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How NOT to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

In this post: How not to paint kitchen cabinets. Unless you want your cabinets to resemble a piece of furniture found in a dilapidated shed after 50 years!


How not to paint kitchen cabinets

When it comes to painting kitchen cabinets, a Google search will get you any number of tutorials. Everyone from DIY bloggers, to HGTV and the DIY Network seems to have a tutorial on painting kitchen cabinets.

In case you’re short on time, the gist of all of them is to remove your cupboards, clean them really well, sand them, prime and paint a couple of coats.

(Don’t mind the paper skeletons. The kids were learning about bones in homeschooling!)

There are a few variations such as using more than one coat of primer or sanding between each coat of paint.

Some people use tack cloths to remove sanding dust while other use a vacuum or wet paper towels.

A few brave souls skip sanding all together and just use a deglosser.

But everyone – EVERYONE – insists upon cleaning the cabinets to remove cooking grease and splatters. And lots of those people say to use TSP.

According to Wikipedia TSP is:

Trisodium phosphate (TSP, E339) is a cleaning agent, lubricant, food additive, stain remover and degreaser. It is a white, granular or crystalline solid, highly soluble in water producing an alkaline solution.

If you want to take the easy way out with TSP (and not have to mix the powder yourself), you can buy it in a spray bottle like I did. Nothing really wrong with that. But you should probably put your glasses on, or get a magnifying glass out when you read the directions.

The directions say “Spray on and wipe clean with a cloth soaked in clean water.”

Yeah. Unfortunately I read it as “spray on and wipe clean with a cloth.”

When really it meant “be darn sure to wash off all TSP with clean water or else your corners and edges won’t take paint or primer no matter how hard you try or how much you wish they would!

One coat of primer + one coat of enamel paint on top of TSP = no adhesion! The photo above is NOT sanded. That is what applying paint on top of TSP not washed off looks like!

On the other hand, I did discover a new way to get a really chippy painted look!

chippy painted white cabinet doors

I suppose instead of “How NOT to Paint Kitchen Cabinets” this post could be titled “For the Love of Pete, Wash Off ALL the TSP!”

chippy painted white cabinet doors

But I think you get the picture. If you don’t wash off all the TSP, your paint job is going to resemble a piece of furniture found in a dilapidated shed after 50 years! Not cool.

Unless you’re going for that look in your kitchen. Which was definitely not what we were going for!

Oh and you probably shouldn’t use enamel paint that has a cure time of 30 freakin’ days either. Don’t ask me how I know. I don’t really want to talk about it.

CLICK HERE TO SEE OUR FINISHED WHITE KITCHEN!

Subway Tile Wall Rustic Coffee Bar Kitchen

Have you tried painting your own kitchen cabinets? Any good or bad stories to tell?

shannon sign off

home made lovely book on table with get it now text button

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92 Comments

  1. You don’t have all your kitchen cupboard doors off while your in-laws are visiting, do you?? Yikes! I would never, ever! Too bad about your doors though and now you know for next time! I’m sure they will look beautiful when they are done.

    1. Yup, we’ve had lots of company here while the doors have been off. Lol. My in laws aren’t the scary kind everyone else seems to have! They’re really awesome!

  2. Oh my. Thats all bad. I could tell you of a horror story of mine thats similar, but it looks like you are doing just fine with what you are dealing with 😉 {By the way, mine have been off for two years, and we have yet to put the doors back on the cupboards. I like to think of it as ‘very’ open concept} { ahem }

    1. Yes, I know! And I may like the look on a piece of furniture. I just can’t seem to see it in my kitchen with the stainless counters and nice crisp white subway backsplash!

  3. All that work you did… what a bummer. On the upside though, I have been looking for a way to make a new bench I have look old, you may have just given me my answer! Good luck with round 2!

