DIY Basics

Painting Kitchen (And Bathroom) Cabinets – Pros & Cons Of Four Different Methods I’ve Personally Used

I get quite a few emails with various DIY questions each day, and for at least the last three years, the majority of those questions have been about painting furniture and cabinets. I think this is a topic that makes many new DIYers a bit anxious because (1) painting cabinets is a huge job, and it’s one that you want to do right the first time, and (2) there’s no definitive “right way” to do it. There are various options, and loads of different products available.

So when people ask me specifically, “How do you paint kitchen cabinets?” I’m always at a loss for how to answer that. There’s just so much information I want to share, but it’s too much to go into in an email or a Facebook comment.

Since I’ve used four different methods to paint cabinets in the last few years, I wanted to share my thoughts on each one.

painting kitchen cabinets

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Painting Cabinets With Oil-Based Paint:

Oil-based paint will always be my absolute favorite when it comes to the actual process of painting. Kelly Moore is my brand of choice, and with a little Penetrol (paint conditioner, like Floetrol, made specifically for oil-based paints) added to the paint, it glides on so beautifully and dries so slowly that most (if not all) of the brush strokes disappear completely. It’s by far the most durable paint finish. There are companies who claim their latex paint is just as durable as oil-based paint, and while some do come close, they’re just not the same.

I used oil-based paint on the kitchen and breakfast room cabinets in the condo…

You can click here to see more of the condo kitchen, and click here to see more of the condo breakfast room.

Here are my thoughts on oil-based paint for kitchen cabinets:

Pros:

  • It’s easy to brush or spray, and with paint conditioner added, brush strokes disappear.
  • The finish is incredibly durable. It dries very hard, and resists scratches and chips more than any latex finish.
  • It’s easy to keep clean, and you can use mild cleaning products on it with no fear of damaging the finish.

Cons:

  • Clean up of brushes and tools after painting is a bit of a pain since you can’t use soap and water.
  • It dries very slowly, so any oil-based paint project will take multiple days, even if you’re just painting a tiny bathroom vanity.
  • It yellows over time.

A clear topcoat isn’t needed with oil-based paints. It’s durable enough on its own.

The biggest drawback to oil-based paint is that it yellows over time. This means that if you do have a scratch or chip that needs touchup, and it’s been more than about eight months since the cabinets were painted, the new paint won’t match the old. Whether or not the difference is enough to be noticeable and actually draw attention depends on the age of the original paint finish and the color. Some colors (e.g., white) show the color difference more than others (e.g., black, navy blue, charcoal).

Painting Cabinets With Latex Paint:

Just plain ole latex paint is pretty much all I ever use on bathroom cabinets.

condo after 16

Here are my thoughts on painting cabinets with latex paint…

Pros:

  • It can be brushed or sprayed.
  • It’s easy to use and cleanup is a breeze with soap and water.
  • With paint conditioner added, you can get a pretty close-to-flawless finish even with a brush.
  • It dries quickly, so small projects (e.g., painting a small bathroom vanity) can be done in one day.
  • It doesn’t yellow over time, so touchups on scratches and chips is possible at any point.

Cons:

  • It’s not as durable as oil-based paint, and will scratch and chip easier.

Here’s how my hallway bathroom vanity looks today, two-and-a-half years after I painted it with Behr latex paint.

bathroom vanity with worn paint

You can see how the paint has worn off of the top edge on the drawer front. I honestly have no idea how that happened, but I suspect it’s something that Matt does when he uses that bathroom. That bathroom is a tight fit for him in his wheelchair, and I think his arm brushes against that drawer edge as he wheels himself in and out.

The good thing is that it’s just latex paint. It would take me about 30 minutes to remove that handle, lightly sand the drawer front with 220-grit sandpaper, paint a new coat of paint on the drawer front, wash my brush out, and screw the handle back on. Quick, easy, and good to go for about another 2.5 years.

Painting Cabinets With Waterborne Alkyd (Oil-Based) Paint:

I don’t understand the science behind it, but these paints are advertised as paints with the best qualities of oil-based and latex combined into one paint. I’ve tried both Sherwin Williams ProClassic and Benjamin Moore Advance. I really didn’t like ProClassic at all, but BM Advance is amazing paint. It’s what I used on my kitchen cabinets.

teal kitchen - view of wall of cabinets from living room doorway

Here are my thoughts on waterborne alkyd paints for cabinets:

Pros:

  • It’s more durable than latex, and dries to a very hard, washable, scrubbable finish.
  • It doesn’t yellow over time.
  • It’s easy to use and can be sprayed or brushed with a beautiful finish.
  • Cleanup is easy with soap and water.

