How to Finish Kitchen Cabinets Yourself

Finishing kitchen cabinets yourself can seem like a daunting task, but with the right materials, tools, and techniques, you can achieve beautiful, professional-looking results. Refinishing cabinets is also a budget-friendly way to give your kitchen an updated look without the expense of replacing them. This comprehensive guide will walk you through all the steps for finishing kitchen cabinets, from preparation to applying stain, paint or clear topcoat. We’ll also cover common mistakes to avoid, as well as tips and tricks from experts. With a little time and effort, you can learn how to finish kitchen cabinets yourself and be proud of your DIY achievement.

Preparing the Kitchen Cabinets for Refinishing

Before you start applying new finishes, you need to thoroughly clean and prepare the existing cabinet surfaces. Proper prep work helps ensure the new finish adheres smoothly and evenly.

Remove Cabinet Doors and Drawers

The first step is to remove all cabinet doors, drawers and hardware (hinges, pulls). Set the hardware aside in a plastic bag labeled for each cabinet so you can reattach later in the same place. Numbering the door backs can help keep them organized too. Taking doors and drawers off gives you easier access to the cabinet frames and interiors for cleaning.

Clean Inside and Out

With the cabinet frames exposed, start by wiping down all interior and exterior surfaces with a liquid degreaser or TSP substitute to remove grease, dirt and grime. Pay special attention to areas around knobs or handles wherekitchen oils accumulate.

Sand Cabinets and Degloss

Lightly sand all cabinet frames, doors and drawers using 120-150 grit sandpaper. This helps degloss and rough up the existing finish so the new finish adheres better. Be sure to sand both sides of doors and drawer fronts.

Use a chemical deglosser on any areas that are still glossy. Allow to fully dry. Wipe clean with a tack cloth.

Fill Any Holes and Repair Defects

Check surfaces closely for any holes, cracks or defects, and fill as needed with wood filler. Allow filler to fully cure before sanding smooth. Address any issues like peeling laminate before finishing as well.

Remove Cabinet Doors and Hardware

To fully refinish kitchen cabinets, you need access to all the frame surfaces. Remove all doors, drawers and hardware. Label and store organizered so you can easily reinstall.

With prep work complete, you’re ready to apply your new cabinet finish.

How to Apply Stain to Kitchen Cabinets

Stain transforms kitchen cabinets by adding rich, warm wood tones without completely obscuring the grain. For stain to adhere properly, careful prep and application is key. Here are some tips:

Choose the Right Stain Type

Oil-based stains soak deeper into the wood grain for amplified color effects. However, oil-based products require mineral spirits for cleanup.

Water-based stains offer easier soap-and-water cleanup but don’t penetrate as deeply. Gels and wiping stains are also options. Test samples first.

Consider color too. Light stains add a sheer hue while darker stains are more opaque and dramatic.

Use a Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

For the most even stain absorption, especially on soft woods like pine, apply a pre-stain conditioner. This seals pores to prevent blotchiness.

Stain a Test Board First

Test stains on scrap wood to confirm you like the color. Apply as directed, then seal with topcoat and view in natural light. This helps avoid surprises later on your cabinets.

Use Proper Brush Technique

Apply stain liberally with the wood grain using a high-quality natural bristle brush or staining pad. Maintain a wet edge and work from top to bottom.

Immediately wipe away any excess with a clean, lint-free rag before the stain dries. Working in small sections improves blending.

Allow Proper Dry Time

Let the stain dry fully before adding a topcoat. Oil-based products may require up to 72 hours of cure time. Consult the product directions.

Once the stain has cured, you can add your topcoat for protection and sheen.

Applying Topcoat Over Kitchen Cabinet Stain

The right topcoat seals, protects and enhances stained kitchen cabinets. Choosing products compatible with your stain is critical for good adhesion.

Select a Water-Based Topcoat for a Stain

Oil-based sealers can react adversely with oil-based stains, creating imperfections. Water-based is the best topcoat option for stained cabinets.

Use polyurethane for the most durable finish. Acrylics work too but are less scratch-resistant.

