Proper Way to Prep Your Cabinets Before Painting

What To Clean Cabinets With Before Painting - Tantrums and Tools

Think you’re ready to paint your kitchen cabinets? Not so fast! Cleaning kitchen cabinets before painting is crucial to long-lasting results. The pro to this portion of your diy project is it doesn’t take much time or money, yay! I feel like that never happens with diy so let’s celebrate that little win. The con to cleaning kitchen cabinets before painting is you have to do it and do it the right way.

For best results when painting kitchen cabinets, you must invest the proper time in prepping your cabinet surface. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but the hard work you invest now will go a long way, setting you up for excellent paint adhesion and painted kitchen cabinets that last for years to come!

Do I have you now wondering if you know the best way to prepare your cabinets for paint? I’m sharing four of the most effective cleaners and the best method for cleaning so your cabinets will be ready for paint. Let’s get to the good stuff!

Just a friendly reminder: This tutorial and any opinions or recommendations are genuinely mine, but this is not a substitute for consulting a professional. I also use affiliate links to earn a commission.

Why Clean Before Painting

The first thing you need to do is clean your greasy cabinets. Oh, you don’t think your cabinets are dirty. Well, think again. Maybe something you don’t want to think too much about, but there is most definitely a layer of grease covering your cabinets that, if you don’t remove it, you’ll simply be grinding into your cabinet surface in the next step of prep. Even if the surface of your cabinets doesn’t appear dirty, trust me, they are! 

Let me tell you about a time when I didn’t think this was important. The first time I painted my kitchen table, I say first because I had to repaint it shortly after we started using it. I had terrible paint adhesion because I didn’t properly clean the glossy lacquer finish before moving on to the rest of my painting project. In the long run, follow these four simple steps to prevent any issues with your new paint job.

Cleaning kitchen cabinets before paint is the most crucial step of your kitchen cabinet project. I know, I know, we’re all short on time and looking to get these projects done as quickly as we can because we just have so much to do and not enough time to do it. But trust me, this project is not one you want to run if you don’t want it to turn out poorly.

Best Cleaning Solution

What To Clean Cabinets With Before Painting - Tantrums and Tools

I’ll be honest; I’m not a fan of the term “best” because I feel so many factors go into making a product the right fit for each individual. Sure, some cleaners are better at removing heavy grease and are a more effective solution, but if that product is a chemical solution that you’re not comfortable with, the potential risks it poses to the environment or you as the user, then is that product really the best? I digress. You are here because you’re wondering what to clean cabinets with before painting, so let’s get to the good stuff.

The best degreaser really depends on your comfort with using a chemical agent versus something a little kinder to you as the user and the environment. I have four product options for you to choose from, all of which act as a good degreaser. The most important things about cleaning kitchen cabinets before painting are 1. not skipping this step and 2. selecting the best option for you. 

Trisodium Phosphate (TSP): A heavy-duty degreaser; however, let me warn you that you must follow the directions since it can harm the environment and you if you don’t follow all the safety precautions. This powerful degreaser is an excellent option for removing tough stains. Some forms of TSP need mixing with hot water before use (follow the directions on the label). I opted to use TSP when painting my camper because I knew the area was filthy. I mean, it’s a camper. The TSP was very powerful, and I found I needed to do more than one round of cleaning with it because my bucket of water and TSP solution was so nasty after the first round. 

Krud Kutter: A powerful cleaning agent and have had great success using Krud Kutter to clean wood cabinets. This water-based and non-toxic, yet incredibly effective at removing grease and stains. Truthfully, this is my go-to cleaning product for any surface I am prepping for paint. What I like about this product is how it comes in an easy-to-apply spray bottle, it has very little odor, and a bottle lasts a really long time.

The negative to this product is the residue it leaves on my hands when I’m cleaning with it, which is obviously easily avoided if I wear gloves. Also, you may find this is a bit more expensive than some other degreasing options, but as I mentioned, a bottle will get you through more than one project. 

Dawn Dish Soap: Dawn is a stronger solution than you think. I feel like I’m turning into my mother because she is the Dawn dish soap queen, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but Dawn is a surprisingly powerful cleaner to remove grease from cabinet doors. Odds are you even already have this in your kitchen!

