Repainting your cabinets is a great way to give your kitchen a fresh, newer look.
However, there is a deceptive amount of prep work that needs to be done beforehand in order to make sure your cabinets look good when the job is done.
The most important step of prepping your cabinets (and sometimes the only required step, depending on the type of paint you are using) is giving them a good, deep clean.
One of the best products for achieving this is something called TSP.
In this article, we will discuss what exactly TSP is, some pros and cons of the product, and how to use it in cleaning your cabinets.
What is a TSP Cleaner?
TSP stands for trisodium phosphate.
It is a commonly used cleaner and stain remover for households.
For those interested in its chemistry, TSP is made by neutralizing phosphoric acid with sodium hydroxide, and its chemical formula is NA3PO4.
You will typically find it in a white, powdered, or crystallized form, which is usually mixed with water to create an alkaline cleaning solution.
When it comes to cabinets, it is excellent at removing kitchen grease build-up that gets in the way of new paint.
If your kitchen cabinets have molds, mildew, heavy smoke, or layers of deposited soot, TSP is effective at removing that as well if you mix it with a little bit of bleach.
Simply saying, TSP cleaner works very well when combined with household bleach to kill mold and mildew instantly.
Pros and Cons of TSP Cleaner
TSP has been used by DIYers as one of the best go-to cleaners for decades.
Although it has a few issues, there are ways you can get a whole lot of benefits from this cleaning agent, without experiencing any negative environmental effects.
1. Extremely simple to use:
First of all, this cleaner acts as the best degreaser, which is very easy to use.
All it takes is some dilution with water, and it can be applied however you like—brush, rag, sponge, you name it.
2. Very effective and strong:
It is effective against nearly any type of dirt, grease, chalked paint, or stain.
It can be used on a variety of surfaces and materials and will eat through paint—which is great when you are cleaning a surface that you are planning to paint over anyway.
You can use it for cleaning kitchen cabinets or for wall surfaces like wood, concrete, stone, and brick.
You can also use it with a pressure washer for your garage cleaning or for outdoor applications like deck cleaning.
It will just do the best job.
3. It can be used as a strong stripping agent:
TSP is one of the many homemade DIY paint strippers that you can use for stripping old paint from wood, cement, or stone.
And believe me, it does its job pretty well, even for removing the smell of smoke (like cigarette smoke) off of your walls.
However, you must be careful while using it, as even a bit of contact with your skin can cause redness or irritation, especially on sensitive skin.
4. Does not smell bad, is cheap, and has a long shelf life:
TSP is an inorganic compound that has no fragrance.
This also means that, unlike many other cleaners, this cleaning formula does not smell bad when you use it for your household cleaning.
Plus, the formula is available at a dirt-cheap price in most hardware stores or online at stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, and Amazon.
One great thing about it is you can store it for a long (for about 3-4 years) without getting it expiring.
Make sure you keep it in an air-tight closed plastic container in a cool, dry place.
Despite how useful TSP is as a cleaner, it has its drawbacks.
1. It’s toxic:
Like with any highly potent cleaner, TSP can be hazardous when used improperly.
TSP used to be even more popular than it is today, but safety risks caused its sales to drop slightly in recent years.
This means you have to always use the proper safety equipment when using the product. This includes rubber gloves, eye protection, and even a respiratory mask.
If you are using TSP indoors (like you typically would when cleaning your cabinets), make sure there is as much ventilation as possible.
Open up windows and doors, and turn on fans and central air if you have it.
2. Not environment-friendly:
TSP is dangerous for the environment because it can cause algae overgrowth in lakes and streams, which can kill off other plants and animals that already live there.
Therefore, when using TSP, you have to be careful not to wash any away into the sewer system.
Additionally, TSP is actually banned in certain areas, so make sure it is allowed for use before cleaning with it.
3. It can be bad for some surfaces:
TSP is also bad to use in the bathroom because it can ruin the finish of metal, ceramics, grout, and glass.
It proves to be corrosive to metal fixtures and can also leave out a film on the glass after a clean-up.
But if you want to remove the rust from the metal surface or cement, it can do the job.
How to Use TSP before Painting Cabinets?
Despite all the drawbacks, we cannot deny the fact that TSP is a brilliant cleaner if used correctly with all the care.
Once you are ready to clean your cabinets or walls, you can use TSP to prep them for painting in five easy steps.
Step 1: Prepping the cleaner
First, you need to dilute the TSP. The best ratio for this is two gallons of warm water for every half cup of TSP.
After you have the cleaning mixture set, you will need a second container of clean water ready as well.
Step 2: Prepping the area
Once all the cleaning materials are gathered, remove the cabinet doors from the boxes.
Make sure to set them on a surface that is safe to get TSP on.
You should give yourself as much space as possible to clean as many doors at a time as you can – because it takes the cabinets some time to dry before they are ready to paint.
