Kitchen Cabinet Stains That Will Make Yours Look Professionally Done

Is your kitchen looking a little tired and outdated? Are your cabinets starting to show signs of wear with scrapes, stains, and faded paint? Instead of going through the expense of replacing them, transforming your cabinets with stain can give them new life. Staining cabinets allows you to change the color tone while still showing off the natural wood grain that gives them so much character. With the right prep work, staining technique, and top coat, you can make your cabinets look like you had them professionally done.

In this staining guide, we’ll walk through everything you need to know to make over your cabinets with stain. From proper cleaning and sanding, to choosing colors and types of stain, and techniques for application, we’ll cover all the steps for you. The end result will be rich, warm stained cabinets that look like new. Read on to learn how to add tons of style to your kitchen while avoiding the mess and expense of a full renovation.

Prep Work – Cleaning and Sanding Cabinets

Before you can start staining, it’s crucial to properly prepare your cabinets. Any grease, dirt, or existing finishes need to be removed for the new stain to properly adhere. Here are the supplies you’ll need and steps to follow.

Supplies Needed

  • TSP cleaner and rags
  • Sandpaper – 80, 100, and 220 grit recommended
  • Tack cloth
  • Drop cloths

Cleaning Wood Cabinets

The first step in prepping your cabinets for stain is thoroughly cleaning them to remove any grime or grease buildup. Mix up a solution of TSP (trisodium phosphate) and warm water according to the package directions. Use a rag to scrub down all surfaces of your cabinets and drawers. Pay extra attention to greasy areas around knobs and handles. After scrubbing, wipe all areas with a clean damp rag to remove any TSP residue. Allow the cabinets to fully dry before moving onto sanding.

Sanding Cabinets

Sanding before staining is a crucial step for two reasons. First, it removes any existing coatings or stains so the new stain can properly penetrate the bare wood. Second, sanding smooths the surface and opens the pores of the wood for better stain absorption. Use 80 grit paper to remove existing finishes, then 100 and 220 grit to smooth everything out.

stains for kitchen cabinets

For the best results, sand by hand in the direction of the wood grain. Use an orbital sander for flat surfaces. Always start with the coarser 80 grit paper, then work up to the finer 100 and 220 grits in succession. Be sure to sand all surfaces – fronts, sides, drawers, and doors. Wipe sanding residue away with a tack cloth before moving onto staining.

Choosing a Stain Color and Type

Once your cabinets are prepped, it’s time to pick out a stain. The color and type of stain will affect the final look, so put some thought into this decision.

Color Considerations

The stain color deeply impacts the end result. Darker stains make the wood grain less visible while lighter stains let the grain show through. Keep this in mind depending on if you want the character of the wood to stand out. We recommend starting with a stain swatch test on a small spot first. This gives you a preview so there’s no surprises with the final color.

Types of Stains

There are several varieties of stains, each with their own characteristics.

  • Penetrating stains soak deep into the wood for vibrant color that won’t fade over time.
  • Gel stains are thick for maximum color control and consistency across the wood grain.
  • Oil-based stains are ideal for softer woods like pine that absorb stain quickly.
  • Water-based stains offer easier clean-up than oil-based options.
  • Conditioning stains provide extra help preventing blotchy results on porous woods like oak and ash.

Consider the type of wood your cabinets are made of, along with your desired finish, before deciding on a stain variety. Many pros recommend oil-based gel stains as they provide vibrant color with a smooth application that’s easy to control.

Staining Kitchen Cabinets

Now comes the fun part – actually staining your cabinets for a rich, uniform finish. We’ll cover common application techniques and provide a step-by-step staining guide.

Application Methods

There are a few options when it comes to applying cabinet stain:

  • Wiping – Applying stain with a rag or cloth is great for controlling color depth.
  • Brushing – For staining inside cabinet frames and doors, use a high-quality brush.
  • Spraying – An HVLP spray system provides the most efficient coverage on flat surfaces.

Many DIYers find that a combination of wiping, brushing, and spraying works well to ensure all surfaces are evenly coated.

Staining Step-by-Step

Follow these steps closely for flawless stain application:

  1. Stir your stain until color is uniform and smooth.
  2. Apply a generous amount of stain using your cloth or brush. Spread in direction of wood grain.
  3. Let stain sit for 5-10 minutes so it can fully penetrate and absorb.
  4. Wipe off all excess stain using a clean rag. Go with the wood grain direction.
  5. Allow stain to dry overnight before evaluating color or applying another coat.

When spraying stain, overlap passes while keeping about 8 inches between the surface and spray nozzle. Use vertical strokes while avoiding holding the sprayer in one place too long. Back-brush after spraying to even out the finish.

Drying and Second Coats

Give your stained cabinets at least 8 to 12 hours drying time before adding any additional coats. Lightly sand with 220 grit paper to improve adhesion between coats. For a deeper color, apply up to 3 coats following the same application process.

Protecting Stain with Top Coats

The final step is applying a protective clear top coat over the stained cabinets. This locks in the color and provides a uniform sheen.

Top Coat Options

Polyurethane is the most popular top coat to use over wood stains, including on cabinets. Both oil-based and water-based polyurethane provide durable protection. Oil-based poly has better moisture resistance while water-based poly offers faster drying time. Other options like varnish, lacquer, or shellac work as well but polyurethane is generally recommended.

Applying Top Coats

Applying polyurethane or other top coats takes patience – thin coats and proper drying times are key. Be sure your stain has cured fully before adding the first top coat. Use a high-quality natural bristle brush, applying in the direction of the wood grain. Allow at least 8 to 10 hours between coats. Lightly sand with 220 grit sandpaper before adding the final 2 coats for best results.

Caring for Stained Cabinets

Put effort into caring for your stained cabinets and they’ll maintain their beautiful, rich finish for years. Use mild soap and water for regular cleaning – avoid abrasive cleaners. For minor scratches or marks, rub a stain marker over the spot to camouflage. If the cabinets ever need freshening up, lightly sand and apply a maintenance coat of stain. With proper care, you’ll love your stained kitchen cabinets for a long time.

As you can see, transforming your outdated cabinets with wood stain is much easier than you may think. Follow our guide to prepare, stain, and seal the cabinets properly. In just a weekend, you can stylishly revamp your kitchen while avoiding the huge expense and mess of replacing cabinets. Your newly stained cabinets will look store-bought with the added character only real wood can provide.

If undertaking the entire kitchen still seems too daunting, consider staining just the cabinet doors for a quick update. Or you may want to consult a professional if you don’t feel up to handling the project yourself. Either way, refinished stained cabinets can make you love your kitchen again.

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