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Refurbishing Wood Cabinets

by Dollar Stretcher Contributors

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Refurbishing Wood Kitchen Cabinets?

What should I do with oak cabinets that the varnish has come off in many spots, especially around the door handles? Yes, there are some dark spots on the wood due to handling! Do the cabinets need to be completely sanded? Can this be done by a homeowner or is it a job for a professional? I would really appreciate any help on this one.

You Can Do This!

Yes, a homeowner can do this, potentially without sanding the entire door.

Consideration needs to be made for the door style (flat or raised panel etc.), but in most cases, if the finish is varnish, spot sanding and recovering will usually blend well. If this is a urethane or some other type of finish, the entire cabinet will probably need to be sanded and refinished. I have found Peel Away products, although not the least expensive, is the most cost-effective solution for stripping of old finishes from surfaces that are wanted to be refinished with stain and urethane coatings.

Is it a DIY job?

  1. Make sure that the doors are solid wood, not a veneer.
  2. Determine how far you need to go, spot refinishing or complete door.
  3. Gather materials, up to 400 grit sandpaper (stripping) and finishing supplies.
  4. Test an inconspicuous spot to make sure you get the desired result.
  5. Set aside twice as much time as you think you will need to get the job done.


Prime, Then Paint

I had the same problem. My cabinets were over 30 years old with some kind of yellow pine finish. I did sand them lightly, but what really did the job was a wonderful sanding primer that I got at Sherwin Williams. I'm very frugal about everything, except paint. I've found that Sherwin Williams' products go on smoother and wear very well. I put on two coats of the primer and then painted the cabinets. I bought great hardware at a local merchandise liquidator. The cabinets look great, better than new!
Debbie in TX

Painting tips, tricks and resources

Answer a Few Questions First

There is no one correct answer to this question. Are you a very meticulous person? If so, then I suggest you refinish the cabinet. Are you willing to accept a moderately broad range of good final finishes? If so, have it done. If you have a fairly large tolerance for the quality of the outcome, do it yourself.

If you go for doing the refinish yourself, then get a good quality, chemical "stripper." Follow the directions very carefully. Wear protective clothing and safety glasses while you work. Do this outdoors as stripper produces unpleasant, possibly harmful, fumes. For stubborn spots, you will want to use very fine bronze, not steel, wool.

After all the old finish is removed, sand the surface a couple of times. Sand the first time with a fine 180-grit paper. (If there are deep scratches, start with a 120-grit paper and then 180-grit.) Wipe down the surface with a rag and repeat with 220-grit paper. Then wipe the surface with a tack rag. Following the manufacturer's directions, apply the first coat of finish. Allow this to dry completely before applying a second coat.

Better Than Sanding

We just redid our wood cabinets. We used a liquid varnish stripper. The old walnut finish darkened and was gummy in places. We simply stripped it and polyed over the doors. They are now beautiful and possibly birch. This was a lot less work than sanding.

Restore the Finish

  1. Clean the cabinets thoroughly with a strong cleaner, such as TSP or strong Simple Green. Be sure to remove all greasy dirt. Use a toothbrush in hard-to-reach places.
  2. Rinse thoroughly and let dry.
  3. If the wood is damaged or the grain was raised on exposed areas by the water, lightly sand with extra fine sandpaper, at least 220 grit. Sand by hand just enough to knock down roughness.
  4. Use a product called Howard Restor-A-Finish. It comes in a wide range of colors to match your wood finish. It's available in big box hardware stores. For a better color selection, go to hardwood suppliers. While it has a little dye in it, it is not a strong stain. It will only be absorbed in areas where the finish is damaged or missing, making them disappear. The instructions on the can say to apply it with extra fine steel wool, but I've found that bits of steel wool often catch on old wood. I've had great results applying the product with a cloth in the direction of the grain. Promptly wipe off excess with a clean cloth. You'll be amazed how good the cabinets look.
  5. After the "Restor-A-Finish" dries, I like to apply a light coat of boiled linseed oil, followed by paste wax after 24 hours. For less work, use Johnson's Liquid Gold every few months.
  6. Don't use urethane varnish over "Restor-A-Finish". It will not dry properly. If you want to restore the varnish finish, apply several thin coats of high gloss non-urethane varnish with a rag, rubbing with the grain. One coat comes out flat, two or three semi flat, four or five semi-gloss or gloss. The very thin coats dry fast and are ready to re-coat in a few hours without sanding between coats.

I'm a professional handyman, and can restore a kitchen in a few hours using this procedure. When we moved into our present home about three years ago, my wife thought we would have to replace all the cabinets. With the "Restor-A-Finish," the cabinets look like new to this day.

Give Your Cupboards a Facelift

I think I can come up with a solution that would be easily handled by a homeowner. I have refinished a lot of furniture. I am assuming that your cabinets are real wood and probably finished with lacquer if the finish has worn off.

Go to Wal-Mart (or similar store) and pick up Formbys Furniture Refinisher. I think it runs $19.95. Take a drawer, remove the handle, put the end over some newspaper, wax paper or foil, and follow the instructions on the box. The kit has a cleaner, buffer, and finish.

I just finished a grubby "keepsake" breadbox for someone, and it came out looking brand new. It took very little work and time. Also, I did the base of a buffet that went through a tornado in a few hours.

Follow the timing exactly and make sure you use two coats or more of the wipe on finish. You can clean your handles with Castrol, which is in automotive departments. I actually sprayed Castrol on my bathroom vanity oak cupboard. When wiped off with a wet towel, years of hair spray and imbedded dust disappeared.

Get the Look You Want

When we bought the cheapest house in a nice neighborhood close to our offices, we had a lot of remodeling to do, starting with the kitchen. We primed right over our wood cabinets, and then painted two coats of a light stone/sage green color. Then I sanded the corners off to give a distressed look and rubbed on some dark stain. To finish, I added a clear coat and new hardware. Many other families have paid a finisher to do it, but after a few test pieces on random boards, I got the look I wanted!

Have an idea that we didn't include? Send it to us and we'll add it to the article.

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