Low-VOC cabinet refinishing for dummies.
January 4, 2014 10:46 PM   Subscribe

A question about how to refinish my cabinets, in a kitten-friendly (low VOC) way? Apologies in advance, as I'm new to furniture / wood stuff and think I'm missing something obvious. Kitten pictures inside.

I have cabinets that previously had a shiny, honey-colored, "builders oak" finish.

I was planning to paint them white. But while sanding them, I came to really like the way the wood itself looks while covered in sawdust. The counter is dark green (tunis green? this), and the grayish wood looked better than any white I've tried. But now I'm not sure how to get that look.

The main priority is that it look somewhat modern, not too yellow-orange or too shiny. Here are a few pictures I like: left half here, or darker like this, also okay, grayish brown, you get the idea. Ultimately, this does need to be stain-proof and durable, as this unit will turn into a rental in a few years.

So far, I have removed the doors and hinges, washed everything with TSP equivalent, given everything a quick sanding down with 80-grit, primed most of the doors (oops!), and tested a few whites on the back of a few doors (oops again!). Tips on a healthy way to strip that primer back off would be helpful. The first picture linked above is not far from how the un-primed stuff looks now, but when I wipe it with a tack cloth, it starts to look yellow-ish again.

To add to the difficulty, I want to go low-VOC on this, as the poor kitten has probably injested enough wood-related chemicals already. This rules out Dura Supreme, for instance, at 500 g/L.

I tried this Rubio Monocoat stuff, and it seemed to do very little. My friend pointed out that the grain still seemed to be sealed, and sure enough, when we sanded the heck out of it, the Monocoat had a different effect. But since I was using the white Monocoat stuff, the effect it then had was to make the grain lighter, which isn't my goal. That said, maybe I just need to try a different Monocoat color (like aqua? top row, second from the left)? But is there an option that would let me avoid 6 more hours of sanding and taking 1/8" off of everything? I feel like I'm missing an obvious, easy solution. Thank you for any advice from me and the kitten!
posted by slidell to Home & Garden (6 answers total)
Can you house your cat in another location temporarily while you do renovations? That will free you up to do what you need to do, while keeping your kitty safe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:45 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've done a lot of wood work and my answer here is always "Tried and True". No, really, Tried and True brand oils and varnishes are the answer, here. Low VOC -- actually no VOC -- as that stuff is only oil and tree resin, easy application, and cheap.

Google 'em. Tried and True.
posted by notyou at 2:46 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Any sort if oil-based finish will tend to warm up the color, shifting it towards yellow or orange. For this reason I would not recommend any of the traditional oils/varnishes offered by Tried and True. I think you're looking at three basic stages of work here. First you need to remove the existing film finish -- all of it. This won't necessitate grinding off an eighth of an inch of wood, but neither will you be able to wave a sheet of 180 grit at it and call it done. Chemical strippers are usually easier than sanding it all away, but catalyzed commercial finishes might require very harsh strippers. On broad, flat surfaces metal card scrapers can work really well and be both safer and easier than sanding or chemicals. But scrapers aren't so great for detailed decorative edges around frames and raised panels. Anyhow, get ALL of the finish off. Then you can stain the bare wood to your desired color, and top-coat with a waterborne finish which will be both low-VOC and non-yellowing. No, there generally isn't an easier way unless you want to resort to paint, and obscure the wood entirely.
posted by jon1270 at 5:54 AM on January 5, 2014

Since you are doing oak, you might want to look into colored grain fillers. Usually these come in two flavors, not quite white and not quite black, but I'm seen some pretty impressive results achieved with colors like blue and green.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:42 AM on January 5, 2014

Definitely take a look at Penofin Verde.
posted by Specklet at 3:55 PM on January 5, 2014

When I need to refinish stuff, I lock the kitties up or I lock myself in a room. It is the only way to make sure they are safe. It tend to use a quick dry oil polyurethane so that the kitties do not have to wait too long. All dry time in between costs is spent in the room with them to make up for the kitty prison. Plus it gives me the motivation to get the floors, chairs, and other stuff refinished quickly.
posted by Nackt at 7:17 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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