Kitchen Cabinets: Painting Plastic Laminate

I was definitely hesitant to take on the challenge of painting out our kitchen cabinets. A.) because I knew we would not be spraying them and was concerned that we would not be able to achieve a smooth, quality finish and B.) the cabinets are a plastic laminate to which I believed NOTHING would stick.

I absolutely think there are SO MANY things skilled and committed homeowners can take on and effectively DIY.  Refinishing a plastic laminate cabinet (which is not the best quality to start with) seemed like a stretch, but with parts of the cabinet finish deteriorating and no immediate plans to replace them we decided to take the risk.

Waaaaaay back last spring we began testing out options.  We were luckily able to do this because we had removed cabinets that were not going back in. PERFECT.  First, any of the cabinet surfaces that were getting painted had to be properly cleaned, especially of the grease and oils that tend to live in kitchen areas.  This gives the paint the best chance to adhere properly to any surface.  We used liquid T.S.P (Trisodium Phosphate) concentrate, the biodegradable formula. Because I am a bit of a NUT when it comes to chemicals and coming into contact with them, we both have heavy duty full face masks with organic vapor filters.  We made sure to clean all the removed doors outside, wearing masks and gloves, and on a weekend when the kids were away. I just think you can’t be too careful… Once this was complete we could move on to paint!

The initial attempt was using a recommended cabinet Paint and Primer in One.  It was recommended as a very durable paint finish, which is what we were looking for.  I wanted a scrubbable, stain resistant finish, and this paint did meet those qualifications, but I really, really, questioned whether it would stick to these plastic laminate cabinets, especially without a heavy duty primer.  We followed the instructions and allowed for the recommended dry time…then I did the scratch test.  I dragged my nails across the smooth surface (which looked great) intentionally trying to scratch the paint off.  It failed the test. GAH! It just wasn’t sticking to the plastic finish at all.

I did this test because our kitchen gets used hardcore style.  Things get banged, dropped, and spilled in this kitchen, and I need the cabinets to hold up to our onslaught. If we had to be careful with the cabinets, well, I just can’t handle the stress of it, people! Honestly, being able to actually use the kitchen without fear of chipping a cabinet is a essential function, an ease of use necessity when it comes to that happy human factor. No matter how affordable refinishing the cabinets is, if its all chipped in a year it isn’t worth it.

So, we got serious about finding a primer that worked.  The one thing about the other paint was that it went on like a dream, and even though we were rolling the paint on, it self levelled to a relatively flat finish.  Adhesive primers are, for the most part, thick, a bit sticky, and don’t have self levelling properties.  This meant there would be sanding between priming and painting. *sigh.  What. A. Mess.  We ended up using Zinsser’s Bulls Eye 1-2-3.  It claims to be an “all surface bond coat” and although it doesn’t list plastic laminate specifically it does list adhesion to ceramic tile and PVC pipe, so that should do just fine. We applied a coat, waited the dry time, sanded to a smooth finish and then did THE TEST.  And it STUCK.  I couldn’t scrape it off.  Now, I am sure if I got a screwdriver out and really dug in with it I could have scratched the surface, but that seems a bit extreme.  I don’t know a cabinet that would hold up to that.

Then we moved on to the finish paint.  Now that we had a primer adhering properly I really didn’t want to make a mistake with the top coat, so I went to Benjamin Moore.  I have yet to be disappointed in any of their products, and in my research I came across their Advance paint line.  The Advanced line boasts a ‘furniture quality finish’ along with the scrubbability that many Benjamin Moore products offer.  Our local supplier had cabinet door examples in their showroom and it looked pretty good to me. So we gave it a go.

I just want to pause here and say; YES, I decided to paint out the cabinets black.  I love the way a rich black can ground a space and used in our now nearly all white kitchen, I didn’t worry about it being too dark.  The trick to keeping this black and white combo from being too stark, is to play with the subtleties of the two tones.  I used Benjamin Moore White Wisp for the kitchen walls.  It has a very slight bluish grey quality, light enough to appear white, but enough color for the Snowfall White trim to pop against.  The cabinet color is Benjamin Moore Black, but due to the make-up of the Advanced paint line it has the tendency to make very dark colors a bit milky.  This gives the black a softness that has worked so nicely with the White Wisp walls.

Now.  The downside.  This kitchen reno has been going on longer than I care to calculate, but we have been living with the painted cabinets for several months now.  We use the kitchen as we normally would, and no one is being particularly cautious.  The finish has held up remarkably well.  There are is only one spot that needs to be addressed in some way, and that is the lower cabinet door where the garbage is kept.  I know for a fact that wet hands are constantly opening and shutting this door.  It is directly under the sink and is likely the cupboard we open and close the most.  One of the things about these cabinets is that there are no pulls or knobs.  You open them with the integrated wooden handle so you touch the paint finish directly every time.  I also question whether I let this door dry for long enough before I started grabbing it with wet hands, so thats on me.

I am going to sand this cabinet handle back, re-prime and paint it, and then attempt a sealer of some kind that will better protect the paint from wet hands.  But other than this problem area I am very happy with the finish!  I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out for us, even when the test piece showed so much promise, but I think I can safely say we refinished our plastic laminate cabinets! Here are a few pointers if you’re going to give this a try:


  • test a piece of the material before jumping in and doing your entire cabinetry
  • clean the surface thoroughly using a degreaser of some kind (and wear proper protective gear!)
  • use a primer meant to adhere to whatever surface you are painting
  • sand between the primer and the finish color. Use a fine grit sanding sponge and get the smoothest surface you can.  This gives you the base you need to ensure a smooth top coat.
  • FOLLOW THE RECOMMENDED DRY TIMES.  Seriously.  I tend to wait even longer, especially if heat or humidity might be effecting the drying phase
  • don’t rush the top coat.  We used foam rollers and the ‘wet edge’ rolling technique to prevent any lines in the finish.  Rolling won’t give you the totally flat finish that professional sprayer will, but if you focus on your application you can get an even, consistent finish

You can see in a few of these photos, the backsplash is in!  Watch for the next post to see how that turned out! Its a real kitchen now!

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  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    Good job, good job, GREAT job! The cabinets look awesome! It seems that all yiur hard work and research has paid off. I can’t wait to see the rest of the kitchen in future posts.

  • Reply
    February 2, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    Very useful post! I love the black cabinets too, great choice

  • Reply
    March 19, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Did you have to do a light sanding before applying the initial coat of primer?

    • Reply
      Love Nest Design
      June 26, 2017 at 8:23 pm

      Hi Eryan

      I don’t know how I missed your question all this time, but no, we didn’t sand, we just cleaned the surface and removed all grease or residue so the primer could adhere properly.

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