A smooth finish for my refinished cabinet doors
July 31, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

Refinishing/refurbishing my kitchen cabinet doors. How can I apply the polyurethane to get a smooth, even shine?

My kitchen cabinets are beautiful, old-school, solid cherry. The finish is scuffed/dulled in some places where it looks like someone scrubbed a bit too hard--not down to the bare wood, for the most part, just patches of dullness. So I want to give them a new topcoat and pretty 'em up, as we're fixing up our kitchen.

I've done a trial run on the least conspicuous door. Looks like cleaning with TSP and applying oil-based polyurethane is going to work out. The trouble is that I can't seem to apply it totally uniformly across the door, and I end up with just enough variation in the gloss that it's almost as if I went through all the trouble for nothing. How can I get a totally even coat?

I don't think that the problem has to do with the polyurethane being insufficiently mixed. I keep the doors horizontal as I apply the poly. I'm using semi-gloss, which is about in keeping with the degree of gloss on the current finish.

I initially tried spraying with polyurethane in an aerosol can, hoping to get an even application--didn't work. I also tried applying liquid with a foam brush and going with the grain--better but not perfect.

Some things I haven't tried yet but am thinking about:
--first applying the poly perpendicular to the grain, then making my final brushwork with the grain, to spread it more evenly.
--getting a *really* wide applicator, like those 12" dealies for finishing hardwood floors, to minimize brushstrokes.

On that last point, I actually have refinished a couple of floors in my time (w/water based poly) and haven't had this problem, so it's frustrating to be having it now!

Any tips and tricks will be very welcome! The scrubbed-out dullness really bugs me and I want my beautiful cherrywood cabinets to live up to their potential.
posted by Sublimity to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I had the best luck using paint rollers. I used 3", 4" and the standard 9" sizes.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 10:49 PM on July 31, 2008

Are you sanding with 0000 steel wool between coats? This makes a HUGE difference in the final finish.
posted by fuzzbean at 11:26 PM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rollers should do a pretty good job, as fluffy battle kitten mentions. And proper prep between coats is vital, as well. But for the best application, you might look into spraying the polyurethane on. Home Depot, for one, rents airless sprayers, and there are probably other rental places that do as well. That would be your best bet, I think. It can be a little bit of a PITA, but worth it if you really want the best possible job.
posted by Shohn at 5:04 AM on August 1, 2008

If the old finish is worn through in spots so that the doors are slick in some areas and absorbent in others, it may require two coats to get a good result. The first coat seals the porous areas so that the second coat dries evenly. Like fuzzbean suggests, you'll need to sand and/or steel wool between coats.

Beyond that, you need to avoid overworking the finish, i.e. brushing it after it has started to dry, which happens quickly. This can be difficult in warm weather. You can thin the poly, slowing it down so that the brush marks can flow out before the finish sets. You can rapidly get the finish applied on a large area with a roller, go over it with a brush (a good one, not a foam throwaway) and be done with it.
posted by jon1270 at 5:13 AM on August 1, 2008

Take the doors off and apply the finish with them lying down flat. Very thin coats. Allow plenty of drying time, much more than what it says on the can. Sand with 0000 steel wool between coats.

But I know what you mean about patches of dullness like that; they can still be there after several coats of poly. It might be good to sand down the entire door to an even level of dullness before starting the finish.

And if you go to that trouble, down to pretty much bare cherry wood, what would really look great is to put on a rubbed oil finish rather than poly.
posted by beagle at 5:20 AM on August 1, 2008

I did pretty much what you described except I was using a light colored paint. Using the 1" roller worked to a point but left some spots that always seemed transparent. I ended up hanging the doors in the carport, building a plastic room around them and spraying them about 4 times before I could say they were even. Alas, even after all of that, the doors looked great but the surrounding cabinet frames ended up looking just a bit different.
posted by ptm at 6:06 AM on August 1, 2008

I'm with beagle--I'd take off the old finish first so all parts of the door would take the new finish in the same way. If the doors are flat, that should be a pretty quick job with a hand-held sander.
posted by PatoPata at 7:09 AM on August 1, 2008

Things I'd try:

Take a rigid sanding block and knock down the old poly coat as much as possible. Don't get down to the actual wood or stain- just enough to knock down the brush strokes and get a nice flat surface to work with.

Thin down the poly with whatever thinner is recommended for it so that it will flow better. It will flow into the grain/pores of the wood, and also the brush strokes will flow down to being more flat.

Multiple thin coats. Steel wool between coats and wipe down with lint-free cloth and thinner between coats.

(It sounds like the person who cleaned it and made the dull spots may have used something like a green ScotchBrite. That is very abrasive and you might have to repair that damage by wet-sanding the scuffed areas.)
posted by gjc at 7:44 AM on August 1, 2008

I would use a wipe-on oil/poly blend. The one I love is made by General Finishes, and I've used it on two walnut tabletops, two mahogany countertops, and two cherry armoires. I've only tried the oil-based product. It doesn't give you a plasticky polyurethane finish; it looks like an oil, and it's flexible (like an oil) so surface dings won't cause chipping the way they would with plain polyurethane. If the wood were bare, you do one coat of Seal-A-Cell, but you can go right to Arm-R-Seal. Sand your surface to 220 and wipe off the dust. (That means if you've sanded with coarse paper, sand with 150 and then 220.) Use a small piece of t-shirt material to wipe the finish on, and then to smooth it in the direction of the grain. If you have frame-and panel doors, do the center panel first, and then do the frames. If the doors are horizontal, you can do pretty thick coats if you want to -- but thin coats end up looking better. In between coats, you go over the surface with 0000 steel wool or 320 sandpaper, and wipe off the dust. The finish is applied with a piece of t-shirt material or other soft cotton cloth. You can usually do 2 coats a day.

If you want to use brush-on poly, use an excellent brush, like Corona or Purdy. Don't use one of their "for all finishes" brushes -- use a natural one. Before starting, examine the ends of the bristles. There might be one or two that stick out 1/16" or 1/32" past the others; cut those off. When you apply the finish, you need to load up your brush and "flow it ( the finish) on," keeping a wet edge. That just means that when you overlap a stroke, the previous stroke needs to be wet, or you'll get an unwanted streak. Your smoothing stroke should be done by holding the brush at a very acute angle and very lightly dragging it along the surface, the way you would rake gravel to get it as smooth as possible. Sand lightly between coats. After your final coat, there will be some tiny pieces of lint and whatnot in your finish. Once the finish has dried for a week, rub it with a piece of a brown paper bag. It's abrasive enough to smooth the surface, but it won't dull it.
posted by wryly at 12:36 PM on August 1, 2008

Thanks, everyone--you all are so helpful I chose you all as the best.

I didn't sand between coats, though I'm willing to do it if it'll boost the end result. (If that was a fatal error that will eventually reveal itself, I at least chose the least obvious cabinet door to do it on!)

I like the idea about thinning the poly, or maybe just punting and going to the ArmRSeal. I did apply the finish on a warm (high 80s maybe) day, so I wonder if the poly just started stiffening before I got it all applied. I tried brushing "wet on wet" and ending with long brush strokes along the grain, but that wasn't enough for it to all smooth out. I agree a roller would be a logical next step if I can't track down the ArmRSeal....

Thankfully my doors are all flat, no frame-and-panel. I don' think I'd have the nerve or patience to try this experiment if they were that fancy!

Thanks again for the advice. I've got a few more good moves to try. Wish me luck!
posted by Sublimity at 2:20 PM on August 1, 2008

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