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How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets

Years ago when I decided to take on the project of staining our kitchen cabinets I researched and read and researched and read some more. I watched tutorials and made sure that I knew everything possible about how to stain cabinets.

A lot of the lighter stains I saw ended up making the cabinets look mottled, so I decided to go with the really dark General Finishes Java Gel Stain. They don’t sell General Finishes at the big box stores, so I had to search for a specialty paint place to find it. Luckily, they sell it on Amazon now. Find it here.

Using this gel stain is actually much easier than painting. I was so surprised at how quick and easy the whole process was.

 

AWESOME TIP: You can use baby oil to remove stain if you get it on yourself or the wall, floor, etc. I’ve used vegetable oil for my hands, too, and it works. Rub hands with oil, then wash with water. Sometimes you have to do this a few times, but the oil really helps!

ALSO: Whenever you paint or stain, make sure you do it in a well-ventilated area!

 

STEP 1: CLEAN AND SAND, THEN SAND SOME MORE

Remove all cabinet doors. Make sure to read my notes in step 6 before you do this! Draw a “map” of your kitchen, assigning a number to each cabinet. As you remove the doors, write its number in the circular hole that the hinge goes in. Cover it with painter’s tape to make sure you don’t get paint on top of it.

You can either unscrew the fronts of the drawers from the front or take out the whole drawer and tape anywhere you don’t want to get stain.

I started by cleaning the cabinets with Krud Kutter, a TSP substitute. Find it on Amazon here.

Apply wood filler to any cracks or holes. I just found a wood filler that I absolutely love. It’s Minimax wood filler and you can buy it in a smallish tube. Use painter’s tape to tape of anywhere near your cabinets that may get stain on them.

I am a huge fan of not sanding. I use chalk paint on almost everything and have even tried milk paint, but for kitchen cabinets that take a large amount of daily abuse, I would NOT skip this step. Sand your cabinet doors VERY thoroughly.

If you’re going to take on a big project like a kitchen or  bathrooms or plan on flipping furniture, a high-quality sander is totally worth it. I’ve had mine for over 10 years and it’s still working. Here it is if you want to check out the details…

There were some parts on the detail of the front and the corners of the back where I had to sand by hand because the orbital sander couldn’t reach, and any place where I left glossiness at all ended up being harder to get the stain to stay on. Don’t forget to clean and sand the cabinet frames as well.

You can wipe with a tack cloth, but I don’t like those things…they’re sticky. I wipe down with a rag or paper towel then use the hose from the vacuum.

STEP 2: CREATE A GOOD SETUP FOR YOUR CABINET DOORS

I tried painter’s pyramids, but when I put any pressure on them the pyramids would roll and make my cabinet door fall. Somewhere I saw the idea to cut 2x4s into 4″x4″ squares and put a screw through the middle of it. Then I used 4 of those to rest each door on. The door lays on the points of the 4 screws. I laid out as many doors on my folding tables as I could fit.

These take a long time to make, but save SO much time when staining!

To maximize the amount of cupboards I could stain at once, I laid some out on a tarp on the floor, and I also had a bunch on folding tables in the garage.

To make it easier on yourself, you split the job up into two parts…the top half of your kitchen and the bottom. This also minimizes the amount of dishes, food, etc., you have sitting out around your house while working on this project.

STEP 3: APPLY THE FIRST COAT 

I wish I could remember what website told me to apply the stain the way I did, because it was THE BEST. So easy. A smart child could do it. You put a plastic glove on, then use a men’s sock. Trust me, it works amazingly well. I went through my husband’s sock drawer and took all his socks that had even the teeniest hole or were just older. Put the sock on your hand (over the glove) and up your arm. Dip the tip of your sock-covered fingers in the stain, keep your fingers close together, and just rub it on. You will need a 2-inch foam brush to get in the crevices. Do not use a bristle brush or all the lines will show.

Start with the foam brush and crevices, then rub the stain on the larger parts. If you use a light-to-medium coat of stain, you do not have to go back over the cabinets and wipe excess stain off. The consistency of this stain is similar to chocolate pudding. It’s really fun to use.

Stain the back, then flip the cabinet door over and stain the front. (You may get a few dots on the back where the screws touched it, but that’s easy to touch up later. This is the reason I do the back first, then the front). Wait a few hours in between coats. I can’t remember how long; just follow the instructions on the can.

While you’re waiting, you can go back into the kitchen and stain the frames.

