Guide for Kitchen Cabinet Refinishing

If you have real wood cabinets, then giving them new life through refinishing them is an option – and one that will save you thousands of dollars over replacing them! Refinishing wood kitchen cabinets involves sanding away the top layer of wood along with the stain, sealer and damage it contains, and adding a fresh coat of stain and/or sealer to give the surface a factory-fresh finish.

Done properly, whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, refinishing wood cabinets will restore them to “like new” beauty.

cabinet refacing

Is Refinishing Cabinets Cheaper than Buying New?

The obvious answer is “yes,” but just how much cheaper might surprise you. Take a look at this comparison:

  • Buying new wood cabinets: Average $300 per linear foot for good-quality cabinets
  • Refinishing wood cabinets: Average $17-$33 per linear foot

The process is much like refinishing hardwood floors, but your savings are even greater when refinishing cabinets because building new cabinets is so much more labor intensive than manufacturing hardwood flooring.

Can Your Cabinets be Refinished?

There are two types of cabinets that cannot be refinished:

  • Faux wood laminate cabinets: Laminate is basically a photograph of wood glued onto particle board and covered by a coat of clear plastic. There’s no solid wood to work with. Refacing the cabinets might be an option, and our Cabinet Refacing Guide provides details on how this process can update your cabinets quite nicely.
  • Wood cabinets with severe damage: If the damage on the cabinets goes deep enough, you won’t be able to remove it through standard refinishing techniques, but this is rare.

Here is the test for faux and damaged wood: Sand a small section of the door surface with 100-grit sandpaper, or similar.

Laminate’s plastic surface will make itself evident by gumming up or showing the edge of the plastic layer as you sand through it.

If the door is genuine wood, and moderate sanding removes the stains, scratches and other damage, then you’ve got cabinets that can be refinished.

How to Refinish Wood Cabinets

This step-by-step guide to refinishing wood cabinets will allow you to do the work yourself or knowledgably discuss it with a professional refinisher.

Let’s start with removing the old finish and the damage that has ruined its finish. This is the most labor-intensive part of the job. Once it is complete, putting on the new finish will seem easy and be very exciting.

Removing the old finish:

  • Take the doors off the cabinets, and remove the hinges and handles (which you might want to replace to update the look and improve the performance)
  • It’s not necessary to remove the cabinet frames from their location
  • Clean all doors and cabinet frame faces with mineral spirits to remove oil, smoke film and other debris, so that these deposits won’t be pushed into the wood during sanding
  • Start with 100-grit sandpaper and a sanding block or your fingers, and sand with the grain of the wood, starting with the edges and profiles before moving to the broader spaces
  • Note: Chemical strippers can be used in place of sanding, but the majority of professionals are moving away from them because they aren’t ecofriendly and because sanding is a more natural process that is easier on the wood
  • Once the finish and top surface of wood is removed from the door and frame exteriors, finer sandpaper should be used, either with hand sanding or the help of an orbital or disc power sander
  • Tip: When using power sanding tools, it makes sense to wear a dust mask and, if available, add a vacuum attachment to the sander to reduce mess and airborne dust
  • Tip: A sponge sander is ideal for getting into grooves where the surface is hard to reach with other sanding methods
  • You’re done sanding when the finish is gone and all damage has been sanded out
  • Tip: If deep gouges can’t be sanded out without creating a noticeable dip in the wood, fill them with a quality wood filler and allow it to dry before sanding it smooth
  • The last step in the preparation for new stain or sealer is to go over all the wood with 220-grit sandpaper or similar fine sanding material

Putting on the new finish:

  • Remove sanding debris from the wood with a clean cloth followed by tack cloth
  • Use a high-quality brush to apply the stain
  • Load the brush with a moderate amount of stain
  • Start with any grooves the door has before working out from there to the broader spaces
  • Once the entire surface has been covered with stain, allow it to soak into the wood for 10-15 minutes
  • Go over the entire surface with a clean, lint-free cloth to remove excess stain
  • Tip: If you want to intensify the stain color, putting on two layers of stain is preferable to applying one heavy coat because a heavy amount of stain is prone to running
  • Allow the first coat of stain to dry overnight, and then apply a second coat, if desired
  • Tip: For the best results with the least amount of hassle, use a product that contains both a stain and sealer to avoid having to apply a sealer once the second coat is dry
  • Tip: Wear gloves to keep stain off of your hands, and wear a hat to prevent stray hairs from getting onto the surface of the wood where removing them, once the stain is dry, is problematic
  • Once the final coat is dry, reinstall the hardware and door, and you are finished

Kitchen Cabinet Refinishing FAQ

These questions and answers offer additional information to help you achieve a refinishing job you’ll love.

Do I have to stain the cabinets, or can I just seal them?

If you love the look of clean, bare wood, then there’s no need for stain. But you should seal them to prevent damage.

What is wood conditioner, and should I use it?

Wood conditioner is a type of sealer that prepares the wood to receive stain evenly. Some refinishers use it on wood that has been severely distressed, but it isn’t a necessary step in giving cabinets a fresh, beautiful look.

What are my options for finishing the cabinets?

You can do what we’ve suggested here and apply a 2-in-1 stain and sealer. Another option is to apply one or two coats of stain only and then finish it with a non-tinted sealer. If you find a combination stain and sealer color you really like, using it is the easiest way to do the work.

Can I paint the cabinets?

Absolutely. The process is quite simple. Clean the cabinets with mineral spirits. Use 100-grit sandpaper to rough up the entire finish to allow primer to adhere better. Put on one coat of primer, and if it seems to absorb into the wood so that lots of wood grain is showing when it dries, add a second coat. When the primer is dry (read the label for details), paint your cabinets. A small, high-quality brush is excellent for grooves. A small roller works well for flat areas.

Should I take the cabinet frames off the wall to refinish them?

It’s not necessary, if you exercise caution. First, protect the countertops and floor with plastic or brown craft paper. Secondly, when staining or sealing vertically, use light coats. If runs start, go over them with an empty brush to remove the excess.

What does “striking off” mean?

It’s a technique used in applying stain or sealer. To strike off is to use long brush strokes that run with the grain of the wood as your final stroke in the process. For example, run your brush on the cabinet frame from bottom to top without lifting the brush off the wood to produce the finishing touch.

How much can I save with DIY cabinet refinishing?

As noted above, cabinet refinishing costs $17-$33 per linear foot, and most of that is labor. You’ll need to get written estimates to get exact numbers, but buying the materials and doing the work yourself should save you $9-$14 per linear foot of cabinets. See our cabinet refinishing costs guide for more details.

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