Fixing our peeling bathroom cabinets


When we moved in to our new house last April, the trim, windowsills and bathroom cabinets had all been freshly painted. After just a few months, we realized that all of this fresh paint was peeling right off those surfaces. Ugh. The master bathroom cabinets were by far the worst offenders since we’ve been touching them every day. It finally got to the point where I needed to do something about it. After talking to the Home Depot paint department, I learned that the previous owners painted latex paint over oil-based paint, causing the surfaces to peel. The fix is to remove the peeling layer, use a primer that lets you switch from oil-based paint to latex paint, and then paint with latex paint.

The entire process took me a weekend and a few days to get all of the prep work and painting done. First, I used plastic drop cloth to seal off the inside of the cabinets so paint dust didn’t get in there.

Prepping the work area

Prepping the work area

Close up of the peeling paint.

Close up of the peeling paint.

To start the paint removal process I peeled off as much paint as I could. It was much easier to peel than it was to sand.

Then I sanded it as much as I could, wearing a dust mast to avoid breathing in the paint dust. On the narrow parts where I couldn’t really sand the paint, I used Soy Gel paint remover. You brush on the Soy Gel and let it sit for a while, the longer it sits, the more layers of paint it will take off. After it set for a while, I gently used a paint scraper to remove the gel.

Close up of part of the cabinets where I used Soy Gel, a paint scraper and sand paper to remove the paint.

Close up of part of the cabinets where I used Soy Gel, a paint scraper and sand paper to remove the paint.

Before moving onto the primer step, I made sure to get all of the remaining loose paint off using sand paper. I used a wet rag to wipe the cabinets down to remove the paint dust and let the surface dry for a few hours.

I used a gray tinted Kilz primer and then two coats of Behr plus self-priming semi gloss enamel in color graphic charcoal. Where I could, I used a small foam roller specifically made for cabinets to get a nice smooth paint finish. For the other areas I used a nice angled paint brush. You have to be careful to not get paint drips when using the brush.

The contrast in the bathroom is so much nicer than the completely cream colored original version.

Finished cabinets

Finished cabinets

Now, I just need to keep my fingers crossed that this new paint doesn’t start to peel…

Improving the bathroom cabinets

I suppose it’s been a while since I’ve written about anything I’ve made. For good reason it turns out. In the last few months we bought a new home which led to a lot of work on our old house to turn it into a rental property, as well as the mayhem that is moving. The good news is that I have a lot of projects saved up to tell you about.

The first project is something I really should have done years ago, which is refinishing the bathroom cabinets. They looked pretty terrible and I was embarrassed to think about showing the house in that condition. A bit of internet research later I decided to use gel stain to refinish the cabinets.


The terrible before:

The small bathroom, before

The finish on the cabinets was worn through.

The process:

  1. After removing the cabinet doors and drawers, removing hinges and knobs, clean the cabinets with mineral spirits and an old rag
  2. Sand the cabinets with a coarse sand paper followed by a finer paper. I didn’t worry about completely removing the finish that was there, but mainly just to scuff up the surface and remove any left over grime. Wipe down cabinets with mineral spirits to remove the dust.
  3. Apply the gel stain. The gel stain needs to be stirred pretty thoroughly first. I used a combination of a stain brush and old rags to apply, depending on how much surface area I was covering. I found that it was important to make sure the stain was applied very thin or it might not adhere when the polyurethane was applied. To do this, I used a rag to wipe off the excess stain a few minutes after I had applied the stain. This tended to be more of an issue when using the brush. The gel stain is a bit more work to apply than liquid stain, but it stays where you put it so you don’t have to worry about drips, which is especially helpful when staining the parts of the cabinets fixed to the wall.
  4. Let the stain dry. In humid Texas weather, this was much longer than what the directions claimed. To see if it was dry, I touched the stained surface to see if it felt tacky. If it was still tacky, I kept waiting. Once we moved out I moved the cabinet doors into the house so that they could dry in the AC.
  5. After dry, it’s time to apply polyurethane. Use a foam brush. It’s pretty easy to apply. The coats should be thin. They take 3 – 4 hours to dry before you must sand the finish, clean off the dust, and apply again. At least two coats are necessary.
  6. After two coats, reinstall the hinges and knobs. I replaced the old 80s looking knobs with some simple satin nickel knobs.

The finished product was a HUGE improvement. After replacing the light fixture, sink, faucet, and refinishing the cabinets we were a bit jealous that someone else got to enjoy our not so hard work. The upgrade was pretty cheap. The stain supplies ran less than $30 for two bathrooms and I had plenty of stain and polyurethane left over, currently being used on another project.

The small bathroom, upgraded

The large bathroom, upgraded