How to Stain Wood Cabinets

Staining wood cabinets is an economical way to refresh the look of your kitchen. With the right prep work, staining technique, and finish, you can make tired cabinets look like new again. This comprehensive guide covers all the steps for staining wooden kitchen cabinets, from cleaning and sanding to choosing stains and top coats. Follow this process to transform the existing cabinetry in your kitchen into beautiful stained woodwork with your own two hands.

An Introduction to Staining Wood Cabinets

Staining overpainted or worn natural wood cabinetry can dramatically update the look of your kitchen. There are several advantages to staining vs painting cabinets:

  • Stain reveals the natural wood grain and texture, adding richness and warmth. Paint obscures the natural beauty of the wood.
  • Stains penetrate the wood surface, while painted finishes sit on top and can easily chip. Stain is more durable.
  • With stain, there is no need for tedious sanding between coats. Stain requires only light scuffing before reapplying.
  • Stains are available in a wide range of opacities, from light translucent wipes to heavy solid colors that emulate paint, but with woodgrain peeking through.
  • Staining can typically be completed over a weekend. Painting cabinets requires much more time and labor.

With some supplies and elbow grease, you can transform the look of your existing cabinets with stain. The preparation work is key – properly cleaning and sanding before applying stain is crucial. Patience will pay off in gorgeous, wood-grained cabinets!

Choose the Right Stain for Your Cabinets

When choosing a stain for cabinets, consider the existing wood species, color tone you want to achieve, and gloss level.

Types of Wood Stains

There are several types of stains to choose from:

  • Oil-based stains – Penetrate deep into the wood for an intense color. Require mineral spirits for cleanup.
  • Water-based stains – Penetrate less but are easier to apply. Cleanup with soap and water.
  • Gel stains – Thick consistency stays where applied. Good for vertical surfaces.
  • Penetrating stains – Contain dyes that infuse color deep into the wood. Enhance grain.
  • Paint and Primer in One – Can be used as a stain alternative for an opaque, painted look.

Wood Types for Cabinets

Consider how the stain will look on your specific wood:

  • Oak – Has dramatic grain patterns that are highlighted with medium to dark stains.
  • Maple – Has a fine, uniform grain that can be stained very dark.
  • Cherry – Beautiful reddish undertones look best with a clear stain to enhance natural color.
  • Pine – Soft porous wood that requires conditioning before staining to prevent blotching.

Stain Colors

Stain color options range from extra light tones to nearly black:

  • Natural and clear – Allow the natural beauty of the wood to shine through.
  • Honey and fruitwood – Warm golden brown hues.
  • Medium browns – Versatile traditional cabinet color.
  • Dark walnut – Deeper brown with reddish undertones.
  • Ebony – For a dramatic, nearly black stain.


Consider the amount of gloss you want:

  • High-gloss – Offers a smooth, shiny, reflective surface. Shows imperfections.
  • Satin – Subtle sheen, not completely matte or glossy. Most popular finish.
  • Matte – No shine and hides imperfections. Mutes the depth of the stain color.

Preparing Cabinets for Staining

Proper prep is 80% of a successful stain project. Your cabinets must be squeaky clean and properly sanded before applying stain. Here is the process for prepping cabinets:

1. Empty Cabinets and Remove Hardware

Clear out cabinet contents completely and uninstall all hardware like hinges and pulls. Drawers fronts can be removed to make staining the cabinet boxes easier.

2. Clean Surface with TSP

Mix TSP powder with warm water per label instructions. Scrub cabinets to remove all grease, wax, dirt and grime with the TSP solution and a heavy duty rag. Rinse clean with a damp rag.

3. Lightly Sand with 220 and 400 Grit Sandpaper

Use a sanding block and 220 grit paper to scuff sand the cabinets. This helps the stain penetrate. Follow with a fine 400 grit sanding to smooth the surface. Wipe clean with a tack cloth when finished.

4. Repair Damage and Fill Holes

Use stainable wood filler to patch any dents, gouges and nail holes. Allow to fully cure then sand smooth. Vacuum up all dust before staining.

5. Tape off Walls, Counters and Floors

Use painter’s tape and drop cloths to mask off any adjacent surfaces. This keeps them protected from drips and splatter.

Once prepped, your cabinets should be pristine and ready for staining.

Choosing a Stain Color for Your Cabinets

The options for wood stains are endless – from natural maple tones to rich walnut and ebony hues. Keep these tips in mind when selecting a color:

  • Test colored stains on an inconspicuous cabinet interior to preview the tone. Colors appear different on wood species.
  • For a darker look, use a base coat of wood conditioner or gel stain to even out the porosity before applying the main stain color.
  • Choose an undertone complementary to your cabinet wood type. Yellows look best on oak, red undertones suit cherry or mahogany, gray tones enhance maple.
  • Consider a stain tinted slightly lighter than your ideal shade. The color will appear darker after sealing with topcoat.
  • Custom mix stains to achieve the perfect hue. Add small amounts of darker stain to the base color.

Choose a color that coordinates with your kitchen’s decor and makes the wood grain shine!

