Oak kitchen cabinet makeover using General Finishes milk paint – without sanding!


Yes, I know – this isn’t quilting related. This appears to be a quilting blog…soo…what’s this nonsense about?

Long before quilting, I was DIY-everything. Before I had a sewing room, I had bright orange oak cabinets that I wished were white. Before I started designing patterns – I started painting my kitchen cabinets.

I’ve had so many questions about the process, and learned so much along the way, that I figured I would share my experience with the greater world of makers in case it’s helpful to anyone else. Let it be known….this is no small weekend project. Granted, it shouldn’t take anyone else two years – but – well, I’ll just leave it at that. It took me two years because I made so many mistakes on the uppers it was another 8 months before I could stomach starting the lowers. And the island took another year. Don’t be like me. Learn from my mistakes.

That being said, I have had my uppers painted for well over a year and they have held up beautifully, and I just finished the rest of painting!! It was high time I wrote a tutorial!

Briefly – an overview of my project:

I re-painted all of our golden oak kitchen cabinets white. I used General Finishes milk paint in Snow White – more on the pros and cons of my paint choice later. I highly recommend it for this project and have been very pleased with the results.

I did NOT fill in the oak grain – I like the look of painted oak, and will try to reflect the visible grain accurately in pictures. It looks tasteful, but if you are wanting impeccably smooth doors this will not work for you.

I did NOT sand the doors, drawers, or bases to remove the finish prior to painting. More on the specific products I used further down, but the specific primer and paint I used allowed me to skip that step entirely without any flaking and excellent adhesion three years later.

Two coats of primer. Two coats of paint. Two or three coats of protective finish. Just do it. Believe me – it’s worth it to have professional-looking cabinets at a fraction of the cost.

The before…

When we bought the house, I knew the kitchen was going to be a big project. It was so….YELLOW. Golden floors bled into golden cabinets with an off-white countertop and pale yellow paint.

Honorary mention to the oak outlet covers as well.

Oh, and can’t forget the fake wood veneer on the back of the island – nothing says classy like a fake oak grain pattern on identical repeat!

First thing we did was repaint using Behr Wheat Bread. (It’s the perfect greige, and used throughout out home. I love it.) We then replaced the countertops with a busy but beautiful granite.

Then on went the tile….it’s getting more bearable now…

And lastly, I started painting.

And here the project screeched to a halt – for EIGHT MONTHS I had a half painted kitchen. You see, I read every online tutorial I could get my hands on, and somehow still used the wrong primer. I had to REPAINT EVERY SINGLE CABINET after yellow streaks started seeping through my crisp white paint.

I was devastated. And exhausted. I couldn’t face the bottom cabinets for nearly a year. So – don’t be like me. Pay attention to the wisdom of my mistakes. By the end, I had my supplies and technique down and my cabinets have been perfect ever since.

I tell you this as a warning. Pay attention, my grasshopper.

The after….

I worked up my courage to keep plugging away at it, and now I can definitely say it was worth every second. I learned a LOT – and hope to share that with you – but even more so, I truly have my dream kitchen.

So light. So airy. So much less yellow.

Yes, that’s a real plate of cookies. Took them to work that night and we demolished them. Never underestimate nightshift munchies.


Shout-out to my super-husband and father-in-law for the tile job! There’s benefits to being married to a detail-oriented engineer. 🙂 Check out that pattern matching in the corners!! *Romantic sigh*


How to paint your cabinets without sanding using General Finishes Milk Paint

Tutorial time!

We’re going to start off with a cast of characters – there are no affiliate links, these are just the exact products I used and highly recommend.

Get your shopping list ready.

Image result for zinsser shellac primer

Primer: Zinsser B-I-N  **shellac- based**  primer

Let me emphasize shellac-based primer once again. This is IMPORTANT – the shellac will seal the oak grain and prevent the tannins from bleeding through. I cannot stress this enough – there is no amount of latex primer and paint you can reasonably apply to prevent the yellow streaks from seeping through the white paint.

Don’t let it be on your final coat of finish before you see the yellow streaks. Don’t be the one to have to repaint all the upper cabinets, starting with primer. Don’t be like me. It sucks and you’ll want to cry and you won’t be brave enough to continue for another eight months. Use this primer and save your sanity.


  • Excellent adhesion – this primer is the reason I was able to skip sanding. It stuck to the existing finish with no flaking after almost three years on the uppers.
  • Seals the oak grain. Re-read paragraph two of this section for emphasis.
  • Quick dry time – generally within 30 minutes for a thin coat, allowing me to work quickly
  • Levels out well to hide brush strokes


  • It smells awful – make sure you have adequate ventilation or you’ll have a raging headache.
  • Not water soluble, clean-up with denatured alcohol.
  • Be careful of splashes – it sticks to everything and dries quickly!

