Painting Your Kitchen Cabinets: Cleaning and Sanding

Hi friends! Last post, I talked about planning out your timeline for painting your kitchen cabinets and gathering alllllllllllll your supplies. If you haven’t read the post, start here so you have everything you need for these next steps. Today, I’m going to talk about what you need to do BEFORE you start– cleaning and sanding your kitchen cabinets.

kitchen during renovation
Let’s get this show on the road!

Disclosure: The links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no cost to you, I earn a small commission if you click the link and purchase the item. I’ve only linked items I’ve used in the past and would use again (unless otherwise noted).  

Step 4: Take the Drawers and Doors Down and Remove the Hardware

Are you ready?? Here’s the first big step that makes it feel like you’re tackling a major project! It took me about an hour to take down all the doors and take off the drawer fronts. Make sure you take off all the hardware (knobs, pulls, and hinges) with your screwdriver or impact driver. And, something I learned the hard way–make sure you label the hinges from where you took them down from, especially if you have older cabinets. Hinges warp slightly with use and if you try to put the wrong one back on a door when you’re done, the door may never close right. An easy way to do that would be to put them in sandwich bags and label them. As you can see, I thought about this after I started, so I placed each hinge and screws on the shelf or drawer closest to where it belonged. Not fool proof, especially when you forget to tell your husband that each hinge is on a specific shelf for a reason.

screws inside cabinet drawer
My not-so-organized storage spot for the hinges and screws.

Another important thing to do is label the doors or drawers to make sure you put them back where they came from. Similar to the hinges, the doors can warp slightly, so when you try to put them back in the wrong place, they won’t quite fit. I was lucky in that only my drawers were the same size and all my doors were different sizes. I numbered my drawer fronts and the actual drawer to make sure everything went back where it belonged. . If you can’t label the kitchen cabinet the doors are from, make sure you draw a map, so you know where the numbers go when you’re done.

numbered cabinet drawers during renovation
I wrote my numbers right on my painter’s tape drawer pulls.

Tip: In order to keep using your drawers over the next few weeks, make sure you make drawer “pulls” using painter’s tape. It took me ten minutes to do this and saved me so much aggravation during the renovation. I could keep things in my drawers to prevent adding to the dining room mess and easily access the drawers, without having to break my nails trying to pry them out.

painters tape drawer pulls
Life saving and super easy!

Step 5: Cleaning your Kitchen Cabinets

Cleaning was definitely my least favorite step of this whole process, but absolutely the most important. I cleaned the drawers and doors first, then the frames, but either way works. Here’s where I used my Spray Nine and a ton of paper towels (yes, I’m sure there’s something more environmentally friendly, but this stuff worked better than bleach in getting the grease off, and sometimes I prefer to be able to throw all the grime away, rather than washing it off in my washer).

Cleaning is so important before sanding and painting because:

  1. You have no idea how much grease there is on your kitchen cabinets. Like I’m talking A. LOT.
  2. You don’t want to have to work harder to sand off all the extra grease on your kitchen cabinets and,
  3. You don’t want to be painting over grease.

Make sure you clean both sides of the doors and drawers, and all the nooks and crannies of the frames. And after you’re done, drink a nice glass of wine to celebrate your superhuman cleaning skills!

Step 6: Sanding your Kitchen Cabinets

And, on to my second least favorite step — sanding. The good news is that this project is like a half marathon—the middle is by far the worst part and then even though there’s so much more to do (and it ain’t always fun), it all seems to be ok because you’re getting closer and closer to the finish line!

I’ve seen a lot of posts about products that allow you to paint and not sand. I can’t comment on those products because I didn’t try them. To me, it made sense that to make the paint stick well and make the paint go on smoothly, I needed to remove some of the old finish. So, to me, sanding is a crucial step.

Containing the Dust

This is the messiest part of the whole process. I taped up plastic drop cloths to contain the dust to just the kitchen when sanding the frames, but for some reason I didn’t think of that when sanding the drawers and doors in the basement, so even after cleaning, I have this lover sheen of dust over the whole basement.

table covered in dust
This is after cleaning this table in the basement twice in 2 days.

So, word of advice: try to contain the dust by doing this step outside if you can, or sanding the doors in the kitchen when you have the drop cloth hanging.

And, the healthcare professional in me has to remind you to wear your eye protectors and N95 face masks whenever you’re sanding. The last thing you want is saw dust in your eyes or lungs. Yes, N95 masks can be a little pricey but they’re reusable so buy a few and save them for your future projects.

POST COVID UPDATE: Obviously, I know how hard it can be to find N95s in light of COVID. If you can’t find one, please wear whatever face mask you can over your nose and mouth to keep as much dust out of your lungs as you can.

How to Sand your Kitchen Cabinets

Sanding the kitchen cabinet doors and frames is hard work, but pretty straightforward. I used my Ryobi orbital sander on all the flat surfaces (basically anything it could reach), and used the sanding blocks for the smaller, harder to reach moldings and corners. The key here is to sand some of the existing finish off and roughen up the surface so the primer sticks, but you don’t need to get the whole finish off (unless you’re staining your cabinets–then you need to take all the old stain or paint off). When I say some of the finish, I don’t mean a little bit here and there. I mean a thin layer of the finish from every inch of the door. If you don’t get the finish off, the primer won’t stick well, which means your new paint won’t stick well, and then you have not pretty cabinets and what’s the point of all that?

Make sure you sand both sides of the doors and any part of the frame you plan on painting (don’t forget the toe kicks and any parts inside the cabinet frames that you’re painting!)

I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of this step, friends (again, the whole “I didn’t know I was starting a blog” thing).

black dog
Sadie trying to hide from the sawdust and noisy sander.

So that’s it! Next post, we finally get to the painting part of painting your kitchen cabinets! Let me know if you have any questions!


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