DIY: How to Paint Built-In Cabinets | Library Project Phase I



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Oh ignorance is bliss! I love how my brain latched on to the idea that I would make a decent painter.  What did I say on my story…”I’m good with my hands and I like learning new things…blah blah blah.” All that is true, but Lord there was a great deal of problem solving, digging deep into my patience well, and down right brute strength involved in my DIY painting project. At the end of it all, I’m so happy with my results. And good news is, I put together a DIY guide for you, mistakes and all, on how to paint built-in cabinets and shelves.

DIY How to Paint Built-in CabinetsLibrary Inspiration

Design allows me to think spherically, in a constant moving circle in which all elements are connected and related to each other.  Our Library feeds into this concept exactly. It is situated in the middle of house, connecting the girls’ bedrooms and Mike & ours to the main house.  Each of us must pass through it to reach the “public” rooms…you know like the kitchen and dining room. It is in essence our family room and study. While it doesn’t have a T.V., we celebrate holidays like Christmas morning there and also have a computer desk area in the room. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the beautiful french sliding doors with views of the pool and the entire back of the property.  

I let emotion drive my design inspiration rather than photos or objects.  It is my greatest desire to create a room of serenity & ease through the use of plants and crisp white walls.  I blame it on my obsession with British T.V. shows like Poirot & Downton Abbey. A traditional English estate had conservatoires and libraries…my idea is to marry the two.  I know living in a hot dry climate will be challenging for my botanical vision, but with any luck I’ll come close to my inspiration.

Preparation / Sanding

The first step to transforming this space was painting the outdated wall to wall bookcases, desk and cabinets. To get an idea of the original space, think cherry colored 80’s style wood paneling.

Library Bookcase and Shelves Before

Library Bookcase and Shelves Before

Painting cabinets or furniture is quite like getting a manicure.  The surface being painted needs to be lightly sanded to give the paint something to “stick” to. I know some paint brands or DIY sites may say you can skip this step, but I would not recommend it.  The bookcases and desk in my library are very smooth so I opted for a light sanding just to break the seal. I used sanding sponges in FINE for the shelves. I suppose I could’ve used an electric sander but I really enjoy the the rhythm and feel of sanding by hand…kinda like vacuuming or mowing the lawn…quite therapeutic.  

Sanding Shelves with 3M Sanding SpongeWhen it came to the the interior bookcases however I switched to an electric sander fitted with P120 grit paper. Thank goodness May pitched in and grabbed a sander. We were able to sand the entire room in an afternoon.

Indoor Electrical SandingPreparation for Spray Gun Painting

  1. Using painters plastic, masque paper, and painters tape, tape off all areas of the room you DO NOT WANT PAINTED…especially the edges to catch over spray.  Tape off the floor as well!! Do not get lazy and skip this step, or you will regret it later. Push large furniture into the center of the room and cover completely with an old sheet.  As I discovered, THERE WILL BE OVERSPRAY!! Even if you tape off diligently the airy little drops of paint will end up on floors and surfaces. Good news is it was rather easy to clean up
  2. If spraying furniture or something like a door, set up a painting area using 2 saw horses or lay a drop cloth down in a well ventilated area like a driveway or garage.

Paint Sprayer vs. Rollers or Brushes

Why use a spray gun when clearly there are brushes and rollers? For the even smooth finish of course!!  Besides, when your mother-in-law gifts you a sprayer for Christmas then a bright idea may pop into your head.  Ideas like painting a bookcase, lined library shelves, desk and all.

My Graco spray gun is ideal for beginners and the weekend DIYers who are working on small to maybe medium improvement projects.  To be fair I don’t know the difference. It’s the only sprayer I have and I figured it out so it must be made for newbies like me.  This sprayer is electric, airless, can be sprayed 360 degrees by creating an airtight seal, has variable speed controls, 2 nozzles, and is in my opinion easy to clean.  Only 2 major issues: it is rather heavy especially when the paint cup is filled AND removing the lid to fill the paint was an absolute pain in the a$$.  After trying my patience and saying every curse word I know, I worked out a solution to prevent the lid threading from getting stuck on the paint cup (a major design flaw if you ask me). Everything else was rather straightforward.

