Cabinet Refinishing by the Pros

To some, it’s a 3-coat job
Bill and Kevin Burnett, Inman News

Q: A couple of weeks ago you wrote about your brother Bryan redoing his kitchen. You said he spent the better part of four days priming and painting the cabinets and painting the walls and the ceiling — all stark white.

My question is: Did Bryan try to fill in oak grain texture before priming and painting his cabinets? Are there any painting tips you could pass along? Did he finish in oil or latex? Did he glaze edges or just leave color as is?

A: Mom had three boys — “my three sons” she still calls us. Kevin’s the oldest, Bill’s the next and Bryan’s the baby — if you can call someone in his early 50s a baby.

We all tackle home improvement projects differently.

Bryan wants to get it done fast. He sets a schedule, and come hell or high water the schedule is met, sometimes at the expense of some of the details. Bryan did not try to fill in the grain, opting instead for a paint-wipe look.

He did a three-coat job: a primer coat, a split coat and a finish coat. The finish coat is acrylic, a bit soft for a kitchen. He did the job with a brush, which is OK if the grain is going to show. He did not glaze the edges. All in all, the inspectors (Bill and Kevin) think the job looks pretty decent.

Bill, the artist among us, recently finished remodeling his kitchen. His home is also 1970s vintage, but the cabinets are painted and the surface is smooth. He decided to replace the door and drawer fronts for a new look. He replaced the old cabinet hinges with European-style hidden hinges. The flat door and drawer panels now sport a bead-board motif that fits right in with the soapstone countertops and chrome and contemporary glass appliances.

Bill’s cabinets are sprayed. This application produces a smooth finish. He used an acrylic epoxy as a finish. He considered using an oil-based finish for its durability, but oil-based finishes tend to yellow over time.

Bill’s kitchen cabinets — from the outside — look brand-new.

Kevin is somewhere in between. He built the kitchen cabinets in his house in place, stick by stick, including the cabinet doors and drawers, 15 years ago. He was a little constrained at the time by finances so he did not use the best cabinet hinges and drawer slides.

The doors and drawer fronts are still serviceable but dated. The choice is to junk them in favor new ones or get out the router and update them. In either case new hardware is required and the cabinets need a repaint. The original paint is a soft acrylic and it’s showing wear. As in Bryan’s kitchen, that’s not a good choice for a heavily used area.

Kevin’s cabinets are paint grade also, and will remain that way. When repainting, he’ll do a thorough cleaning with TSP (trisodium phosphate), a good sanding and two coats of an acrylic epoxy finish.

If you are going to replace the door and drawer fronts, our advice is to consider trying to fill the oak grain on the boxes. You’ll be dealing with flat surfaces, so it should be relatively easy to get a good job.

Sand and prime the surface. When the primer’s dry, use a wide putty knife to fill the grain with spackle. Sand and prime again. Fix any defects and sand them smooth and spot-prime them. Then apply two coats of acrylic epoxy as the finish.

If you are not planning on replacing the doors and drawer fronts, and they have any contour at all, we suggest you follow Bryan’s path and go for the grainy look.

Copyright 2010 Bill and Kevin Burnett
See Bill and Kevin Burnett’s feature,  New Cabinets Don’t Require Gut Job.
American Apartment Owners Association offers discounts on products and services for landlords related to your rental housing investment, including rental forms, tenant debt collection, tenant background checks, insurance and financing.To subscribe to our blog, click here.

Find out more at