Do you want to update those ugly 80’s kitchen cabinets, but a full remodel isn’t in the budget? I’ll show you how to paint those eyesores and add new hardware to make them look like new!
I bet you didn’t know you could update your 80’s kitchen cabinets like this! With the right paint and new hardware, you can make these melamine and oak eyesores look like a brand new kitchen!
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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 orange 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 regular paint would stick to melamine. Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations 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, I wanted to give you suggestions specifically made for those of us suffering with these particularly ugly 80’s kitchen cabinets.
7 Tips for Updating 80’s Kitchen 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. The kit only has enough paint for 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! Zinsser B-I-N primer, which is shellac based, 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 cabinet frame?
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. Just a small amount of paint on the very tip of the bristles will suffice. I found I had a lot less dripping 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
The trademark of these 80’s kitchen cabinets is the oak grab bar. But when you paint the grab bar on a flat surface, a lot of that paint is going to drip down before it has a chance to set. Stupid gravity!
Instead, paint the hook first, then move on to the rest of the door. Then go back to the hook area, and run the artist brush over the pooled paint. Use that paint to go over the hook again.
This does two things. First, it removes the pooled paint before it hardens and makes a big blob inside the grab bar. Second, the pooled paint is more tacky than fresh paint, which makes it easier to stick to the top of the hook.
4. Consider filling the grain
The two materials these 80’s kitchen 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.
5. Caulk the Gaps
You may want to caulk between the wooden grab bar and the melamine door for a more seamless finish. One of our 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.
6. 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! Brushing the paint and top coat in the same direction will result in some raised brush strokes and uneven top coat. 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. Alternate the direction of the brush strokes of the paint as well for a flawless result.
7. 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 kitchen cabinets a little easier. The results are totally worth it! Don’t forget to check out the complete before and afters of my kitchen update so you can see for yourself what a
little lot of paint can do.