How to Apply Stain to Wood Cabinets

Follow these steps for staining cabinets smoothly and evenly:

1. Stir Stain Thoroughly

Always stir stain from the bottom to ensure colorants are distributed evenly. Shake and stir stains occasionally during use.

2. Apply Stain with a Brush or Rag

Use a high-quality staining brush or lint-free cloth. Apply stain in direction of the wood grain.

3. Maintain a Wet Edge

Work in sections, maintaining a wet edge where new stain overlaps into areas that are still wet. This prevents lap marks.

4. Remove Excess Stain

After 2-3 minutes, use a clean rag to gently wipe off any excess stain before it dries. Remove more for a lighter look.

5. Reapply as Needed

If the color is lighter than desired, reapply additional coats of stain. Allow at least 2 hours drying time between coats.

6. Allow Stain to Dry Overnight

Let the stain dry for 8-12 hours. The longer dry time allows for maximum durability.

7. Apply Final Finish Coat

Once stain is dry, apply a finishing topcoat like polyurethane or lacquer for protection.

How to Stain Wood Cabinets Darker

To make wood cabinets a richer, darker color, there are a few simple techniques:

  • Choose an ebony or dark walnut stain color to start.
  • For significant darkening, apply a wood grain filler before staining. This fills in pores for solid color.
  • Use a gel stain which sits on the surface rather than penetrating for increased color intensity.
  • Apply an additional coat of stain if the first coat is not dark enough. Let the first coat dry completely first.
  • Consider using an espresso paint and primer in one for the darkest stained effect.

Tips for Staining Kitchen Cabinets

Staining kitchen cabinets requires some special considerations:

  • Work in a well-ventilated area due to strong stain fumes. Keep the room well aired out.
  • Remove cabinet doors, shelves, and hardware for easier access during staining.
  • Cover countertops, backsplashes, and floors with drop cloths to protect from drips.
  • Wear protective gloves and eyeglasses to avoid exposure during the staining process. Long sleeves help too.
  • Stain the cabinet frame and door fronts first. Then do the cabinet sides and door edges.
  • Use qtips or small brushes to carefully stain around detailed areas like grooves or trim.

How to Stain Bathroom Cabinets

Bathroom cabinets also require safe precautions when staining:

  • Make sure the room is properly ventilated to prevent inhaling fumes in a small space.
  • Remove cabinet contents, hardware, and doors to allow full access while staining.
  • Cover the countertop, mirror, floors, walls and tub/shower to protect all surfaces from drips.
  • Turn on the bathroom and kitchen fans, keep windows open, and wear a respirator mask to avoid inhaling stain odors.
  • Use a small angled brush to stain around plumbing, under sinks, and in tight corners.
  • Let stains dry for a full 48 hours due to bathroom humidity before adding finish coats.

What Mistakes to Avoid When Staining Cabinets

Staining cabinets takes patience and care to achieve flawless results. Avoid these common mistakes:

  • Neglecting proper sanding – Can cause blotchy stain absorption.
  • Choosing the wrong stain color – Test first on a small area to confirm desired tone.
  • Forgetting wood conditioner – Important for soft woods like pine to avoid blotchiness.
  • Applying stain unevenly – Maintain wet edge and overlap strokes to prevent lap marks.
  • Not wiping off excess stain – Can make the color too dark and uneven.
  • Staining in direct sunlight – Heat causes stain to dry too fast leading to uneven absorption.
  • Not practicing on an inconspicuous spot first – Confirm you like the color before committing to the whole surface.
  • Skipping sanding between coats – Creates better adhesion for additional stain layers.
  • Applying finish too soon – Stain needs 8-12 hours drying time before final topcoat.

How to Fix Stain Mistakes on Cabinets

If your stained cabinet finish has imperfections, there are solutions:

  • Light sand and re-stain small areas that are too light. Feather edges to blend new and old stain.
  • Use a wood stain marker to touch up small dark spots or uneven areas.
  • For large light patches or blotchiness, sand down the full surface and start stain over.
  • If stain color is too dark overall, use fine sandpaper or a liquid deglosser to lighten it. Then re-stain.
  • For dried drips or uneven sections, carefully scrape off excess, sand smooth, then use qtips to touch up.
  • If finish coat has drips or debris, wait until completely cured then lightly sand smooth before reapplying.

How to Maintain Stained Wood Cabinets

Regular cleaning and touch-ups keep stained cabinets looking like new:

  • Use microfiber cloths and mild cleaner to gently clean stained surfaces. Avoid abrasive cleaners.
  • Re-apply stain periodically to refresh color. Lightly sand first to open wood grain.
  • Address nicks and scratches right away. Sand smooth and touch up color with stains.
  • Wax with products like Howard Feed-N-Wax to nourish the finish and enhance water resistance.
  • Keep cabinets away from direct sunlight to prevent fading. Install UV window film if needed.
  • Avoid placing hot pans or cleaners directly on stained cabinet surfaces to prevent damage.
  • Every few years, sand cabinets lightly and apply a fresh coat of an oil based stain and finish topcoat.

