Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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Recipe for Painted Cabinetry

Probably, it signifies some weakness in me that, when we moved into our house nearly two years ago, I looked at my new kitchen–an entirely adequate kitchen, twice as big as my old one, and relatively recently updated–and declared that it simply wasn’t “me.”  This is what it looked like…

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It looks harmless enough, I realize, but, this is my kitchen, and, furthermore, this is my kitchen.  You know?  I developed an instant, irrational disdain for the pewter cabinet hardware, shaped like leaves and twigs.  So not “me.”  And the kitchen island, which managed to take up huge amounts of floor space while offering minimal storage?  Not “me.”  The badly installed but otherwise nondescript ceramic floor?  The cabinet moldings that almost- but not-quite- met the ceiling? The erratically worn, medium toned wood finish?  Not “me,” not “me,” and not “me.”

To create a kitchen that is “me” without eroding the financial balance our entire household, I decided to keep the existing cabinets–which are, ultimately, quite traditional in their shape–and simply paint them.  Did I say simply paint them? Let me re-phrase: I decided to paint them.

Forgive me: the account that follows is maybe the most self-indulgently detailed piece of writing ever.  If you just want to know what I did, skim to the next picture.  If you want to know why I did what I did (so that you can assess the validity of my logic), keep reading.

I know how I treat cabinets–the scrubbing, the splashing, the banging, the bumping–and I knew I needed a paint job that would withstand thousands of days of maltreatment.  So, I did what I always do: I googled.

I quickly discovered that there is a relatively new product called Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations, and everyone loves it.  It’s the topic of approximately one bazillion glowing blog posts by DIY mommas.  It earns five stars on the Home Depot website and Amazon.com.  I was sold.  Unfortunately, I was also stymied because (I know, I know, go ahead and roll your eyes extravagantly) none of the Cabinet Transformation colors were quite “me.”  I tried sweet-talking the paint guys at two different Home Depots into mixing me a custom color.  At the first, the paint guy tried…and tried…and tried…until he ran out of “can room.”  (The resulting color wasn’t even close to the color swatch I had brought him.)  At the second, the paint guy flatly refused to try.

I allowed myself to despair for about five minutes, and then I set to work solving the problem.  And this was the problem, as I saw it.

  • I had a color (Valspar’s “Rolling Prairie”) to which I was completely committed.  My husband and I had selected it after buying several sample-sized cans at our local Lowe’s and painting random pieces of wood and parts of the soon-to-be demolished kitchen island.  (My husband is a man of strong opinions, especially when it comes to color.  He declared some colors “too happy,” others “too grey,” and others “too cold.”  There was only one color on which we both agreed.)  The color was non-negotiable, so I needed a product that could be customized to match the swatch we already had.
  • I had glossy kitchen cabinets and a nasty habit of getting my kitchen really, really dirty several times a day.  Therefore, I needed a process that would allow the paint to adhere in a serious way and a topcoat that would withstand almost constant splattering, banging, and scrubbing.
  • I had painting skills that were barely average, at best, so I needed a product that was easy to work with.
  • I had a houseful of people who expect to be fed and watered on a regular basis, so I needed a system that I could work through in 2-3 days, which was probably just about as long as I could expel my family from the house.
  • Finally, I have a worrywart husband who frets about any product with fumes of any kind–especially when he knows that respirators activate my claustrophobia and that the work has to be completed indoors.  So, I needed a reasonably non-toxic system.

I chased my tail for several days trying to determine what type of paint was best for cabinets.  Consumer Reports, which I typically trust as the reference that is most like a peer-reviewed source for buyers, recommends Behr’s Premium Ultra Enamel for its durability and adhesion.  Professional painters, on the other hand, seem to pan Behr paint as a cheap and less effective substitute for enamels made by Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore, both of which Consumer Reports says are overpriced and wimpy by comparison.  I decided to put my trust in Consumer Reports, and I held my breath and crossed my fingers.  (I still can’t tell you if that was the best choice.  Read on for more details.)

There was no way that I was going to trust it or any other paint to cling to my glossy cabinets all by itself.  So, I spent some time studying the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Rustoleum’s Cabinet Transformations to determine how they get that stuff to stick to cabinets without sanding, which is one of its primary appeals.   (Who in their right mind would choose to grate and forcefully disperse dirty wood powder throughout their kitchen?)  It relies on a deglossing agent that isn’t sold in stand-alone form by anyone.   It’s called Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether; it must work (a few thousand 5-star reviews can’t be wrong), and it isn’t especially toxic, according to the federal government, anyway.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to buy it.  And all of the deglossing agents on the market are supposed to be administered in well-ventilated areas while wearing protective skin- and eye-covering.  No can do.

