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Tips for Updating Melamine Cabinets with Oak Trim

Do you want to update your ugly 80s kitchen, but remodeling isn't in the budget? I'll show you how to paint melamine and oak kitchen cabinets and update them with new hardware.

melamine cabinets with oak trim before and after photos with text overlay
Melamine cabinets with oak trim were a popular style back when I was a kid. Now they're just an eyesore! I'll show you how to update melamine kitchen cabinets with paint and new hardware to give them a brand new look. The before and after photos speak for themselves! I've even provided a handy checklist with additional tips, so you can enjoy your new kitchen sooner and with less mistakes.

before and after grid of photos showing painted melamine cabinets with oak trim

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We've made a few changes to our kitchen to improve the flow and storage situation. The fridge moved to where an exterior door once was and I installed a used kitchen cabinet in its place for pull-out trash cans. Even the 80s track lighting was replaced with a shiny new kitchen track lighting.

But all these new things made the rest of the kitchen more drab than ever. The melamine cabinets with oak trim 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!

Check out how my contact paper kitchen counter has held up over the last two years!

lower kitchen cabinet with contact paper countertop

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 is the perfect paint for melamine cabinets, and the kit comes with everything you need but the brushes. Perfect!

These tips are specifically made for those of us suffering with these ugly melamine cabinets with oak trim. There are a lot of steps, but you can do it! To make it easier, I've created a checklist with all my tips on how to paint these 80s kitchen cabinets. Sign up below and get it delivered straight to you inbox!

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7 Tips for Updating Melamine Cabinets with Oak Trim

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 small 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 cabinets, and two on the oak sections. 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!

using paint brush to paint trim on melamine cabinets

3. Work with gravity

The trademark of these 80s 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.

Steps to take when painting 80's kitchen cabinets

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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.

close up view of painted melamine cabinet door with oak grab bar

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.

underside view of melamine cabinets with oak trim separating

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.

cabinet doors with Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations can and paint brush

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.

marking position for new door hardware on melamine cabinet door with oak trim


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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.

Melamine cabinets with oak trim after painting

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