A Cabinet Situation

If you are reading this, you probably have a “Cabinet Situation”. Either you just bought your first home (congratulations!) and it needs to be brought into the 21st century or you have been in your home for some time and might be experiencing some of the following:

  • Dated stain colors such as “Honey Oak” (sorry Hooter’s). Check!
  • Scratches and dents. Check!
  • A yellowed surface caused by an old oil based varnish. Check!
  • Ugly laminate such as Golden Girl pink, mint and oh no, mauve! Fake paneling from the 70’s.
  • Or just plain bored and looking for a new look. Perfectly acceptable around here!

Honey Oak cabinets, beige walls and ceiling, dated floor laminate, surgical light fixture. This is my original kitchen…Long way to go!

Level of Difficulty: 3

Refinishing cabinets is not hard, but it is time-consuming. Most importantly, you also need a surface that will take stain or paint. In other words, you need solid wood, wood veneer (in good shape) or good particle wood.

Oh oh, your cabinets are neither of? Don’t panic. I’m here to help. Scroll down to see some suggestions!

Time: One to two weekend project. It will all depend on how big your cabinetry is, the amount of sanding, the scale of repairs and the type of stain you want to achieve.

Find out your material before you start. I have wood, hence this tutorial applies to real wood. Wood veneer (real, thin pieces of wood on top of a lesser quality material) has a similar process. Please see notes below. Particle wood is treated differently and it requires a different post.

* When I completed this project, Paloma on the Hill was not conceived. All the pictures I have of this project and several others, I took to share our progress  (and adventures) with family and friends. Hence, I do not have a lot of images about the staining process or sanding. I also lost all of my phone pictures and all that remained from this project and others is from our little pocket camera.


  • Electric sander or sanding block
  • Lots of sand paper. Minimum of two different grits. I used 80 (extra coarse) and 220.
  • Denatured alcohol
  • Rags – preferably with no lint
  • Stain. I used Varathane, Ebony. The regular kind that builds the color up.
  • Topcoat such as polyurethane, varnish or shellac.
  • Proper applicators for both products (stain and topcoat)
  • Stainable wood filler
  • Spatula
  • Hand tools to remove cabinets, knobs etc., such as screwdrivers and such
  • A mask, breathing wood particles and chemicals is a big no-no
  • Eye protection
  • A well ventilated area and brown paper to protect your working surface

Lets get to work!

Part A: Prep work

  1. I am assuming you realize you have to bring your cabinets down and take the hinges out and that this includes the top and bottom of the cabinetry…. You may be able to sand the bottom part in the kitchen ( but be prepared for saw dust EVERYWHERE). Do not forget to prepare a work area with tables and some kind of cover (brown paper, old plastic bathroom curtains, tarp) . Try to anticipate needs. Including what will you eat..You know, because you will not have a kitchen…

2. Inspect the doors, sides and cabinetry. See how all the elements fit together as you may have to pull some parts apart. Look for scratches or dings that will need to be filled. This is a good time to repair the canals and anything that is loose.


Discolored wood, yellowed topcoat, dings, scratched and gunk. Yep, needs work!

3. Clean the surfaces. Remove any oil, green sauce from your vegan experiment, dust, etc. Actually, you have to clean the whole thing. Nope, no cleaning oils here, remember, we want a squeaky clean surface. A tiny bit of water and soap with a rag is ok. Do not soak the wood in water. Small annoying water bubbles may surface as you stain, even when dry.

It is actually best to wipe everything with a mineral spirits such a denatured alcohol. Do not pour directly on the wood but apply the spirit to the rag and the wipe. It will dry very quickly. Always test it in a hidden section. Regardless of what you end up using, make sure the wood is completely dry before you sand. And, no, you cannot drink this stuff!

4. Ready to fix cracks and sand my friend. But wait, if you have never, ever used a sander before read my earlier post about sanding.

