Refinishing Vintage Metal Kitchen Cabinets

My husband has a saying, “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick any two.” For most everything and anything in life, I have found this to be true. My annual January essay, The Hard Way, also underscores the often-frustrating journey that we have undertaken as Retro Renovators. New case in point: Susan’s amazingly detailed saga of her seven-months working to bring a beautiful vintage Youngstown kitchen back to life and into her home as her own. Oh, and Susan shares her positive experience with a small company in New Jersey that she found to carefully strip then refinish her steel kitchen cabinets.

Grabba cuppa, because Susan took no shortcuts with her kitchen renovation — or with her story documenting it for us. She writes:

Susan — woah. Thank you so much. By this point I am speechless – and so are most readers, probably. Yes — this is A LOT OF WORK. But yes — you know that I agree: It’s worth it! Your kitchen is gorgeous and most important, you look like one happy camper. Enjoy!

Sidney Johns began her writing career in 1993 after moving to Florida. The former teacher and surgical technician worked in the home improvement industry prior to earning a Bachelor of Science in education from Indiana University. While on hiatus in 2004, Johns studied holistic healing and organic growth and gardening.

A fresh coat of paint gives new life to vintage metal cabinets. From the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s, metal cabinets for kitchens were popular and stylish. They were believed to keep out unwanted bugs and rodents while giving a fresh, clean appearance to the room. These now-vintage cabinets are sometimes found to be in need of refurbishing to return them to their original glory and a new coat of paint often is all it takes.

How to Restore Metal Kitchen Cabinets: FAQ

To refurbish metal kitchen cabinets, begin by removing kitchen cabinet doors and drawers and the handles, latches, and other hardware from these parts. Put all these things and the screws in plastic bags inside the cabinets, where they will be easy to locate when you are ready to put everything back together.

Next, clean the surfaces adequately. Kitchens are work areas, so grease, steam, and food splatters are everywhere. Before you start sanding or painting, clean all surfaces with an appropriate solution.

Rinse, but don’t soak, cabinets. Let them dry completely before proceeding further.

Scratch the metal panels’ faces and edges gently. To prevent the cabinets’ edges from softening, use a steel sanding board. You shouldn’t need to sand and coat the interior of the cabinets if your repainting job is only a cupboard makeover. Sand just the front panels and visible corners of the cabinet fronts while covering the inside with tape.

If the previous paint is trustworthy and well-adhered, sanding is not essential; instead, scrape the top to provide the new paint with a solid, clean basis for improved adherence. Pay close attention, particularly to the finish’s worn spots, which are often where it gets the greatest wear.

Put an even coat of primer to all surfaces to ensure a well-adhered coat of paint. Sealer primers also reduce the need to sand and degrease old finishes before repainting.

The priming also has the benefit of serving as a solid foundation for water-based semi-gloss paint. Historically, high-gloss paint was the finish of choice for kitchen cupboards since it was easy to clean, stain- and moisture, but modern water-based acrylics are more user-friendly and offer a similarly lasting surface.

Start by painting the inside edges and door frame openings, then move on to the outer parts and finally paint the fronts. As a result, you will be able to work more swiftly in less important locations and detect and rapidly fix any droplets or spots in the more noticeable spots.

Next, paint the fronts of the doors and the drawers. If these parts have uneven surfaces, carefully cover the cracks and corners with paint, but do not allow it to accumulate at these points.

Always apply paint in thin layers, but covering all areas. Thin layers leave fewer visible brushstrokes and dry faster.

Don’t make a thick coat, and don’t brush too hard – more brush strokes will create air bubbles in the paint, which will become blemishes on the metal when it dries.

Next, let the paint dry for at least four hours between coats. When everything is dry, move all surfaces slightly to prepare them for the second coat. Two coats of paint are usually needed, but you may want to add a third coat because kitchen cabinets are exposed to kitchen heat, and daily use and metal surfaces need all the protection they can get.

How to Restore Metal Kitchen Cabinets: The tools needed

Restoring metal kitchen cabinets requires a minimum amount of tools, and these are usually available to everyone. Some of these include:

Eye protection equipment to protect yourself from the small metal chips that will fly off when sanding


How do you refinish old metal cabinets?

You can paint your metal cabinets, but you would first want to clean them with an industrial cleaner to remove any kitchen grease and particulates. Then sand with 220- or 400-grit sandpaper followed by the application of a metal primer. Then you can finish with a coat of acrylic latex paint.

What is the best paint for metal kitchen cabinets?

Oil-based paint is going to be the best option for metal cabinets, as latex paint will peel off.

How do you clean old metal kitchen cabinets?

Wipe With Soapy Water

It’s easy on the painted or enameled metal surface and is effective at removing most of the mess. Use mild dish detergent mixed with warm water to help remove grease, dirt and other grime. Wash the cabinets using a soft sponge or cloth dipped into the soapy water.

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