How to Seal Paint on Kitchen Cabinets

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Kitchen cabinets are one of the most abused surfaces in your home. Your cupboards face daily assault from greasy hands, steamy pots, sticky jelly jars and many other indignities. A quality paint job protects and beautifies a cabinet's wood -- or particleboard -- box and doors, but you can extend the life of your cabinets' finish by topping off the paint with a tough sealant coat. A sealant is particularly valuable if your cabinets boast a faux finish or other decorative coating. Water-based polyurethane varnishes provide enhanced water resistance, chemical resistance and scratch resistance without emitting fumes that might adversely affect the flavor of foods.

Things You'll Need

  • Phillips or flat-blade screwdriver 
  • Dropcloths
  • Cotton face mask
  • Trisodium phosphate or TSP-substitute
  • Sponge
  • Bucket
  • Clean cotton rags
  • Dewaxed shellac
  • China bristle paintbrush or foam paint applicator
  • 220-grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • Low-odor water-based polyurethane varnish
  • High-quality synthetic filament paintbrush

Step 1: Inspect for Lead

Check the old coating for the presence of lead using an EPA-recognized lead test kit if your cabinets were installed and painted before 1978. These kits are available at paint stores, hardware stores and home center outlets. If testing confirms the presence of lead, contact your community's health department or a certified lead abatement professional before disturbing the cabinet's existing finish.

Step 2: Prepare the Cabinet

Empty the cabinets completely. Remove the handles or knobs from the cabinet doors, using a screwdriver. Put the handles and the fasteners aside for re-attachment later, unless you're updating to newer handles or knobs.

Tip

  • Rotate screws in a counterclockwise direction to loosen each fastener for easy removal of the handle or knob. Employ an appropriately sized flat-blade screwdriver to loosen slotted screws. Use an appropriately sized Phillips screwdriver to remove screws with an X-shaped slot.

Step 3: Mix Up a Degreasing Compound

Slip on a cotton face mask for dust protection, then mix 2 ounces of powdered trisodium phosphate into a gallon of warm tap water. Dilution rates may vary by manufacturer; read the package's instructions for specific guidelines. The TSP cleans and degreases the paint surface.

Tip

  • For an eco-friendly alternative, select a product labeled a TSP-substitute. Phosphate-free substitutes are less potent than TSP for some uses, but adequate for simple cleaning, degreasing and adhesion boosting.

Step 4: Clean the Cabinets

Spread dropcloths over the countertops and flooring to protect surfaces from accidental drips or spills; be sure to cover surfaces completely. Wipe down all cabinet surfaces using a sponge impregnated with the TSP or TSP-substitute. Follow up by thoroughly rinsing off the TSP with a water-soaked sponge or cotton rag. Allow the cabinets to dry completely.

Step 5: Apply a Clear Primer/Sealer

Apply a thin coat of clear dewaxed shellac to all cabinet surfaces using a natural fiber paintbrush or a disposable foam applicator. Let the shellac dry for an hour; then gently sand away any surface irregularities using 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe off any sanding residue with a dry, lint-free cotton rag or a tack cloth. Apply a second coat of the dewaxed shellac; then sand and wipe clean after one hour as before.

Step 6: Brush on the Sealer Coat

Use a high-grade synthetic fiber brush to apply the smoothest possible polyurethane-finish coat. Start by applying a single thin coat, and let it dry for two hours before gently sanding and polishing away any bubbles in the coating. Thoroughly wipe off all sanding residue before applying a second thin coat. After allowing a couple hours for drying, sand any surface irregularities smooth before adding a third coat.

Tip

  • For optimal safety, select a water-based polyurethane finish low in volatile organic compounds . Ask your supplier for a technical data sheet for both the primer and polyurethane to ensure that no safety gear -- such as protective eyewear, respirator, chemically resistant gloves or other equipment -- is recommended when the coatings are applied by brush.

    A water-based clear polyurethane is hard enough to seal out moisture while protecting the painted surface beneath from scratches and abrasion. Water-based finishes dry quickly and emit significantly fewer chemical odors. Select a satin sheen for easy cleaning with household chemicals that might mar an unprotected decorative painted surface.

Step 7: Re-attach the Handles

Wait at least 24 hours for the finish to cure before attaching the handles or knobs and restocking your cabinets. Read the product label and technical data sheet to confirm the manufacturer's recommendations.

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