  4. When I first bought TSP, the woman behind the counter forewarned me TSP needs to be thoroughly cleaned off before any paint/primer is applied. Because I’m a little paranoid (and I don’t like using chemicals if I can avoid) I only use it as a last resort…if a piece is disgustingly dirty/grimy. Otherwise it’s just water & vinegar or warm water and good ol’ elbow grease =)

    I’m so glad you shared this Shannon… obviously the woman behind the counter wasn’t whistling dixie…lol. I can’t wait to see the kitchen cabinets the way you “really” want them!

    1. I can’t wait to see them either! Ha! And nope, not whistling Dixie! Wash that stuff off good!

  5. I am so sorry you did all that work and now need to start over. At the same time I want to thank you for sharing this. Often we learn more from our mistakes than when things go smoothly. Now we can learn from what happened too! Good luck to you in your second round.

  6. I’m gobsmacked.
    Isn’t this the best news EVER???
    Is this not a tutorial for “Shabby Chic” weathered wood? If I understand correctly, you’re telling me I can avoid spending money on crackle mediums and not have to sand paint off corners if I simply wash my wood with TSP and ignore the proper directions.
    Is there something I’m missing? The doors look fantastic to me. Perhaps they look better in photo than IRL?

    1. Lol. Natasha you crack me up! I did sand the doors after the whole incident to prepare them for repriming and repainting. But what you see really didn’t take much sanding at all! And they do look super – for a piece of furniture. Not quite what we were going for in the kitchen though!
      xo,
      S.

  7. Why would you blog about something you did wrong and then blame the product? The problem is you did not read the directions. The directions say “Spray on surface, wait 15 minutes and then RINSE WITH CLEAN WATER”. TSP and a kitchen scrubbie work extremely well to clean kitchen cabinets and prepare them for paint but you have to rinse it off. Anything you clean or degrease your cabinets with needs to be rinsed off.

    1. Hi Helen,
      Thank you for you concern. Perhaps you misunderstood. I did not blame the product…I did say that unfortunately I read the directions wrong. As for the reason for blogging about it, the point was to share that I goofed and to help anyone else out there who may be prone to making the same mistake.
      Shannon

    2. Hi Shannon. Sorry, on re-reading my comment it should have been friendlier and clearer as to why I was making the comment in the first place. I had just read some posts on Facebook saying NOT to use TSP for some very uneducated reasons and then referring to your blog post as a reason why. It was them that misunderstood and I should have made it clear why I was making the comment on your blog. I just went back onto their Facebook page to copy one of their erroneous comments and I can’t find it so I assume the thread was removed. By the way I love the doors all chippy!

  8. As you know I am planning on doing my kitchen in the spring so thank you for sharing a mistake I probably would have made If i had not read your blog. very informative … Your so inspiring and I am so glad that your still excited to share a different approach for getting the warn look also!!! Have a great day and happy painting!

  9. Well darn it all! How frustrating! I know you will perservere though and make your kitchen stunning and cozy! Can’t wait to see how it turns out when you do the ta-da reveal!

  10. I’ve heard of that before…so when I go to paint mine, I’ll be sure to clean off the TSP really, really well! Have to admit, I kinda like the chippy look too, maybe not for the kitchen cupboards, though. lol
    Debbie 🙂

  11. My sympathies! We just undertook a one week kitchen reno blitz for my parents that included sanding and painting cabinet doors…I feel your pain! It will be beautiful! Thank you for sharing the TSP warning so we don’t go through it ourselves!

  12. Oh Shannon, I’m so sorry. However I love that chippy distressed look. But when it isn’t what you are going for it could be very disappointing. Thanks so much for the heads up on TSP. Happy Easter!

  13. Awwww, I hate to laugh, but you really made me giggle… In bold big letters, for godsakes make sure all TSP is washed off!!! should be bigger on the label! I really look forward to seeing how they are supposed to look, in case they don’t, chippy is in! 😉

    Laurie @ Vin’yet Etc.

    1. 🙂 They are turning out better. Tsp may work for chippy furniture in the future!

