refinishing oak cabinets
February 11, 2011 6:05 PM   Subscribe

I have a 20 year-old house with decent-quality stained oak cabinets (built by a cabinet builder on-site during the house's construction). I love the layout of my kitchen and the cabinets are very functional, but the finish is looking a little worn and chipped these days. How can I refinish these cabinets?

I am NOT interested in painting them or refacing them. Even though oak is not "in-style" right now, I love all of the oak woodwork in my house, cabinets included.

Currently the cabinets are a golden oak stain and ideally I'd like to strip them down and stain them a color that was perhaps a little less yellowish.

Almost all of the info I am finding online refers to painting the cabinets. What would the process be like for re-staining them? Would it be easier to just order new oak doors and start from scratch on those, while refinishing the boxes? Do gel stains really work? What tools and equipment do I need?
posted by Ostara to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I hate to be obvious, but have you tried searching for restaining cabinets? It seems like there is plenty of hits on Google, but I'm not very handy myself so maybe the info is lacking somehow.
posted by asciident at 7:42 PM on February 11, 2011

I asked a similar question a few years ago, here:

The suggestions were very helpful for me and the doors turned out great. So, instead of going through the trouble of fully stripping them, I'd suggest taking them off, giving a good clean with TSP, and then testing ArmRSeal in some inconspicuous place, applying while the door is horizontal. If that works well it'll save you a lot of heartache.

Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 8:03 PM on February 11, 2011

It's all about the prep: taking off the hardware, cleaning, sanding lightly, wiping down and keeping a nice surface to work with. This howto (the page is a bit broken, but the content's still there) goes through the steps for a one-coat dyed poly, but a gel stain plus a poly topcoat should work fine. (CelticMoon at GardenWeb is a good source here.)
posted by holgate at 11:24 PM on February 11, 2011

Properly refinishing any wood furniture is a lot of work. The basics are not that different from refinishing something like a desk: you'll need to strip and sand, stain, and then put on 3 thin coats of polyurethane topcoat, allowing to dry and sanding lightly between each coat. The last part is the most unforgiving part--avoiding brush strokes, dust specks, runs, etc. takes some practice...and it's not like some dresser that's your first refinishing project, that you can hide away in your dimly lit bedroom and isn't really a focal point. Cabinet doors are right at eye level, in a brightly-lit room, everyone who comes in your house will see them, and therefore every little imperfection will be quite noticeable.

Which is not to say it's impossible. And if you enjoy this sort of thing, then go for it. (For the specifics, I'd suggest going to the woodworking forum on the GardenWeb home forums, or some other woodworking oriented site--I'm not an expert, but I'm not sure a combo stain/poly finish is the best choice, as it's harder to achieve a truly even final coloration). But I'm not sure it's a great first-time refinishing project to start off with.

If you like the door style in general, and they're good quality doors, one option might be to strip and prep them yourselves, and then farm out the staining/finishing to a local cabinetmaker who's got all the knowhow and equipment to give you a great looking, hard-wearing, durable finish. The cost differential between that and simply ordering new doors may not be all that much, but I do applaud you for wanting to reuse the current doors--people talk a lot about green remodeling, but reusing what you've already got is always the greenest choice.
posted by drlith at 6:54 AM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

With all respect to Sublimity, Arm-R-Seal is a ridiculously good topcoat but doesn't come in colors. Having done way too much refinishing in my life, I recommend ZAR semi-transparent stain. It's the type of product that's used on top of paint for faux-woodgrain and other types of glazing, and it definitely can be used on top of varnish/poly IF the surface is properly prepared.

The preparation should start with a thorough cleaning; like drlith, I like TSP or TSP substitute because it removes all traces of grease and can slightly reduce the gloss on the original finish. I'd follow that with sanding every inch (220 or 250 grit); sand with the grain, because it does make a difference. After sanding, remove the dust as well as possible, with a tack cloth or a rag dampened in paint thinner.

I've only used solvent-based ZAR, and I know nothing about the water-based version. It's liquid, and you apply it with a cloth, a brush, or both. It looks best with thin or medium coats that you can see through. On the flat areas, you'll have not trouble at all; for inside corners and ridges, you'll want to practice a little. You can practice on one of the doors, and wipe the stain off with paint thinner before the stain is dry.

Let the ZAR dry longer than the label recommends, otherwise the solvent in the top-coat may soften the stain. The ZAR should be hard enough that you can't scratch it off with a fingernail.

Finally, topcoat the wood with Arm-R-Seal Oil-Urethane finish, using a brush, a rag, or a combination of those. (You'll probably want at least two coats. The oils prevent the polyurethane from cracking or denting if something hard bumps into it. I finished my mahogany kitchen counter with it and it's the greatest.

Feel free to send a MeMail with questions. I like to give away the knowledge I gained with all my painty and varnishy experience.
posted by wryly at 1:02 PM on February 12, 2011

« Older Central LA Neighborhoods?   |   Take Me Out To The Ball Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.