Mix a small amount of Dawn in a bucket of water, and using a sponge, create a nice soapy lather and begin washing your cabinets. After you clean the surface, you’ll want to go back and wipe everything down with warm water to remove any of the soap that may have been left behind. For areas where you may have more built up, Dawn recommends applying the dish soap directly to your sponge, and with a bit of running water, scrub the tough grime away.

White Vinegar: The most natural degreasing agent, yet still incredibly effective at removing tough cabinet grossness, is white vinegar. This active ingredient is acetic acid, making this an excellent cleaner and disinfectant. I recommend white distilled vinegar because it doesn’t contain a coloring agent. The downside to vinegar is it has a strong smell, but this is quickly taken care of by rinsing your wood surface down with water after cleaning with the vinegar.

Cabinet Prep Process

What To Clean Cabinets With Before Painting - Tantrums and Tools

For any of my painting projects, I always follow this exact process because it’s the best way to prevent paint adhesion problems. It doesn’t take much time or money to do this and trust me when I say you’ll be saving yourself so much time in the long run. Think about it this way, would you instead take ten minutes now cleaning your cabinets or ten days repainting your kitchen cabinets in a year or two?

One side note, the ONLY time this process is not essential is if your cabinets are brand spanking new. If this is the case, your best option is to wipe the surface down with a damp rag to remove dust and other small particles.

  1. Degrease– the first step in the cleaning process is to wipe all surfaces down with a degreaser of your liking. Using one of the four options I provided, get to work! Degreasing includes the cabinet boxes, not just the doors and drawers. Using a circular motion, really get in there and get that grime off!
  2. Rinse– the next step is to rinse everything off with clean water. Taking a bucket of clean water and using a damp rag, wipe down all the surfaces you just degreased.
  3. Sand– after cleaning, you are ready to sand your wood surfaces. Everything you need to know about sanding your kitchen cabinets to prepare them for paint is in this post I wrote about painting kitchen cabinets.
  4. Clean– lastly, after sanding, you’ll give your cabinets one final cleaning. No need to degrease, just a good wipe down to ensure you have removed all the dust and small particles. If you’re working outside, I love to use my leaf blower for this, followed by wiping with a tack cloth.

Supplies Needed to Clean Kitchen Cabinets Before Painting

I feel like a broken record, but surface preparation is sooo necessary, especially on such a big painting project as painting kitchen cabinets.

Degreaser– select the best option for you from above. If you’re going to use dawn dish soap or white vinegar, you may find it helpful to get a cheap spray bottle (the dollar store has these!) to make applying your cleaning solution easier.

Cloth– you’ll need a variety of cleaning cloths for this project: a tack cloth (or microfiber cloth), a damp cloth, and a dry cloth. When selecting the right type, it should be a soft cloth and a clean cloth. Clean doesn’t necessarily mean new. I reuse all my project rags repeatedly, giving them a good wash in the washer between each use.

Water– a bucket or two will be helpful to rinse off your degreaser. I like having two buckets going at one time, so you can start rinsing with water out of one bucket, then follow that by rinsing with water from the second bucket. This method ensures you have the cleanest surface possible.

Safety supplies– don’t forget to protect yourself! Safety gear is essential to prevent skin irritation and prevent any possible injuries. Eye protection and rubber gloves are highly advised, along with following any additional recommended precautions listed on the product’s label.

See, cleaning kitchen cabinets for painting is not so bad after all, especially now that you know the best products and methods to clean cabinets before painting. Now, you’re almost ready for the real fun- painting kitchen cabinets! 

Not to scare you, because I’m sure you already know this, but there is a precise method to painting your kitchen cabinets, so they last. The fantastic news is I have painted several sets of kitchen cabinets, three to be exact, which basically makes me a pro, right?! No, but what it does mean is I’ve done the research, made the mistakes for you, and have developed the best method for painting kitchen cabinets. You don’t want to skip this; check out my tried-and-true method for painting kitchen cabinets here.

I hope you’re feeling more confident about what to clean cabinets with before painting. I absolutely love to celebrate your success with this (not so glamorous) diy project. Share something about how fast or affordable this was for you in the comments!



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