How to Stain Wood Cabinets Step-by-Step

Follow this complete step-by-step guide for foolproof stained cabinets:

Supplies Needed

  • Stain of your choice
  • Paint brushes
  • Rags
  • Sandpaper
  • Wood conditioner (for soft woods)
  • Wood filler
  • Painters tape
  • Drop cloths
  • PPE (gloves, respirator, eye protection)

Prep Steps

  1. Remove all hardware and doors from cabinets and set aside in a safe area.
  2. Clean cabinet surfaces thoroughly with appropriate wood cleaner.
  3. Fill any holes or imperfections with wood filler; allow to dry fully.
  4. Sand cabinets lightly in the direction of the wood grain using 220 grit sandpaper.
  5. Vacuum cabinets well to remove all dust.
  6. If staining a soft wood like pine, apply a wood conditioner evenly and let dry per product directions.
  7. Use painter’s tape to mask off any adjacent surfaces.
  8. Lay down drop cloths in the work area to protect from drips and spills.
  9. Stir stain thoroughly before applying.

Staining Steps

  1. Working in 3×3 foot sections, use a clean staining pad or brush to apply a thick coat of stain with the grain.
  2. Allow stain to penetrate for 2-3 minutes. During this time, maintain a “wet edge” and continue staining into previous sections so there are no overlaps.
  3. Use a clean cotton rag to gently wipe off excess stain before it dries. Remove more for lighter color.
  4. Q-tips help remove excess from detailed corners and edges.
  5. If needed, apply additional coats following the same steps. Sand lightly between coats for adhesion.
  6. Allow stained cabinets to dry for at least 8-12 hours before final finish coat.

Finishing Steps

  1. Once stain is fully cured, apply 2-3 coats of a finishing topcoat like polyurethane, allowing proper drying time between coats.
  2. Avoid cleaning cabinets for at least 7 days while finish fully cures.
  3. Reinstall doors, shelves, and hardware.
  4. Maintain stained cabinets by regularly dusting with a microfiber cloth and gentle cleaner.

Staining wood cabinets enhances the natural wood grain to create a rich, warm look for your space. Follow these tips for custom stained cabinets done right. Let the stain fully cure before enjoying your updated cabinets!

Top Coat Options To Protect Stained Cabinets

The final step is applying a clear protective top coat over the stained cabinets. This seals the finish and helps it withstand wear and tear. Here are some options:


Oil or water-based poly provides the most durable protective coating for cabinets. Brush on at least 2-3 coats following label drying times. High gloss polyurethane provides the toughest finish.

Tung Oil

Tung oil is a natural finish made from pressed tree resin. Wipe multiple thin coats onto the wood for a low sheen, protective seal that enhances the natural look of the wood.

Danish Oil

This blend of oil and varnish provides a hand-rubbed look. After the stain dries, wipe on several coats of Danish oil allowing it to penetrate fully before wiping away excess.

Paste Wax

If you want only light protection with no gloss, try paste wax. After stained cabinets dry, apply wax in thin layers using 0000 steel wool to buff it into the finish.

Apply your desired top coat in a dust free area. Once fully cured, reinstall cabinet doors, hardware, and contents to finally reveal your refreshed, stained wood kitchen cabinets.

Frequently Asked Questions About Staining Wood Cabinets

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about staining wood cabinets:

Do I have to remove cabinet doors to stain them?

Yes, removing cabinet doors makes the staining process easier. It allows you to fully access all the cabinet frame surfaces and removes the risk of getting drips on the cabinet interiors. Lay doors flat on sawhorses to stain.

What is the best way to stain around cabinet hardware?

Use painters tape to mask off around any installed hardware, like hinges or pulls. Or, remove all hardware prior to staining for easiest results. Reinstall hardware after the stain has fully cured.

How long does it take for stain to dry before I can apply polyurethane?

Most stains require 8-12 hours drying time before a topcoat can be applied. Oil-based stains may take up to 24 hours to cure. Always check the product directions. Proper drying prevents issues with the final finish.

What are the benefits of gel stain?

Gel stains offer thicker consistency than liquid stains, so they adhere well to vertical surfaces like cabinets. The color also stays dark on the surface rather than absorbing into the wood, allowing for very deep color tones.

Can I use paint instead of wood stain on cabinets?

Yes, cabinet paint is an option for an opaque look instead of enhancing the wood grain. Use a cabinet-specific paint formulated for hardiness. Follow with a clear polyurethane for protection.

How do I thin wood stain if it is too thick?

To thin water-based stain, use distilled water, 1 tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached. For oil-based, use mineral spirits sparingly. Thin carefully because thinning too much weakens the stain’s coloring power.

How long does stained kitchen cabinets last?

With proper prep, application, and maintenance stained wood cabinets can last upwards of 15-20 years before needing refreshed. Usage, sunlight exposure, and chemicals can impact stained finish longevity.


Staining can give faded, dated wood cabinets an updated look while accentuating the wood’s natural characteristics. With the right materials and techniques, you can achieve professional stained cabinet results. Proper preparation and application are key to avoiding common pitfalls. Invest the necessary time and care into the process for cabinets that look stunning. Rejuvenate your space with the warmth and beauty of stained wood cabinets.