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Do You Need to Prime Unfinished Cabinets Before Painting?

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Buying unfinished cabinets can save you money when renovating your kitchen or bathroom. Unfinished cabinets don’t have a protective coating yet, just bare wood. This allows you to add your custom paint color. But before breaking out the brushes: do you need to prime unfinished cabinets before painting?

The short answer is yes – priming unfinished cabinets is a crucial first step. The primer creates a uniform surface for the paint to adhere to. It also seals the wood and prevents the bleed-through of resin and knots. Skipping this prep step often leads to poor results.

This article explores why priming is necessary when painting raw wood cabinets. You’ll also find a step-by-step overview of the entire painting process. Let’s start from the beginning!

Why Prime Unfinished Cabinets?

Primer might seem like an unnecessary extra step, but it serves several valuable purposes:

  • Seals the wood – Unfinished cabinets have porous, raw wood that soaks up paint. This can lead to uneven coverage and the need for many coats of paint. Primer seals the wood so the color doesn’t get absorbed.
  • Covers knots – The knots in wood cabinets contain a resin that can cause stains and bleed-through. A coat of primer helps conceal these problem areas.
  • Provides uniform surface – Wood grain and textures make it hard for paint to adhere evenly. Primer creates a smooth, consistent base.
  • Improves paint adhesion – Paint bonds firmly to primer, while bare wood can cause patchy adhesion. Primer leads to a more durable finish.
  • Prevents tannin bleed – With certain woods like oak, tannins can bleed through paint. Primer blocks this for stained wood cabinets.

Put, proper prep work makes a massive difference in your finished look!

Step-by-Step Guide to Painting Cabinets

1. Remove Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

  • Remove all doors, drawers, and hardware like knobs and hinges. This allows you to paint the inside and outside surfaces thoroughly.
  • Label pieces so you can reattach everything properly later.

2. Clean and Sand Cabinet Boxes

  • Use a vacuum attachment to remove dust and wood debris from unfinished cabinet boxes.
  • Lightly sand with 120-150 grit sandpaper to smooth rough spots.
  • Wipe sanded cabinets with a damp cloth to remove dust.

3. Apply Primer

  • Choose an oil-based primer for best coverage and adhesion on bare wood.
  • Use a paintbrush to apply a coat of primer to all cabinet surfaces, including the cabinet box and doors/drawer fronts.
  • Let the primer dry completely according to the manufacturer’s directions. Lightly sand again if needed.

4. Paint Cabinets

  • For the finish coat, use a high-quality latex cabinet paint in your desired sheen – semi-gloss or satin are common.
  • Apply two coats of paint, allowing proper drying time between coats. Tips for getting a smooth gloss paint finish.
  • Be sure to paint cabinet backs and drawer interiors, not just front-facing surfaces.

5. Reattach Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

  • Once the paint has fully cured, reattach the doors, drawers, and hardware.
  • Check that doors and drawers operate smoothly. Adjust as needed.
  • Admire your like-new, custom-painted cabinets!

Tips for a Flawless Paint Job

Follow these best practices to get perfectly painted cabinets:

  • Choose the right paint – Look for interior latex cabinet paints for kitchen or bathroom use. Avoid all-purpose paints.
  • Ventilate the room – Open windows and use fans to ensure proper airflow and drying.
  • Work systematically – Paint doors simultaneously rather than switching between doors and boxes.
  • Watch drying times – Don’t rush! Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for drying between coats.
  • Sand lightly between coats – This helps the next coat adhere evenly and smoothly.
  • Work top to bottom – Paint upper cabinets first, then lower ones to avoid drips.

With the proper prep work and painting technique, you can save money on cabinets and have a pristine, custom look. Just don’t skip priming those raw wood surfaces first! Proper priming is the key to paint success.


Can I paint unfinished cabinets without sanding?

Light sanding is recommended before painting unfinished cabinets to help paint adhere properly. But you can paint without sanding if the wood is already smooth.

What type of primer should I use for painting unfinished cabinets?

Use an oil- or shellac-based wood primer made for interior surfaces. These work best on raw wood cabinets.

Can I use a paint sprayer to paint unfinished cabinets?

Yes, a paint sprayer allows you to achieve a smooth, professional finish on unfinished cabinets. Proper prep and technique are key.

How many coats of paint do I need to apply to unfinished cabinets?

Two to three thin coats of paint are recommended for unfinished cabinets to ensure full coverage and durability.

Can I use latex paint on unfinished cabinets?

Yes, quality cabinetry latex paints adhere well to unfinished wood with proper priming. Latex dries fast with low odor.

Do I need to paint the back of the cabinet doors and drawer fronts?

Painting cabinet backsides isn’t required but provides a fully finished, protected look from all angles.

Can I paint unfinished wood cabinets with a brush?

Brushing unfinished cabinets is fine if you use a quality brush and apply paint carefully. Follow the wood grain direction.

Do I need to let the primer dry before painting unfinished cabinets?

Always allow primer to dry fully per manufacturer directions before painting unfinished cabinets for proper adhesion.

Additional Resources

For more tips on painting cabinets, check out these helpful guides:

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