Image result for General Finishes Milk Paint in Snow White

Paint: General Finishes Milk Paint in Snow White


  • No odor – this was a huge benefit as our kitchen is the center of our home. No smell, no nasty VOCs, no headaches. (From the paint at least – the primer was another story…)
  • Excellent adhesion to the primer
  • A nice hard finish, similar to oil-based paints
  • Quick dry time – usually around 30 mins for a thin layer, allowing me to work quickly
  • Water soluble, so clean-up is a breeze
  • The paint levels out and hides brush strokes – I’ve found the white to show brush strokes more than other colors, but it’s still minimal.


  • The white is pretty thin – one of my initial mistakes was not using primer, and four coats of paint was still streaky and terrible. Using primer fixed this problem completely, and two coats was perfect going forward. I’ve used the Queenstown Gray on bathroom cabinets and the coverage is much better in just two coats.
  • It’s more expensive than typical latex paint, and not sold in the big blue and orange box stores. You can search for retailers on General Finishes’ website, and don’t forget to check Amazon!

Image result for Minwax Polycrylic
Image result for Minwax Polycrylic

Finish: Mixwax Polycrylic (both spray and brush-on)

I love this stuff and use it on almost all of my projects! I bought a couple of spray cans for the doors and drawer fronts and a quart of brush-on for the cabinet bases.


  • Will not yellow over time like polyurethane – your white cabinets stay white.
  • Water soluble – easy clean up!
  • Quick dry time.
  • Waterproof, protective finish that withstands normal kitchen clean up. (Think spaghetti sauce spatters on your nice new white cabinets!)
  • You can get it in multiple sheens, just like paint – I used satin finish for this project.


  • Must apply 2-3 coats – it feels like a pain after the paint and primer, but it’s worth it.
  • Mild odor.

Other supplies you’ll need: 

  • Quality paint brush – this is not the time to buy the $1 bristle brushes. I have used Purdy and Wooster brushes with great results. You can use the same paintbrush for the primer, paint, and finish if you clean well.
  • A 4″ roller handle with smooth surface foam rollers (for the paint) and some 3/8″ nap rollers (for the primer – the longer nap gets into the wood grain better)
  • Denatured alcohol for cleaning the brush after primer coats.
  • Plastic or canvas drop cloths to protect your floor and counter top from splatters and over-spray from the finish.
  • Painter’s tape
  • Paint can opener
  • 2-3 paint stir sticks
  • 2 small paint trays
  • Fine grit (220 or higher) sandpaper for lightly sanding in between paint/finish coats
  • Cleaner – use whatever you like to clean dirt, oil, and build-up from the cabinets. I used Krud Kutter and it worked great.

Because I decided to write this tutorial AFTER I completely finished, I don’t have step-by-step photos. I’ll include photos that I do have and we’ll make it work, aight? The actual painting isn’t that hard, I promise!

Please note – this method did NOT fill in the wood grain on the oak. I like the look of painted wood, so I wasn’t going for a factory-smooth finish. The grain is still visible, but I enjoy the rustic, farmhouse look it has.


Ok, let’s get started!

Step 1: Clean

You’ll want to clean all the grime and build-up from the cabinets the give the primer the best surface to adhere to. It’s sticky, but you want it to stick to the oak, not a decades-old layer of grease. A thorough spritz of Krud Kutter, a few minutes to soak in and do it’s thang, and a good wipe down was good enough for my cabinets.

Step 2: Remove doors, drawer fronts, and hardware

LABEL YOUR DOORS AND DRAWERS! When you remove a door or drawer front, give it a number and place a sticky note or piece of painter’s tape on both the door AND the base it came from. It’s much easier to place each door and drawer front back where it came from, since the holes will all line up perfectly.

The hardware isn’t so picky, but I just left all the hardware and screws sitting in the cabinets or drawers they came from, to keep it all organized. I eventually replaced all the hardware when the entire project was done.

I did not remove entire drawers, just the fronts. By pushing the drawers back into the bases a ways, I was able to keep them out the way. You’ll have to decide how much you care if insides of the drawers and cabinets are a different color than the fronts. I cared very little, so if you open my cabinets you’ll be greeted with lovely fake orange oak. If you want to paint it all, you may want to remove the entire drawer. More power to ya.

I did not remove the hinges, because I didn’t care if they got paint on them.

Step 3: Primer – two coats 

Before diving in, make sure your work-space is ready. Open windows and ensure your surfaces are protected, including taping UNDER your counters if you want to keep paint off the bottom of the counter tops while you paint the bases. (Don’t forget to tape along the floor as well!)

When painting, the keys to success are keeping a “wet edge”, watching for drips, and applying multiple thin coats rather than one thick coat. Your first primer coat WILL look thin and streaky, and that’s ok! Work in small sections and once the primer begins to dry, leave it be!

You’ll find what works for you, but here’s what I found to be the most efficient:

I painted the bases first, then while they dried I brought a door/drawer to a “painting station” I had set up on the top of the island with a couple of small pieces of wood that held the door off the drop cloth. After painting the front, I carefully moved the door/drawer to another well-ventilated room that consisted of 2 x 4’s laid out on a drop cloth that served as a “drying rack”. Once all the door/drawer fronts were done, the ones I did first were typically dry and I could paint all the backs. (Keep them labeled!) Then back to the bases for coat two. Repeat this process until I got hungry or tired.


