How to Refinish Cabinets and Give Your Kitchen a New Look

Refinishing kitchen cabinets is a terrific, cost-effective solution for homeowners who are tired of their cabinet color, or just need to give an old set of cabinets some pizzazz. Here’s how to tackle the project yourself.

By Tom Scalisi and Joe Provey | Updated May 20, 2022 4:55 PM

how to refinish cabinets

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Refinishing cabinets is one of the best ways to give your old, ho-hum kitchen a fresh new look, and it can make a big difference in the way you feel about a space. After all, having expensive cabinets hanging on your kitchen walls doesn’t mean much if you don’t like the color. That’s why many homeowners think about refinishing cabinets with a stain color of their own choosing. It is a big job, but there’s an even bigger payoff.

Before you begin refinishing your cabinets, however, it’s best to do a little detective work. You need to know what materials you’re working with to see if the job is even possible. But, with that research and a lesson on how to refinish cabinets, it’s possible to give a kitchen a serious upgrade.

Safety Considerations for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Before we go too far, it’s important to consider the safety and environmental concerns involved with kitchen cabinet refinishing. You’ll probably need to employ harsh chemicals and create a lot of airborne particulates, so safety does matter.

First, make sure to refinish the cabinets in a well-ventilated area. If the cabinets aren’t mobile, open windows and use a box fan to keep air moving. Next, be sure to wear a respirator when working with chemicals or sanding to avoid inhaling harmful substances. Finally, avoid damaged or stained skin by donning a pair of chemical resistant gloves.

Finally, remember that some chemicals used in kitchen cabinet refinishing (particularly during stripping or staining) are flammable, so be sure to play it safe around any heaters, open flames, or anything of the sort. Oily rags can also combust if left in a pile, so hang them to dry before throwing them out.

RELATED: The Best Under Cabinet Lighting of 2021

Method 1: Refinishing Cabinets to Make Them Lighter

how to refinish cabinets

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Refinishing darker cabinets to make them lighter is probably the most involved method of refinishing, and it takes some specific knowledge, tools, and materials. With the following list and steps in mind, you should be able to remove the finish, paint, and stain from wood-based cabinets to bring them to a lighter finish.

SUPPLIES

Sandpaper
Paint stripper
– Chlorine bleach (if necessary)
Wood filler
Wood sealer
Denatured alcohol
Stain
Varnish
Respirator
Rubber gloves
Sanding block
Scraper
Putty knife
Orbital sander
Rags
Paintbrush
Steel wool
Tack cloth

STEP 1 : Remove the cabinet doors.

Before embarking, remove one of the doors and sand off a small area of the finish on the back. Do the same to an area at the back of a rail or stile (horizontal or vertical framing member).

If the doors and drawer fronts are made of hardwood, remove them and take off all the hardware.

Note: If the doors and drawer fronts are fiberboard, forget about refinishing them with stain. The only way you’re going to get the cherry, oak, or birch tones you love so much is by applying a veneer or buying all new doors and drawer fronts.

STEP 2 : Strip the old finish from the cabinets.

In a well-ventilated room (or outdoors), use a paint stripper to remove the existing finish. Removing a clear coat finish should be a lot easier than removing paint, but you may have to use an aggressive stripper or chlorine bleach to remove the old stain. The job is messy and potentially unhealthy, but if you’re careful, it’s better than blowing thousands of dollars on new cabinets.

Note: Removing paint from cabinets, or any wood furniture, requires patience. Not all of the paint lifts off after the first application of remover, and maybe not after the second or third, either. It’s imperative to work in a ventilated space, to wear a respirator, to wear protective gloves and a long-sleeve work shirt.

Use a sharp scraper to remove as much finish as possible and use whatever you have on hand (old spoons, dental tools, etc.) to scrape contours and crevices.

STEP 3 : Fill damaged wood with wood filler, then proceed with sanding the cabinets.

Fill dents and deep scratches with wood filler, then sand thoroughly until all finish is removed and the wood is super smooth with no scratches.

Make your first pass with an orbital sander using 100-grit paper, your second with 180-grit paper, and your last pass with 220-grit.

STEP 4 : Apply a sealer.

Before applying it, thin out the sealer to a 50-50 concentration with denatured alcohol.

Apply the sealer (this is sometimes called a wood conditioner). A sealer does just what it says: It seals the surface with a light, thin coating so that when you apply stain, the color goes on evenly. Zinsser’s Bull’s Eye Seal Coat, an alcohol-based sealer that’s easy to apply and dries fast, is a good option.

When the sealer dries, lightly rub with 000 steel wool, then clean the surface thoroughly with a tack cloth.

STEP 5 : Apply the stain.

Apply stain using a soft cotton rag, a brush, or a brush in combination with a rag. Experiment until you find a combination that allows you to apply a consistent tone.

If the stain is going on too dark, rub some it off. Too light? Don’t worry. You can apply another coat after the first one dries.

Once the stain dries, follow up with another very light rubbing with 000 or 0000 steel wool before cleaning with tack cloth.

Note: It’s always wise to experiment on the backside of a single door before committing to the project, just to be sure you’re going to be pleased with the results.

STEP 6 : Add a protective varnish to the cabinets.

Now you can apply a protective coat of clear polyurethane varnish. Applying any clear coat must be done in a dust-free environment.

Read the directions on the can and follow them, but when it comes to thinning, you may need to deviate from the product literature. Most makers say you won’t have to, and maybe that is the case under perfect conditions, but I find that it’s usually necessary to pour in a little mineral spirits to keep the polyurethane flowing smoothly and drying without brush marks.

