How I Painted My Boring Oak Kitchen Cabinets White.

August 22, 2017

How to paint oak cabinets white.

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate  


I recently painted the slightly dated, builder-grade oak cabinets in our kitchen white. This was by far the largest DIY project I’ve ever taken on and it was a ton of work but it was worth every single bit of effort.

Overall, the project took me around 50 hours. In my kitchen, I have 10 double-door cabinet “sets”, a singleton, and an island. (See? I’m so green – I don’t even know what those cabinet “sets” are called! If I can do this, you totally can.) 

This is not really a full set of DIY instructions for this project. There are SO many great posts at there that already provide detailed instructions for this project. Instead, I’ve just provided a brief overview of my process, my supplies, and some tips I garnered along the way. At the end, I’ve provided a list of posts that were invaluable to me and provide great tips and tutorials. 

If I did this project again and applied some of the lessons I learned along the way, I could definitely shave off 30% of the time.

Here are a couple of things you should know about my process and end result:

  • I did not remove my cabinet doors to paint, but painted everything in place.
  • I did not paint the inside of the cabinets. I did, however, paint the inside of the doors and drawer lips. 
  • I did not cover the inside of the cabinet doors with the same care that I painted the outside. I just wanted to make sure that when someone opened a cabinet, the color wasn’t dramatically different. If you look carefully, you can see some spots I could have covered more thoroughly. 
  • I did not sand everything by a long shot, but I did “spot sand”. If there was a particularly difficult piece of grime, wood that was splintering, or varnish that looked less worn (and thus less absorbent) than other spots, I would give it a quick sand. I did not sand thoroughly between coats but I did sand a bit more in between coats, especially if I had drip marks. 
  • Although I did not remove the doors, I did pull out drawers as I painted.  I just set the drawers on the counter (on painting paper). This made both the inside and outside of the drawers and the frame of the cabinet much easier to paint.
  • For corners and edges that were really difficult to reach with my large paintbrush (you’d be surprised how many of these I found in a pretty straightforward, vanilla kitchen!), I just used a tiny crafting sponge to press some paint into place. A tiny paintbrush would have worked equally well (better, probably!), in retrospect.
  • The representative at the Benjamin Moore store and all of the tutorials that I read emphasized “thin” coats. While this is true, I think I took this too literally. The paint I used was supposed to cover in 2 coats and it definitely took at least 3 for me (with a bit of patching afterwards). If my coats had been just slightly thicker, I think the end result would have been a bit smoother and I would have achieved it much faster. This is probably especially important to keep in mind for that curved decorative area on the front of the doors, where I really struggled with consistent coverage.
  • Since I didn’t paint everything all at once and because of the process I used to paint each door, I lost track a couple of times of which cabinet doors were in what stage. If I did this again, I would use sticky notes (maybe color-coded?) or a more methodical system.
  • I still have two false drawer fronts disconnected – the ridiculous snaps holding them into place both broke at the very beginning of the project. They are a HEWUUUUGE pain to reinstall and totally not worth the effort because THEY ARE FALSE DRAWER FRONTS. So I need to get some really fine screws and some caulk and patch it all up still. Can you find the picture that shows the holes in the cabinet?;-)
How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
Halfway through – SUCH A DISASTER! But I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
Real Life! The kitchen was SUCH a disaster during this project. Also, word to the wise: do NOT climb on top of the refrigerator without another adult around.

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

How I chose my paint

I used a “bonding” primer (just Behr from Home Depot that I had in the garage) which is supposed to help with surfaces that are already finished and, most importantly, surfaces that haven’t been thoroughly sanded. I highly recommend using this rather than a regular primer if you don’t plan to sand completely. 

I used Benjamin Moore Advance paint which is specifically designed for cabinets. Regular wall paint in high-gloss would probably work, but I knew my painting project was going to be time-consuming and I wanted it to last. Forever, ideally. The paint was a pleasure to use – it was thick and applied easily and little ridges and bumps disappeared as the paint dried. It was also fast-drying. 

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
The original “before” – closing day!
How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
Oooooohhhh the oak!

How I chose the shade of white for my cabinets

I chose Benjamin Moore’s Cotton Balls white paint for my cabinets. Deciding on a white took me FOREVER. Maria Killam and Laurel Bern will never know it, but their posts were so so helpful. I scoured everything they had on choosing a color and white and light and learned all sorts of interesting things about colors and paint. 

I also plugged my paint color into Google images to see shots of rooms that used the paint. For instance, I typed in “Kitchen cabinets Cotton balls Benjamin Moore” and then just scrolled until I found a few images that showed me examples. 

Cotton Balls is, for me and this kitchen, the perfect perfect white. I’m so happy with it. The oh-so-popular Simply White was too cold for our house and our kitchen faces north so I felt like it was going to look green on me. And I wanted to avoid anything that looked even slightly beige-y. My house is already so beige/warm cream and I wanted to cool it down. Cotton Balls feels JUST WHITE, not grey or cream, but it seems like every-so-slightly warmer than some of the other whites I considered. Not yellow-er, just deeper. Or something.

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
That top row is just primed. That’s what the in-between coats looked like!

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate
I spy missing false drawer fronts!


As I said, I didn’t paint everything at once. I started on the island, because I had no idea what I was doing. I figured that if I screwed up completely, the island could look different than the rest of the kitchen and it wouldn’t be a disaster. As time and paint that needed to be used up in my tray corresponded, I moved to the other sections. 