5. I suggest you do the following. Sand, fix & fill any dents or deep scratches, sand again and then sand some more.

6. Repairing scratches and dings is not difficult. Use a quality stainable wood filler and fill the area you want to cover. Cover completely and allow to dry. After it has dried, sand it until it is perfectly aligned with the wood surface. Any imperfections or bumps will be even more visible when color / stain is applied. Sand perfectly.


Apply the wood filler with a spatula. Also, do not forget to wear gloves. This image is from the Golden Chair project, but it is the same technique.

7.  If you are happy with sanding and all the needed repairs you are ready to stain. But, before we continue, are you really sure you removed all of the old stain? Remember, failing to do so will prevent the new stain from absorbing properly. Little secret, inspect your cabinets and doors from an angle. The surface should be even, if you can still see a clear coat or darker spots (not a natural vein) you have to go back. Trust me, it beats having to re-stain in a year because the stain did not stick!

Pre-Staining trick. Soak a rag in denatured alcohol and remove all remaining dust. It cleans the surface and helps the wood achieve a nicer finish. Skip this step and risk dust trapped in the stain. You have been advised!


Of all the cabinets I sanded, which were most of them…I only have the picture where my husband is sanding. :/ Oh well, team work!

* Observe the following:

  • The part been sanded is the bottom part and it not solid wood. We were able to stain it, but I do not think it would stand to heavy use if it were a door.
  • Some areas look dull and other still have some sheen. Please make sure, there is 0 sheen / top coat left.

Part B: Stain

1. Deep breath and here we go! Dip a bit of your brush, lambskin or lint free rag into the stain. We are using a bit of stain at a time. When you become an expert, then you can start spilling stain on the surface. Until then, less is more.


This image is from another project but it shows how little you dip the brush/rag.

2. Start on a side and follow the grain of the wood. Work quickly and do not over-saturate. I cannot stress this enough, the wood only takes so much stain at a time. Be on the lookout for spotting and correct as soon as possible.


Follow the direction of the grain. Also, we had not planned in including this small piece of cabinetry but decided to later on. All the cabinets were stained with the regular stain that builds up the color. This one in particular is the kind that achieves a saturated color 3x faster.

3. As you stain try not to go over what is already covered. Stain starts to set fast (although it takes a while to dry). Once you are done with the first layer, leave it alone! The product label will specify the drying times.

4. Once the time is up, if it looks dry, proceed. If not, let it sit for a bit longer. Even if it’s still a bit wet, you can create mark the stain. Be patient. Also, weather conditions do have an effect on how low the stain will dry.


These guys are dry and ready. Topcoat should follow.

5. Repeat the steps above until a desired level of coverage is achieved. Our cabinets took 4 layers of Ebony stain.

Part C: Apply a protective topcoat. You will thank me for this!

Protect your work after the last layer of stain has dried! I applied three coats of water based Varathane polyurethane in a semi gloss finish and waited an hour in between coats. Make sure you have plenty of time to finish all required coats. Otherwise, you have to wait 24 hours or more to apply additional coats.

Because I had so many projects at the same time, it took me about a year to finally apply the clear coat. I do not recommend as the stain will get scratch and so on. You should do it right away.

Applying a top coat is very similar to applying a stain. Here is how I do it:

1. Stir the can and dip the tip of your brush. As with stain, try to follow the grain of the wood. Apply small amount at time.

dscn09122. The liquid is going to look a tad milky and that is ok. Once it dries, the color or stain beneath will be there. Did you see how I said a tad milky and not white? If it looks white or worst, a puddle of white has formed, you have applied to much. If it is still wet you can wipe it down with a lint free clean rag ( not a napkin please), otherwise wait for it to dry, sand and reapply.

3. Depending on the top coat you choose, you might have to do a soft sand in between layers. At the very least, you should at least apply two coats of poly, I prefer three. Again, read you product specifications.

And that is it, you are done! I bet you it wasn’t as hard as you though it was! I also painted the cabinets interior bright white and added a cute matt to protect the bottom of the cabinets…and because its cute. I kept the knobs I had because I liked them. Knobs can make a huge difference so choose accordingly. I you do not have the budget to get new ones, spray paint them! This is not a permanent solution but will get you by for a while.