Wear Protective Gear

Before you go any further, make sure you have the right protective gear. This includes:

  • Face Sock
  • Goggles
  • Long Sleeves and Pants
  • GlovesPainting Gear | Face Sock

Now I get that wearing a face sock and goggles isn’t exactly fashionable, but believe me when I say the paint goes everywhere, including your eyes and nose. It makes it damn difficult to breath and see, so do yourself a favor and cover up!

Using a Paint Sprayer

  1. Strain stirred paint into the paint cup using a disposable cone shaped strainer. *** TIP: Line the flexi cups with a plastic bag liner (Lowe’s sells them).  Taking this extra step will save your life!! For some reason Graco designed the flexi cup lid (that comes with the gun) in such a way that when the lid is fully twisted on, any paint that gets on the lid’s rim literally glues it on. And trust me, you WILL get paint on the rim.Strain Paint into Plastic Liner
  2. Secure lid.
  3. Express air through “blowhole”. ***TIP: You may have to repeat steps 3-5 a few times along the way when air sneaks its way back in…like when you lay the gun down to do another task. Squeeze Air from Liner
  4. Prime Pump: Turn the dial on the side of the gun to the “prime pump” setting and squeeze trigger for 15-20 seconds. This will fill the sprayer with paint.Prime Pump on Graco TrueCoat 360 Paint Sprayer
  5. Switch to “spray” mode and spray in a dead area (I used a large 5 gallon bucket) to test that it is ready.
  6. And away you GO!!


Research the finish you are going for and the end use.  For example after reading reviews I went with Valspar Semi-Gloss Cabinet Enamel sold at Lowe’s.  I wanted a smooth, not too glossy, and non-yellowing pure white cabinet paint. It is a latex & oil enriched paint that toutes the ability to cover old finishes with no brush strokes, and cleans up with soap & water….Check, Check, and Check!!  The reviews did not let me down — Worked beautifully, the finish is precisely what I wanted. Clean up as I said was easy as well. The paint soaks off in soap & water from sprayer components and overspray or drips require very little elbow grease.

How to Paint Built-In Cabinets – Paint Technique

Once I got the hang of the sprayer my painting technique got better and better.  Yeah I watched YouTube Videos, read the instruction manual, but there is nothing like practical experience.  I’m pretty sure my project exceeded the whole “medium improvement project” thing but nothing can beat a determined woman!!!

  1. Spray a very light “tack layer. This will give the subsequent layers something to stick to.Spray a Light Tack Layer
    • Hold spray gun parallel to the surface you are spraying.  
    • Move in a leveled sweeping motion about 18 inches from surface.
    • Release finger from trigger before you finish the sweep…let it trail off.
    • If you get wavy sputters either slow your motion or adjust to a higher speed.
  2. Allow tack layer to dry a bit. A minute or two.
  3. Spray 2 layers, 2 sweeping motions, back & forth…back & forth.Spray Paint in 360 degree Direction
  4. Allow layers to dry a bit. 5-10 minutes. On hot or dry days this time may be shorter.
  5. Repeat until you have the coverage you’re looking for.Painted Library

Learn from My Mistakes …My Many Mistakes

  1. READ THE PAINT CAN LABEL.  Make sure you buy all the same type of paint.  Wow, sounds simple enough but not for my lame brain.  If you saw my IG stories then you know what I did. I popped into Lowe’s grabbed paint cans all in the same area and low-and-behold one can was NOT like the others.  I only discovered my error AFTER using the entire gallon. I had to re-sand and repaint any area that I wrongly painted. Had I read each label I would have avoided that huge blunder.  
  2. DO NOT RUSH!!  Allow the sprayed layers time to dry between each pass.  If you rush, you will get drip marks. These will have to be sanded and repainted.  How do I know this…because I still have drips to refinish even as I type this.
  3. REMOVE CABINET DOORS AND/OR DRAWERS AND HARDWARE.  Like whyyyeeee did I think I could spray the drawers without removing them is beyond me.  Can you say DRIP?! Such a mess, another re-sand and repaint scenario.DIY: How to Paint Built-In Cabinets

So that’s a wrap on Phase I of my Libary Project – How to Paint Built-In Cabinets. Stay tuned for more fun updates coming soon!

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  4. Gina Constantine says:

    Thank you! This was very helpful!

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I’m a clean beauty expert, a plant-based recipe guru, a fashion maven, and a mature black woman embracing my natural hair, silver streaks and all.

Welcome, I'm Tennille Murphy