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How to Get a Smooth Finish When Painting Kitchen Cabinets

When painting kitchen cabinets, it’s ideal to get a smooth finish. The easiest way to get the smoothest finish possible is to sand the surface between coats. After each coat has dried, lightly sanding the surface before you add the next layer of paint ensures a smooth surface.

Preparing the Cabinets for Painting

Cleaning the Surfaces

One of the key factors in getting a smooth finish is cleaning your cabinets prior to painting. It doesn’t matter how clean you think you are, your kitchen cabinets are more than likely covered in grease and other residue that you cannot easily see. Use a heavy-duty kitchen cleaner, sponge, and cleaning cloth to ensure that the entire surface is grime-free. You can use common household cleaners such as the ones you already own.


It’s important to sand down the surfaces of your cabinets until smooth, using 100 to 150 grit sandpaper. You need to smooth out any filler, sand down brushmarks, and ensure the surface is ready for primer. 

Don’t stress out about sanding down every single bit of the previous finish—you only need to rough it up enough to make the primer adhere. We are going to perform additional sanding steps between coats to ensure that the finish is smooth and professional.


Before you place a drop of primer or paint on your kitchen cabinets, ensure that you’ve done everything else above. Degrease, sand, and clean your cabinets, not to mention repair any holes or damage that have occurred. Don’t skip the prep steps or all your hard work won’t mean a thing.

Use a great primer—this is the important next step. A primer is essentially a bonder that allows the paint to properly adhere to the surface. It blocks existing color and wood grain, making it so that you have to apply fewer coats overall. After you apply the initial coat of primer, let it dry overnight. Sand the surfaces again with 220-grit, clean the surface, and apply. Let the primer dry for 24 hours before doing the other side of the cabinet doors.

Choosing the Right Paint

Oil-Based Paint for Cabinets

Oil-based paints are very resilient, which is why they’re often the first consideration when choosing the color of your cabinets. They make the finished surfaces easier to clean: if you open a cabinet with greasy or sticky hands, you can rub the residue away without worrying about damaging the paint or diluting the surface color. Oil-based paints do have a few flaws and considerations, however.

The number one factor to consider is that oil-based paints take a very long time to dry—up to 16 hours between coats. If you don’t have good air circulation in your kitchen, it could take you several days and up to a week as you allow the paint to dry. Being without your kitchen cabinets for that long can be frustrating in many homes, which doesn’t make this option ideal. Over time, surfaces covered in oil-based paint might begin to yellow, meaning you’ll have to apply a new coat eventually to ensure your cabinets don’t look dingy.

Latex Paint for Cabinets

Latex paint is a tempting option for many due to its quicker drying levels and easy application. There have been many advances in water-based formulas that have made latex paint ideal for kitchen cabinets. Latex paints are produced with greater durability and can stand up against rigorous cleaning regimens. Look for latex paint that’s described as “washable” when at your local home goods store.

If you’re painting wood cabinets, you will need to prep the surface properly before applying latex paint. This option is more likely to show variances in the texture or grain, and you’ll have to do additional prep work to ensure your painting project is successful. If you don’t know what kind of paint is already on your cabinets, a water-based formula is the safest option.

Latex Paint for Cabinets

Alkyd Paint for Cabinets

Alkyd paints are a water-based option with an enamel finish that gives the appearance of oil paint. It contains no oil and is overall tougher than oil-based paints, leaving a hard, semi-gloss finish that’s durable without requiring a top coat. As alkyd paints dry you’ll notice they are semi-leveling, meaning they look very smooth. You typically won’t notice any brush strokes or textures after using alkyd paint.

If you want your kitchen cabinets to look like a professionally painted one, alkyd paints are your number one option. This type of paint is most commonly used on metal or wood and remains a great choice for cabinetry because of its rugged and durable finish. If you decide to paint over alkyd, make sure you use another alkyd-based or oil-based paint for better results. The only major downside to using these paints is that they require a ventilated area, and you must properly dispose of the supplies you use.

Painting Techniques for a Smooth Finish

Apply the First Layer of Paint

First of all, ensure you always paint in the direction of the wood grain. Use a 1″ or a 1½” angled brush and apply a thin and even coat to the recessed and detailed areas of the cabinet door’s surface. Then take your mini foam roller to the remaining flat areas. Use the roller to gently smooth out any paint drips or overlapping brush strokes.

The key to ensuring a beautiful finish is using thin coats of paint. This will limit any blemishes or drips, and will also grant the cabinets a smoother end finish. Start with your doors and drawers first, so that they can dry while you apply the cabinet enamel coats to the kitchen cabinet boxes. The first coat of primer should dry for up to 48 hours, then repeat the steps on the other side.

Lightly Sand and Clean All Surfaces One Final Time

Lightly sand all the surfaces with 220 grit sandpaper, front and back. Sand the surfaces as evenly as possible so that you can apply the final finish coat. Inspect your cabinets for any blemishes that might have occurred during the painting process—since the next step is the final coat, it’s crucial to ensure that your cabinets look exactly the way you want them.

Finally, clean all the surfaces thoroughly removing dust and dirt. Using a damp cloth or a vacuum, remove all the dust. Then catch anything you might have missed with a damp tack cloth.

Lightly Sand and Clean All Surfaces One Final Time

Apply the Second Layer of Paint

Apply a thin and even coat of cabinet paint, always painting in the direction of the wood grain. Use a thin coat for a smooth finish and start with the cabinets and doors before proceeding to the cabinet boxes. 

Allow this second coat to dry for up to 48 hours, then flip everything over and repeat the process. The second coat is required for a quality finish that looks smooth and professional. Double-thin coats will always have better overall coverage than singular thick coats, and there’s no reason to cut corners when you’ve worked this hard on the process.

Reinstall Cabinet Drawers and Doors

After the kitchen cabinets have dried for 24 to 48 hours, reinstall all the drawers and doors. This should be fairly easy if you take the time to do this at the start of the project. It’s important to keep track of all the metal pieces as you take them apart, though if you’ve forgotten it might take a moment of calculation.

Drill New Cabinet Hardware Holes

If your cabinet doors are new and you are installing new hardware, drill the new holes you’ll need now. The easiest way to install your new hardware is by using the template included with your purchase, which should take all measuring and guesswork out of the process. It’s important to measure twice and drill once.

Install Hardware

After all your hardware is installed, take a step back and admire your hard work and dedication. This is quite a project and you should be extremely proud of yourself no matter how it turned out!

Professional painter coating roller with blue paint

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