That girl over there is Genoveva (Genevieve). In case you didn’t know, I grew up on a dairy farm. I never thought I was going to have a cow in my kitchen! she makes me smile!

Love it! Yes, I still have the ugly laminate countertop, could use a backsplash, get a better light fixture and so forth. But for now, compared to what is was, it’s an amazing transformation. Go ahead, scroll up!

Not bad for $150 right? Not including the appliances…The whooping $150 includes:

  • Stain, topcoat and applicators
  • Sanding machine and papers
  • The gray paint
  • Genoveva not included

Subscribe below to keep up with all the changes! Still ahead:

  • A new light fixture, because this one sucks
  • Backslash
  • Countertop

Tips for success when applying stains

  • Get some pieces of wood and practice to get an idea of how stain works.
  • Work quickly
  • Soaking the wood will not make the wood absorb more stain. The wood absorbs what it absorbs.
  • Apply stain and wipe
  • Follow the direction of the wood
  • Be patient and wait for each layer to dry before the next application. Applying more stain when is still damp will make a nice gooey mess! Think nail polish.
  • Wear quality gloves…or face yucky nails for a week.
  • Make sure you are following the manufacturers instructions. Always!
  • It matters how cold or humid the weather is!
  • Oh, don’t forget to shake the cans. Stain pigments will separate just like paint. So shake that can!
  • Use the correct applicator. Each manufacturer has different specifications.

Tips for success when applying topcoats

  • The brand you choose will tell you the brush or best application method. Pay attention to this because that will affect your end result.
  • Also, it is very important that you barely dip the brush. You should be applying very thin coats at a time.
  • A heavy coat does not equal three thin proper coats. I know what you are thinking!
  • Pay attention to the drying time in between coats.
  • Some products ask you to lightly sand between coats. Do a test run on an inconspicuous spot.
  • Do not shake the can! We are avoiding bubbles. Shaking = bubbles. Stir instead with a disposable utensil or clean piece of wood. Stir often. Shaking is for stains.
  • It does not matter which brand you use, but make sure you read the instructions carefully. Especially what it says about temperature and humidity levels. Please consider this for better results.
  • Do not rush this process. Remember, although this is a clear material the difference between a rushed application and a careful one is clearly visible. If you do not have enough time, wait until the next day. Applying the protective coat is as important and time-consuming as the stain.


Tips for choosing a stain

  • With regular stains you build the color and coverage up. What this means is that the wood will get darker as you apply layers. Remember that stains penetrate into the wood fiber unlike regular paint, which just “sits” on the wood. Use this kind of stain if you want a little color, medium coverage or to the point where you have more saturation but still want to see the wood grain. This is what I used on my kitchen cabinets, night stands and the back yard table top.
  • Use “one or faster applications stains” when you want to achieve full saturation. Use this type if you know you want a deeper coverage. The product label will say something such as “3x faster application”. This is the kind I used on the guest bathroom cabinet, kind size bed, planters and backyard table base projects.
  • Note on color stains: Not all “One Applications / 3x Faster” stains colors will achieve complete coverage such as Ebony. Please run a test to see if the stain you have selected works for you. Stain is not paint. For the most part, unless it is Ebony, the point of stain is to still see the wood grain.
  • Buyer beware. It is very easy to remove a light stain and go darker later. However, it is very difficult to remove a dark stain, such as ebony and then expect to successfully remove all the dark tint to achieve a much lighter wood shade. Okie docki?

Tips for choosing a stain color: 

  • Different wood types absorb at different rates and have different color / tone results. Stores usually have little pieces of stained wood to show the different results. If they do not have it posted on the shelves / walls, ask for a swatch card.

