Painting Unfinished Cabinets

Table of Contents

Painting unfinished cabinets can transform a room. Remodeling a kitchen or bathroom can get expensive, and cabinet painting is one of the most expensive parts. To save money, you may want to figure out how to paint and finish those raw, unfinished cabinets yourself. If you don’t plan on enlisting professional help, you’ll still need a professional game plan to paint unfinished cabinets properly.

By properly painting unfinished cabinets, you can match the aesthetic you want and protect them from the years of abuse they’ll take. In this blog, we’ll show you how to paint unfinished cabinets in eight easy steps.

Supply List

  • Unfinished cabinets (preferably hardwood)
  • HVLP (high volume, low pressure) paint sprayer
  • Battery-operated drill or screwdriver
  • Painter’s tape
  • Wood glue
  • 5-in-1 painters tool
  • Rags
  • Ear plugs
  • Sanding sponges or orbital sander
  • Latex gloves
  • Cloth dropcloth
  • Charcoal face masks
  • Tack cloth
  • Chemical-resistant clothing
  • Goggles
  • Full-face charcoal mask or respirator

Choosing The Right Cabinets

The quality of your kitchen cabinets boils down to the material you choose and how you prepare, paint, and install it. You’ll want to use solid wood/hardwood material like alder, hickory, maple, oak, poplar, or walnut. Softwoods like pine and cedar aren’t great for cabinets. Pine emits terpenes and volatile organic compounds, which can cause health problems for people with asthma. Obviously, softwood won’t be as durable as hardwood.

Choosing The Right Paint

Most people choose whatever is recommended to them as long as it’s the right color. Not all cabinet paint is the same. You will generally have oil, alkyd, latex, and acrylic paint to choose from. Oil-based paint is preferred for cabinets due to its stain resistance, coverage, and ease of cleaning. If you open a cabinet with sticky or greasy hands, you can scrub away the residue if it’s on an oil-based surface.

You also need to consider the sheen. The best sheens for cabinets are semi-gloss, gloss, or satin. The higher the gloss of the paint, the better it is for cabinets because it is durable and easier to clean.

You must also consider the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that oil-based paints release more than others. Using paints high in VOCs near food can cause health issues. Water-based paint and acrylic alkyd tend to have fewer VOCs.

Disassemble Your Cabinets

The first thing we’re going to do when painting unfinished cabinets is prep the space. We’ll start by disassembling the cabinets. Theoretically, you can paint cabinets without disassembling them if you’re lazy, but you won’t get an even coverage or reach every nook and cranny. It’s also easier to achieve a drip-free surface if you paint on horizontal surfaces.

Important: We’ll now caution you that you must follow step 2 (label everything) while disassembling your cabinets.

Place the removed items where you can spray without getting paint on things. This could be a workshop, garage, or driveway.

Label Everything

In our mind, the most important of prep is to label everything. Create a diagram of the kitchen’s dimensions, including the number of doors and boxes. Label each box starting at one, then label each door as L and R for their corresponding box. Since you’re painting, you must remove the hinges and screws. Group hinges and screws, then place them in their own bags with a number + letter combo (4A for the top hinge on food four and 4B for the bottom hinge). Label the shelves with boxes A, B, and C or top, middle, and bottom.

Cover & Mask The Area

In the kitchen, mask all areas, including walls, countertops, flooring, and appliances. Use a cloth dropcloth for flooring. Protect walls and ceilings with plastic so you don’t spray unwanted areas. Sprayers produce over-spray, which can cause a huge mess and damage you can’t easily undo. This step takes time, but being able to prime and spray cuts back on the time it would take if you painted with a roller or brush.

Fill & Sand

Failing to sand cabinets can cause paint to peel off over time, especially in a high-trafficked area like a kitchen or bathroom. Sanding also helps to create additional pores for the paint and primer to sit in. Use medium-grade sandpaper so you don’t magnify imperfections in the wood. After sanding, brush or vacuum all the dust, then use a tack cloth to get the remaining dust off the surfaces.

If any holes or other areas need to be repaired, you can fill these holes now with wood filler. You may be filling holes from recently removed knobs and handles. Make sure to give yourself time to allow the filler to dry before sanding.


Use an oil-based primer with untreated wood because of its ability to seal the porous surface of the wood. Keep the exact same distance away from the cabinets (about a foot) while priming so you get a smooth finish. It takes oil-based primer the longest to dry and cure (2 hours and 24 hours, respectively).

Once dry, sand the unfinished cabinet door with 220-grit sandpaper to even out the primer. Dust can settle in the primer as it dries, so sand, then vacuum, and tack. The oil-based paint will provide the glue for the first and second coats of paint.


All the prep work leading up to painting was to prepare for a rather quick painting job using a sprayer. Sprayers give a much more even finish without visible brush strokes. Keep the exact same distance away from the cabinets (about a foot) while painting so you get an even finish. Also, start and finish your spray before and after making contact with the piece so you don’t get a bunch of paint in on a particular spot.

After the first coat of paint, lightly sand the unfinished kitchen cabinets. Next, apply another coat of prime, following the same process. Lightly sand when the prime is dry, then apply a second coat of paint.

Clean & Finish

Make sure that you give yourself time to clean up the area. When the paint has dried, remove the coverings from your countertops and appliances, as well as remove the tape from around the hinges and other areas. Be sure to slowly peel the painter’s tape so the line is straight and neat.

When you are done painting, you can re-attach the handles and knobs. You may find that the cabinets look so good that you want to buy entirely new hardware. Go for it!

Reattach Hardware

All organization work we did in the beginning makes reassembling easy. After the cabinets are completely dry, you can reinstall the hardware and put the cabinets back together. Use a stud finder to find the studs, screw the cabinets to each other if necessary, then drill them back into the studs.

Final Thoughts

Painting unfinished cabinets is not as daunting a job as many think. It is a job that is done well by professionals, but that does not mean that you cannot do it yourself. If you take your time, you can have professional-looking cabinets in your home.

If you follow our step-by-step guide, you can create a lasting look in your kitchen or anywhere else. This is something that you can do as long as you plan for it.

Of course, if you would rather call in the experts, that is fine too.