described himself as experienced with oil-based paints, said thinning didn’t help.

  32. When you suggest drying horizontally, are you saying that you lean the cabinet so it dries on its side upright rather than laying flat on the ground? Can you post photos?

    Thanks for the detailed post!

  33. Just found your site…. Great information! Do you have a post on re-staining cabinets? I have the honey oak stock cabinets from the late 80s/early 90s (they are in great shape) and am trying to decide between painting light or staining dark. Would appreciate any help!

    1. I don’t have any info on restaining. Since your cabinets are already finished (i.e., stained and sealed), you’d either have to completely strip them and then restain, or you’d have to use a gel stain. Gel stains are good, but they’re a bit fussy to work with, in my opinion. I think on pre-finished cabinets, painting is always the easiest option.

  34. Thank you! Just painted all the top cabinets in the kitchen and they look horrible!! I did sand before painting I did not prime or use the flood..Going to get the flood and prime the bottom and do it right. Then I will have to redo all the tops (sigh)

  35. Thank you for all your tips and tricks! I have one question… do you recommend sealing with poly? I’m painting my cabinets white with the Benjamin Moore ADVANCE latex paint. I know you used matte poly on your green cabinets because of the sheen issue but would you normally seal with poly?

    1. When using a high quality paint formulated specifically for cabinets, like BM Advance, there’s no need for a topcoat. That paint dries hard and is very durable on its own. I do personally have issues with the sheen, though. Interestingly, I’m repainting my kitchen cabinets right now, and once again, the Advance in a satin sheen is too shiny for my taste, so I’ll be topcoating with General Finishes High Performance water-based polyurethane in a matte finish. I sure wish Benjamin Moore would come out with an Advance paint in a matte finish!! That paint is awesome, and I feel like I’m wasting money paying for it and then topcoating it.

      1. Thanks for your advice! One less step is music to my ears. Hopefully the sheen is not too shiny for my tastes as well but since I’m going with a light color I’m hopeful. Can’t wait to see the pics of your repainted cabinets.

  36. Kristi,
    I have learnt this tutorial by heart, purchased the very same products, and have painted cabinets following every single step your describe.
    So far, it has worked incredibly well, and I thank you for sharing your expertise.
    I have “improved” your method to paint my metal filing cabinets: first applying a quality primer for metal
    I let it dry, sand lightly, then I use your method (starting with the primer you use).
    The finish is so good that one cannot tell it is not factory painted!
    Thank you for making those tutorial so clear.
    Will you make videos to support them?

  37. Additional hints from my mother, who painted woodwork better than anyone I’ve ever met. Paint from the dry surface into the wet surface, and use as few strokes as possible. Don’t go over the wet surface once you’ve laid down the paint. Let everything dry thoroughly then sand, doing as many coats as it takes (usually at least three has been my experience). Thanks for your tutorial.

  38. My cabinet maker suggested using a 3 inch straight Purdy brush. I noticed you used a 2 inch XL Cub brush for painting cabinet doors. What is your opinion? Also, I was not planning on taking the doors off. Will I have trouble painting the doors ?

    1. For me, a smaller brush is easier to control. A 2-inch is the perfect size. Anything smaller is too small, anything larger is hard to control. I would never paint the doors with them still attached. You’ll get paint on the hardware, and you lose the benefit of gravity helping to smooth out brush strokes. I prefer to take the time to do it right the first time.

  39. Thank you for a better way to paint my dated oak cabinets — I’m much better with a brush than a sprayer!