How To Stain Kitchen Cabinets

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Staining cabinets is a great way to give your kitchen cabinetry that deep hue aesthetic that makes it look much more impressive and expensive. If you want to turn that oak cabinet into cherry cabinets with a cherry wood finish, staining allows you to do it!

Kitchen cabinet staining is also very cheap and effective, making it a very popular way for homeowners to remodel their kitchen or get some pricey-looking kitchen cabinets on a budget. If you use the right color stain and equipment, it's easy to do it at home. On the other hand, if you wish to remove stubborn stains from wooden surfaces, you can read more about how to remove dark stains from wood here.

Why pay a pro if you can do it yourself?

Whether you're staining unfinished cabinets, coloring formerly-stained cabinet doors, or you just want to enhance the natural color of the wood, staining cabinets is an easy DIY project that turns boring cabinet boxes into vibrant focal points of your kitchen.

So, how do you stain kitchen cabinets?

Things You'll Need For This Project

Some of these things are optional or can be swapped out for everyday items you find in your work area or at the local hardware store.

There are multiple ways to stain cabinets, but this is what you need in most cases:

  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Sanding pad (or electric wood sander)
  • Tack cloth
  • Drip cloth (or newspaper)
  • Wood scraps
  • Foam brush
  • 220-grit sandpaper (120-grit sandpaper optional)
  • White cotton rags or old t-shirts
  • Protective gloves
  • Pre-Stain wood conditioner
  • Painter's tape
  • Wood Stain
  • Wipe-on Polyurethane Top Coat

Everything on this list is pretty easy to find, but make sure you don't cheap out on the stains and top coats – you need to buy high-quality finishes if you want high-quality results.

How To Stain Wood Cabinets Yourself – 6 Steps

When it comes to DIY projects, this is one of the simplest projects with minimal prep work and some pretty fool-proof instructions.

Nonetheless, if you're not familiar with cabinetry and a woodworking project seems intimidating, consider getting help from an experienced friend or family member.

1. Prepare your cabinet surfaces

First things first, you need to do some basic prep work.

Unscrew the hinges and the fittings of the wood cabinets, using a system to make sure you know which cabinet door handle or hinge screw goes where. Some people use ziplock bags to separate their hardware, others use post-it notes to help them organize the cabinet door fittings.

If you see an adjustment screw that is used to adjust the height of cabinet shelves and doors, don't remove it – leave it be.

Once your wood cabinets are disassembled correctly, protect your home and work area with appropriate coverings. Drop cloths work great, but layers of an old newspaper can also be a cost-effective way to protect your home from dust and stains. 

Find an area of your home that is suitable and well-ventilated – it's better to be safe than sorry!

2. Sand the surfaces with 220-grit sandpaper

It's not always necessary to sand your wood cabinets before staining, but it's generally a good idea. Sanding helps to clean the surface of the wood and make it slightly porous, helping stain color to sit in the wood grain more effectively. Read more on how to restain cabinets without sanding.

Using a sanding block and 220-grit sandpaper, sand the wood cabinets in the direction of the grain, helping to create a nice uniform appearance all around. Follow the direction of the grain for all the cabinets, going back over certain spots if necessary.

For this step, some people prefer to use 120-grit sandpaper for their first sanding and then go back over the wood with 220-grit sandpaper to really make the wood look perfect.

It's down to you.

Although we recommend using a manual sanding block for this step, plenty of homeowners will use an electric sander for this project, and that's 100% fine if you know what you're doing. Just make sure that the finish of the sanding is perfect, whichever way you do it.

sand the countertop using sandpaper

Image credit: Kitchen Infinity Photo

3. Vacuum away sawdust & prepare for staining

After sanding, you're going to have a lot of stray sawdust from the wood. Use a “shop vacuum” to vacuum up any dust, and then use a tack cloth to get up the remaining dust without disturbing the cabinets too much.

If you're not familiar, a tack cloth is a special “sticky” cloth you can get from a hardware store – they're designed to pick up stray wood dust without damaging or scratching the surface of the wood you're working on.

You need to treat your cabinets with care!

Next, use some wood scraps of a similar size to prop the cabinet door up so it's not touching the drop cloth directly. This allows you to paint the top and the sides of the cabinet door easily. You could also use other objects such as large stones or unwanted small items of a similar size.

vaccum the surface of countertop
Image credit: Kitchen Infinity Photo

4. Apply wood conditioner with your cotton rags

Okay, now you need to cut your white cotton rags into 6-inch squares, or roughly around that size. If you've got an old white t-shirt, then cut that into 6-inch squares also. As long as you've got a small square of white cotton in your hand, then you're good to go.

