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How to take down and paint your kitchen cabinets and save a bundle

Photos by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

We moved into our 1976 house in 2010 knowing that it was a fixer-upper and that we wouldn’t be able to tackle all of the problems at once. But we knew that the house was in good enough condition that we could certainly live in it while we made updates.

My foremost thought was the kitchen. The cabinets were original to the house, which meant they were nearly 40 years old. I put in many hours trying to convince my husband that we needed to buy new ones, which could have cost us $10,000 for a stock cabinet collection — bottom of the barrel, uncustomized cabinets. If you take a trip to The Home Depot, you’ll see that for a 10-by-10-foot kitchen, they start at around $3,100 just for laminate. I already have laminate. If you want real wood, the prices start at $3,500. And keep in mind that this doesn’t include hardware or trim and that many kitchens are larger than 10 by 10.

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After making little headway with my husband and reviewing all the other projects that needed to be done, I realized new cabinets weren’t happening. That’s when I started talking about painting the old ones. I’m pretty sure he thought my reasoning was that we’d have no choice but to buy new ones after my amateurish paint job ruined the old ones.

Friends didn’t exactly encourage me, either.

“Don’t do it,” one warned. “They’ll chip on you.”

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“The paint won’t stick, and you’ll have a bigger disaster than you’re already dealing with” was another comment.

I paused. Maybe they were right. But then I started reading DIY blogs, and I realized there were a lot of people out there painting cabinets and magically transforming the epicenter of their house. It was my turn.

Research

Before (left) and after of Meghan Blomberg’s kitchen cabinets.

Right photos: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Before (left) and after of Meghan Blomberg’s kitchen cabinets.

At The Home Depot, I spoke with Angelica Fasci, a painter with hands-on experience. “Lots of people come in here looking for a solution to paint their kitchen cabinets. Information is your best ally, so do your research,” Fasci told me. “After that, prep will be the hardest part. Sand your cabinets, especially if you have a polyurethane cover, and sand. If you want it to last and make it worth your while, prep!”

Her advice was to go with a foam roller for the cabinet faces and an angled brush for the edges. A foam roller will leave the smoothest finish, she said, not lines or streaks like a brush will.

This was helpful. Still, I wanted more information. I made calls and poked around the Web.

“Paint is your best investment,” counseled Kathleen Welch, a broker with Jack Conway, Realtor in Hingham. If we were in the market to sell, “a quick face lift is one of the . . . easiest things that you can do,” she said. “A prospective buyer wants to envision living in your home. You don’t have to spend a bundle to make a good first impression.”

Her words became my mantra: “Paint is your best investment.”

My cabinets couldn’t get any worse. This was an investment for the future, no matter how long we stayed in the house. According to Jeanne Baron on This Old House Online, “This smart upgrade won’t cost you a lot of money but could help you clinch a deal if you’re trying to sell.”

Finally, there was Laura Gaskill, a contributor on Houzz.com, who posted: “Minor kitchen renovations bank the biggest return. If your kitchen is fairly current, you may want to leave it alone — remodeling a kitchen comes with a hefty cost, and you may only be able to recoup around 65 percent of your investment. Smaller updates such as painting or refinishing cabinets that are still in good shape. . . can refresh your kitchen’s look at a fraction of the cost.”

I was sold. “Paint is your best investment.”

Supplies

Step 1: Prep work

Take off the cabinet doors and pull out the drawers. All you need to remove your cabinet doors is a Phillips-head screwdriver. Label the back of each door with masking tape and make a coordinating map of your kitchen that shows where each “numbered cabinet/drawer” came from. This will save you a major headache later.

Leave your base and wall cabinets right where they are and use painter’s tape on areas where the wall or counter or backsplash meet the cabinets. Ideally, paint your cabinet doors and drawers in your basement or garage, where you can leave them to dry and harden between coats. Be sure to have the proper ventilation and to wear a mask.

