Painting Unfinished Cabinets

Beginner’s Guide to Painting Unfinished Cabinets

Paint your unfinished kitchen cabinets with this step-by-step guide, including tips for preparing, priming and painting your cabinets properly.

Any homeowner can tell you that most projects around the house will end up taking you more time and costing you more money than you initially planned. One of the coolest ways that you can save some money on your next kitchen remodel is by purchasing unfinished cabinets. All you need to do is know how to paint them and you can potentially save hundreds. 

This article we are going to give you a step-by-step guide on exactly how you can finish painting your unfinished cabinets. Before we begin let’s go over all of the things that you are going to need to be fully prepared for this project.

Painting Unfinished Cabinets

Preparing to Paint Unfinished Cabinets 

Gather Your Supplies

For this project, you will need some unfinished cabinets along with a few other pieces of equipment. You will need some kind of sandpaper or if possible a detailed sander. In addition to the paint that you will be using you also need paint sprayer, Primer and a few paint brushes

Once you have collected all of these items you can gather them into one central area as you prepare to start on the project. If you are worried about getting paint or other things somewhere else around the house then you may want to consider laying a tarp down in the area that you will be doing the work. 

This can help to make sure that anything that would have made a mess otherwise will instead just be collected on the tarp. That way you are able to focus on completing the job rather than cleaning up after yourself.

Clean The Cabinet

Cleaning is an essential step for any furniture paint preparation, even if it is brand new. While you might think it should be clean simply due to the fact it is new, even brand new furniture has been probably sitting in storage, collecting dust, dirt and cobwebs for months. For full instructions on cleaning your cabinet properly before painting, check out our article on how to clean furniture here.

Step-By-Step Guide on Painting Unfinished Cabinets 

Now that you have your work area set up and you have collected all of your supplies it is now time to begin working on your cabinets. The whole process should not take more than a few hours the first time around and more than likely if you have multiple cabinets The Second cabinet and on wards will go much more quickly.

#1 Take the Cabinet Apart Completely 

Now before we start applying any paint we need to make sure that the cabinets are ready to be worked on. The very first thing that you are going to do is remove all of the doors and drawers from the cabinet. Make sure that it is taken apart as completely as possible before you move on to the next step.

#2 Sand Each Part of the Cabinet until Smooth 

Sanding Kitchen Cabinets
Sand the cabinet until completely smooth

Now that the cabinet has been completely disassembled and every single part is laid out in front of you it’s time to start working on them. Before you apply any kind of Primer to the cabinet you are going to need to use store sandpaper or detail sander to work on the cabinets. Start with a coarse grit to sandpaper and work your way up until you hit around 200 or 220 grit sandpaper.

#3 Apply a Coat of Primer on the Cabinet 

After completing the sandpaper job on the cabinets it should now be smooth enough to start applying some Primer. It should be fine to use either water-based or oil-based Primer as long as the manufacturers of the cabinets do not recommend otherwise.

At this point, you need to be certain of exactly how much of the cabinet you are willing to paint. Sometimes you can get away with only painting the exterior of the cabinet and its doors, but other times you may want to apply paint to the interior of the cabinet as well.

This is more common if you are working on a project that is going to be used in a high-end setting. If you are going to be using a darker color for the paint then you may want to consider trying to use a tinted primer. Otherwise, you should be more than fine going with an untainted primer.

#4 Sand the Cabinets Again after the Primer Has Dried 

Once the Primer has been applied you now need to wait for it to dry. As the Primer drives you will most likely be able to see the grain of the wood start to reappear. Once the Primer has completely dried you need to go back over the cabinets entirely with sandpaper once again.

This time you can be a little more gentle as you have just applied some Primer and you did already sanded down once. You will need to repeat this step after each coat of paint or primer that you apply for the best results.

Otherwise, you could end up with a cabinet that still feels fairly rough to the touch at the end. After you have finished sanding down the cabinets once more we can now finally get our paint and paintbrushes out.

#5 Paint the First Coat 

It is finally time to apply the first coat of paint. At this point, you should have sanded the cabinets down entirely after disassembling them and applied a coat of primer to it. The cabinets should feel fairly smooth to the touch and have the glossy finish of a coat of primer.

Grab your paintbrushes and start off working around the cabinet. Since the cabinet is entirely disassembled you should approach how you paint everything with a strategy. You probably would be better off to start painting the body of the cabinet and once you have completed that moved to the doors and the drawers.

As you are painting with the first coat of paint do not be surprised if you start to experience some grain popping from the moisture as it comes into contact with the wood. This means that the crane will start to rise up once again.

#6 Sand the Cabinets Again 

If you can notice any signs that indicate that grain popping has occurred then you need to go ahead and get your sanding equipment out once more. There is a good chance that you will need to do this one final time after you have applied the final coat of paint to the project.

For this reason, it is recommended that you do not put the sanding equipment up after you are complete with this step. Go around the cabinet after the paint has completely dried to see any spots that have been raised up by the wood grain. Go over it with an extra-fine piece of sandpaper and do not press down too hard.

You do not want to end up taking off any of the paint that you just spent so much time applying. Once you have gone around the entire cabinet in ensuring that it is totally dry and smooth it’s time to move on to the next step and apply the final coat of paint.

#7 Apply a Second Coat of Paint 

The second coat of paint that you apply should be the final coat of paint that you apply. You will simply use the same paintbrushes that you use the first time and go around and do another coat. When you start off it would probably make sense to follow the same strategy that you used for the first coat. If you applied paint to the body of the cabinets first previously then use the same strategy this time around.

#8 Sand One Final Time Extra Carefully 

Whether or not you need to use your sanding equipment one final time is going to depend on the quality of the wood that is used in your cabinets. The lower quality that the wood is the more likely you will need to send it down a third and final time.

If on the other hand you happen to be using fairly high quality would the chances you will need to sand it down even a second time are much lower. If the wood grain has been raised at all go ahead and sand the entire cabinet down once more. Now we can move on to the final two steps.

#9 Install Hardware and Bumper Pads 

Installing Hardware on Cabinet
Install hardware after painting

At this point, your cabinets have been painted completely and only need to have the final touches installed on them. You can go ahead and reinstall the doors and drawers that you removed in the first step on your cabinets. Be extra careful as you are doing this because it is easy to scratch the newly painted cabinets. If you would like to be extra stylish then you can get your own handles for the doors, bumper pads and drawers. Install these on to the cabinets and you are almost entirely done.

#10 Add the Side Panels to the Cabinets 

This part will be optional but it can create a very impressive-looking kitchen. If you are going to install side panels on the cabinets then now is the time to do so. Pick out your favorite side panels and using the instructions that are provided with them to go ahead and install them on your cabinets.

Now you have completed the entire project. Way to go.


  • Todd Davis

    A jack of all trades, Todd has been a DIY enthusiast, traveler, and writer for many years. He has a deep understanding of all types of painting tools and door hardware, and has shared many articles on these topics throughout the years.

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