Refinishing Cabinetry

I have refinished both my kitchen cabinets and master bathroom vanity, and they are, by far,  my proudest accomplishments.  

Refinishing is often overlooked because it’s perceived as being more difficult than replacing or painting cabinets.  At least, that’s what I first thought.  It wasn’t until after I watched numerous Bob Vila youtube.com videos when I realized that it wasn’t difficult, and anyone could do it!  Now, I’m no cabinet refinishing expert, but here are a few tips and pointers that I learned to get the project done.

First, you have to assess whether or not refinishing is the best option for you.  Check out your cabinets.  Are they damaged?  Are they solid wood or wood veneer?  Is the current stain too dark to cover?  Ideally, you should have cabinets that are in good condition, solid wood, and has a light to medium finish on them.

These would look great with a new finish.
These could work, but probably not a good idea.

When choosing a stain, make sure that it will work well with your cabinets.  For instance, if you already have a dark finish on your cabinets, chances are that you won’t be able to remove it entirely during the sanding process; therefore, you should go with a similar or darker stain.

** September 2013 Update: I stand corrected.  My mother-in-law had extremely dark kitchen cabinets. We sanded them down completely and refinished them using a light gray stain.  The reveal may be seen in this January 2013 post!

I highly recommend Rustoleum’s Ultimate Wood Stain.  It dries quickly and its quality is just as reputable as Cabot or Minwax.  I used Rustoleum for my kitchen cabinets, and they got done in half the time (with quadruple the amount of surfaces) than my vanity, simply because it took almost eight to 10 hours for my Cabot-stained vanity to dry.  Rustoleum, on the other hand, dries completely within less than an hour.

Time to get to work!  Remove all doors, hardware, and hinges.  Your kitchen or stand-alone cabinet should look like a skeleton.  This is a lot of effort in and of itself, but trust me, it is worth it.

Clean the frames, doors, and drawers with either a few dabs of Mineral Spirits or with soap and water.  Especially with kitchen cabinets, who knows how many years of built-up grease are on those doors!
Then, it’s time to sand.  I used 220-grit sand paper for both my kitchen cabinets and for my vanity, and it seemed to work just fine.  I sanded them all by hand, too.  You can certainly use a random orbital sander to get the large surface areas done, but make sure that you take the time to sand all the small areas and details by hand.  
Unless you are trying to remove a dark finish, you don’t have to go overboard and sand the cabinets too much. Scuff it up just enough to remove the shiny exterior from the cabinetry.  Wipe all of the sawdust away with a dry rag after you sand it.  
Once everything is sanded, it is time to stain.  Don’t be cheap and buy the least expensive brush available; use a nice, sturdy brush that is intended for stain.  Then, apply one coat of the stain to the cabinetry, making sure that you go with the direction of the grain.  If you want to eliminate any chances of drips or pooling, prop the doors on soup cans; laying the doors on a flat surface is perfectly fine, too.
You can certainly apply a second coat if you want the finish to be dark.  Only one coat was necessary for my kitchen cabinets and vanity.

Once the stain is completely dry, apply one coat of polyurethane to seal the cabinetry.
Reattach all of the doors and drawers, switch out the hardware if you choose to, and you’re done!  Here are some before-and-after shots of my kitchen and bathroom projects:
Kitchen:  Before
Kitchen:  After
Bathroom:  Before
Bathroom:  After
So, before you decide to paint or replace your cabinets, think about refinishing them.  It’s honestly not difficult, costs all of $15 for a can of stain and a brush, and gives your cabinetry a whole new life.  I promise that you’ll love them! 



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18 thoughts on “Refinishing Cabinetry”

  1. Wow. I'm really leaning toward painting my kitchen cabinets white, after many years of honey oak. I think the fact that it's such a project is what's kept me from doing it. But I do know that real people tackle that job. lol

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  2. Your cabinets turned out great. I've never used rustoleum's stains, didn't realize they had any. Do you have to wipe off excess stain like most others, or is this a brush on, leave on application? (Saw you over at TCB).

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  3. Hi Jennifer! Good question, and thank you for asking it! I bought a quart of stain for the kitchen cabinets, thinking that I'd use it all up. But in reality, I only used maybe a 1/4 of the can! The stain really goes a far way.

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