DIY Guide to Refinish your kitchen cabinets

It can cost thousands of dollars to have your kitchen cabinets replaced or to refinish your kitchen cabinets professionally. Pinterest images make the before and after look so easy…I guess that’s the magic of before and after images. They make it look like the changes happened over night by Tinkerbell and her gang. But in reality, kitchen cabinets don’t just take time, they take quite a sum of money to have redone.

While if you are planning to totally renovate your kitchen, you may want a full replacement, there is another option.

You can without a doubt refinish your kitchen cabinets yourself for a grand sum total of $115 and a week’s worth of working a few hours a day.

RELATED POST: How to Refinish Your Front Door

I refinished my kitchen cabinets during the 2020 quarantine, and they turned out even better than I had hoped. (Plus it was a great way to kill some time while being productive!)

How to Refinish Your Kitchen Cabinets

What You’ll Need

Time

This may sound a little funny to put on a “what you’ll need” list, but it’s perhaps the most important ingredient. You will need to be able to take your time over the course of a week or week and a half to complete this project because you will have to do a step, wait, do another step, wait. Flip the cabinet doors over, do a step, wait…. You get the picture. Make sure you have the time to put at least one to three hours per day into this project over the course of a week.

Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations Kit

This is crucial. There are lots of cabinet refinishing paints, such as Valspar’s Cabinet Enamel Base or Cabinet Rescue, out there, but they do not cut it when you want a professional looking job done. You will have to not only get those paints but also figure out all the other steps yourself.

The Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations kit is all inclusive. It comes with a deglosser to prep, the main bond coat, an optional glaze if you to add some dimensionality, and a protective top coat not to mention some stir sticks, gauze for applying the glaze, and scrubbing pads for deglossing. It’s got it all in one box. Do NOT be led astray into going a different route. Trust me, this is the way to go.

Paint Brushes

Get yourself some new paint brushes dedicated to this project. I got a set of three with a 1”, 1.5” and 2”. I used all three at different phases in the process. The small one is good for detailing, the 2” is great for knocking out the larger surface areas, and the midsize (which ended up being my go-to) is great for everything in between.

Drop Cloth

You will want to have two or three decent sized drop cloths to spread out preferably in your garage. This will be where you cabinet doors live throughout the process. The drop cloth will help with cleanup at the end.

A Couple of Rags

Be sure to set out a couple of old rags you don’t mind ruining. Microfiber will be helpful to have on you, but regular old rags will do the trick, too. These will be your best friend when you inadvertently drip paint or glaze on your countertops or floor.

Painters Tape

To help you color inside the lines.

Styrofoam Bowls

Another weird one, but totally worth it. Spend a dollar and get yourself a thing of small Styrofoam bowls. This is what you will set your cabinet doors on top of during the process. For smaller doors, put one bowl centered under either end of the door; for larger doors, set a bowl in each corner (bottom up). It allows the cabinet doors to stay up off the ground for drying between steps.

Ziplock Bags

These will house your cabinet hardware during this project. Be sure to get enough to either hold the hardware for each individual cabinet in its own bag or at least to be able to hold them in logical groups.

Screwdriver and Hammer

These will play a smaller role, don’t worry, but you will want to have them close by. The screwdriver will be your best companion removing and then re-installing hardware, and the hammer will help you keep your paints sealed up tight at the end of each day of work.

Furniture Bumpers

You can find the tiny round adhesive bumpers at your local hardware store or at a Walmart or Target. You will want to apply these to the cabinet doors and drawers at the end where they hit the frame to protect the cabinets from scratches and to make closing doors and drawers more quiet.

Some Good Music and Podcasts

Trust me on this one, you’ll want to have your favorite playlists ready to go and some podcasts or audio books cued up. You’ll need it to help you get through the week.

How to do It

1. Get Your Supplies

Visit your local Home Depot and pick out your Rustoleum Cabinet Refinishing Kit. You will have the option of either a light kit or a dark kit. Look at the top of the box for the color options to decide if you need the light or dark kit. Then, take the whole box up to the paint counter and tell them which color you want. The employee at the paint counter will mix up the color you choose from the top of the box, rebox it for you, and send you on your way. Make sure to get a paint can opener while you’re at the paint counter.

While you’re at Home Depot, go ahead and grab yourself some brushes and some drop cloths or drop paper if you prefer. I used some old bedsheets I had stored away, but if you want to get a designated drop cloth, go for it. And don’t forget to swing in the nearest dollar store and grab some Styrofoam bowls on your way home!

2. Set Up

Take the time to designate your workspace and set up all your supplies. A garage is ideal for spreading out your cabinet doors, so if you can, plan to park your cars in the driveway for a week, and go ahead and spread out your drop cloths. Set out your rags, open up your new paint brushes, and get out your tool set. You will need a screwdriver to get the hardware off the cabinet doors and the cabinet doors off their hinges. You will also want to have a hammer ready to tap paint cans closed at the end of a days work.

Last but not least, open up the Rustoleum box and read through the directions. I’m going to go over the directions generally here and also give a few helpful tips, but this blog post is not meant to be a replacement for following the instructions.

3. Get Organized

Grab a piece of paper and sketch out your kitchen, drawing each individual cabinet and drawer (it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to include everything). I have a galley kitchen, so I drew out one side of the cabinets on the front of the page and the other on the back. Somehow, label the sections of the kitchen on your drawing so you don’t get confused later. Be sure to mark where other key features of your kitchen are (dishwasher, sink, oven, fridge, etc.) as this will help you read your diagram later.

Go through your drawing and number the cabinets and drawers. Now, grab your painters tape, tear off a small piece of tape for each cabinet and drawer, and use a sharpie to label each one corresponding to the number you assigned it in your drawing. I stuck my tape to the back of my cabinets and drawers and left them there the whole time because I only painted the edge of the backs of my cabinets. If you plan to paint the entire back of your cabinet, get some sticky notes or flash cards and number them, then place the sheet where you will put the corresponding cabinet in your designated workspace. As you work with each cabinet or drawer, always return it to the right spot with the right accompanying number card. This is critical to knowing where to re-install cabinets at the end of the project.

4. Remove Hardware

Hardware includes the handles on your cabinet doors and drawers as well as the hinges. Have your ziplocks nearby to hold your hardware as it’s removed so you don’t get them mixed up along the way. Go ahead and label your ziplocks based on the corresponding number of the cabinet you removed them from. If you have pairs of cabinet doors you would like to keep in the same ziplock (for example, I put the hardware from the two cabinet doors under my sink together because they are twins of each other, just natural opposites), be sure to label the bag with both cabinet door numbers.

I would recommend having a partner for this step in the game. You can definitely tackle it yourself, but it will take much longer, and it’s too early in the process to tire yourself out.

As you remove the hardware and the cabinet doors and drawers come down, go ahead and set them in your designated workspace on top of the bowls. If you didn’t already put the bowls out, do it as you go along. I personally placed my bowls under my cabinets as I placed them so I knew exactly how many was needed to support each door.

5. Degloss

Now the real work begins. Get out the deglossing pads from your kit, the bottle of deglosser, and one of your Styrofoam bowls. Pour the deglosser into your bowl and get to work. You will want to take your time to make sure you hit every surface you plan to paint. Deglossing is what primes your cabinets for the process, and it’s way better than having to sand or strip your cabinets. Go over the cabinet frames and doors and drawers with the deglosser on the deglossing pad, then come back with a damp microfiber rag to gently remove the deglosser. After that, go back over it with a dry microfiber rag if needed to get remove any excess moisture. And don’t forget to hit the backs of your cabinet doors as well if you plan to paint there.

If your cabinets currently have a high gloss on them, this step will be pretty intense. Thankfully, my cabinets did not have much of a gloss on them at all, so the deglossing step was mainly to get off any dirt and grease that had accumulated over the years.

6. Apply the Bond Coat

Grab your brushes and get painting! I would recommend starting with the back of your cabinet doors if you plan to paint them. Leave them with the back facing up to dry for at least 24 hours before you flip them to paint the front. After you paint the backs of your cabinets (if you plan to do so), move inside and tackle the cabinet frames. Make sure to have a drop cloth nearby for any drips that may occur. Also, be sure to tape off any edges that butt up to the floor, wall, or appliances you don’t want paint on.

After you finish the first bond coat, let it cure. Take an assessment of how everything is looking. You will in all likelihood want to do a second coat. Repeat the whole process again and let the second coat set. If you are going with a light color, you may need to brush over some spots with a third coat like I did. I didn’t do a full third coat, but in a few spots, a gave an extra swipe of paint where things looked a little thin.

Once you finish with your final coat, allow 12 – 24 hours for the bond coat to cure before moving on to the glaze.

Kitchen cabinet frame during bond coat phase

7. Decorative Glaze (optional)

In my personal opinion, the decorative glaze takes the cabinets from nice to professional. The trend these days is to have flat colored cabinets. However, trends don’t last, so keep that in mind when you are making your decision about the glaze. I found that the glaze made my cabinets look more timeless than they looked without it. Ultimately, it’s up to you and your taste to decide.

