How to Stain Wood Cabinets

Choosing the Right Stain & Making Cabinets Darker or Lighter

Wood Kitchen Cabinets

Jacek Kadaj / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 2 - 4 days
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $100 to $200

If your cabinets are looking dingy or outdated, it's time to give them a quick refresh. While full replacement and refacing are great ways to give your kitchen cabinets a second life, an easier and lower-cost method is to stain the cabinets.

Staining brings the original beauty back to the wood. The best stain to use on kitchen cabinets is a combination polyurethane top coating and stain, which saves time and eliminates the need to completely sand off the existing coating.

Staining cabinets is even easier than painting cabinets or repainting cabinets, and most kitchens can be completed in just a couple of days. The steps to stain cabinets are simple, starting with removing the hardware, doors, and drawer fronts, then cleaning and sanding before applying stain. Sealing your cabinets after staining is an optional step that helps protect the wood and prevents the stain from wearing off.

Changing Cabinet Colors With Stain

Staining Cabinets Darker

For previously stained cabinets that will be stained in the same color range or darker, it is not necessary to sand off all of the stain and surface coating. The stain product will seamlessly blend with your current stain. Just make sure to sufficiently sand down the top coating to produce a rough finish. This will help the stain product stick to the surface better.

Staining Cabinets Lighter

If you're staining cabinets with a lighter color like gray or white, it's necessary to sand them down to the original surface of the wood. After sanding, test your new stain by applying it to an inconspicuous spot. Allow the stain to dry completely to see how the finished project will look. Wiping the stain immediately, or within a couple minutes of applying it, will result in a lighter color.

Staining Painted Cabinets

For painted cabinets, it is essential to sand before staining and remove all of the paint to leave only the bare wood. Use a liquid paint stripper, scraper, steel brush, and sandpaper to remove the paint. Any remaining paint will shed the stain product and show through.

Safety Considerations

Work in a well-ventilated area and use breathing protection. Move the removed cabinet doors and drawers to a protected outdoor area, if possible. Indoors, open windows and use fans to expel air. Do not blow air into the room, as this can cause dust to settle on the finished surfaces.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Cordless drill
  • Manual screwdriver
  • 2-inch brush
  • Cotton rags or microfiber towels
  • Tack cloth
  • Latex gloves
  • Sanding block
  • #220 grit sandpaper
  • Plastic sheeting


  • Polyurethane stain and coating
  • TSP
  • Mineral spirits


How to Stain Wood Cabinets

  1. Remove Hardware

    With the cordless drill or manual screwdriver, remove handles and drawer pulls from the doors and drawer fronts. With most fixtures, the screws are accessed on the back side of the doors or drawer fronts.


    If you plan on reusing hardware, place them in plastic bags. Use one bag per piece of hardware along with its screws. Identify the location on the front of the bag with an indelible marker.

  2. Remove Cabinet Doors

    Unscrew the hinges from the cabinet doors to remove them from the cabinet boxes. Set the doors aside, then remove the hinges from the cabinet boxes.

  3. Remove Door Fronts and Drawers

    Remove all drawers. If possible, remove the drawer fronts from the drawer boxes. If this is difficult or if it will damage the drawers, leave the fronts on and stain them in place.

  4. Clean Surfaces

    Mix the TSP with warm water in a clean bucket. Soak a clean rag then squeeze it out until it is damp. Wipe down all cabinet doors, drawer fronts, exposed sides of cabinet boxes, and the vertical stiles on cabinet boxes that run between doors.

  5. Deep-Clean Problem Areas

    Some of the cabinet and drawer surfaces may be especially dirty or greasy, particularly those near stoves and ovens. Areas near handles and knobs are usually very dirty, as well. Deep clean these areas with mineral spirits.

    Wearing latex gloves, dampen a clean cotton cloth or microfiber towel with mineral spirits. Wipe down the cabinets and drawer fronts, frequently turning over the towel or switching it out for a fresh towel.


    Be sure to purchase mineral spirits, not mineral oil.

  6. Sand Surfaces

    Place the 220 grit sandpaper on a sanding block and lightly sand down all flat surfaces. For textured or molded areas, use a loose piece of sandpaper and conform it to the profile of the wood, either by placing your finger in the sandpaper or with a wooden dowel.

  7. Remove Dust

    Use the brush attachment on the shop vacuum to vacuum up the majority of the dust. Follow by wiping down the cabinets with mineral spirits. Finish by wiping down the cabinets with tack cloth.


    If desired, you can apply a stain enhancer at this point to allow the grain of the wood to receive the stain evenly.

  8. Apply Stain

    Thoroughly mix the stain product with a wooden stirring stick. Be sure to pull up the solids from the bottom of the can and mix them in. Dip the tip of the paintbrush bristles in the stain product. Apply stain first to the cabinet door and drawer front bevels and textured areas. Immediately follow by applying stain to the flat sections. Always move the brush in the direction of the wood grain.


    Only use high-quality brushes. Lower quality brushes can leave bristles behind on the work surface. Because the stain product is tacky, it is difficult to remove the stray bristles.

  9. Apply Second Coat

    Allow the surfaces to dry for at least six hours, then apply a second coat. Additional coats are necessary to stain cabinets darker, while fewer coats can be applied if you desire a lighter finish.

  10. Replace Hinges and Drawer Fronts

    After the cabinet pieces have dried for at least six hours, replace the hinges on the cabinet boxes and cabinet doors. Attach the drawer fronts to the drawers again.

  11. Replace Remaining Hardware

    With the doors and drawers back in place, replace the knobs and pulls or install new ones.

  • How many coats of stain do I need for cabinets?

    Most cabinets will look best with at least two coats of stain. However, not all types of wood can absorb multiple coats. Additional coats will darken the finished color, and too much stain may not dry properly. Apply stain based on your desired shade and whether the wood can absorb more.

  • How long should stain stay on before wiping?

    How long you leave stain on wood depends on how dark you'd like it to be. Wiping the stain right after applying it will result in a lighter color, while letting the stain rest for 5 to 10 minutes will allow it to soak in and make the wood darker.

  • Why are my wood cabinets sticky after staining?

    If too many coats of stain are applied or the stain is not wiped off, the wood may remain sticky. When your cabinets aren't drying properly, you can either apply another coat of stain and wipe it before it dries or clean the cabinets with mineral spirits.