Ask Woodiwiss: Why is paint chipping off cabinets we just painted?

A customer recently sent us an email with photos of their kitchen cabinets. They’d been in the throws of a remodel and decided to paint the bare wood cabinets with new paint. Here’s what they asked:

“We decided painted cabinets would be cheaper and easier than replacing them, but after applying a primer and applying the new paint color, we noticed after the first coat there was peeling paint in a couple of spots. Once it dried we realized looked like it might chip off in big flakes, but figured the second coat of paint would help. It didn’t. What can we do?”

We sent along some recommendations and after some back-and-forth, they decided they needed a professional to look at it. What we discovered was their primer coat wasn’t the best kind. They needed a high-bonding primer. As we’ve talked about many times before, primer matters. 

The fix was in, and it required more work than they could invest. They’d need to have sanded the freshly painted cabinets, reapply a high bonding primer, put down a new top coat of paint, then the next coat to even it out. They didn’t do anything wrong, since much of that had to happen anyway. They just skipped some steps.

Prevent peeling paint on kitchen cabinets with the right prep

Start with deep cleaning the kitchen cabinets

Clean the cabinets before you start in a way you never thought cabinets could be so clean. It’s important for bathroom cabinets, too, but especially the wood surfaces in a kitchen. So take all the cabinet knobs off and empty out the contents of the cabinets. Get a step stool and really get in every nook and cranny at all edges if they’re still on the walls.

Kitchen cabinets need a good grease-cutting cleaner and since they will be painted (or stained) again anyway, we really scrub at the old paint or surface. You want all the failing paint, chips, cracks, and bubbles out, so elbow grease and a sturdy rag go a long way. Dish soap is fine to use for a good cleaning, since it’s simple, gentle, and designed for grease.

Just be sure to wipe it down dry as you go to prevent water damage. A hairdryer works well with a measured, reasonable amount of water. 

Sanding may be required, but be careful

Cabinet panels often have ridges, and the sides of some models can be thin. If you skip sanding, you risk having rough edges on the cabinet doors or grooves. If you do sand to a smooth finish, you risk wearing away at the wood surface.

Know what surface you’re starting with

It’s rare to find in modern kitchens, but oil-based paint on the surface creates an invisible layer of, well, oil. And putting modern latex paint on top is literally oil and water. The other more likely scenario is you find oil-based finishes on the cabinets. Painting cabinets finished with oily finishes results in the same scenario. 

If the previous owner didn’t clue you in on what was used or leave touch-up paint or oil to identify it, get a professional painter to come take a look. We wrote recently about what to do with honey oak cabinets, which while dated, are well-built. But often come with a surface that cabinet paint doesn’t automatically want to adhere to out of the can. We saw someone who tried four coats of paint once, each time waiting for the cabinet to fully cure only to find out they were glomming paint on like they were extra sweaters. There was just no way it was going to stick.

Try a small test patch to see if there’s paint peeling. Really.

We do not often do this except in extremely rare situations where the environment is really unusual. But we’ve also been painting kitchen cabinets for over thirty years. Nothing surprises us anymore except what we find inside the kitchen cabinet (ask us about the 20-year-old can of pork and beans sometime.)

But if you’re doing this yourself, do a small test patch before you do the entire surface of every cabinet in the house. It’d have saved our original questioner a lot of time and effort. Paints can sometimes be mixed poorly at the hardware store, or you pick up the wrong primer, or you need a tinted primer, or there’s a little bit of dirt or grease you discover later in the right light. 

It feels like a lot of extra steps to do a job right, but the cost of doing it wrong is paint peeling every time you reach for a knob, or the cabinet paint peels in the sunlight that hits one side of the kitchen in the morning. Give yourself adequate time to to let the products work before you realize you have to repaint everything. Or worse, remove everything and still repaint.

Painted cabinets are among the most challenging home improvement tasks, but still affordable

As home renovations go, painting cabinets is the quickest and easiest way to totally refresh the look of a kitchen or bathroom. Painted cabinets are challenging only because they require a lot of prep before the actual paint goes down. And if you’re painting over already painted cabinets, you run the risk of bubbling and chipping as the existing paint underneath buckles over time from the harsh humidity, grease, and heat of their environments.

We’ve talked a lot about when to paint, replace, or reface cabinets. Unsurprisingly, we believe that a coat of paint can transform just about anything. On cabinets, it’s truly remarkable when done well.

When you’re ready for painted cabinets that look amazing and are done well so they stand up to dust, grease, peeling, humidity, and day-to-day use for as much as 7-10 years, give us a call in the East Bay area.