Apply pre-stain wood conditioner to the rags, saturating them well. Most people ball up the rags to make the application easier.

Wipe down the cabinets with the conditioner, making sure you get it into all of the wood areas that will be stained. You don't have to be super-neat with the application, but make sure there is plenty of it and it is liberally applied.

Leave the conditioner for about 15-20 minutes (check the bottle for directions) and then wipe away any excess with a clean cotton rag. One coat will usually be enough, but feel free to apply a second coat if you think the wood needs more primer.

5. Apply wood stain in multiple coats

Using a foam brush, apply your wood stain color to the kitchen cabinets. Use painter's tape to mask off any areas of the wood that you don't want to get stained – there's no going back if you get stain color on an unwanted part of the cabinetry!

Apply the stain in the direction of the grain where possible, but you probably won't be able to tell as stains (especially oil-based stains) don't really leave brushstrokes behind. This is why it's so great for a DIY project like this.

Once the stain is applied, let it sit for around 5 minutes and then wipe away the excess stain using a cotton rag. You can leave the stain for longer than 5 minutes if you want, but the longer you leave it on, the darker the wood will get.

Be careful!

Generally speaking, it's a good idea to apply a few coats of stain and then see whether the wood color is dark enough after 5 minutes for each coat.  This way, you can slowly darken the wood without going overboard and making the cabinets darker than you intended.

When your cabinets reach the right shade of color, remove the excess stain using a cotton rag and allow the wood to dry for 4-5 hours on average. Once the wood is dry, flip it over so you can stain the other side easily.

6. Use polyurethane for the perfect stain finish

Finally, it's time to use a finish to complete the look.

Take one of your white cotton rags and soak it in a wipe-on polyurethane finish product. Wipe the finish directly onto the stained surface, getting into all the little nooks and crannies of the wood design so the whole piece is completely saturated.

After finishing, lightly sand the wood with 220-grit sandpaper. Repeat this process around 3-4 times until the wood looks how you want it to. However, after applying the final coat, leave the wood as it is.

This is how you get the best result.

When you're done applying coats of finish, make sure that you allow the wood to dry according to the directions on the bottle. Some finishes dry more quickly than others, so it's important to know what type of finish you're working with (oil-based, water-based, etc.)

What is the Best Stain to Use On Kitchen Cabinets?

There are so many different stains and finishes you can use on your wooden cabinets, but how are they all different and what do they mean? Which stain should you buy for your cabinets?

Here we explain the basic difference between different stains you can use for this woodworking project.

Oil-based Stain

Oil-based stain is the most widely available stain product you're going to find. Very popular with DIY homeowners, oil stain is normally based in linseed oil.

This type of wood stain is easy to remove, which makes it perfect for a DIY project where you're not familiar with the overall process and mistakes can easily happen.


Oil-based stain should only be used with an oil-based finish, otherwise the 2 bases of the stain and finish can mix in unexpected ways that will ruin the facade of the cabinets.

Varnish Stain

Varnish stain dries hard, making it difficult to use if you're not a total pro at home DIY work.

This type of stain will show brush strokes and subtle markings if you don't apply it properly, so it's normally best left to a professional.

Varnish stain is very hard to remove once it's on the wood, so make sure you choose a color and finish that you really like!

Water-based Stain

Water-based stain is best used to stain cabinets that are also treated with a water-based polyurethane finish. As you probably know, oil and water don't mix well, so always match your stain type to your finish type.

As you'd expect, these stains dry fast, so they're best used by experienced people who know how to go about dealing with fast-drying stains.

The water evaporates away quickly!

You can get water-based products that use special slow evaporating solvents to lengthen the drying time, but you're best sticking to oil-based if you're new to this.

Gel Stain

When it comes to wood finishes, gel stain isn't the most popular product for sure.

However, if you're working with woods like pine that are prone to blotching and areas of discoloration where the color doesn't absorb into the wood properly, then gel stains are a brilliant tool to help.

The consistency of gel stain means that it sinks into the wood nice and evenly – this could make gel stains a good option for homeowners with limited DIY project experience.

Lacquer Stain

One of the least popular options, lacquer is VERY fast drying.