Maybe, I thought, I could circumvent the whole trouble by simply priming the cabinets before painting, so I chose a primer called “Gripper,” which claims to adhere to absolutely anything, including glass!  But, folks, these are my cabinets.  Have I mentioned what I do to cabinets?  So, rather than operate on faith (never my strong suit), I decided to test it out.  On an inconspicuous side of the terminally ill kitchen island, I scrubbed the wood clean, coated it with Gripper, let it dry, then went after it with a screwdriver.  Of course, it peeled right off.

Having ruled out the use of chemical deglossers and now having demonstrated the inability of the Gripper to grip, I was forced to capitulate to scuff-sanding.   I scuffed up yet another section on the kitchen island, wiped it clean, then painted it with the Gripper.  Once that was dry, I gave it the screwdriver treatment and was relieved to discover that it held. Fast.

At this point (if you are, by some chance, still reading), you are probably thanking heaven that I have finally solved the myriad problems so that you can quit hearing about all the dead ends and frustrations.  Well, hang in there for one more re-tooling.  I promise this is the last one.

Plan in place, I went to work on a short bank of cabinets, in an experimental way.  My theory was that, worst case scenario, if I ruined these few cabinets in my attempt to turn them green, we could remove and replace those cabinets with something else without having to tear out and replace the entire kitchen.  (These are not attached to the rest.) I cleaned, sanded and primed without trouble, but when I began to paint, I discovered that the viscosity of Behr Ultra Premium Enamel is approximately equivalent to that of a really good milkshake, one that is too thick to suck through the straw and leaves your cheeks so sore you can’t finish the whole thing.  At first, I thought this was a good sign, but I quickly determined that the stuff was impossible to manage.  To call the resulting pattern “brush strokes” would be to misrepresent its level of discretion.  Think: stripes or scars.  And anyplace where I touched the paint with the brush after its initial deposit, the paint became gummy and the finish uneven.  In short, it was a mess.  I wept.  Then I googled.  And, after an evening of clicking and growling and reading and re-reading,  I found a solution that proved, ultimately, effective and inexpensive: Floetrol.  It thins the paint, slows the drying time, and reduces brush strokes by improving “self-leveling.”  That’s what it says on the bottle, and I can vouch for all of those things. (In fact, the Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations paint is very thin, slow-drying, and self-leveling, and now I know why.)

Here, then, is my final “recipe”:

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The only supplies omitted from this picture are a good-quality paint brush (I used Purdy), a good quality foam roller and tray, some green scrub pads, a few old rags, some tack cloths, and a bottle of “Krud Kutter,” which is an unsmelly but potent cleaning agent.

Here is what I did:

1. I removed all of the hardware and took down all of the doors.

2. I cleaned with Krud Kutter and green scrub pads and then wiped well with old rags.

3. Then I scuff-sanded with 150-grit sandpaper and wiped with tack cloths and then again with old rags.  (Actually, the scuff sanding turned out to be no more difficult than the cleaning.  I had dreaded it for no good reason.)

4. Then I primed thinly with a brush and allowed the primer to dry overnight.  I worked hard to avoid puddling and dripping, but there were a few spots I had to sand down in the morning before I started in with my paint.

5. I mixed one capful of Floetrol (shaken well before dispensing) with approximately 12 ounces of paint (in an old Mason jar) and shook it like crazy.

6. Then I painted one fairly light coat of Floetrolled paint with a brush, using the bristles to force the paint down into the crevices and ridges created by my raised panels, and allowed that coat to dry before applying and a second coat with a roller.

If you undertake this crazy operation, here are my primary bits of procedural wisdom: The only tricky part, really, is the edges of the doors and drawers, where the paint wants to drip.  That’s why you need to use a very dry brush–especially on those edges.  My other tip for reducing edge dripping is to raise each door up off your work surface as you paint it.  I found that inverted loaf pans and cake pans work perfectly for that purpose, as do smallish, sturdy cardboard boxes.

You ought to have seen my mess when I was in the middle of my painting day: Every inch of table and countertop was covered with upside-down baking pans and cardboard boxes and topped with cabinet doors.  The living room was full of drawers and contents of drawers.   I kind of wanted to resign at this point:

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But, at the end of two days, it was finished.  On the third day, my husband brought the kids home and then we spent a few hours putting all the doors back in place and installing the new hardware.  This is what it looked like in the end:

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A little greener = a little “me-er”

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The bin pulls on the drawers are one of my favorite new features…

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The kitchen island is now badly maimed by my experimentation on its less conspicuous surfaces, but I don’t mind its color, now, contrasted with the “Rolling Prairie” cabinets.

If you don’t love it, please don’t tell me.  Because, although I’m glad I did it once, I will not be repeating the process anytime soon.  If the paint begins to peel off or wear badly, I promise to let you know.  It’s only a few days old right now, but I am ready to declare it, tentatively, a successful recipe!