  14. I’m glad I saw your post. I just used TSP to clean cabinets and was fixing to prime this weekend when I see your blogg. Thanks for the info. It just saved me alt of grief. Lol

  15. Ah! You’re funny with your intro. I’ve been searching for couple of days now and been stumbling on DIY! Blogs. Well seems you’ve been through that. Thanks for this helpful information. I really appreciate it. Now I know I to get started.

  16. Painting kitchen cabinets are not as easy as everyone makes it to be. I didn’t want to dispose of the original solid wood cabinets in a 1950s house. I completely removed all paint with a heat gun and scraper, and thorougly sanded. I used wood putty to fill in previous gouges and rebuilt the cabinet corners, then sanded smooth. I wanted a hard finish that when bumped, the wood would not “dent.” I went to a local contract paint store; not Lowe’s, not Home Depot. They would not guarantee the paint unless I used the proper primer to accomplish the finish I desired. Yes, it took sanding between each coat of primer and paint because I started with bare wood. And yes, it took time. But let me tell you, it was definitely a profressional finish! I got the hard finish that I set out for. The guy at the contractor paint store was right on with his 30+ years knowledge. Don’t be fooled by the quick home makeovers.

    1. I don’t at all think it’s an easy DIY! It’s a tough job, for sure. But it is cheaper than a whole new kitchen – I think that’s why so many people do it!

    2. Bonita would you mind sharing your paint brand and type? We are looking to do that as well and are a bit stumped as to what paint to use to achieve that result. Thanks!

  17. Those must have been some SERIOUSLY greasy cabinets. TSP essentially turns grease into “soap” by emulsifying it, and that needs to be rinsed off, but in all my days of furniture refinishing, I’ve never seen one that paint wouldn’t stick to like that. Of course, a quick spray and wipe might not have been enough to get through the grease on those cabinets. TSP works better with a scrubber, and making sure you have the right ratio mixed for the job, I’m thinking it wasn’t because of the TSP that the paint wouldn’t stick, but maybe it was the undefeated grease.

    1. I have seriously ugly kitchen cabinets that were painted with thick red paint but weren’t washed first and the previous owner had no fan so everything was covered in cooking grease. Of course the paint didn’t adhere in some areas. I’m wondering if I should sand down the red paint to get to the cooking grease then wash with TSP (or soapy water) or should I try chalk paint over the whole mess?

    2. I have to agree. I’ve painted a lot of furniture and cabinets, I’ve used TSP on many jobs (I’ve always mixed my own) and honestly, I’ve NEVER washed it off with water and I’ve never had this happen. Maybe it was the paint.. I’ve gotten bad paint before and had some similar results.

    3. Strange! I just did an antique dresser and didn’t wipe any of it off and it turned out beautiful.. But again, I mixed my own. Maybe it’s a different concentrate with the pre-mixed. Always better to err on the side of caution, so good to know for future projects!

  18. Thank you for making me laugh. I love a good chuckle first thing in the morning. Sorry it was at the expense of your frustration. It is much appreciated that you took the time to write about what NOT to do. This could possibly save me when I start my kitchen cabinet project. Look forward to seeing your finished results. 🙂

  19. I know the chippy finish wasn’t the look you were going for, but when I saw the picture of your cabinet doors I had to see how you did it! You may have stumbled onto an easy way to get a layered, been-around-forever paint finish. It looks like the results you get using milk paint.

  20. I agree- I loved how “aged” the doors looked that were all leaned together! lol I am gonna whip up some TSP magic the next time I want that really aged look!
    Not to be heartless, honestly, I am sorry for all your mess……………….been there…done that! I was trying to get that really aged look to no avail- I finally gave up and got a distressed look but not as cool as yours- perhaps you should have kept this under your hat and sold it as a pre-treatment for REALLY getting an AGED… antique….been around the block look!
    HAVE a Blessed Christmas!

  21. Thanks a lot for sharing this information! Next week I want to renovate my kitchen cabinets and first of all I should clean them. Thanks for giving this detailed information because I need it before I start painting. Regards!