Check for Compatibility

Verify that your stain and topcoat pair well together by reading product labels or calling manufacturers. Mismatched products can cause fouling, poor adhesion or curing issues.

Lightly Sand and Clean Before Topcoating

To help with adhesion, scuff-sand stained cabinets with 220 grit sandpaper before adding a topcoat. Remove any dust. Tack cloth for a contaminant-free surface.

Apply Thin, Even Topcoat Layers

Use a high-quality natural bristle brush. Flow with the wood grain to prevent visible brush strokes. Maintain a wet edge and slowly blend overlapping areas.

Work methodically in small sections. Allow proper drying between thin coats according to label directions. Multiple thin layers create better results than one thick coat.

Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper between coats for an ultra-smooth finish. Remove dust before recoating.

Allow Full Cure Before Use

Most topcoats require 72 hours of cure time before cabinets can be used. Allow more time in cool or humid conditions. Fully cured finishes better withstand bumps, spills and grime.

Now let’s go over some best practices for painting kitchen cabinets.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets for a Flawless Finish

Painting kitchen cabinets opens up unlimited color options beyond natural wood tones. With careful prep and application, even beginners can get smooth, professional-looking painted finishes.

Clean and Degloss Thoroughly

Paint adhesion relies heavily on a clean, dull surface, so degrease and sand until cabinets no longer feel slick or glossy. Address flaws or damages before painting.

Use TSP or degreaser to remove grime. Sand to rough up surfaces. Wipe clean.

Select High-Quality Primer and Paint

Invest in dedicated cabinetry paint and primer. These ultra-adhesive formulas are crafted to withstand wear and tear.

Opt for satin, semi-gloss or gloss sheens for easy cleaning and durability.

Oil-based paints create a harder finish but require solvent cleanup. Latex paints clean up with soap and water.

Apply Primer Correctly

Read the product label and apply primer accordingly for best results. Thoroughly coat the backs, fronts and edges of doors, frames and drawers.

Let primer fully dry before painting. Lightly sanding between coats ensures proper adhesion.

Use Proper Brush Technique

Use high-quality synthetic bristle brushes made for fine finish work. Apply paint in thin, even coats moving with the wood grain.

Maintain wet edges and slowly blend sections to avoid lap marks, brush strokes and drips. Allow proper drying time between coats according to label.

Finish Cabinet Interiors Too

Don’t forget to paint cabinet interiors and shelves for a complete renewal. Use high-quality trim paint for these areas.

Allow all surfaces to fully cure before hanging doors and drawers to prevent sticking and tackiness.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Refinishing Cabinets

While refinishing your kitchen cabinets is totally DIY-friendly, beginners can make some easy mistakes. Being aware of these pitfalls will help you avoid them:

  • Skipping proper prep work like cleaning, sanding, filling holes, etc. Proper prep is crucial for good adhesion.
  • Choosing the wrong products like oil-based stain + topcoat which don’t pair well together. Always verify compatibility.
  • Failing to apply finish coats thin enough. Multiple thin coats create better results vs one thick coat.
  • Forgetting to degloss laminates before painting. Deglossing helps paint grab.
  • Not allowing proper drying times. Rushing the job can ruin the finish. Follow all label directions.
  • Forgetting to finish cabinet interiors, doors, frames and sides. Paint or stain all surfaces for complete renewal.
  • Overbrushing or overworking the finish. Let products self-level. Slow strokes blend better.
  • Attempting to stain over sealed wood. Stain can’t penetrate painted, laminated or sealed cabinets.

With care and patience, you can avoid amateur mistakes and get flawless, professional-looking finished cabinets.

Tips and Tricks for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Refinishing kitchen cabinets is very doable, but these extra pointers help ensure optimal results:

  • Work in a dust-free space with adequate ventilation. Finishes apply best in controlled environments.
  • Maintain a wet edge when staining, painting or topcoating to prevent lap marks between sections.
  • Use high-quality applicator brushes made specifically for finish work. Cheap brushes create visible strokes.
  • Apply finishes in slow, thin, uniform coats. Avoid drips, globs or overloaded brushes.
  • Always test products like stains and paints on scraps first to confirm you like the color and finish.
  • Let stains and topcoats fully cure as directed before use or replacing cabinet doors.
  • Lightly sand between coats of primer, paint or topcoat with 220+ grit sandpaper for ultra-smoothness.
  • Label cabinet doors, hinges and hardware to easily reinstall in their original positions.
  • Number door backs during removal so you can return them to their proper cabinet frame locations.