You will not need to glaze the backs of your cabinets. Start with your cabinet doors and brush on a layer of glaze. But Do NOT move on to the next cabinet thinking you will let the glaze sit a minute. Immediately after applying the glaze to the entire cabinet front, grab your gauze (included in the kit) and wipe the glaze off. Play around with different amounts of pressure as you wipe the glaze off. If you want more glaze, go with a gentler touch. If you want it to be more of an accent, apply more pressure as you remove the glaze. You may also want to go over it multiple times with the gauze. Be sure to move in the direction of the grain as you work.

After you finish the doors and drawers, move on to the frames using the same technique to be sure the style matches.

The decorative glaze can be runny, so have a rag nearby in case of any dripping.

8. Top Coat – Protective Layer

By the time you reach this step, you will be wondering why you took this project on. You’re almost at the finish line. Keep going. This is the easiest step.

Grab a paint brush and cover all your refinished surfaces with the protective top coat, including the insides of the cabinet doors if you chose to paint them. Be mindful of bubbles, globbing, and drippage as you work with the top coat. Keep it as smooth as possible.

Be sure to take the time at the end to do a once over. If you missed any spots with the protective top coat, hit them now. You’ll be able to notice any spots you missed by looking for sections that don’t have the same level of glossiness or sheen that the rest do.

9. Reinstall

Give your cabinets at least 12 to 24 hours to rest and cure before re-installing the cabinet doors and drawers. Even as you do, be mindful. You don’t want to bump the doors or drawers and wind up with a scratch on your newly refinished cabinets. If you go to re-install and feel that the top coat is still a little tacky (not completely dry), wait another day.

As you reinstall your doors and drawers, go ahead and place your furniture bumpers based on where the doors and drawers hit the cabinet frame. The top most corner of the door or drawer is typically a good spot.

And that’s it! You can throw away the bowls, box up the leftover paint, wash out your brushes, and sit back and take it all in.

Bask in the glory of a job well done! It sounds easier than it is. You will likely want to give up along the way, but don’t. It will all be worth it in the end.

Helpful Tips

  1. As you paint, be sure to go along the edges of the surfaces with a microfiber rag or brush at the end to get off any excess paint. This will give it a more finished look and will be the difference in a noticeable DIY and cabinets that look like they were done by a pro.
  2. Most cabinet frames have a lip just inside the cabinet door opening about half an inch wide. Use this as a guide. You will naturally go over the edge of the fronts of the frames a bit, so use the lip to your advantage and go ahead and paint it to. It will give it a more finished look when you open the cabinets.
  3. Try to work in consistent lighting, especially when applying the decorative glaze. A spot with natural light pouring in can look a lot different than a spot in the shadows. Aim for consistent lighting to you can get an even, consistent look.
  4. When you are done for the day, don’t wash your brushes out if you will still be working with the same paint tomorrow. Instead, stick the bristle end of the brush in a ziplock bag, seal it, and stick it in the refrigerator. When you go to paint again, the brush and paint on it will still be usable, and you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off.
  5. When you tape off an area, be sure to pull the painter’s tape up right after applying the coat you are on. It’s tempting to leave the tape in place until you are done with the all coats in that area, but you put yourself at risk of pulling up some of the paint along with the tape. Do yourself a favor and take a few extra seconds to remove the tape at the end of each step and reapply before the next.
  6. The most difficult part of glazing will be your large surface areas on the exposed sides of the cabinets. These large surfaces don’t have a lot of grain or character to work with, so the glaze can look overpowering if applied to the same degree as the rest of the surfaces. Start at the corners and work in. Also, consider diluting your glaze a bit by mixing it with some of your leftover bond coat. I applied the glaze the same way on the large surfaces as I had the rest of the cabinets and removed a lot of the glaze with the gauze and a damp rag. After, I went back over it thinly with a layer of mixed glaze and bond coat. Don’t be afraid to play around with it, and definitely plan to have a damp rag nearby in case you make a misstep.
  7. Wear latex gloves when you degloss. The deglosser can and will damage your fingernails if you don’t wear gloves.
  8. Have only one person apply the glaze. Once you get a feel for how you want to do the glaze, keep the look consistent by having only one person complete this process. All the other steps, you can easily assemble a team to help you with, but in order for the glaze to look the same throughout your kitchen, you will want to complete that step as a solo gig.
  9. Be kind to yourself. As you work, you will lose your perspective, you will get tired, and you will wonder why you decided to do this in the first place. Take a break and start fresh tomorrow. You will need patience with the process and patience with yourself to get through this.

I’m Rooting for You!

Happy painting! If you decide to tackle this project, first of all, know that it is not easy. Even if you think you understand that it’s not easy, you will reach a point where you really actually understand what I mean. I say this because my mom refinished her cabinets with this process several years back and warned me of how tedious it was, but I didn’t really understand what she meant until I was midway through applying the glaze.

Second, if you do complete this project, share your before and after pictures with us so we can celebrate with you!