Kitchen Cabinet Makeovers

by Kathy Maynard

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Looking for an easy, inexpensive way to revive your kitchen? Try a fresh coat of paint or a bold new stain on your kitchen cabinets. Add some new hardware and you'll feel like you have a brand new kitchen.

Q: My kitchen cabinets are stained so dark, I believe the whole kitchen would look brighter if I stripped them to bare wood and white washed them. Any suggestions how I would go about doing this?

A: It is extremely difficult to remove an older darker stain and white wash over it because there is always some residue of stain or varnish that will show through the whitewash. It will look blotchy unless you put in a lot more time than it would be worth.

You would be better off refacing them and whitewashing that new bare wood. You could also paint them for about half the cost of refacing, though, painting cabinets is very tricky because every square inch of the surface must be thoroughly washed and etched. Waxes, silicone in spray polishes and oil from our hands actually get imbedded in the lacquer surface of stained cabinets and do not all come out with washing alone. Therefore you need to sand the entire surface to remove a thin top layer of the original lacquer (or varnish or enamel paint) to get down to a clean dull finish.

Q: If I have never used any polishes on the cabinets, could I just wash them and skip the sanding?

A: Possibly, but it's not a good idea if the cabinets are in the kitchen or bathroom where they are likely to get banged around. The last thing you want is for the paint to chip every time you tap it with a saucer. Sanding is the best way to achieve proper adhesion. It also beautifies by removing blemishes in the old surface and making it smoother so the new coat looks better than ever. The more you sand, the better the finished surface will look. It really takes four coats or more, wet sanded between coats to get a flat, smooth finish, and preferably five or six.

Q: How do I paint over previously painted doors and trim in my older home?

A: You've probably seen cabinets, doors or old furniture with several coats of paint which is chipped or peeling. That is because the surface wasn't washed and sanded properly before repainting. One bad paint job really destroys a finish so you have to strip it to get a firm foundation to paint over.

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For good results in repainting an old front door begin by sanding the surface very smooth, applying an oil base primer, sanding it again with 320 grit wet or dry sandpaper with water, then applying a high gloss or satin oil enamel paint. If one of the previous layers of paint was not properly prepared, it will start to peel as soon as it's wet with water and you start to sand. If this starts to happen, stop sanding rather than make it worse. The surface can be painted as is, but it will always have a weak subsurface that is prone to chip, or we can strip the paint down to a firm foundation.

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Often the cost of restoring the many old doors and casings in an older home is cost prohibitive and many homeowners settle for just giving the woodwork a clean, fresh look while leaving the bumps and brush marks in the surface.

Q: How do I prepare formerly stained and lacquered cabinets for painting?

A: 1. Wash the surface: Put on rubber gloves and prepare a strong solution of TSP (1/2 cup in 2 gallons warm water) Immerse a flat synthetic sponge in the TSP water and let it soak for a few minutes before using to remove the dirt more easily. Rinse well with clean water. Pay special attention to the places where hands touch. A sponge with a white Scotchbrite pad works well in these areas.

2. Sand: Tear or cut a sheet of wet or dry sandpaper into four equal pieces to fit a rubber sanding block. Use 320 grit if the surface is in good condition, in need of just a little smoothing, and you expect to apply only one coat. You can use 220 grit for faster sanding, but this rougher sand paper will leave deeper scratches on the surface and require more than one coat of paint. Use plenty of water while wet sanding. You'll find that wet sandpaper used with water lasts a lot longer than regular dry sandpaper. If it clogs up, use more water.

3. Rinse, dry: Rinse the pasty residue from the surface very well with terry cloth or a sea sponge; synthetic sponges don't work very well. Dry the surface as quickly as you can. An old towel is best, and never use paper towels because they are full of lint.

4. Tack cloth: Just before applying the finish, wipe with a tack cloth for a really clean, dust-free surface. Be careful around wood joints where water could get into the wood and warp. That's why it is so important to work quickly. Well-made cabinets and furniture are not usually harmed by short term exposure to water.

Q: What kind of paint should I use for my woodwork?

A: It's a good idea to use the best paint available if your budget allows, but even less expensive paints won't peel. If applying paint with a brush, use a good oil base enamel; it sticks much better than latex (water base) paints and is more beautifying to any piece of wood. If spraying the paint, latex enamel can look as good as oil base paint, if applied with skill. However, if applying water base paint to a previously lacquered or varnished surface, always use a first coat of shellac or oil base primer. It will stick well to the old surface and provide a strong foundation for the top coat of water base paint.

Kathy Maynard has been matching homeowners with home improvement contractors since 1990 and has written scores of articles advising homeowners how to find, hire and work with reputable service professionals. She also authors Weekend Warrior, a weekly home improvement column in The Sacramento Bee.