If you are seeking a custom look on a budget, unfinished cabinets are the way to go. They cost significantly less than pre-finished cabinets, and you get to pick exactly the stain color and finish sheen you prefer.
Applying stain and finish before the cabinets are hung doesn’t take special skills, just a little time and effort. The oak cabinet shown here will receive a red chestnut stain that darkens the wood and adds a warm red tone while bringing out the wood's natural beauty and pronounced grain. If you want a lighter look that stays close to oak’s natural color, a golden oak stain is a good choice.
But there's no rule that says you have to use oak. If you prefer the look of a more subtle grain pattern, many home centers carry birch or maple cabinets in addition to oak. Did you crave cherry cabinets until you saw the steep price tag? A cherry stain on birch or maple will give you a close approximation of cherry wood.
These are just a few ideas—if you aren’t sure what stain you want to use, make a sample board: Buy a solid oak, birch, or maple board and small cans of stain candidates to try. Another option is to simply enhance the natural color of the wood by skipping the stain and just applying a clear finish.
For the final clear finish, wipe-on polyurethane is a perfect choice—it’s essentially the same stuff as brush-on poly and offers the same excellent protection. The only difference is that the wipe-on version is thinned, usually with mineral spirits. With the wipe-on, you will need three or four coats while brush-on needs only two. But with wipe-on, you don’t need to worry about brush strokes or drips, which is a great help if you are not an experienced finisher. Wipe-on goes on quickly and you can re-coat after a couple of hours. You can choose wipe-on with a satin sheen, which looks similar to a hand-rubbed oil finish, or if you prefer the look of shiny varnish, you can use poly with a glossy sheen.
Equipment / Tools
- Phillips screwdriver
- Sanding block
- Shop vacuum
- Tack cloth
- Drop cloth
- Wood scraps
- Zip-close bag
- 220-grit sandpaper
- White cotton rags
- Latex gloves
- Pre-stain conditioner
- Painter's tape
- Wood stain
- Wipe-on polyurethane
- Foam brush
- Disposable plastic container with lid
Remove the Cabinet Hardware
Take the doors off the cabinets and remove the hinges and any knobs or pulls. Most cabinets today come with cup hinges, sometimes called European hinges. Some of these hinges have just three screws—two that attach the hinge to the door and one that secures it to the cabinet. Others, including the hinge shown here, have two more screws that allow the door position to be adjusted after the door is installed. Don't disturb these adjustment screws.
Put each type of hardware in a zip-close bag or another container along with its screws so nothing gets lost.
Lightly Sand All Surfaces to Be Stained
Most unfinished cabinets come from the factory sanded smooth enough to stain, but it is a good idea to lightly sand all surfaces with 220-grit sandpaper to remove any dirt that may have settled into the pores of the wood and to ensure that the surface is even and smooth.
Use a sanding block and sand only in the direction of the grain. When you come to a butt joint, such as where a door rail meets a stile, sand the rail across the top of the stile and then sand the rail to remove the minute cross-grain scratches left by the sandpaper.
Remove the Sanding Dust
Vacuum the cabinets, then wipe with a tack cloth to remove all sanding dust. A tack cloth is a sticky cloth you can buy at hardware stores, paint stores, and home centers.
Prepare the Work Area and Rags
First, protect your work surface with a drop cloth or with newspaper.
Cut 6-inch squares of white cotton cloth to use as applicators for pre-stain conditioner and, later, for stain. Old white T-shirts work great for this purpose, or you can buy white cotton rags at any home center or hardware store.
Apply a Pre-Stain Conditioner
A coat of pre-stain conditioner will help the wood absorb the stain more evenly. Use scraps of wood to raise the doors and cabinets above the work surface.
Then, wearing disposable latex gloves, bunch up one of the rag squares you cut and use it to wipe on the conditioner.
Let it soak in for about 10 minutes and then wipe off the excess. Allow the conditioner to dry following the product instructions.
Apply the Stain
Use painter’s tape to mask off areas where the face frame meets the inside of the cabinet. Apply the stain with a foam brush.
You can use a regular paintbrush to apply stain, but disposable foam brushes are very cheap and convenient, and they do a great job.
Wipe off Excess Stain
The longer you let the stain soak in, the darker it will get. Apply the stain to one surface at a time, wait five minutes or so, then wipe it off with a clean white cotton cloth. If you happen to get the stain on clothing, use this time to remove it.
Let the stain dry for at least four hours. If you want the stain to be darker, apply more stain and wipe again. Let the final coat dry completely, as directed.
For the doors, you’ll need to stain one side at a time, letting the stain dry before flipping the door to stain the other side.
Wipe on the Finish
Stir the can of wipe-on polyurethane carefully and thoroughly. Do not shake it, which creates air bubbles that will end up on your finish. Pour some of the poly into a small plastic container with a lid—a cottage cheese or yogurt container will do the trick. You can store the poly in the container between coats, but pour any excess back into the can—the poly will deteriorate plastic over time.
Fold up one of your applicator rags into a square, dip it into the polyurethane, and rub the finish onto the cabinet surfaces. Let the finish dry as directed. Lightly sand all surfaces with 220-grit sandpaper, and wipe off all sanding dust. Repeat this process for a total of three or four coats. Sand between coats but not after the final coat.
Don’t reinstall the doors until after you hang the cabinets. Cabinet boxes are easier to install with doors removed.