Following these tips will help you achieve next-level DIY results.

How to Finish Specific Kitchen Cabinet Surfaces

Refinishing kitchen cabinets covers a range of different surfaces. Here are some tips for properly handling each:

Refinishing Laminate Cabinets

  • Degloss laminate with sandpaper so paint can grip.
  • Use bonding primer and quality cabinet paint for best adhesion.
  • Don’t stain over laminate. It can’t absorb stains.

Refinishing Wood Veneer Cabinets

  • Lightly sand and use deglosser to prep veneer for new finishes.
  • Stain veneers lightly to avoid absorbing too deep. Wipe gently.
  • Opt for satin or semi-gloss sheens to showcase the wood grain.

Refinishing Thermofoil Cabinets

  • Do not sand thermofoil surfaces. Degloss only with liquid deglosser.
  • Use high-bond primer and paint specially formulated for plastics.
  • Spray painting creates the most flawless finish on smooth thermofoil.

Refinishing Metal Cabinets

  • Remove doors and hardware. Clean well with degreaser.
  • Sand lightly to rough up surface for paint adhesion.
  • Apply bonding primer followed by quality metal paint.

Prep and apply finishes according to your specific cabinet materials.

Maintaining Your Refinished Kitchen Cabinets

Once your cabinets are refinished, proper care and maintenance will keep them looking beautiful. Here are some tips:

  • Allow finishes to fully cure before wiping cabinets down or using. Follow all dry time instructions.
  • Clean using a soft microfiber cloth, mild soap and warm water. Avoid harsh cleaners.
  • Immediately dry any water spills or splatters to avoid water damage.
  • Reapply topcoat annually or as needed to restore shine and protection.
  • Avoid placing small kitchen appliances directly on cabinets. Use hot pads.
  • Install knobs and pulls carefully without over-tightening screws. Fill holes if removing hardware.
  • Open and close doors and drawers gently to avoid chipping edges or damaging hinges.
  • Consider adding cabinet bumpers to prevent doors and drawers from slamming into each other.

With proper care, your refinished cabinets can look amazing for years to come!

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to refinish kitchen cabinets?

The total time will vary based on cabinet size and methods used, but generally expect 1-3 days for small projects or 5-7 days for larger kitchens. Allow ample dry time between steps. Rushing can ruin finishes.

Does refinishing cabinets add value to a home?

Yes, refinished kitchen cabinets can boost your home’s value significantly by giving the space a fresh, updated look for less cost than full replacement. Well-done DIY makeovers are very worthwhile.

Can I stain over painted cabinets?

Unfortunately, you cannot apply stain directly over factory painted or previously painted cabinets, as the sealant prevents stain from penetrating the wood. Painted cabinets must be sanded down completely before attempting to restain.

What sheen is best for kitchen cabinets – satin, semi-gloss or gloss?

Kitchen cabinets are best finished in satin, semi-gloss or gloss sheens. Satin is slightly matte while still pearlized. Semi-gloss offers mid-range shine. Gloss gives the most reflective shine and scrubbability.

Can I use the same paint on cabinet boxes and doors?

Generally, yes – the same high quality cabinet paint can be used to paint both cabinet frames/boxes and the doors. Just ensure all surfaces are properly prepped before painting.


Refinishing kitchen cabinets allows you to refresh the heart of your home with beautiful new stain, paint or topcoat in the color, finish and style you want – all without the high cost of full replacement. While proper prep and application is key, the ability to DIY this project makes it attainable for any homeowner. Follow the steps and tips outlined to take your cabinets from dated to spectacular. Don’t be afraid to apply some elbow grease and get creative with colors and finishes to make your kitchen uniquely you. With some patience and effort, you can achieve stunning professional-looking results and check “refinish cabinets” off your DIY to-do list.