Friday, April 3, 2009

Kitchen Cabinets: Revive the old!

I spoke about refinishing cabinets by painting and/or by replacing doors for an updated look, but if you have good wood cabinets you may just want to redo and refresh the wood with stain. This is a very inexpensive option, but it can be very time consuming depending on the specific project.

Let’s say, the cabinets are a good wood, but are dull and need refreshing, You may want to
stain them and keep the wood-look rather than paint over them. Let’s assume a scenario of cabinets that are in good condition, but need refreshing and perhaps a deeper stain. (The prep work is virtually the same as for painting cabinets as described in my previous post on kitchen cabinets.)

  1. Anytime you are working with wood, ALWAYS FOLLOW THE GRAIN OF THE WOOD!
  2. As in any case, be sure they are clean! Use degreaser or TSP. If you choose TSP, read all the label directions carefully, it is a very harsh and toxic chemical and you will need to take all the precautions very seriously. Do not work with this unless you are using heavy rubber gloves and eye protection and have good ventilation.
  3. Remove all cabinet doors, drawer fronts. Number each piece to matching cabinet.
  4. Remove all hardware and keep it in a container to avoid losing any pieces.
  5. Place cabinets/drawer fronts in a horizontal position. Wherever you choose to place your cabinets, cover the floor. Perhaps you chose the garage, (a good choice) and you don’t care if anything gets on the floor, but if not, be sure the area where you are working is covered even if only a piece of cardboard.

There is a product line which I have used in the past, called Fornby’s. It can be purchased at any hardware or home improvement store. It is more expensive than some of the other refinishing products available; however, it does not contain the harsh chemicals of most products. It removes the gloss finish, doesn’t strip the natural color or raise the wood grain; therefore, you can avoid the sanding process. I used it to restore a grimy, old table top. Probably not the best advice, but because the table was so large and heavy, I could not physically move it. I opened windows and worked in my house. I didn’t really notice any fumes, but cautiously took several “fresh air breaks” anyway. I completed the table top by hand rubbing it with their tung oil product. I was extremely pleased with the results.

However, if you have cabinets that have been painted or had several layers of paint that need to be removed you may have to consider a harsh chemical stripper. All cautions need to be applied. In fact, if you are working in an older home, it is very likely that any paint work done prior to 1978 was lead based. If so, be extremely cautious about any paint dust you may generate by sanding. For your own safety, you may want to consider wearing a respirator instead of something like a simple breathing mask.

I would suggest that you take a cabinet door or perhaps a drawer from to a specialty store for a product recommendation. I have always used Zip-Strip or Strypeeze for difficult projects, I have never really felt the milder chemical products did a very good job.

  • Follow the same steps as (1-5) above.

CAUTIONS: Read the product directions carefully. These types of stripping products are very harsh and have a strong solvent smell. You NEED to work in a very well ventilated area, such as a garage. If you are working on wood that cannot be removed from your house, do small areas at a time! Allow plenty of time to complete this project! Do this when you can open windows, take plenty of “fresh air breaks” outdoors. Keep your children and pets in a non-toxic area. You may need to wear a respirator, safety goggles and definitely good quality gloves!

  1. Use a brush to apply the stripper, using ample amounts and always following the grain of the wood.
  2. Allow the product to stay on the cabinet, you will see the paint “crinkle”. Don’t get too anxious to remove it, LET THE PRODUCT DO THE WORK!
  3. Use a putty knife (or other tools listed below) to remove the paint.
  4. Rinse with water, let dry prior to sanding.
  5. When all the paint is removed, sand the cabinets with a “hand sander”, not “by hand” or the project will be a life-long commitment! These products tend to raise the grain to some degree, you want a smooth finish. Also, if there are bits of paint remaining, sanding will also remove them.
  6. Apply new stain.
  7. Protect the cabinets by applying a varnish or polyurethane.
  8. Allow for a long drying time between coats. It may seem dry, but “curing” may take weeks.


  • Gloves – heavy rubber, not light latex gloves as in painting. In fact have at least two pair. If you get a tear in your glove, you want a replacement. This stuff WILL hurt on your skin! Also, “cuff” your gloves when wearing them to prevent stripper from dripping to your arm.
  • Metal or glass container with a lid. You can pour some of your stripper in the container and work with small amounts at a time.
  • Brushes. For a harsh stripping product use cheap brushes…when you are done you can dispose of them. (Most landfill areas have an area for disposal of household hazards.) Use better brushes for applying sealer.
  • Putty knife. This is used to remove the paint after it has “crinkled”. I also like to use an old kitchen knife with a fairly wide blade, it is sharper than a putty knife, but be careful not to “nick” the wood. For hard to get to areas or detailed areas, I will use a tiny flat edge screwdriver, a toothbrush or anything else I can find in my house to improvise!
  • Soft cloths (lint free) to apply stain and/or brushes.
  • Fine grained steel wool to help remove any bits of remaining paint. The steel wool can also be used between coats of sealer for a smooth finish. Be sure there is NO residue of the steel wool remaining on your work. Use that soft damp cloth to be sure the residue is removed prior to finishing.

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