How to Refinish Your Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets play a huge role in setting the overall look and feel of your kitchen. Over time, your cabinets can start to show signs of wear and tear from daily use. The doors and drawers may start to look dull or develop minor flaws and damages. Refinishing your kitchen cabinets is an effective way to update their appearance and make them look as good as new. With some effort and the right materials, you can refinish your cabinets yourself and save the high cost of installing brand new cabinetry. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the entire process of refinishing kitchen cabinets, from proper planning and preparation to achieving a smooth, durable finish.

Assessing Your Cabinets and Planning the Refinishing Project

Before you start refinishing, take some time to carefully evaluate the current condition of your cabinets. Look for any pieces that are broken or structurally unsound. Repair or replace severely damaged cabinets. For cabinets in usable shape, identify the types of flaws:

  • Faded or yellowed color – This can be remedied with new stain or paint.
  • Chipped or peeling finish – Bare wood exposed in these spots will need special attention in sanding and finishing.
  • Minor dents and scratches – Sanding will help diminish the appearance of these marks.
  • Grime and grease buildup – Degreasing is key prior to refinishing.

Make notes on which cabinets and doors will need extra work. This inspection also helps you determine whether stain or paint will be the best refinishing method for your kitchen’s existing cabinet material and current condition.

Plan out all the steps of the process before starting. Allow plenty of time for thoroughly preparing the surfaces, applying primer and finish coats, and letting each coat dry completely before moving onto the next step. Depending on the size of your kitchen, plan for the refinishing process to take 2-5 days from start to finish.

Gather all the necessary supplies – sandpaper, cleaning wipes, primer, new stain or paint, brushes and rollers, rags, etc. If removing doors and drawers to refinish them separately from the cabinet boxes, have tools to detach and re-attach the hardware ready. Pick a block of days on your calendar when you can focus on refinishing without interruption. You want to maintain momentum once the process begins.

Cleaning Kitchen Cabinets Prior to Refinishing

Thorough cleaning is crucial in order for refinishing kitchen cabinets to be successful. Grease splatters, dirt build up, and residue from old finish materials can prevent new stain or paint from adhering properly. Follow these steps to clean kitchen cabinets before applying a new finish:

Remove Doors, Drawers, and Hardware

Detaching the cabinet components allows for easier access to all the surfaces. Number doors and drawers with painter’s tape so you can easily reinstall them in the original locations. Set aside all hardware like hinges and handles in labeled bags or bins.

Wash with a Degreasing Solution

Mix up an alkaline degreasing solution of 1/2 cup household ammonia per gallon of warm water. Use a sponge or soft cloth to wipe down all cabinet surfaces with the degreaser solution. Let it sit for 5 minutes before rinsing off with clean water and drying with a lint-free cloth.

Vinegar or TSP (trisodium phosphate) cleaners also work well for removing built-up grease and oils.

Lightly Sand with Fine Grit Sandpaper

Gently sand every surface using 220-400 grit sandpaper. This helps degloss the old finish so the new stain or paint bonds better. Be careful not to press too hard, which can create visible scratches. Wipe away any resulting dust with a tack cloth.

Clean Out Grooves and Carvings

Use cotton swabs, small brushes, or toothpicks to clean dirt and debris out of any ornate grooves and carvings. Pay special attention to the inner edges of door and drawer frames where grime easily accumulates.

Proper cleaning removes contaminants, creates an optimal bonding surface, and lets the beauty of the natural wood or substrate shine through the new finish.

Sanding Kitchen Cabinets for Refinishing

Sanding is the most labor-intensive part of refinishing kitchen cabinets, but it’s essential for achieving a smooth finish. Be thorough and patient when sanding to get rid of any old finish, scratches, or water stains. It takes time and elbow grease, but the end results are worth it.

Follow these key steps when sanding kitchen cabinets before applying new stain or paint:

Remove Doors and Hardware

Detach all doors, drawers, and hardware to make the sanding process easier. Number the doors and drawers to ensure accurate reinstallation later.

Use Proper Safety Gear

Wear a ventilating mask to avoid inhaling wood dust when sanding. Goggles, gloves, and long sleeves are also smart safety precautions.

Start with Coarse-Grit Paper

Begin sanding using 100-150 grit sandpaper to remove the bulk of old finish and any significant scratches or marks. Always sand in the direction of the wood grain.

Progress through Finer Grits

Move to 220 grit paper once the old finish is stripped away and the major flaws diminished. Then use 320 or 400 grit to smooth everything out in preparation for staining or painting.

Sand Lightly Between Coats

If applying multiple coats of stain or paint, do a quick extra sanding with 400 grit in between coats to promote maximum adhesion.

Clean Surfaces After Sanding

Use tack cloths to remove all dust before finishing so it doesn’t get stuck in the new stain or paint.

Take it slow and be thorough when sanding to get the cleanest foundation for your refinished kitchen cabinets. The time invested makes a big difference in the final look.