Therefore, cleaning all the doors at one time is ideal.
Step 3: Cleaning the cabinets
After donning all your protective gear and making sure the area is well-ventilated, you can begin cleaning.
Sponges tend to work best, but you can use a rag or towel as well for the same effect.
Like with anything, when dealing with wood, it is always best to wipe with the grain as opposed to against it.
Take care to get a thorough cleaning.
Make sure to get any and all grease buildup because any residual residue will keep your new paint coat from adhering properly—making your final product look poorly done.
Grease has a tendency to accumulate in corners and on or around the handles, so focus extra effort in those areas.
Step 4: Rinsing the cabinets
Once you have scrubbed away all the dirt and grease, use your bucket of clean water to rinse off the cabinets.
This will clean off any remaining grime as well as rinse the TSP off of your cabinets.
Make sure to rinse off your work area as well, being careful not to leave any TSP lying around as it could be harmful to others.
You most likely can dump the TSP solution outside in the dirt or grass, but be sure none of it gets into the sewer system or any lakes or streams.
If you only have a smaller quantity of TSP detergent left after cleaning and painting, you can flush it down the toilet, sink, or washtub drain.
But in that case, do not forget to drain down plenty of water after pouring down the TSP.
To be safe, do not be afraid to check your local laws and hazardous waste disposal agencies to learn how to clean up TSP after you are done using it properly.
Step 5: Drying and painting the cabinets
Once all your cabinets are washed, cleaned, and rinsed off, simply wait for them to dry completely.
Once that is done, you are ready to sand them down and start painting.
When painting – make sure that you choose the right paint for cabinets and spray it evenly using a good sprayer gun.
TSP Vs. Deglosser: What Should You Use?
The primary function of TSP is cleaning the surface and not deglossing.
However, due to its abrasive properties and powerful cleaning nature, it can remove the gloss not only from painted surfaces but also from other sensitive surfaces like decorative laminates.
For this reason, TSP should not be used as a deglosser.
Unlike deglossers it does not come with powerful deglossing abilities to provide you the stronger adhesion over glossy surfaces required before painting.
Hence TSP can act as a deglosser but should not be used as one.
Non-Toxic Trisodium Phosphate Substitutes You Can Use
One thing I really like about this versatile TSP cleaner is it also helps me quickly clean all the outdoor areas, like decks and siding, before painting.
In fact, you can use it in any kind of washable area around your home.
However, due to its health and environmental use, I don’t recommend it using indoors.
Especially if you or your family member is suffering from any health condition, you should avoid using it for washing your indoor surfaces.
If you are fed up with heavy grease on your kitchen cabinets, it’s good to get the doors and drawers off and bring them outdoors for cleanup before painting.
That being said, below are a few TSP alternatives for cabinets you can use.
These are comparatively cheaper, easier to use, and don’t require too many safety measures.
It’s effective enough to kill all fungi and mildew while stripping away dirt and grease very easily.
I have especially found this product ideal for porous surfaces like wood.
This is, again, an ideal substitute for TSP that can be used very easily in a spray bottle to spritz on your wooden cabinets.
The solvent is highly effective and can easily lift the old paint and grease on the surface of your cabinets.
If you are worried about the hardness of TSP, mixing it with bleach can work for you.
Make a solution by mixing a cup of bleach with a gallon of TSP solution.
This can be a good milder alternative for cleaning moderate grease or infestations on your cabinets.
Now, if you want to quickly remove all the daily dirt, oil, or fingerprints from your cabinets, this natural and powerful cleaner can work wonderfully.
Vinegar is also an excellent agent to clean those stubborn adhesive stains, including the adhesive from all types of decals, wallpaper paste, and stick-on hooks you may be having on your cabinets.
Without emitting any harsh chemical fumes, it also deodorizes your area.
5- Dirtex Powder:
Although it works similarly to TSP, it usually does not need rinsing. Also, it’s comparatively milder than TSP cleaner.
And for this reason, it’s not sensitive to the skin and does not cause irritation.
In addition to all the above TSP cleaner alternatives, there are also products such as sugar soap, simple green, muriatic acid, CLR (calcium lime rust), and PBW (powder brewery wash) that are often recommended.
All these commercial cleaners are more natural and can be a suitable replacement for trisodium phosphate for cleaning.
However, you need to remember that these do contain some chemicals and should be handled with proper care.
The only problem I can figure out with using these kinds of stuff is if you inhale them badly.
The Bottom Line
Cleaning with TSP may seem intimidating at first, especially when having to use all the protective equipment.
But the truth is it’s a very straightforward and effective cleaner when appropriately used on cabinets and other furniture items.
So why not try using a bit of TSP pre-paint cleaner or a substitute to prep your cabinets before painting? You will simply love the results.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.