Choosing a top coat finish:

  • Water based is better. Oil based clear coats yellow over time.
  • See what the stain manufacturer recommends.
  • Polyurethane is either oil or water based. The oil option will add a tad of warm color while the water based will not. If you are using a yellow / amber stain such as honey oak, then an oil based top coat will not be a problem. For everything else, stick to a water base.
  • Shellac – The good part is that it is natural. The bad part is that it yellows over time, can get marked by hot items such as a warm pan or mug. Best suited for traditional furniture that will be minimally used.
  • Lacquer – It looks really fab! Use this if you want a super shine finish. Not a good option for traditional looks unless, for example, you are using paint instead of stain. Asian furniture is usually very glossy and will benefit from Shellac. This finish is applied as a spray. Can get damaged over time.
  • Varnish – Usually used for wood projects that have to tolerate UV rays and water.
  • Water based polycrylic is a great option for the kitchen as it does better with heat.

Topcoat finish types:

  • Gloss – Use for a glass like finish. I only use and recommend this kind for color painted furniture. It can look really tacky over grain wood. Unless, you have Asian furniture.
  • Semi Gloss – When you want some sheen, but not over the top. My cabinets were finished with this kind as I wanted some drama in my kitchen.
  • Satin – In my opinion this is better suited for wood. Very little shine.
  • For the most part you can buy some of these in a can or as a spay. I do not favor the spray as the nozzle can drip or spray bubbles. Been there done that.

Mid Century Modern Laminate.

Procedure for Wood Veneer Cabinets

  • You can follow the same procedure for wood cabinet described above with the following exceptions:
  • Light sand or hand sand as wood veneer is very thin and delicate, especially if it is vintage. I would not use an electrical sanding machine…I would patiently use a hand sander.
  • Damages to the veneer, such as dents and small missing pieces can be fixed with stainable wood filler. If your wood veneer has a lot of damage you might have to have new veneers installed or just go for a rustic look.
  • Filling (with wood filler) and staining wide gaps between veneers might look odd because the materials absorb product differently. You might want to mix wood dust with the wood filler for a more discrete fix.

Painting over laminate:

  • You might be tempted to paint over the laminate, but I am very sorry my friend. It will not stay and will probably not even dry. Laminate is not a natural surface. You can paint it, but you have to go through some prep work.
  • Before I give you ideas, promise me you will first try it on a small surface or in an area that is not visible. At the very least, try it on one door and see what the end-result is. Please.
  • Finished materials, of any kind, usually have a protective film or layer. Try removing some of this layer via a quick sand before attempting to paint. Paint needs to adhere, by sanding you are allowing the paint to do so.
  • Paint, not stain. Stains are for materials that are capable of absorbing pigments such as wood, laminate will not absorb. Paint covers. Laminate would have to be painted.
  • I would spray paint. And apply a topcoat.
  • This is how I would go about it. There is no guarantee this will work in your laminate cabinets.

Kicking the Laminate out!

  • You may be able to remove the laminate with a spatula. Before you do so, see if you can determine what material is underneath the laminate. Hint, look at the sides or the back.
  • With a spatula, try to lift the laminate up without removing the cabinet material ( body) from the door. Do this patiently. If a little bit comes off you can always use some wood filler (more here) and can paint over them.
  • Behind the laminate you probably have pine (good news), manufactured or particle wood (not so great).
  • I have painted particle wood with success. Now, it is not high-end look, but it will work, as long as you sand a bit and use quality paint. Stain is not an option here.

This is a particle wood nightstand. It was lightly sanded and painted with quality paint. I will do a post about this $5 find later.

  • Remember, particle and manufactured woods are basically pieces of wood, either tiny bit or pieces, compressed together with glue. Because of this composition it would take a tremendous amount of stain to look somewhat good. Also, there is the glue part.

Another option for ugly cabinets is to wrap them in paper. In my opinion,, this is the best solution if you are unable to remove the laminate or pulling the cabinetry from the wall. There is beautiful wall paper out there, lots to choose from. Who knows, you might fall in love with your funky cabinets!

And if this is still not an option from you, worst case scenario, you can have a professional re-finish you cabinets doors and sides. Not what you wanted to hear, I know, but it still beats a remodel budget!

Have a better idea? Please share so that we can learn! Don’t forget to subscribe below and share with a friend!

3 thoughts on “A Cabinet Situation

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