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Method 2: Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets to Make Them Darker

how to refinish cabinets

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If you want darker-toned cabinets than what you currently have, you may be able to simply tint the existing finish. This method of refinishing kitchen cabinets, or cabinetry in any space, is much easier to accomplish than others that require stripping and sanding, but there are still a few ins and outs that you need to know.

SUPPLIES

Respirator
Rubber gloves
Trisodium Phosphate (TSP)
– Water
Sandpaper
Tack cloth
Tinted polyurethane varnish
Paintbrush
Polyurethane finish

STEP 1 : Remove and wash doors and drawer fronts.

After removing the doors, drawers and hardware; begin by thoroughly washing grease and wax off the cabinets with TSP and water.

STEP 2 : Sand and dust the cabinets.

Lightly sand and wipe off the dust with a tack cloth.

STEP 3 : Apply a tinted polyurethane.

Experiment with a tinted polyurethane varnish (such as Polyshades by Minwax) to see if you can achieve the tone desired. Tinted polyurethanes combine stain and varnish in a single product.

Note: It’s always wise to experiment on the back side of a single door before committing to the project, just to be sure you’re going to be pleased with the results.

RELATED: How to Stain Cabinets

Method 3: Repainting Kitchen Cabinets

how to refinish cabinets

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While it might make the biggest impact, repainting kitchen cabinets is actually quite a bit easier than restaining them. And, since you’re applying a whole new coat, the color possibilities are endless.

SUPPLIES

Respirator
220-Grit sandpaper
Foam sanding block
Tack cloth
Degreaser
Primer
Paintbrush
Paint roller and tray
Enamel cabinet and trim paint

STEP 1: Remove the cabinet doors and hardware.

Start by removing the doors, door knobs, drawer fronts, drawer pulls, and other hardware from the cabinets. For very large kitchens, it’s a good idea to number the cabinet doors and drawer fronts to ensure you know where to put them back.

STEP 2: Lightly scuff the cabinets’ surfaces.

Cabinets are typically smooth and covered with a bit of polyurethane. While primer can adhere to this surface, it’s better to scuff it up a bit first. Put on a respirator and use the 220-grit sandpaper and foam sanding block to lightly scuff the surface of the boxes, face frames, drawer fronts, and doors. The foam sanding block should be able to get into intricate door profiles.

Keep in mind that your goal isn’t to sand down to bare wood. Instead, you simply want to roughen the surface of the existing finish to give the primer something to hold on to.

RELATED: The Best Primers for Kitchen Cabinet Transformations

STEP 3: Clean the cabinet surfaces.

After scuffing, remove the dust from the cabinets with a tack cloth. Take your time with this step as any dust that stays behind is going to create a rough texture on the cabinet.

While you’re sanding, you’re inadvertently transferring oils from your fingers to the cabinets. Also, cabinets see a lot of cooking oil, as well, and neither substance is conducive to a great paint job. The answer to this conundrum is to use the degreaser to clean the entire surface of the boxes and doors. Once clean, the surface is ready for primer.

RELATED: The Best Paint for Kitchen Cabinets

STEP 4: Prime the cabinets.

After pouring primer into the paint tray, use the paintbrush and roller to coat the boxes, face frames, doors, and drawer fronts with primer. Be sure to brush the primer into any cracks or corners, especially along the door profiles. This finish might look a bit streaky, but you should only need one coat of primer before moving to paint. Pour the excess primer back into the can and clean the brush and paint tray while allowing the primer to dry.

STEP 5: Paint the cabinets.

Once the primer dries, it’s time to paint the cabinets. Put a new roller cover on your paint roller and pour some paint into the paint tray. Use the brush and roller to coat the doors, face frames, drawer fronts, and boxes with an enamel paint made specifically for cabinets and trim for the best results. After allowing the first coat to dry, apply a second coat of paint. Once dry, put all the doors, drawer fronts, and hardware back on and enjoy the fresh, new, updated look in your kitchen.

RELATED: The 14 Freshest Kitchen Cabinet Colors

Final Thoughts

how to refinish cabinets

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With this primer on how to refurbish kitchen cabinets, you have the knowledge necessary to give those boring or ugly wood boxes and doors a facelift. Whether sanding down to bare wood and restaining kitchen cabinets, using a tinted varnish to darken the color, or painting your cabinets, be sure to wear the proper safety gear while you tackle this big-impact project.

FAQs About How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

That might feel like a lot of information about the refinishing kitchen cabinets, and it’s hard to cover everything in one coat. If you still have questions about restaining cabinets or simply refurbishing old kitchen cabinets, this section is for you.

Q: What is the average cost to refinish cabinets?

Generally speaking, the cost of refinishing kitchen cabinets (with labor) will run between about $1,800 and $4,000, depending on the size of the kitchen. You can save up to 75 percent of that cost if you tackle the project yourself.

Q: Is it worth it to refinish kitchen cabinets?

It is absolutely worth refinishing kitchen cabinets. If your boxes and doors are still in good shape, a fresh coat of stain or paint can breathe new life into an old space and save you up to $20,000.

Q: Is it cheaper to reface or refinish cabinets?

Generally speaking, refinishing cabinets is less expensive than refacing kitchen cabinets. Cabinet refacing costs, on average, $7,132.

Q: Why is my wood blotchy after stripping?

Usually, discoloration is caused by old stain that’s deeply embedded in the wood. Liquid strippers and sanding might not even be an option, so it’s best to go with a darker stain or paint that will hide the blotchiness.

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