I’d suggest that you determine your painting sequence at the beginning and start at the smallest section. That way, you won’t get completely overwhelmed at the beginning. 

Cleaning – First, I cleaned every surface that was going to be painted thoroughly. These cabinets are 16 years old and, after cleaning them, I very much doubt they have ever really been scrubbed. Regardless, the kitchen is a pretty filthy place and cabinets don’t often get cleaned as frequently as they should. This step is the one on I was most diligent. You can re-sand and repaint, but none of the paint will adhere properly if the surface isn’t clean.

To clean, first I scrubbed with a bit of dish soap and warm water and a cloth and dried (avoid letting the moisture really soak in. Then I went back over the surface with a mixture of 1 part vinegar, 1 part water that I heated. (Simply microwave 1 cup water and 1 cup vinegar for 3 minutes.) I scrubbed with this mixture with the steel wool side of my sponge. This accomplished two things: 

  • The hot vinegar mixture REALLY tackled grime, dust build-up, gross sticky residue, and helped wear away a bit more of the varnish (thus providing a little bit of sanding effect).
  • The steel wool provided a bit more texturing of the surface. If I did it again, I would have used the steel wool for the soap cleaning step as well.

Ultimately, I painted with 1 coat of primer and 3 coats of cabinet paint. As I mentioned before, had my primer coat and my first two cabinet coats been more thorough, I think I could have saved myself an entire coat. PRIME THOROUGHLY. I allowed each coat to dry for at least 24 hours in between (although some coats sat there for much longer because of what my schedule allowed).

After a great deal of trial and error, here’s the basic painting sequence that I found most efficient for each coat of paint.

  1. I painted all of the edges that were hard to reach once the doors are open, especially paying attention to the outside side edges of the door on the hinge-side. (These becomes extremely hard to reach once the doors are open.)
  2. While those edges dried, I opened the doors and painted all of the frame. Most of these edges wouldn’t be reached well with a roller. This included flat edges on the hinge-side of each door, around the top and bottom corners, and normally the top lip as well. 
  3. Then I painted the inside, first covering the large flat areas with a roller and then edging whatever didn’t get full coverage with the brush.
  4. The outside of my cabinets has a little trough area – many builder-grade cabinets do. This is what I tackled next, with a brush. This area proved particularly difficult to cover thoroughly, fyi. Pay special attention to the thickness of your coverage here as well as drip marks.
  5. Then I painted the flat edges and the main panel of the outside of each door. 
  6. Of course, I didn’t forget to tackle the trip, the crown molding, the side panels, the bottom panels of the cabinets, and any remaining random edges.
  7. I allowed each complete coat to dry for 18-24 hours before adding another coat. I let cupboards and drawers sit open for 10-12 hours before shutting them.

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate


I switched back and forth between rollers and paintbrushes. I still can’t decide which was more effective. The roller coverage was much faster but it definitely left some weird little air pockets and the final texture wasn’t as smooth as the paintbrush coverage, but the drip marks were fewer. Play around with both and see which you like. In the end, here’s what I used:

  • Behr Bonding Primer from Home Depot
  • Benjamin Moore Advance Cabinet Paint in Cotton Ball White
  • Wooster paintbrushes (I was told that Wooster is actually preferable in some cases to Purdy and they are MUCH less expensive. I loved them.)
  • Dynamic roller brushes – I tried different kinds and naps. I ended up using one for the primer and first coats and a different one for the later coats. Try them out on the inside of the cabinet doors until you figure out what you like. 
  • Paint trays
  • Butcher block paper – I used paper drop cloths from Home Depot but this would work too.
  • I didn’t cover anything in plastic, but in the end, I sort of regretted not properly prepping. I still have little spray marks I’m scraping off from my counters and floors. Covering the counters and floors with this in advance would have been easy and saved me a lot of time (and would be totally necessary if you have dark floors or counters and don’t want a disaster). 
  • A little craft sponge.
  • Hardware – I found mine from Home Depot but I loved the selection on Wayfair as well.
  • A paint spout. 
  • Rags
  • Rubber gloves –  wore gloves for every step of the process. It will totally save your hands during the cleaning process and keep you from constantly having paint marks on your hands during the painting process.

How to paint oak cabinets white | The Orange Slate

Other posts about painting cabinets white

  • I think this post by Dear Lillie was the one that really turned the tables for me. I thought “I can do this!”. She goes into great detail about two different approaches and how she repainted the cabinets in two different houses. (Also, I could just stare at her room re-dos all day anyway).
  • This post from Remodelaholic was one of three that basically sealed the deal for me. She does not remove the doors for painting and provided lots of specific instructions and tips. It’s worth noting that she used Benjamin Moore Advance paint that is specifically designed for cabinets, which is exactly what I used. 
  • Kate from HouseMixBlog provides the details about painting her bathroom cabinets here and her kitchen cabinets here. She does not remove the doors either, but does more a “cheat” paint job like I did. Her kitchen went from blah to sparkling white!
  • This post is also so helpful and her transformation is breathtaking. She uses the Benjamin Moore Advance paint as well. 
  • Made in a Day hired painters, but the transformation from oak to bright white is lovely. 
  • Jeanne Oliver writes about transforming her kitchen by painting her cabinets using Annie Sloan – I personally have so much peace of mind with the cabinet paint I chose. I feel like it will age well and I love knowing that, aside from cleaning, there is basically no maintenance. But if you’re into chalk paint, you’re into chalk paint. Regardless, her kitchen’s transformation is beautiful and there are some great tips.


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