Does the kitchen on the left look familiar to you? If you grew up in the 80’s like I did, I’m sure you’ve seen it before. Flat melamine cabinet doors with oak trim grab bars. *Shudder* Unlike the big hair and shoulder pads of that decade which have thankfully disappeared, this style of kitchen cabinets is more permanent unless you want to shell out big bucks for a complete overhaul. But with some paint and new hardware, you can make these eyesores a bit more tolerable until demo day arrives.
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In our future renovation, this wall of cabinets will be taken out and an island put in its place. In the meantime, we’ve made some changes to make this space work better, like moving the fridge to where an exterior door once was and putting in a new cabinet for trash and recycling storage. But all these shiny new things made the rest of the kitchen more drab than ever. The almond melamine and orange-y oak looked so sad next to the bright white and stainless steel. Adding insult to injury, our blue laminate countertops with oak trim were being upstaged by the contact paper covering the countertop of the new cabinet. Yes, even stuck-on fake granite is an upgrade!
Something had to be done. I really wanted to paint the cabinets white, but I was worried about how well paint would stick to melamine. I found that Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations specifically mentions that it works with melamine, and the kit comes with everything you need but the brushes. Perfect! There are tons of tutorials on the internet about how to go about painting your kitchen cabinets, such as this one by Designer Trapped in a Lawyer’s Body and this one by The Kim Six Fix. Instead of rehashing the whole process, today I want to give you tips specifically made for those of us suffering with these particularly ugly cabinets.
1. Prime, prime, prime!
I can’t stress it enough. If you don’t prime the oak portions of the cabinets, the orange WILL show through unless you slather on 3 or 4 layers of the base coat included in the Rustoleum kit. The kit only counts on two coats, so you run the risk of using up all your paint before the project is complete. A good primer will cover up the oak, and prevent the tannins from seeping to the surface.
I started painting the cabinet frames first, and didn’t prime the oak side panels first. Big mistake! The white turned an orangey-yellow as it dried, and it took 4 coats to cover it up. Half the can was gone and I hadn’t even started on the doors! The oak grab bars had a lot of wear, which means any protective coating keeping the tannins in check was long gone. I used Zinsser B-I-N primer, which is shellac based and stopped tannin bleed amazingly well. I used one coat of primer on the melamine, and two on the oak. After two coats of the paint supplied in the kit, the orange was gone!
2. Use the right brush
Of course, you should use a high quality brush for the flat parts of the cabinets. You can even get away with a roller if you don’t plan on using the decorative glaze included in the kit. But what about the hooked part of the grab bar, and the thin edges? A regular brush slops too much paint in these areas, leaving big blobs that need to be sanded down. I used a 3/4″ wide artist paint brush to get into the hook and along the edges of the doors and cabinet trim. I didn’t load up the brush with paint. Just put a small amount on the very tip of the bristles. I found I had a lot less paint dripping along the edges this way, even if it meant I went back to the paint can more often. You can see that I didn’t even need to tape off the inside of the cabinets using this brush!
3. Work with gravity
So that little hook part of the grab bar that you just painstakingly painted with an artist brush? A lot of that paint is going to drip down before it has a chance to set. Stupid gravity! I started painting the hook first, then moved on to the rest of the door. When I was done, I went back to the hook area, and ran my artist brush over the pooled paint. I then used that paint to go over the hook again. This did two things. First, it removed the pooled paint before it hardened and made a big blob inside the grab bar. Second, the pooled paint was more tacky than fresh paint, which made it easier to stick to the top of the hook.
4. Consider filling the grain and caulking
The two materials these cabinets are made from take paint differently. The melamine is super smooth, but the oak has large pores and open grain. These differences are visible even with many coats of paint. If you’re planning to keep these cabinets around for the long term, using wood grain filler to even out the texture will make a more flawless finish. We only plan to keep these cabinets for another year or two, so I skipped this step. You can see the obvious difference in texture here.
The other thing to consider is caulking the gap between the wood and melamine. One of the grab bars was separating a bit from the door, leaving a gap that paint couldn’t fill. Luckily, it was a lower cabinet, and you would have to be lying on the floor to see it. Adding a line of caulk in this gap would go a long way to making these doors look like one solid piece.
5. Brush top coat in the opposite direction
For wood cabinets, it’s always best to brush with the grain. But melamine doesn’t have a grain! I made the mistake of brushing the paint and top coat in the same direction on the first set of doors, which resulted in some raised brush strokes that left the top coat a little uneven. On the second batch, I realized that by brushing the top coat in the opposite direction (horizontal instead of vertical), the clear top coat skimmed over all the bumps, making the final surface dry to a glassy finish. Going forward, I plan to alternate the direction of the brush strokes of the paint as well to see if that will make a difference.
6. Use a backer board when drilling hardware holes
Adding new hardware to these cabinets brings them up to date, and preserves your brand new paint job. Drill the holes for your hardware before you start painting. This handy cabinet door and drawer template made it simple to mark the holes for my new door pulls.
Melamine is prone to chipping when you drill or cut into it, so it’s best to use a sacrificial board under the door to drill into. Clamp the door and board down to the work surface so nothing shifts and the board is held tight to the back of the door, then drill your holes. The board will hold the melamine around the hole in place so you get less chipping.
I hope these tips help make the process of updating your 80’s cabinets a little easier! I’m taking a break from this project for a little while before starting on the other side of the kitchen. It’s quite the job! The cabinet frames only took a few days to complete, but the doors took much longer! I only have room in my workshop to paint 4 doors at a time, so it took two batches to get through them all. Two coats of primer and paint took a few days for each side, and I made sure to give the top coat at least 18 hours to dry before I flipped them over. But the results are totally worth it!
UPDATE: I’ve finished updating the entire kitchen! Check out the before and afters to see how paint, hardware and contact paper truly transformed the space here.