In fact, it's usually used by professionals in teams of 2 – one applies the lacquer while another goes behind them wiping the lacquer away very quickly.

As well as being very fast-drying, lacquer also has a very strong smell that requires lots of airflow and ventilation to disperse.

In most scenarios, you shouldn't mess with lacquer stains unless you're a pro or you're very experienced in DIY and you have a second person who can help you with the process.

How Long Does the Staining Process Take?

From start to finish, staining cabinet doors and frames will take around 15-18 hours including the preparation work, the process, and the drying time.

Generally speaking, you should allow for at least 24 hours in total. Remember that for cabinet doors, you need to allow one side to dry for 4-5 hours before flipping it over and staining the other side of the door.

Depending on your situation, it could take 1-2 days to fully prep, stain, and dry your kitchen cabinets.

Can You Stain Cabinets Without Sanding?

You can indeed stain cabinets without sanding them first, though the cabinetry needs to be in very good condition. If there are nicks, scratches, or dents in the wood, then staining them without sanding is a very bad idea.

If you're using gel-based stains, you might be able to avoid the sanding step here too. This is because gel-based stain color tends to soak into the wood very effectively despite different densities in the wood, so it's easier to make it look good with a prior sand.

Stained kitchen cabinets

Can You Stain Over Already Stained Wood?

Yes, you can stain over wooden pieces that are already stained.

Ideally, you should sand the stained wood surfaces first, treating them as though they're a raw piece of unfinished cabinetry.

Mixing two stain colors together (old and new) can actually be a great way to create an interesting unique color that creates a cool look for your project.

Is it Better to Stain Or Paint Cabinets?

Generally speaking, it's better to stain cabinets than it is to paint them.

This is because stained cabinets won't generally show scuffs, dents, and scratches once they've been bumped around in your kitchen for a few years.

On the other hand, painted cabinets can easily get scuffed and damaged over time, with paint chipping off to reveal the wood color underneath.

As well as being more durable than painted cabinets, stained cabinets are also much easier to create for beginners as a DIY project – you can make them look professional without needing a ton of experience or skill.

What Is the Most Durable Finish For Kitchen Cabinets?

Okay, so we've mentioned polyurethane topcoat finishes, but which one should you use?

There are many different finishes on the market depending on the effect you're going for and how much you're used to working with wood.

Here's the basic difference between the types:

Wipe-on Polyurethane

This topcoat is thinned with mineral spirits, so it tends to have a much runnier consistency than other topcoats in its class.

Usually, you'll want 3-4 coats of wipe-on polyurethane, wiping the product onto the cabinets with a cloth or cotton rag as the name suggests.

Wipe-on polyurethane is great for beginners because there are no obvious brush strokes or drips when applying the product, so you can do it pretty messily and no one will probably be able to tell.

Brush-on Polyurethane

As the name suggests, brush-on polyurethane requires a brush to apply it to cabinets, making it more difficult for beginners.

If you apply this type of topcoat poorly, you will be able to see stray brush strokes and drips much more easily.

As such, it's best left to experienced painters and DIY enthusiasts.

However, only 2 coats of brush-on polyurethane are required for your cabinets, so this overall process can be much quicker if you're skilled enough to apply this topcoat properly.

Satin vs Glossy Finish

You can get polyurethane topcoats in both Satin and Glossy finishes, depending on the look you're going for.

Satin-finished cabinets will have a more subdued and subtle shine to them, while glossy-finished cabinets will be much shinier and more noticeable in the room.

Depending on the room you're working with, your cabinets doors could suit either satin or glossy polyurethane. Ask an interior designer if you're not sure which one to go with for the aesthetic.

The Bottom Line – Is It Hard to Stain Cabinets?

It's not hard to stain cabinets if you know what you're doing!

Hopefully this guide has shown you that staining cabinets is a cheap and effective way to get a cool look for old cabinets or unfinished wooden cabinets in your home.

Compared to painting, staining your cabinets is actually pretty easy for a homeowner with no experience, hence the reason why staining your own cabinets is so popular with budget-conscious people. Staining your kitchen cabinets will transform your kitchen cabinets completely and add character to your kitchen.

Whether your stain your own cabinets or get them colored professionally, we hope you end up with the cabinets of your dreams that fill your home with charm and character. Good luck!

Dino Paccino

Dino Paccino

Dino is a lifelong writer and home improvement specialist. He enjoys bringing cutting-edge information on home renovation and remodeling to Kitchen Infinity.

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