The Ultimate guide to cabinet refinishing

All your questions answered on a single page.
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If you’ve been thinking about giving those old dusty grandma cabinets a fresh makeover, now is the time to do it.

But then the question becomes, how? How do you make your cabinets to stop being so ugly? The goal of this guide is to help you answer every question you have. We spent a lot of time writing this to help you, so we really hope you enjoy it.

That’s right, this guide wasn’t written by James–a journalism major–who’s never touched a can of paint before. You’re getting real answers from REAL painters.

We’re assuming that you’re here because you’re looking at alternatives to replacing your cabinets. IT’S EXPENSIVE and quite honestly–a bit unreasonable. It’s a lot of work though that’s why the pricetag is so high.

With cabinet painting and refinishing, it’s different though. You’re not buying new cabinets, you’re just making them look new. This means you don’t have to remove and replace the counter top or starve to death because you don’t have a kitchen.

Actually, that last part depends who you hire. Most cabinet painters and refinishers take 4-5 days on average to finish a kitchen, for others it can even take longer. It’s still a lot of work, but most of the time is literally spent watching paint dry (more on that later).

 

Navigation

Click on the links below in order to easily navigate through ocean of text that’s located on this page. It’s a great way to quickly find the answers to your most important questions.

What is cabinet refinishing?

Cabinet refinishing simply means you’re changing the color or the finish of the cabinets. It’s when you take those old dusty grandma cabinets and make them new–but spice it up a little. It usually involves paint, but can be done by re-staining the cabinets.

It essentially means you’re trying to restore the cabinets, but you’re not usually restoring them back to their original finish. You’re mixing things up a little and making them look different.

Okay, now that we explained a little about what it is–and a little about what it isn’t, let’s talk about the different cabinet refinishing options. There’s three levels to cabinet refinishing that define the quality of work you would like to be put into them. 

Of course, not all painting companies have the same processes. The following images explore how Colorito defines the 3 different levels of quality involved in cabinet refinishing. Other painters may have different definitions or even processes.

Cabinet Painting

Sanded, primed with shellac primer, and painted with two coats of urethane enamel for a very clean and durable finish.

Cabinet Refinishing

We take the cabinets down to bare wood, use wood filler on scratches and dents, primed, then two coats of lacquer are applied.

Cabinet Refacing

Cabinet bases are taken down to bare wood, scratches and dents are fixed, we replace your doors and drawers. Painted with laquer.

Above this text you should see 3 different pictures with three different terms. There’s cabinet painting, cabinet refinishing, and cabinet refacing. This might get a little confusing, but I ask you to bare with me. Hopefully I’ll be able to explain the differences in a way that everyone will understand–not just painters.

Okay, so like I was saying before, cabinet refinishing has 3 levels to it. The first level is cabinet painting. USUALLY what this means is the painter will just put some paint on your cabinets. Does it make your cabinets look new? Sure does, but there are a lot of details that are missed with this service.

When you’re refinishing cabinets, you’re not dealing with perfect cabinets. There’s usually; cracks in the wood, spaces between the individual cabinets, dents in the surface, cracking, bubbling, or lift in the veneer finish, and a bunch of other problems.

When you’re paying for cabinet painting, most painters will skip out on these imperfections all together. It’s not a bad thing, it just depends on your personal preference as the home owner.

There may even be a wood grain in your cabinet surface that you don’t like. Maybe you want to get rid of it and achieve that ‘factory-like’ finish. This isn’t something you’ll find with normal cabinet painting services.

The only thing that could be seen as bad–lack of prep work and the wrong paint being used on cabinets. We’ll cover this in other sections of this guide. Such as the “Does paint quality matter?” and “What’s the cabinet refinishing process?”

The next level is cabinet refinishing. As I’ve already explained, it’s paying more attention to the finer details. It’s taking the cabinet painting OR staining to the next level and making it even better than it was. It’s not just throwing some paint on the cabinets hoping the imperfections get covered up.

We’ve already gone into quite a bit of detail on the second quality level of cabinet refinishing. Let’s talk about the third, and last level, of cabinet refinishing–cabinet resurfacing.

Cabinet resurfacing means to remove and replace major aspects of the cabinet’s surface. For Colorito, it only involves replacing the doors and drawer faces. Some companies may replace the entire frame or add cabinet faces to the cabinet siding.

How much does cabinet refinishing cost?

 

Home Advisor actually has a pretty good write up on the cost to paint and refinish cabinets. BUT be aware, you’ll be very disappointed if you try and get an estimate without reading the fine details of their article. To make it SUPER easy on everyone we’re not going to explain the cost in terms of square or linear feet.

Most people these days don’t even have a measuring tape anymore. Besides, why would you want to bust out a measuring tape and waste a bunch of time measuring stuff–when there’s a much easier way of doing things. We’re going to use cabinet doors and drawers to measure the cost.

The real average cost of cabinet painting is about $1,820. The reason this price is different from Home Advisor’s is because most people get their kitchen cabinets painted. The average kitchen has 28 cabinet doors and drawers. Then ON AVERAGE painters charge around $65 per door and drawer.

Based on the same math, the average cost to refinish cabinets is $2,800. This comes out to $100 per door and drawer. Improvenet does a very good job at providing the national average for cabinet refinishing–which is only $400 lower than what we estimate the average to be.

This is the TRUE cost to paint cabinets. Now, how is this broken up? Well, depending on deals the painters receive from the paint stores, they’re costs are between $200-$400 in materials. They need paints, primers, sanding paper, sanding sponges, plastic and paper to prevent messes, and de-greaser.

The rest of the money is eaten up in labor costs. Cabinet painting and refinishing is very time consuming. They look small, but EVERYTHING has to be masked off. Plus cabinet paint takes a VERY long time to dry–some paints need 4 hours between coats.

Here at Colorito, we wanted to be up-front and honest about our pricing. We made a pricing table to help people price their own projects. This way, if you’re shy, you can continue to avoid human contact at all costs (just kidding?).

How to price your own cabinets:

Below, you will find our pricing tables. These were made to easily find out how much your project will cost. When we made the pricing, it was meant to include all the costs associated with cabinet refinishing. You shouldn’t have any surprises like the cost of paint being added onto your quote.

Count

First, you’ll need to count how many cabinet doors and drawers your cabinets have.

Pick

Second, Pick the service you would like to get for your cabinets based on the service descriptions.

Multiply

Finally, multiply the price of the service by how many drawers and doors you have.

What is the cabinet refinishing process?

 

This is where most of the trouble comes from. In reality, painting is literally 90% preparation and 10% painting. If the preparation isn’t done correctly, you’re going to have a lot of problems in the future.

Sadly, preparation is usually the first corner to be cut when painters are trying to save money. This in turn, causes a lot of issues with peeling, cracking, and chipping. These aren’t usually issues caused by cheap paint–but instead, a cheap painter.

If you are a do-it-your-selfer, I salute you. I also ask that you follow this same exact process in order to prevent the ‘cheap painter effect’ on your cabinets. If you don’t want to go through all that trouble, just hire someone else to do it.

How long does it take?

Cabinet refinishing typically takes 5-7 days on average. The reason it takes so long for such small projects is the time it takes to dry. Colorito uses specialized cabinet painting equipment and quick drying primer. This takes our turn around time down to just 2-3 days on average.

Commonly used cabinet primers are a big culprit to slow project turn over. The cabinet primer from Sherwin-Williams takes 4 HOURS to dry in between coats. Most of the time this primer takes two coats–especially on dark wood or paint.

Now, when you take these outlandish dry times and factor in the fact that you have to paint and flip your cabinet doors over 5 times to get your coats. It’s a total time wasting nightmare. This drives prices up pretty high. If prices are too low–the painter is skipping steps.

What does the painter do each day?

We can’t speak for other painters, but this is what we do each day:

Day 1: The painter arrives on the job site. First thing they should be doing is drawing a map of your cabinets. This way they can replace the cabinets back to the order they found them in.

The reason they need to take the cabinet doors off in the first place is to avoid painting the hardware (hinges, screws, handles, etc..), but also to make sure all sides of the door get painted evenly. If you don’t mind getting your hardware painted, depending on the painter, you could probably save some money.

Next, they remove all the doors, drawers, and hardware from the cabinets. Then they start masking off the floor to prevent it from getting dirty.

After masking off the floor, the painter does all of the prep work. This involves degreasing, cleaning, sanding, and masking off the cabinet holes (unless those are being painted too).

Finally after all the prep work is complete, we prime and paint the cabinet bases. Once we’re finished painting the bases, we take the cabinet doors and drawers to our spray booth.

Day 2: We prep, prime, and paint the cabinet doors and drawers the same way we did with the cabinet bases. The spray booth where we take the doors and drawers allows us to quickly and efficiently apply a factory-like finish to the cabinet faces.

Day 3: We install the doors, drawers, and hardware.

E

Masking

We mask everything off that you don’t want painted. This avoids an unwanted mess and over spray.

E

Sanding

We sand all the cabinet surfaces with 220 grit sanding sponges. This creates a physical bond with the primer.

C

Cleaning

We use a special chemical named TSP to clean the cabinets and prevent peeling from oils left over on the cabinets.

Process

B

reinstalling

The cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware are all reinstalled back onto the cabinets for the final touch.

D

Painting

We use High quality top-tier paints specifically made for cabinets. The durability of this paint helps prevent any chipping.

D

Priming

We use a special quick drying primer made specifically for high-end cabinet painting.