  22. I really enjoyed your informative review.since I too am thinking of redoing our cabinets your site was really helpful!!! I even got a chuckle out of it…Sorry, I’m sure it wasn’t funny while it was happening. But, thank you just the same.I hope I have better luck.

  23. I hate my kitchen cupboards right now. They are really cheap wood, blond and totally wrecked by water being splashed down the fronts. They were like that when I bought the house, even tho it was only 6 mths old! I want to get rid of the mess and I’ve been looking at ways to get OUT of paiting them since I actually like the wood look. This is good to know since I would have cleaned them with TSP. I will probably use gel stain but this is good advice. I love your kitchen too!!

  24. Then they will look great… distressed look is Awesome..I painted my cabinets with Annie Sloan paints and used her soft wax 7 steps And BEAUTIFUL is what I have. .SOLID cured cabinets. all this hype on here not all fact.

  25. This is such a great post! Your cabinets turned out so beautiful! I’m helping my mom remodel her kitchen right now, and we are trying to decide if we want to do something new to the cabinets. She says that she likes them just the way they are, but we would hate to update everything, and leave the cabinets looking a little shabby. You’re ideas are great, and I might see if I can talk her into doing something like this.

  26. Hi, I do have to redo my kitchen cabinet’s doors, it is a pretty daunting prospect and I am really scarred to go into a lot of efforts and cost to finish with an awful result. I do hope that your experience is going to help me along.

  27. You are so funny and so real. I have been considering painting my cabinets…
    My kitchen is small …the cabinets are stained cherry..love that but I’m thinking that the less contrast with the walls the more spacious it would seem….

  28. You are a funny Person and I love humor. Doing my kitchen cabinets and I appreciate the tips. Hope I don’t drive my poor wife insane while the kitchen is down.
    Wash with tsp
    Wash off tsp
    sand
    prime
    paint
    AND OFF I GO!!!

  29. LMAO!! I love your instructions! I am in the process of painting a rented house cabinets and have been on Google Search for the past few hours and stumbled across your article. It made me laugh with good humor! Kudos for sharing your lessons learned!!

    Sincerely,

    Tom

    1. Add on Question: Can I take the removed cabinet doors outside and hose them down with water to be faster? Of course, the main frame of the kitchen cabinet will need to be wiped clean with water and cloth.

      Thanks!

      Tom

    1. thank you for your tips on using TSP when repainting kitchen cabinet. my question is – how much sanding do you need to do after TSP and befor then primer? I’ve read that you do not want to sand too much, just enough to remove/smooth out flaking but is that enough if there is still a shine with the original, and yes very old (been on the cabinets since 1993) finish?

  30. Love your humor!! There needs to be more in this world. Is there a difference between TSP-PF and standard TSP deck cleaner? Should I use one over the other? I’m in the research prep phase of painting or kitchen wallpaper, cupboards and all. Thank you for your advice!

  31. I have both deglosser and TSP. Should I use both and if so which one? If not, what should I do?

    1. Hmm. Good question. TSP is more of a cleaner, I believe to get rid of residue and kitchen grease in this case. The deglosser will help if you have a glossy finish on your cabinets. I only used TSP, but my cabinets were pretty old and didn’t really have a shine to them once the gunk was cleaned off. Does that help?

  32. I’m sort of freaking out because I just finished cleaning my cabinets yesterday, and stumbled across this blog post, and realized I DID NOT wash the tsp off. I havent started painting yet, I’m just horrified that I get to spend the day tomorrow rinsing them off. Is this going to affect the adhesion because I’ve waiting so long to Rinse them?

    1. I’m so sorry. I honestly don’t know if you’ll have a hard time. I didn’t rinse mine AND painted before I figured this out. So I had to re-sand my doors. Let us know how it goes!

  33. Ah ha! I came online to see if it’s necessary to use TSP if you are going to use a deglosser. Your article says, yes. I did wipe off the TSP with a wet rag, and am worried it was 100% clean, so you can bet I’m going right back to my project with yet another clean, wet cloth! thanks for your post!