Even if your cabinets are not quite as old as mine, buy new hinges. This is huge for updating the look. (If you really don’t want to spend the money, save the hinges, screws, and other hardware in baggies that have a slip of paper inside that says which cabinet they came from. If you go this route, at least use Goo Gone to wash the old hinges.)

Now, with the doors removed, wash them down (kitchens are full of grease and grime), which will help your primer and paint stick. I did this step in the front yard, and it was not fun. I started off using mineral spirits, but that stuff doesn’t smell nice, so I ended with simple soap and water. I think that worked just fine.

Step 2: Sanding and priming

The folks at Benjamin Moore told me all I’d need was Urethane Acrylic Satin Trim & Cabinet Enamel. No primer necessary. I told them I had laminate cabinets, and I even brought one in to show them. I had washed and sanded them, but six coats later, giving 24 hours to cure between each coat and with a 1-year-old running around, I had to disagree.

I headed off to The Home Depot again and found a hard-core primer that would work. I was told I needed an oil-based primer to make paint really stick to my old Formica cabinets. Research the type of cabinets you have and what primer will work best, then ask two sources to be sure you’re getting the right answer. I chose Zinsser Oil-Based Cover Stain Primer because it’s made to stick to glossy surfaces, and my laminate from 1976 is glossy.

I covered our pool table with newspaper, layered it with a bunch of old cardboard, and rotated cabinets on and off that. Another great idea is to put pushpins on the inside of the cabinet doors and lay the doors, face up, on a dropcloth in the garage or basement. (If they lie flat, you’ll have a tough time painting the sides, so you’ll need them off the ground.)

Get going

My best advice: Start with the least noticed cabinet. For me, that was a door behind the island. I had sanded down each cabinet, but I’m not sure if that’s necessary on laminate when you’re using the Zinsser. I used two coats of primer because my cabinets were very dark, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t putting six coats of paint on any more of them.

Step 3: Paint and cure. Paint and cure. Paint and cure.

Use a roller on your cabinets and then a brush to get the globbed paint in and out of corners. You want to see a smooth surface each time that you finish a coat. I checked each cabinet between coats and sanded out any drip marks.

When you are working on the drawers, do not paint the slides. This will affect how they go in and out. Also, do not paint the back side of the drawer front.

After you’ve gotten started on the cabinets and drawers, apply painter’s tape to the edges of the cabinet frames and along the counters and appliances. Wash, sand, prime, and paint the frames just as you did the doors and drawers.

Step 4: Hang up your masterpieces, add your new hardware.

Ideally, you want to have your painted cabinets cure for three or four days so the paint is nice and hard and they won’t chip when you hang them. I’d also recommend applying a coat of polyurethane to seal everything. However, I ran out of time for both of these steps, and my cabinets are just fine so far.

My grand scheme was to get them up before my 1-year-old’s birthday party. If you ever want to get something done, plan a party. They’re a great way to compel you to complete a project.

My husband had no faith I’d finish in time, so I was proud to prove him wrong. I finished painting the cabinets at 8 o’clock on the morning of the party. We finished hanging the last cabinet around noon, after only two of our guests had arrived. Point being, I certainly didn’t let them cure as long as they should have.

Make sure you have a friend or a spouse help you hang everything. With two people, it’s fast and easy to reassemble your entire kitchen. I think my husband and I did it in 20 minutes.

They may not be new cabinets, but they sure look new. The paint still looks great, and it’s easy to clean. It’s held up to a puppy and his claws and collisions with a 3-year-old and all of his riding toys, trucks, and cars.

Make no mistake, refinishing cabinets is a fair amount of work. But almost anyone can do it with time blocked off and a little bit of patience. And for less than $200 (see supply list) you’ll feel like you’re living in a brand-new kitchen. Our cabinets are about 40 years old, but you’d never know it.

Meghan Blomberg is a freelance writer whose blog is called “My Two Pats and a Pup: Home improvement in the Boston burbs.” Send e-mail to Address@globe.com.
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