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, beige walls and ceiling, dated laminate, surgical light fixture. Long way to go!


Refinishing cabinets is really not difficult, 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


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 lots of 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!


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.


This guys are ready and dry. We painted the interior Ultra white prior to applyig the topcoat.

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. Because I fail to do so, before applying the topcoat, I had to repeat the entire process on a drawer.

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.


2. 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 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.

Don’t forget about the hinges. I spray painted mine, of course, after a good clean up.


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. But 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, its an amazing transformation. Go ahead, scroll up and compare!

On in all, for a $150 is not bad right? Not including the appliances of course! This amount included the stains and topcoat, applicators, sanding machine, sand paper and gray paint.

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

  • Light Fixture
  • Backsplash
  • Countertop

Read more about stains and protective finishes!


You can follow the same procedure for wood cabinet described above with the following exeptions:

  • 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.



Mid Century Modern Laminate Table

  • 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. Lamite is not a natural surface. You can paint it, but you have to go through some prepwork.
  • 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.
    Behing the laminate you probably have pine (good news), manufactured or particle wood (not so great).
  • I have painted particle wood with sucess. 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, compreesed toguether 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 best solution if you are unable to remove the laminate or pull 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! And don’t forget to subscribe below and share with a friend!