How to Apply Wood Stain for Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets

Staining can update the color of your cabinets while still letting the natural wood grain show through. When refinishing kitchen cabinets with stain, follow these tips:

Types of Stain

  • Oil-based stains penetrate deeper for richer color but dry slower. Use mineral spirits for cleanup.
  • Water-based stains offer easier soap and water cleanup but less intense color.
  • Gel stains are thick for better control and minimal drips.

Prep Properly

Make sure surfaces are clean and sanded smooth before applying stain. Tack cloth to remove any dust first.

Use Quality Brushes

Invest in good bristle or foam brushes suited for stain. Disposable foam brushes work for flat surfaces. Angled sash brushes are ideal for grooves.

Stir Stain Frequently

Pigments settle, so stir stain periodically during use to maintain consistent coloring as you work.

Apply Thin Coats

Brush on stain across the wood grain, then even out by brushing in the direction of the grain. Thin coats show off more natural wood texture.

Wipe Off Excess

After 5-10 minutes, wipe off any excess stain not absorbed into the wood using a clean lint-free cloth.

Seal with Clear Finish

Use polyurethane or varnish to protect the stain and add sheen. Apply 2-3 thin, even coats, sanding lightly between each.

With the right preparation and application technique, staining offers a simple way to refresh the look of your kitchen cabinets.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets for a Fresh Look

Painting over stained or worn kitchen cabinets is a transformative option when refinishing. Follow these tips for success when repainting cabinets:

Clean and Sand
Remove old finish, then thoroughly clean and sand surfaces prior to painting kitchen cabinets. Dull glossy areas with fine-grit sandpaper.

Check for Compatibility
Make sure new paint is formulated to bond properly to your cabinets’ existing finish. Many latex and oil-based paints work universally.

Caulk Any Gaps
Use painter’s caulk to fill any cracks or gaps for a seamless painted surface. Smooth with a damp fingertip before painting.

Prime Cabinets First
Primer improves paint adhesion and prevents stains from bleeding through final color coats. Allow primer to dry fully before painting.

Use Angled Paintbrushes
Quality angled sash brushes allow you to easily cut in sharp edges and paint grooves. Use mini foam rollers for large flat areas.

Apply Multiple Thin Coats
2-3 coats ensures full, even cabinet coverage. Let each coat dry fully before adding the next. Lightly sand between coats for maximum bonding.

Finish with Protective Topcoat
For added durability and washability, apply 1-2 final coats of clear polyurethane over the cured paint.

With good prep work and application techniques, painted finishes offer an affordable way to give your kitchen a fresh new look.

Refinishing Kitchen Cabinet Doors

Kitchen cabinet doors take a beating and show the most visible signs of wear. Refinishing just the doors is often all that’s needed to update the look of your entire kitchen. Here are useful tips for refinishing kitchen cabinet doors:

Remove and Number Doors

Detach each door and number with painter’s tape on the backside for accurate reinstallation. Save hinges to reattach later.

Clean and Sand Thoroughly

Pay extra attention to cleaning inside frame edges and sanding away dents and scratches.

Refinish Frame and Panel Separately

Use gel stain or thin paint on frame rails and stiles for maximum control. Use regular stain or paint on the flat panel.

Coat Door Front and Back

For longevity, refinish both sides – the exterior and interior-facing surfaces.

Apply Protective Topcoats

Polyurethane or varnish protects the renewed finish on high-use doors from everyday wear and tear.

Drill Pilot Holes

When reattaching door hinges, avoid splitting by pre-drilling pilot holes for the screws.

Focusing on doors alone lets you transform the visible facades with less work and expense than refinishing a whole set of cabinets.

How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinet Drawer Fronts

Over time, kitchen drawer fronts get dingy and beat up from constant opening and closing. Targeted refinishing is an easy DIY update for worn-out drawer fronts:

Remove Hardware
Take off knobs and pulls before refinishing so drawer fronts lay flat for optimal finishing results.

Clean, Sand, and Wipe
Scrub away grime, then sand to smooth and further prepare surfaces for new finish coats.

**Stain or Paint Thoroughly **
Use a small paintbrush to carefully apply stain or paint over the entire drawer front – top, bottom, sides, and edges.

Apply Protective Finish
One or two coats of polyurethane seals the new color and provides a durable, washable surface.

Pre-drill New Holes
Avoid splitting wood when reinstalling drawer hardware. Drill pilot holes before driving screws.

Coordinate with Cabinet Finish
Match new drawer front stains or paints to the finish techniques used on the cabinets for a cohesive look.

With a little focused effort, you can make dull, dated drawer fronts look fresh and help modernize your whole kitchen on a budget.

How to Refinish Laminate Kitchen Cabinets

Laminate cabinet finishes consist of plastic laminate sheets glued over plywood or particle board. The laminate is printed with wood grain or solid color patterns. Refinishing options for laminate cabinets include:

Light Sanding

Use 220 grit sandpaper to gently degloss and rough up surfaces for better paint adhesion. Avoid sanding through laminate.

Thorough Cleaning

Scrub with degreaser and scour pads to remove grimy buildup from laminate cabinet edges and surfaces.