STEP 4: 2 MORE COATS OF STAIN

Apply 2 more coats. I made the mistake of thinking that 2 coats were enough and hung the doors back up, only to find that when the light shown through the sliding glass door onto the cabinet fronts you could see a lot of places that were not fully covered. So, my best advice to you is USE 3 COATS, even if you think it looks like you don’t need to.

For each coat, I started by staining the back, then the front, then waited until they were dry for the next coat.

STEP 5: 2 PROTECTIVE COATS

I used General Finishes High Performance Satin. This is also not sold in the big box stores. Find it on Amazon here.

Before you use this, take a paint stick or large popsicle stick and gently mix it, scraping the bottom to make sure the solid parts mix back into the stain. Don’t shake or stir vigorously or you’ll create bubbles, which you definitely don’t want.

I used the same glove-and-sock method (plus foam brush for crevices and corners) to apply this as well. Use 2-3 coats.

Be so careful when you do this step. If there are any bubbles, when they pop they create holes in the protective layer. What helps is looking at your cabinets from multiple angles and rechecking over your work to make sure you wipe off any bubbles. Once a foam brush is saturated enough, I will begin to create lots of bubbles. You can get a pack of 20 for about $4 on Amazon or pick them up for about 88 cents each at the store. They’re cheap, and it’s definitely worth having a lot of these on hand.

As you can see from the pictures, the satin finish ends up looking pretty shiny, which I didn’t love. They have a General Finishes Flat Out Flat Topcoat. I haven’t tried it, but it has good reviews. Using flat for cabinets would scare me, though, since they need to be cleaned so often and this might make cleaning harder.

Allow to dry between coats. Follow instructions on the can for dry times.

STEP 6: REATTACH CABINET DOORS

The first time I took a cabinet door and the hardware off I could not get the door to hang straight for the life of me, so for the kitchen I removed the door from the hardware completely, but left the hinge on the frame of the cabinets. I covered the hinges in tape. They’re a pain to stain around, but I didn’t want a kitchen full of wonky cabinet doors. If you are a skilled cabinet door hanger, go ahead and take the hinges off.

Reattaching was very easy because the hinges were already there.

You can still see the grain, but it still looks beautiful compared to the original.

I went for a white island, but didn’t love how it turned out with the rest of the cabinets being brown. If I were to do it again, I’d use a different color paint for the island. Maybe a nice light gray. In my second kitchen, I painted the cabinets white and the island Java and loved it! You can see it here.

 


Have you used gel stain before? Please share your photos and experiences! Don’t forget to follow FindFixBuild on Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram to see upcoming projects.

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25 Comments

  1. When we had our 2nd home built in 1996 and I was DIYing like crazy – now not so much – hoping to downsize and move in the next few years. This looks like a great way to make a change that is not too costly. #ThursdayFavoriteThings

    1. You could always try doing bathroom cabinets first and see how it goes. In our 2nd home I painted the kitchen cabinets white and my friend paid someone to come and do hers. The professional job was not great and she ended up having to hire someone else to come fix them, so if you do hire someone I’d make sure they have some good references. Good luck with it!

  2. Your cabinets look amazing, I would not have the guts to tackle such a job. I love islands in a kitchen, great for crowds and family to hanout. I would love to have you drop by and share on my Wordless Wednesday!:)

    1. Thanks! I started by doing a bathroom first, then when I knew I could do it I went for the kitchen:) We were selling our house and it was either do it myself for about $100 or pay someone else a few thousand to do it, which made it an easy choice, haha. I’ll be there on Wednesday, thanks for letting me know!

  3. Wow, looks great! I think that it may seem that the island stands out too much, but after you get your furniture in I bet it will look gorgeous! Thanks for sharing with SYC.
    hugs,
    Jann

  4. The cabinets look black yet either way, LOVE the look. We have oak and hubby won’t let me paint them….. =( We have black kitchen appliances and I paint what I can re the fixture hanging over the table and things like that. Ah and I like the white island as it’s a contrast which looks good vs more black. Too much can almost look depressing?

    1. Yes, they are definitely very dark…a dark island may have been too much. I think it was just the color of white I chose that I didn’t like. In my 2nd home I painted all the surrounding cabinets white and used the Java on the island and I really liked that combo.

  5. Your kitchen is gorgeous! Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog! I was tempted to go with the Java, I was just really scared it would come out too dark and I would hate it. But you have a lot of greys in your kitchen and it looks nice! Great Job!

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