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Week 3: Painting Bookshelves & Cabinets

Painting bookshelves and cabinets in my den is one of the foundational pieces of this room makeover.

It’s already week three of the $100 Room Challenge and I’m working my way through this living room makeover! I’ve gotten my closet doors done, and this week I (mostly) finished painting my bookshelves and cabinets. Today I’ve got a few tips for you if you’re thinking of painting a bookshelf.

For these shelves and cabinets, I used basically the same process as I did with the closet doors last week, but I added an extra step of sealing the shelf tops with Polycrylic, to protect the paint from books sliding in and out of the shelves.

If you’re just joining us, check out Week 1 and Week 2 to see where all this is coming from.

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$100 Room Challenge – Painting Bookshelves and Cabinets

I love this built-in bookcase.

Dark brown built in bookshelves with cabinets on the bottom section

They hold so much stuff! And they must have been gorgeous back in their day when dark stained oak was the height of home fashion. I believe in salvaging as much of a home’s character as possible, while adding in all the updates you want, so painting these built-ins seemed like the way to go in this case.

I used the same paint color, Valspar’s Ashen Gray, that I painted the closet doors to tie the whole wall of built-ins together.

Before I get started, if you’re planning on painting a lot of cabinets, like in your kitchen, I recommend following the steps in this kitchen cabinet painting tutorial, where I outline lots of helpful tips to keep you sane during a kitchen remodel. If you’re just doing a few, or a bookshelf like mine, read on!

Everything you need to know about painting cabinets, all in one handy ebook. With 2 worksheets to help you get started!

Painting Built-in Bookshelves

First I removed all the actual shelves and put the little pegs in a ziploc baggy for safekeeping during this process. I did not remove the cabinet doors yet.

A coat of white primer on dark brown built in bookshelves

Then (after dusting and cleaning well) I covered everything in a coat of Kilz Premium primer.

Once the primer was dry, I used my 6″ foam roller to put on a coat of paint. Then I went back with my smaller brush to fill in all the edges and trim.

I know it may be unconventional, but I find it easier to put the first coat of paint on cabinet doors while they’re still attached to the frames. Then, once that coat is dry, you can remove them and touch up the spots you couldn’t paint before.

A childs-eye view of me painting bookshelves

Again, as with the closet doors, I found that one coat of paint worked great, but you might need more depending on the colors you use.

Pro tip: several thin coats of paint work better than a thick coat!

While the frames were drying, I followed all the same steps for the removable shelves. I set them up on two boards suspended on sawhorses in my garage and just went to town, assembly line style. It was kind of fun, after all the tedious edging and trim painting of the frames. 

Shelves lined up, ready to prime and paint.

(Don’t look too much at the condition of my garage. A lot of life happens out here.)

Sealing Bookshelves to Protect the Paint

Finally, I used Polycrylic to seal just the top of each shelf, and the ledge on top of the cabinets. Adding a top coat of acrylic sealer on the flat surfaces of the bookshelves will give me the best results in the long term, since that area may get lots of wear and tear from pulling books off the shelf and moving items around on it.

Getting ready to paint bookshelves with polycrylic, roller, and brush in hand

The easiest way to get a good finish with Polycrylic is to paint it on quickly with a roller, then use a soft dry paint brush to lightly drag through the wet sealant. This will take out all those little bubbles you get from the roller and leave a nice smooth finish.

Getting a smooth finish with Polycrylic: first roll it on, then drag a soft dry brush in direction of wood grain.

While the doors were off, I took the opportunity to finish cleaning out and organizing the cabinets. How did all this stuff come from this small space?

Contents of painted bookshelves all over the floor while paint dries

With the clutter cleaned up, these cabinets look way better, even before the doors got reattached!

Painted bookshelves with organized contents

As you can see, I painted the backs of the book shelves white, which will make more sense next week. Stay tuned…

Freshly painted cabinet doors

The last step was to reattach the doors. I decided to save money by just using the same hardware. Although the hinges are dated, you can hardly see them.

I need to get some pads to keep the cabinet doors from rubbing on the frame, but in the meantime I used wax paper wherever the painted surfaces touch each other to keep the paint from sticking as it cures. What do you think? Should I add pulls?

Let’s Talk about What Type of Paint to Use on Bookshelves

What is the best paint to use on a project like this?

As I mentioned, I painted these bookshelves with latex paint because I had some leftover from a previous project and this is, after all, the $100 Room Challenge so we’re working with a very limited budget. But I don’t normally recommend latex paints or acrylic paint for cabinets or furniture.

I will always recommend an enamel paint product like Valspar’s Cabinet and Furniture Enamel or DecoArt’s Satin Enamels. They hold up better on wood and are easy to clean up, unlike oil-based paint. For more on painting furniture or kitchen cabinets, check out my full cabinet painting tutorial.

We’re getting close!

I don’t have a complete photo of the finished product with the doors and cabinets matching now because there are a few more changes I want to make first before I give it away. But this old bookcase already looks way better and changes the whole feel of the room. You’ll just have to be a little patient to see what I’m talking about…

100 Room Challenge Painting Bookshelves and Cabinets

In the meantime, check out my other blogger friends’ progress on their $100 Room Challenges!


Thursday 18th of April 2024

I have identical bookcase/cabinets, and was delighted to see your carefully detailed method for transforming them from brown to light. I will follow your strategies, with just a change of paint color to a white/magnolia. Thanks for the tutorial!


Thursday 2nd of May 2024

I'm so glad this was helpful! They'll look wonderful when you're done!


Wednesday 24th of January 2018

lots of coffee! Love that. It looks so good... can't wait to see with styling!

Maria - House by the Preserve

Tuesday 23rd of January 2018

The cabinets looks SO good!!! I cannot wait to see this room come together!


Monday 22nd of January 2018

Whoohoo you have gotten a lot done! Love the look of painted cabinets


Monday 22nd of January 2018

Thanks Kristen! It feels good to see such a big change!

Erin Meyer

Monday 22nd of January 2018

Thanks for the dry brush tip when using polycrylic... you are so right about those little bubbles :) That whole cabinet is looking gorgeous... I know I put in my vote on IG already, but I do love hardware (if you have it in the budget :) )


Monday 22nd of January 2018

Thanks Erin! And thanks for the vote! I'm still trying to decided what to do, it may come down to the budget...


Creating a color-filled life. Conquering my little world one DIY project at a time. With lots of coffee and chocolate. Albuquerque NM. Pinterest ~ Instagram ~ Facebook