Priming before Painting

Quality oil or latex-based primer helps paint stick to laminates. Sand lightly between coats.

Spray Painting

Lightly sand, then spray paint using thin, even coats of cabinetry enamel spray paint. Multiple coats prevent streaks.

New Laminate Sheets

Cover existing laminate with new sheets for an updated color or pattern. Use contact cement for a secure bond.

Replacement Doors

Install new replacement doors to alter the style. Save cost by keeping existing cabinet boxes.

While laminates don’t stain well, cleaning, sanding, and painting provide affordable ways to refresh their appearance.

How to Refinish Thermofoil Kitchen Cabinets

Thermofoil cabinets feature a thin layer of plastic film heat bonded over medium density fiberboard (MDF). With proper prep, refinishing options for thermofoil kitchen cabinets include:

Light Sanding

Gently sand with a fine-grit sandpaper. Avoid removing the thermofoil layer.

Clean Thoroughly

Use degreaser and a maroon scrub pad to clean away grimy buildup. Rinse and dry fully.

Apply Adhesion Primer

Adhesion primer helps the paint bond properly to the thermofoil surface.

Spray Paint Finish Coats

Thin, even coats of spray enamel provide a smooth factory-like painted finish.

Replace Doors

For a more significant change, replace existing thermofoil doors with new stained wood or painted doors.

Add Accent Trim

Add wooden trim pieces stained in a contrasting shade to thermofoil cabinets for visual interest.

While thermofoil doesn’t allow restaining, painted finishes can provide desired transformation with proper preparation and application techniques.

How to Refinish Veneer Kitchen Cabinets

Veneer cabinetry has a thin layer of quality hardwood glued over plywood or MDF cores. Refinishing veneer requires caution to avoid sanding through the delicate veneer layer. Recommended techniques include:

Clean Carefully

Use milder cleaners and gentle scrubbing to avoid damaging the wood veneer.

Sand Lightly

Sand only enough to rough up the existing finish using 220 grit paper. Excess sanding can pierce the veneer.

Stain with Care

Apply stain in thin coats, wiping away excess to prevent blotchiness in the porous veneer.

Add New Veneer

Iron on new veneer sheets in a fresh woodgrain pattern using contact cement and a veneer roller.

Paint with Primer

Quality primer helps paint adhere to veneers without bleed-through. Avoid painting directly over stains.

Replace Doors

Install new replacement doors while keeping existing cabinet boxes to reduce cost.

Refinishing options for veneer cabinets rely on gentle cleaning, sanding, and painting to protect the thin veneer layer. Staining can work with careful application.

How to Refinish Wood Kitchen Cabinets

Solid wood kitchen cabinets offer versatility for refinishing. With proper preparation, solid wood allows for staining, painting, or refacing to achieve a beautiful revamped finish:

Clean and Sand

Clean away buildup and degloss for the new finish to properly adhere. Sand smooth using 100-220 grit paper.

Stain, Paint, or Reface

Choose to delicately stain, prime and paint, or apply new veneer or laminate over the existing framework.

Seal with Protective Coating

Polyurethane or varnish seals in the new finish and provides a durable, washable surface.

Replace Components

Just swapping out doors, drawer fronts, or hardware updates the look at a lesser cost.

With an array of effective options, refinishing can make dated natural wood cabinets look fresh and beautiful again. Proper preparation and finish protection are key.

Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets FAQ

Refinishing kitchen cabinets is a big project. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions on the process:

Should I remove cabinets for refinishing?

Removing them allows for refinishing all sides. But you can refinish installed cabinets by taking doors off.

Can I paint over existing wood stain?

Yes, if properly primed first. Oil-based primer seals in the wood stain to prevent bleed-through of dark colors.

Can I restain cabinets a darker color?

It can be challenging to go much darker. Often needs stripping first for best results.

How do I refinish cabinets white?

Clean, sand, prime with a white primer, then use quality white cabinet paint for a bright white finish.

What are the cost savings from refinishing vs. new cabinets?

Refinishing existing cabinets costs 10-40% of full cabinet replacement, which can run $5,000-$15,000+.

Is it better to stain or paint kitchen cabinets?

Staining highlights the natural wood texture while painting creates a uniform colored surface. Personal preference!

How durable is a refinished kitchen?

Very durable with proper prep and protective topcoat. Polyurethane makes painted and stained finishes last for many years.

Doing your homework on process and products helps ensure success in refinishing your kitchen cabinets like new for a fraction of the cost of installing all new cabinets!


Refinishing kitchen cabinets allows you to transform the heart of your home without breaking the bank. With some elbow grease and commitment to proper preparation and application techniques, you can strip cabinets down to the bare wood, apply your choice of stain or paint, and seal with protective clear coats.

The result is a kitchen updated in beautiful style for thousands less than the cost of new custom cabinetry. And nothing matches the satisfaction and pride of restoring kitchen cabinets with your own hands! With this detailed guide to the refinishing process, you can confidently tackle a DIY kitchen cabinet makeover.