Because the bases had the most surface area, I used a the 3/8″ textured roller rather than a brush. I was able to work faster this way and keep a wet edge, as the primer dries FAST. Rollers tend to cause drips along edges – once you complete an area, give it a good glance-over while it’s still wet and roll over any areas with drips. Pay close attention to fill in deep pores in the grain – the primer’s main job is to seal the oak.


If you have cabinets or drawers with fancy edging and designs, use a brush to get in all the little nooks and crannies first. Then switch to the roller to finish applying primer to the flat areas and smooth out any drips or puddles you created with the brush. Let the front dry completely before painting the back.

Remember to work quickly while the primer is wet – it will start to “drag” and gum up once it starts drying if you keep going over it. Not a huge deal in this step, but it becomes a pain later. Use this to practice working while the paint is wet.

The second coat of primer will be much less streaky, but it you see some don’t sweat it. You still have two coats of paint to even everything out. DO make sure all the oak grain has been painted over – it won’t be filled in and smooth, but you want each little crevice to have paint in/on it so it seals the wood and prevents the tannins from seeping through your pretty white paint.

If you need to take a break, you can place your paint brush and roller in a plastic bag and put them in the fridge to keep it from drying out. (You can keep them in there all night even, if you’re coming back to it the next day.) If you’re finished, wash your brush in denatured alcohol and clean up any splatters with either the alcohol or a razor blade for dried oopsies.

Step 4: Paint – two coats

I applied the paint almost the exact same way I applied the primer, only with easier clean up and no horrible tequila smell!! (Anyone else? Just me? It smelled like a cantina dropped an entire pallet of Jose Cuervo in my kitchen.) The only difference was I use the smooth surface foam rollers with the paint instead of the 3/8″ nap to get a nice smooth coat. It’s no longer imperative you get into each teensy crevice, and the longer nap rollers give too much texture for my taste. It’s also helpful to sand lightly with a fine grit sandpaper in between each coat to smooth it out.

Once again, work in thin coats. The first coat should be looking pretty good, but the second coat should fill in any streaks and look smooth and cohesive. This is the last step that visually changes the cabinets – make sure they look how to want them to and touch up places that need it. Watch for drips!

You can store your supplies in the fridge until you’re done. Clean up your brush with water if it’s going to be more than a day before you can get back to it.

Step 5: Protective finish – two (or three) coats

You can put away the roller now – it’s all brush and spray cans from here on out. (Don’t cringe, it’s not all bad!)

Use a brush to apply the Polycrylic to the bases, following the dry time instructions on the can. (Of note, Minwax Polycrylic looks milky in the can but dries clear.) Sand lightly with fine grit sandpaper in between coats. Bottom cabinets take a lot of abuse, so I applied three coats of finish to the bottoms and two coats to the tops.

To finish the doors/drawers, I arranged them all on my “drying rack” and sprayed them generously with the Polycrylic spray. Tip: Shake the can thoroughly and often to prevent drips. If the can does drip or bubble on your door, immediately take your finger and gently wipe it off and spray the area again. Follow the dry time directions on the the can. I recommend sanding in between coats again, though I’ll be honest and say I didn’t. *shrugs* There’s only so much perfection I can strive for. 🙂

I gave the doors/drawers and bases a good 24 hours to dry and cure before I reattached everything. Probably not necessary, but I didn’t want to have anything stick.

When you’re ready to re-attach it all, match up your labels, screw your hardware back on, and consider placing little foam jobbies on the backs of the doors and drawers to prevent them from slamming into your brand new paint job.

And that’s it! Enjoy your brand new kitchen cabinets that you worked so hard on! Better yet – enjoy the hundreds of dollars you saved through all that hard work. 🙂

Have you painted your cabinets? Whether you used this tutorial or not, I’d love to hear about your project! What worked well, and what didn’t? Anything you would do differently? Tell me in the comments!

Happy projecting!


Follow me on Instagram for lots of quilting and sewing goodness, and if you browse back far enough, you’ll see a lot of my pre-quilting DIY projects. 🙂



5 Comments on “Oak kitchen cabinet makeover using General Finishes milk paint – without sanding!

  1. Absolutely love this tutorial! I also love that you left the wood with texture. I am printing this tutorial in case my computer ever crashes! When we have painted white over RED walls (which is another learning curve altogether), we tripled the amount of tint in the white paint. The can comes with some color, then we upped it with 1% yellow. So actually it was 6 extra spits of white and 1 of yellow. Didn’t even notice the yellow, it just stopped screaming HOSPITAL.
    Thanks so much for the tips.


  2. Thanks for this! Doing my cabinets soon. Haven’t decided on a color yet, but will be using your technique. Thanks again!


  3. Best of luck! A couple days ago I revisited milk paint and gave my bathroom cabinets a face lift. Remember, if you’re using a darker color, you can skip the priming! (I used gray and had them done in a day.)


  4. Thanks so much for this! We’re painting cabinets in a camper and using this paint for some house projects too. This was really helpful!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: