Kitchen DIY Renovation Pt. 1: Cabinet Makeover – Cheaper Than New Custom Cabinets?

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Before image of kitchen cabinets with original wooden finish

After image of kitchen cabinets painted with white milk paint

Before image of kitchen sink cabinets with original wooden finish

After image of kitchen sink cabinets painted with white milk paint

Before image of kitchen island cabinets with original wooden finish

After image of kitchen island cabinets painted with white milk paint

Ever since we placed our offer on our home months ago, I always knew that if and when we moved in that it would definitely need a modernized facelift. The house was built in 1993, so there’s well, uh, a lot to improve.

I know what you’re thinking: why do the cabinets first? To me, the kitchen is the heart of the home. I’m always spending time in the kitchen, whether it’s cooking for Jun and I or cooking for guests. And since the family room is connected to the kitchen, I spend a lot of time plopped on the couch just a few feet away, watching TV while working on my laptop. So I felt that the kitchen was my first priority, and thus, a fresh set of cabinets would be the biggest upgrade.

How come we didn’t buy new cabinets? Let me tell you something: cabinets are no small investmentBetter Homes and Gardens estimated that the cost of 30 cabinets in an average-sized kitchen can be between $15,000 – $45,000. That’s about as much as our down payment was! So I thought it was wiser to spend a few hundred dollars on supplies to give our cabinets a DIY facelift.

I should probably be upfront and tell you not to expect to spend under $100. Many DIY blogs might say that this is a cheap project, but you might wind up having to buy more supplies as you progress through it.

I wound up spending about $350 in total (but compared to $15,000+, this was really just chump change). We used about 2 gallons of paint for the kitchen cabinets since we painted the insides and messed up quite a few cabinets as well, though I would imagine that if you were to paint just the outsides you could perhaps get away with 1 gallon.

Okay, enough backstory – continue reading below for my step-by-step progress! Lengthy post ahead.

Supplies Needed

  • General Finishes Milk Paint (Snow White): It is pricey, but it dries very quickly and doesn’t require as much prep work as other paints. Also available for $15 less on Home Depot, online only.
  • General Finishes High Performance Satin Finish: This is optional. Milk paint dries hard on its own and holds up very well in the kitchen and bathrooms, but if you would like extra peace of mind and a slightly glossier finish, 1 gallon should be enough for all the cabinets in your house. Also available at Home Depot, online only.
  • Krud Kutter Prepaint Cleaner: If you have relatively smooth cabinets, you can get away without having to sand or de-gloss the cabinets and use this instead. Also available at Home Depot.
  • Scotch Brite Scrubbing Sponges: An essential for cleaning off all that buildup and crud on your cabinets!
  • Cleaning Rags: You’ll definitely want these for cleaning the cabinets. That’s a given! Try to use lint-free rags.
  • (Optional) Mouse Sander: If your cabinets aren’t smooth, a mouse sander will help sand off paint and give a smooth surface for your paint to adhere to.
  • Paper Drop Cloth: Essential for protecting your floors and workspace
  • Foam Brushes: I find that these work much better than bristle brushes when it comes to painting cabinets. With a light touch, they prevent brush strokes from showing on the paint. Plus, they’re disposable!
  • Roller Brush Kit: This kit comes with a paint tray and a variety of roller brushes to cover larger surfaces like the sides of the cabinet frames.
  • Shur-Line Paint Edger: If you’re painting the inside of the cabinets, this will be an absolute life-saver for getting into the corners and covering a lot of surface area quickly. Cheaper at Home Depot.
  • Frog Tape: About $2 more than regular blue painter’s tape, but worth the cost. It’s extremely sticky and helps so much with creating clean and crisp lines.
  • Paint Pyramids: Cut down wait time and use paint pyramids to paint one side of a cabinet door while the other side is drying.

Step 1: Remove Cabinet Doors and Label Cabinets and Hardware

Remove everything from the countertops and clean out your cabinets. I suggest placing your belongings in a separate room so that you have ample workspace.

After you’ve done that, rip up some small pieces of Frog Tape and label your doors (ie. “below sink, left door”). This is an important step because using the wrong doors will result in crooked installation.

Start removing the cabinet doors from the hinges. Loosen the top-most and bottom screws followed by the others and then while holding the door, remove all the screws. This prevents the door from potentially flying off and helps a lot with larger doors. Then you can remove the hinges from the cabinet frame. I would also recommend bundling the screws and hinges per cabinet and taping them onto their respective door.

Step 2: Clean and Sand Cabinet Boxes and Doors

Use your vacuum hose attachment and clean off any dust and crumbs off the cabinet boxes and crevices of the door faces. Then spray down the cabinet surfaces with Krud Kutter and wipe down with some lint-free rags. For grime or hardened drips of paint from a previous paint job, use Krud Kutter and scrub away with the Scotch Brite scrubbing pads.

You may notice that the Krud Kutter will lighten up the existing finish of the cabinets. Krud Kutter is a substitute for TSP (trisodium phosphate), which is used to clean grease and grime. Aside from TSP being an extremely harsh chemical cleaner, you also have to rinse off any surfaces cleaned with TSP very thoroughly or else the paint won’t adhere.

With Krud Kutter you also don’t have to wait before painting: simply wipe off the Krud Kutter so the surface is dry and start painting! If your cabinets have an uneven texture, you might want to smooth down the surfaces with a mouse sander, especially if there’s buildup where the hinges were mounted. Mouse sanders are easy to use: it’s basically shaped like a small iron and you would go over the surface with it like ironing clothing.

Step 3: Paint!

Be sure to use your Frog Tape and tape off the walls, countertops, and floor if you paint the baseboards like I did. Spread the drop cloth across your floors and adhere it to the baseboards with Frog Tape to protect your workspace.

After doing several days’ worth of online research I decided to use General Finishes Milk Paint in Snow White. It’s definitely nowhere near as affordable as paint from your local Home Depot, but since I wasn’t coughing up the money for brand-new cabinets I figured I could splurge on premium paint to extend the life of my cabinets. GF paints have great coverage, dry hard and quickly, don’t require priming or sanding, and look beautiful on cabinets. And because I was able to get my cabinets done in about a week by myself, I felt that the cost was well-worth the reduced project time and convenience.

I recommend painting the inside of the cabinets first (if they’re unfinished or dirty like mine were), then the outside, followed by the backs of the cabinet doors, and then the front. After you complete one “pass” you can repeat the cycle as the paint should be dry enough to do another coat. Be sure to go back and examine corners of drying paint to touch-up any paint drips.

Helpful Painting Tips:

  • If possible, remove/pull-out appliances like the fridge, oven/microwave and range hood. We didn’t paint the area below the range hood because we will be changing that out very soon, so we’ll paint that spot when that time comes.
  • Unscrew the outlet faceplates – it’s faster than taping them and doing a sloppy job
  • Stir the paint before you use it, or you’ll have inconsistencies in the paint. If you have a power drill you can get this $5 drill attachment to easily stir the paint.
  • Overlap areas of wet paint to prevent paint streaking.
  • Paint in “W” shapes instead of up and down to maximize coverage.
  • Paint the back of the doors first all at once and then when you finish them, flip them over on the paint pyramids and paint the front.
  • Use thin coats to prevent dried drip marks. Milk paint dries fast so you can work quickly and do 3 layers in a few hours.
  • Always wash your brushes after use unless you intend to dispose of them after each use. When paint hardens it is impossible to remove from brushes and you will have to throw them away.
  • If you lay the paint on too thick, you can lightly sand between coats to achieve a smooth finish. You can use a fine-grit sandpaper for small spots or a mouse sander for larger surface areas.

One thing I highly advise is that, no matter how little space you have, NEVER leave your cabinet doors outside overnight to dry. Jun stayed up late one night to do the final coat on almost half of the doors and left them out in the backyard to dry overnight, but the moisture made the paint peel and my effort and 2 coats of expensive paint were pretty much wasted. He definitely got an earful, poor guy… he was just trying to help.

Cabinet door left outside with peeling milk paint

Mouse sander used to sand off peeling milk paint

Using my trusty mouse sander I was able to sand down all the peeling paint and get the surface back to a smooth finish to repaint them. This time I dried them INSIDE in another room on the floor.

Drying cabinet doors inside

Step 4: Apply Finish

This step is optional but highly recommended. Milk paint dries flat but slightly glossier than chalk paint, and I actually like the look of it without a topcoat. However, with the kitchen being exposed to food, grease and water, I felt it was better to take precautions and use the High Performance Satin Finish. Also important: wait at least one full day after your final coat of paint before applying the finish. The longer, the better.

I noticed that the cabinets yellowed a little bit after the finish dried, even though I applied 2 thin coats. After doing some research I read this FAQ from General Finishes saying that wood surfaces react unpredictably to the finish and it is much more visible with bright colors like Snow White. Had I known this I may not have used the finish, but I still like how much extra protection it offers. GF is currently working on a brushable formula for their Enduro White Poly which would minimize yellowing, but until then, you’ll either have to skip a topcoat or stick with the High Performance Satin.

If you try using Antique White or Seagull Gray you might have better luck with less yellowing. Ps., Seagull Gray is beautiful and I almost regret not going with that color.

Step 5: Mount the Doors

We’re in the home stretch! Very carefully, attach the hinges to the doors and then attach the hinges to the cabinet frames using a regular screwdriver instead of a power drill. You want to screw them in slowly so that you don’t strip them.

Our hinges were worn and many cabinet doors weren’t staying shut, so I had to get brand new hinges. If you upgrade your hinges, make sure to get the right size and type that fit your doors. Take measurements and do some research.

Luckily the hinges I got were $36 for 25 pairs, exactly the amount I needed for my kitchen – and they match my satin nickel handles and knobs too. It wound up being way cheaper buying them online than at my local hardware store!

Aileen Luib installing cabinet handles on freshly painted cabinets

Step 6: Add Handles and Knobs

Just like hinges, cabinet knobs and handles can be anywhere between $3 – $5 and even up to $10 each. It might not sound like a lot, but it does add up when you think about how many cabinet doors you have.

Of course, though, Amazon carries everything, and home improvement materials are no exception. I got 2 packs of these beautiful AmazonBasics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handles for only $16.65 each and 1 pack of AmazonBasics Round Cabinet Knobs for $24.79. If you don’t have handles or knobs on your cabinets, I highly recommend getting ones that compliment the style of your doors. They can really change the entire look and feel of your kitchen.

The AmazonBasics handles and knobs are available in different colors and finishes and also come with their own hardware, so you don’t need much else besides a screwdriver, a pencil or marker, and a cabinet mounting template. These templates make the job WAY easier than having to measure 1,000 different ways with a ruler and still having unevenly-mounted handles and knobs. All you need to do is slide the template over the edge of the door or drawer, mark the hole that you want, and then repeat the process on all your cabinets. Trust me, it’s worth the $7.

AmazonBasics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handles installed on newly painted cabinet doors

AmazonBasics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Handles installed on newly painted cabinet doors

AmazonBasics Traditional Craftsman Cabinet Knobs and Handles installed on newly painted cabinet doors

I still have a few gallons of extra milk paint, so I’ll definitely use them for my hallway cabinets, bathroom cabinets, fireplace mantel and window bench. Now that this extensive project is done, it’s time to move onto my next one!

After image of kitchen cabinets painted with white milk paint

After image of kitchen cabinets painted with white milk paint

If you’re thinking about painting your cabinets, I must remind you not to expect to complete this in 3 days. It took me about 8 days to finish, and I was severely stressed because I wanted them done before our holiday parties. In fact, Jun and I got into some heated arguments because we were trying to rush through these cabinets. Rushing the job resulted in us having to go back and correct sloppy mistakes. So try to paint your cabinets during a month when you have extra time to spare (definitely not during the holidays like we did).

Now, what’s next on my list of kitchen renovations?

  • Paint the kitchen cabinets with milk paint
  • Paint the walls (done!)
  • Upgrade the countertops and backsplash
  • Apply window treatments
  • Change out appliances

Want to paint your cabinets too? Comment below and be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to receive more DIY home improvement projects and other thrifty tips. Also follow me on Instagram and check out my stories for my daily home improvement updates!

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Before and after images of easy and affordable cabinet makeover using milk paint with no deglosser


1 Comment

  1. Yasmin Piracha
    / 7:07 pm

    If the cabinets are dark and knotted, there’s no way you can paint without a coat or two of killz primer. It’ll be pricey and you’ll need a mask, but if you don’t want all your hard work to be in vain when in a year or two, the knots will start peaking through the paint, you better do it. If they’re like pine and have cracks, they’ll need to be filled in with wood filler and sanded too. Using a microfiber roller will leave a smoother finish but be sure to get the extra lint off before painting by using painters tape as a lint roller. When sanding, be sure to grab a bunch of tack cloths (they’re cheap sticky rags for grabbing clinging sawdust) and have a shop vac near by. If you can’t afford new hardware, spray paint the existing ones with a few coats of rustoleum nickle or bronze or whatever your new kitchen aesthetic is. For tools you don’t have, your local bigbox hardware store offers tool rental pretty cheap.

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