Our

Process

C

Masking

We mask everything off that you don’t want painted. This avoids an unwanted mess and over spray.

C

Sanding

We sand all the cabinet surfaces with 220 grit sanding sponges. This creates a physical bond with the primer.

C

Cleaning

We use a special chemical named TSP to clean the cabinets and prevent peeling from oils left over on the cabinets.

C

Priming

We use a special quick drying primer made specifically for high-end cabinet painting.

C

Painting

We use High quality top-tier paints specifically made for cabinets. The durability of this paint helps to prevent chipping and helps with cleaning.

C

Reinstalling

The cabinet doors, drawers, and hardware are all reinstalled back onto the cabinets for the final approach.

Does paint quality matter?

 

Yes.

 

Yes, but only if you want to clean your cabinets–like ever. What do I mean by that? Glad you asked. Paint, doesn’t matter if it’s exterior house paint, cabinet paint, car paint, face paint, etc.. If it’s cheap it’s easier to remove.

Paint is made up of 3 things. Pigment, which is minerals mashed up to make pretty colors. Additives which makes the mineral dust into a liquid that can be applied to a surface. And last, but not least, binder.

Binder is what makes paint cheap or expensive. It’s what makes your paint durable. You might say to yourself, well, it’s not like I want it to last through a nuclear war or anything. BUT you do want it to last through a deep scrub, and not just one, but many.

Cheap paints with cheap binders are not, what we call, scrub resistant. The cheaper the paint, the faster cleaning will remove the paint’s pigment. It starts to become dull and faded very quickly.

It’s usually not any more likely than expensive paint to peel or crack. These issues are avoided through thorough preparation. More expensive paint is more likely to prevent these issues, but the ability to clean the paint is more important.

Cabinets get very dirty and you have to clean them. Buying cheap paint just shouldn’t be an option. In fact, at Colorito, we don’t carry cheaper paint options. We’re proud of our work, but we also don’t want it coming back to bite us in the rears.

Warning:

One of the biggest issues we come across is house paint on cabinets. You CANNOT put house paint on cabinets. You can do all the cleaning, sanding, and priming in the world–the paint will still boil and peel.

How long does it last?

 

There’s two types of top quality paint. It’s just weird, because one is A LOT more expensive than the other. The really good stuff isn’t found at your big fancy paint store either. It’s found at cabinet supply depots.

Anyway, the two different paints have two very different life spans. You have lacquer and Urethane enamel. Urethane enamel is found at every major paint retailer. You can also find lacquer in those stores too, but it’s not best quality.

In terms of longevity for urethane enamel, you’re probably looking at about 2-3 years. This estimate is pretty conservative, but it’s really subjective to a lot of different variables.

Look at me–using big words and stuff.

Urethane can last longer, but it depends on how much you’re cleaning, the color of the paint (white gets dirty very quickly), and your everyday chaos. Like Timothy the toddler drawing pictures all over the cabinets with crayons.

Lacquer on the other hand, conservatively, could last up to 7 years. Same factors at play. Lacquer paint is actually what the old hot rods used for car paint–and if you haven’t noticed–it lasts forever.

Lacquer is more difficult to paint, and requires skilled painters. So it’s typically more expensive. Can’t speak for other painters, but in our case it’s nearly twice as expensive.

Your No bs guide to hiring a painter

 

Unlicensed “cheap” painter

R

Can't be held responsible

R

Less expensive

R

Very risky

Licensed (Expensive?) Painter

R

Reputation is on the line

R

Better communication

R

Quality guaranteed

Every painting company out there is going to say not to hire a cheap or unlicensed painter. Its actually kind of annoying, because they don’t give you any legitimate reasoning behind it.

I mean… I understand. They’re painters, they have mouths to feed, but it’s like be honest about it. You’re not a rocket surgeon. Lot’s of people can paint–lot’s of people are DIYers and do it themselves–all… the… time..

Here’s the truth: It’s a gamble.

With more risk–there is definitely more reward. However, if you are not the gambling type, then hire a licensed painter. Unlicensed painters live on the wild side. They get all their work from referrals, they’re usually by themselves or with family (they don’t have to pay for employees), and have very low expenses.

Licensed painters on the other hand have LOTS of expenses. Plus our reputation is constantly on the line. If we make one little mistake, it could be a huge blow for us. So we tend to be more professional about our work.

I’m not saying they will do this, but unlicensed painters CAN just disappear. If they mess up, you can’t really go after them. They live paycheck-to-paycheck, and they don’t normally survive through their online reputation. You can’t report them to the BBB–it’s not going to do anything.

IF you don’t care about the risks, that’s fine, but I had to warn you anyway. Every good LICENSED painter started without a license. I only advise you NOT to hire a painter without an online reputation. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to–you want to–for lack of better words, “hit them where it hurts”.

What are you waiting for?