Cons:

  • It takes a lot longer to dry than latex, but not as long as oil-based. So you probably can’t do quick, one-day projects with waterborne alkyd paints.
  • They say you’re not supposed to add paint conditioner to it. That’s not an issue if you’re working with a brand new can of paint that you’ve just opened, which actually brushes on almost as beautifully as oil-based paint with paint conditioner added. But if the can isn’t new, it can be a problem, as it won’t brush on as beautifully and the brush strokes don’t smooth out as much.
  • I have the hardest time with the sheen. I don’t know if it’s just Advance, or if it’s all waterborne alkyds, but the sheen is way too shiny for my taste. I prefer a true satin finish, but even when I use Advance in a satin finish, the sheen looks more like a semi-gloss. I think the darker the color, the shinier it looks, so it might not be as much of an issue if (1) you like shiny finishes, or (2) you’re painting your cabinets white.

Painting Cabinets With Latex Or Waterborne Alkyd With A Clear Topcoat:

Whether or not clear topcoats are needed or even beneficial depends upon what the actual goal of using a topcoat is. I’ve actually used clear topcoats over my kitchen cabinets painted with Benjamin Moore Advance the last two times I painted them.

kitchen after - wall of cabinets

And I’ve also used clear topcoats over latex paint. So here are my thoughts…

Pros:

  • Topcoats can be used to improve sheen issues on painted cabinets.
  • They can add durability to surfaces coated with latex paint as long as you use a quality topcoat.

Cons:

  • Adding a clear topcoat can and will make touchups more difficult, requiring more sanding, and a two-step re-coating for covering scratches and dings.

So are topcoats really needed? That depends on your goals, and what type of paint you use.

Waterborne alkyd paints don’t need a clear topcoat for durability. They’re durable enough on their own. The only reason I used a clear topcoat over my cabinets painted with Advance paint is because I just couldn’t live with the semi-gloss sheen of the Advance paint. So I topcoated them (both the green and the teal) with a clear coat in a flat finish to dull the sheen.

With latex paint, whether or not you use a topcoat is completely a personal choice. Yes, it can and will add durability to the finish. But it’s still not indestructible. So if you do get a chip or scratch, and you’ve used a clear coat, then you’ve made the touchup process a bit more difficult.

My personal recommendations are:

  • If you use waterborne alkyd paint, and you can live with the glossy sheen, don’t use a clear topcoat. It’s not needed at all, since the paint itself will dry very hard and durable. This will make touchups easier as well.
  • If you use latex paint on kitchen cabinets, I would suggest a clear topcoat.

Just be aware that not all clear coats are created equally. I personally hate Minwax Polycrylic and would never get it near my cabinets. In fact, I’d never use it at all. Rust-Oleum Ultimate Polyurethane (which is water-based) is a much better product than Minwax Polycrylic. It’s what I used on my green cabinets. But it’s still just a mid-range product. It’s fine for furniture projects, like tops of dressers and credenzas, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of painting and topcoating kitchen cabinets, it’s not the best.

The absolute best clear topcoat I’ve ever used is General Finishes High Performance Topcoat (purchased here on Amazon), which is what I used on my teal cabinets in my current kitchen. I used the flat finish, which is beautiful and is actually somewhere between an eggshell and satin finish. It’s the only brand of clear coat I use now.

 

So those are the products I’ve tried personally. I really hope it helps make the decision-making a bit easier! And if this list has just created more questions, please feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to help.



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42 Comments

  • Reply To This Comment
    Elle
    August 24, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I hope you will experiment with fortified paint next. I think this is how I will tackle my kitchen cabinets.

    • Reply To This Comment
      Athena
      August 24, 2017 at 10:43 am

      I think I read about this just yesterday. Fortified paints are just mixing latex paint with a water based poly, right? I need to repaint our cabinets since the current paint job done by the previous owners is just horrible (brush strokes everywhere, puddled globs of polyurethane than have dried yellow over white paint and the paint didn’t fully cover the old finish so you can see that in some areas) and this whole fortified paint looked like the perfect answer to getting a strong, durable finish in an easy manner.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Sue
    August 24, 2017 at 10:23 am

    Thank you for this post. I have plans to tackle the cabinets in my kitchen and both bathrooms in the next year. All are older cabinets but the $$ is not there to replace so repainting will be my option. I want to do it correctly so these tips will come in handy. Your cabinets always turn out so beautifully.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Etta V Kelley
    August 24, 2017 at 10:45 am

    I noticed that Benjamin Moore Advance comes in a matte finish. Did you ever try it? If the satin finish is more like a gloss I wonder if the matte is more like a satin.

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kristi
      August 24, 2017 at 10:55 am

      The man at Benjamin Moore here in Waco said that satin was the lowest sheen available. Perhaps it’s because of the color I needed? I know that some colors are only available in certain bases, so maybe the colors I used weren’t available in the matte finish.

