How to Paint Varnished Cabinets

Painting over worn, varnished cabinets is a much cheaper alternative than replacing them for a kitchen update. The trick is preparing and priming them so the paint adheres to the shiny varnished surface, giving you years of further use without the paint chipping or wearing off. Don't skimp on the quality of primer or paint for this project. Budget-priced paint, and for that matter budget-priced tools, simply won't give you a professional-looking, durable job you can be proud of.

Thoroughly clean cabinets before painting them.
  1. Remove cabinet doors, hinges, and door and drawer hardware with a screwdriver or cordless drill. If you plan to reuse them, place them in a bucket with water and a few drops of detergent. Label each cabinet door in the place where the hinge would go, and cover the label with a small piece of masking tape.

  2. Set up a work area by positioning scrap lumber between sawhorses, where you will paint the doors. Leave the contents of the drawers in place, since all you are painting is the fronts. Place the drawers along the kitchen counters.

  3. Scrub the cabinets with grease-cutting detergent and a sanding sponge or wet-dry sandpaper. Rinse off the soap and let them dry.

  4. Fill any holes and dents with carpenter's wood filler, which dries harder and requires a little more sanding, or spackle, which is easier to sand, but is softer and may crack later.

  5. Sand the cabinets again with 180- or 220-grit sandpaper or a medium-fine sanding sponge until all the varnished surfaces are dull -- primer and paint won't adhere well to shiny surfaces. Brush or vacuum away the sanding dust.

  6. Prime the cabinets with a high-quality bonding primer, such as tinted shellac or fast-drying, oil-based primer. Apply the primer with a 2- or 3-inch brush; use a 6-inch trim roller for larger, flat areas.

  7. Place a tube of paintable caulk into your caulk gun and cut the tip at an angle with a utility knife. Press the trigger of the gun to start the flow of caulk. Apply a thin bead of caulk to the gaps between the door panels and joints. Smooth the caulk carefully with your finger or a damp rag, removing all excess so the joints are filled smoothly. Allow the caulk to dry for at least four hours.

  8. Paint the cabinets with a coat of high-quality acrylic- or oil-based paint, using a paintbrush and trim roller. Do all your brush work first to minimize the appearance of brush marks. Let the first coat of paint dry according to the label directions.

  9. Sand lightly with fine-grit sandpaper to ensure a very smooth surface. Apply a second coat of paint. Allow the doors and drawers to dry at least overnight before reassembling the cabinets.


  • Open windows and use fans for ventilation, especially if using solvent-based primer and paint.
  • Skimping on the priming step almost guarantees ongoing chipping problems with your painted cabinets.
  • Paint takes up to a month to fully cure; the fresher it is, the more likely you'll make little marks on the painted surfaces when handling them.

About the Author

Stevie Donald has been an online writer since 2004, producing articles for numerous websites and magazines. Her writing chops include three books on dog care and training, one of which won a prestigious national award in 2003. Donald has also been a painting contractor since 1979, painting interiors and exteriors.