Kitchen cabinets that have lost their luster can be finished again. A new coat of stain and protective coating will add sparkle to previously stained and coated cabinets. Or if the cabinets are already bare wood, they may need that initial stain and finish coat.
Either way, finishing your kitchen cabinets will be an inexpensive, relatively simple way of bringing a new look to your kitchen—without installing new cabinets.
Before You Begin
The ideal workspace for finishing your cabinets is a garage, workshed, or unused room of the house. Make sure that the space is dust-free and that it's able to maintain an ambient temperature of between 55 and 90°F, with relative humidity below 85 percent.
Because dust is always an issue with using oil-based coatings, avoid using the space for other activities while you are finishing the cabinets or waiting for them to dry.
Coatings for Finishing Kitchen Cabinets
Instead of using separate stains and coatings, use a product that lets you combine both steps into one. This product can be used on bare wood but it's also uniquely suited for previously finished kitchen cabinets.
The product is a one-step oil-based interior polyurethane and stain. Its color register works well with previous colors and finishes, and it produces a lustrous satin or semi-gloss sheen.
Oil-based finishes have long cure times—four hours or more in ideal conditions—and they require petroleum distillates for thinning and clean-up. But the hard-shell finish and long-lasting durability are well worth it.
All major coatings manufacturers produce one-step finishes: Varathane, Minwax, Rust-oleum, and Behr.
Work in a well-ventilated area and wear a NIOSH-approved respirator. Clean up carefully with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter.
Equipment / Tools
- Natural bristle brush
- Stirring stick
- Clean cloth rags
- Breathing protection
- Sandpaper of various grits
- Latex or nitrile gloves
- Oil-based combination stain and poly coating
- Mineral spirits
Detach Doors and Drawers
With the cordless drill equipped with a driver bit, remove all doors. Pull out drawers, then remove the drawer fronts.
With doors and drawers removed, the cabinet boxes mostly remain on the kitchen walls and will be finished in there. But if any of the smaller cabinet boxes are easily removable, do so. Your work will be easier if boxes are detached from the walls. Kitchen base cabinets should not be removed.
Remove all hinges, handles, and knobs with the manual screwdriver or cordless drill. Bag the screws with their matching fixtures and note the location on the bag.
Wearing latex or nitrile gloves, wipe down all outer surfaces with a soft cloth and mineral spirits. Clean the items in the workspace, along with the remaining cabinet boxes in the kitchen.
Pay special attention to surfaces near cooking areas and to any place that frequently gets touched, such as around handles and knobs.
If the cabinets are already finished, start with #220 grit sandpaper and lightly sand down all areas that will be finished. Aim to scuff the surfaces, not remove all coatings.
If the cabinets are bare wood, start with #120 grit sandpaper, working to #150, #180, then #220 grits.
Sand in the direction of the wood grain.
With a stirring stick, mix the coating well. Draw up solids from the bottom and mix until they are blended. Do not shake the can.
Dip the brush in the coating. Dab it out on the side of the can so that it is not dripping.
Finish Cabinet Details
Finish cabinet bevels and other detail work first. Work in long, even strokes.
Finish Flat Surfaces
When details are complete, immediately move to the flat surfaces. Do not apply too much finish. Apply only a thin film.
Let Coating Cure
Consult the finish product's instructions for information about re-coat times. Some oil-based products have a one-hour recoat time, but to be safe, give yourself several hours before applying the second coat.
If the finish has any bumps or inconsistencies, lightly sand with #320 grit sandpaper. Clean up with a tack cloth or dry cloth.
Apply Second Coating
Brush on a second coating of finish exactly as you did the first coating.
If desired, you can also spray the cabinets with a clear coat finish after the second coating of finish has dried for professional-looking results.
After the second coat of finish has fully cured, attach the hardware. Reattach drawer fronts to drawers. Reattach any cabinet boxes that you removed.
Tips for Finishing Kitchen Cabinets
- The cabinets must be thoroughly cleaned before sanding. Grease and grime will clog up the sandpaper.
- Test the finish on an inconspicuous section of the cabinets before full application.
- Avoid over-brushing. Excessive brushwork will result in bristle marks.
- Go with a high-quality natural bristle brush for the best results.
When to Call a Professional
One-step finishes generally are available in up to 15 to 20 colors. For colors outside of that palette, you may want to have a professional painter finish your kitchen cabinets. And if you are looking for a particularly high-quality final look, consider hiring someone who can achieve that finish on the first attempt.