      • Reply To This Comment
        MICKEY
        August 24, 2017 at 9:12 pm

        I agree with u that it may b the color. I painted my cabinets with Advanced primer & paint in a light tan / beige. The finish was a perfect satin finish. No gloss at all. Really great to have your experience with darker colors. I will always use this paint. BEst I’ve ever used.

        • Reply To This Comment
          Sherry
          August 30, 2017 at 6:36 am

          Did you use the satin or matte finish? I have also found that the satin has to much of a sheen.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Kathleen Rupp
    August 24, 2017 at 11:13 am

    YES…Benjamin Moore advance is my favorite paint! We used it on our cabinets 5 years ago and there are hardly any wear marks still. It is a really awesome paint. We also used a satin (linen white) but maybe being a lighter color the sheen never seemed too shiny to me. I even use it on furniture if it is a piece that I know the kids will be around because it is so tough. Thanks so much for all your pros and cons with the different paints! They are all so different so this is a great handy cheat sheet:) pinned:)

  • Reply To This Comment
    Susan
    August 24, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Do you use the same paint for the baseboards and door trim as you do for the cabinets?

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kristi
      August 24, 2017 at 11:19 am

      Nope. I use Behr in a satin finish for my trim. Semi-gloss is standard for trim, but I really, really don’t like shiny paint. 🙂

    • Reply To This Comment
      Susan
      August 24, 2017 at 11:19 am

      I should say, the same kind of paint because obviously you are using a different color so it is a separate paint… 😀

  • Reply To This Comment
    Rebecca B
    August 24, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Wow! Has it really been 2 1/2 years since you re-did your bathroom? I can’t believe it! I did not realize that I had been following the Kristi blog for that long. (And longer) I am glad that you posted a picture of your “new” kitchen because i don’t recall that you actually had a picture posted with everything re-done. It looks so nice with the re-finished concrete countertops and all cabinets painted. Interesting to have the same view in green and teal and to be able to compare them.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Rochelle Blackford
    August 24, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I can’t believe it’s been 2 1/2 years also!! Been following you a long time. You condo kitchen was my inspiration to do my kitchen. Thank You for that. My question is do you remove the doors and lay them on a flat level surface when you paint them? Or do you paint them while they are hung?

  • Reply To This Comment
    Donna
    August 24, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    You mentioned one time something to coat oak cabinets with before painting to fill in the texture of the wood for a smoother finish. Was that you? Do you have a suggestion if it wasn’t you? Thanks. You are a pro!

    • Reply To This Comment
      Patricia
      August 24, 2017 at 2:41 pm

      It was Kristi ! I would like to hear her final thoughts on the product used to fill in the oak grain also.
      Also, does a top coat change the feel of the cabinet? Is it still smooth or is it more grainy feeling when you use a clear coat? Thanks.

  • Reply To This Comment
    CeeCee
    August 24, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    You have impeccable timing :)!!! I was just about to go through your previous posts looking for this info. Thanks so much for making it so easy for us.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Tenney
    August 24, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    I bet this is a stupid question – but what if you don’t know what kind of paint was previously used on the cabinets? Does sanding address that problem – meaning just rough-up type sanding, not taking the finish off totally.

    Any help is appreciated – I’m getting tired of looking at red cabinets.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Joyce
    August 24, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks for such an informative post. I’m sure it will be very useful for many.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Rebecca Neustel
    August 24, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    Have you had occasion to use any of the furniture paint created for Black Dog Salvage? It comes in a matte finish, and they also have a topcoat called Guard Dog Topcoat. It also comes in matte.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Trudy vanGiessen
    August 24, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Kristi,
    I was not sure how to reach you . SO hoping you respond to this. I also love GF HP top coat. I am doing a very fine grained top of a kitchen table and am not able to get a brush free top. How did you achieve this with this top coat. I have striped off and sanded off many times. Grr!!! I was looking at their extender but figured after reading this post that you may have dealt whit issues of getting smoothe no streak finish. Have tried sponge, roller, rag you name it cant seem to find answer on line either

  • Reply To This Comment
    Caitlin
    August 25, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Thank you for this post! We are preparing to paint our kitchen cabinets and it will be our first major DIY project (new homeowners!). Do you have any tips for preparing the cabinets prior to painting? Or perhaps a previous post?
    Thank you!

  • Reply To This Comment
    GJS
    August 25, 2017 at 9:40 am

    What paint do you recommend for front doors? Ours is 10 years old and after changing the door handle, needs to be cleaned up and painted. I want to get something that will last.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Khadija
    August 25, 2017 at 10:16 am

    This is awesome info, thank you. I wanted to share my experience with BM Advance- the white does yellow over time. I painted a door and some other stuff with BM Advance in white and two and a half years later the things I painted are now a light creamy- taupish color. I just wanted to tell people because it would be heart-breaking to work so hard to paint your cabinets white with Advance and then have them turn a completely different color. Perhaps white is the only one of their colors which yellows? On another note, we painted an outside swing with Advance in another color and it has held up absolutely beautifully with no yellowing and it’s protected the swing as well.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Laura
    August 25, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you so much for this information! I keep putting off painting my kitchen cabinets but I really hate the dark wood stain! I would also appreciate a similar post comparing pros and cons of the techniques used–brush vs. that small sprayer etc.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Karen
    August 26, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Just wanted to add a word of warning here. Since you painted your cabinets teal I don’t think this was an issue for you. I painted mine white with BM Advance paint and used the same general finishes topcoat you did. They yellowed BIG TIME. Like within a couple weeks. So I’m going to re-do them and ditch the topcoat this time around… Just wanted to put that out there for any that are considering the same process.

    • Reply To This Comment
      Taylor
      September 14, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Is there any topcoat to use on white Paint?

    • Reply To This Comment
      Cynthia H
      October 28, 2017 at 8:29 am

      Hi – I came across an article that stated Fine Paints of Europe (they are based in Vermont…go figure) Paints guarantee not to yellow….it is expensive like $100 a can, but may be worth it for painting a kitchen.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Ardith
    August 29, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Hello, Kristi. I hope you and Matt and your property are all doing fine in the wake of the effects of the hurricane. Best wishes, Ardith

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kimberly
      August 29, 2017 at 7:05 pm

      I second this. Hoping all is well for you and Matt and your family in the aftermath of this horrible hurricane! It was much more far-reaching that we here on the west coast thought it was going to go, and am wondering just how you all are doing? Thinking of you and wishing you the best. The blog updates can obviously wait.

      **ETA: just checked your Twitter, Instagram, and now your Facebook page to see your FB update that all is well with you, and that you weren’t effected by the hurricane. *WHEW!* Glad you are well, will wait until September 1 for a blog update! Take care!**

      • Reply To This Comment
        Ardith
        August 30, 2017 at 8:46 am

        Thank you, Kimberly, for the update and phew is right. I don’t do Facebook or Instagram, so I’m glad to hear Kristi and Matt are well. Now just holding my breath for everyone affected by the hurricane. Best wishes to everyone, Ardith

  • Reply To This Comment
    Kathy
    August 29, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Doggone it, Kristi! I’ve checked your website THREE times today and you haven’t posted a thing for me. Do you know what it’s like to be addicted to Addicted to Decorating? Well, do you? I need my fix! (heavybreathing****panicattack****emergencyroomvisit****monthsoftherapyforcompulsiontodrinkpaintandswallownails). This is serious business!!

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kathy from Tennessee
      August 30, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      LOL! I feel your pain!
      Another Kathy…from Tennessee

  • Reply To This Comment
    designdreamer
    September 3, 2017 at 10:20 am

    Hoping all is well with you Kristi! I’m also one wondering how you prepare your cabinets especially IF/how you removed the paint. i.e., chemical stripper, sanding? From the green to the teal.

  • Reply To This Comment
    Erin
    September 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this post!

    My next big project is the kitchen and repainting some truly hideous red cabinets and I didn’t know how to start.

    I’m going to try the Benjamin Moore Advanced (Waterborne Alkyd) and dive in!

    Thanks again!
    Erin

  • Reply To This Comment
    Samantha
    December 4, 2017 at 7:33 am

    Awesome information, thanks for putting together this list. I am in need of redoing my bathroom cabinets and will be using your guide to help me pick out my next paint choice. The top coat you recommended (General Finishes High Performance Topcoat ) is the same I used as well, great stuff!

  • Reply To This Comment
    Prim
    April 17, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Hey Kristi!

    Just found your blog and I’m LOVIN’ IT!!!

    About to buy our forever home (I hope) and found you and your wonderful DIY projects. I’m a black thumb when it comes to DIY projects but your pictures have inspired me.

    I’ve searched but can’t seem to find a list of the paint colors from your condo. Would you, or anyone else reading this comment, be able to point me in the right direction?

    Keep those projects and pictures coming…I might actually be able to do one or two. If not, I can look and your’s all day!

    Thanks!
    Prim

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kristi
      April 17, 2018 at 5:34 pm

      Hi Prim~
      Congrats on your forever home! I don’t think I have the condo colors in one place. Is there a specific paint color you’re searching for?

  • Reply To This Comment
    BRIDGET
    September 27, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    If you use General Finishes top coat, do you have any experience or an opinion on General Finishes Milk Paint?

  • Reply To This Comment
    Lisa
    November 10, 2018 at 7:19 am

    So, priming. Is there a brand of primer you like, and do you use the sprayer for it too??

    • Reply To This Comment
      Kristi
      November 10, 2018 at 8:41 am

      I always use Zinsser oil-based Cover Stain. You’ll get a much better and smoother finish if you brush on the primer, let it dry, and sand with 220-grit sandpaper.

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