Refinishing cabinets is an inexpensive way to give your kitchen a new look, but as do-it-yourself projects go, it is not to be taken on by the faint of heart.
The work is not difficult, but it takes a lot of time because of the drying required between steps. My husband and I both spent several hours every day for three weeks refinishing our 14 cabinets and five drawers. During that time, we lived on frozen diners and take-out meals because the kitchen was always in some state of chaos.
I figure we spent less than $350 on refinishing materials. We spent an additional $200 for new trim and $40 for new hardware, but even so, we saved hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars compared with the cost of new cabinets.
Our cabinets were in very good shape structurally, but the finish was scratched and worn. They were stained the same color as all of the other trim in the house, so we chose a stain that retained that color. Here's how we gave them a fresh look.
Step 1 - Prep work
Remove the doors, drawers and hardware, fill holes or imperfections with stainable wood filler and tape any areas that will not be stripped, such as the inside of the cabinets and drawers. Cover the floor with a plastic drop cloth.
Step 2 - Strip the cabinets
Cover the surface with a stripping product to remove the existing finish and stain. We chose Sunnyside Ready-Strip, which I really love. I've tried other strippers, but they didn't work as well, had awful odors and burned my skin, even though I was was wearing protective clothing. Ready-Strip works very well, is environmentally friendly, can be used indoors and is safe enough to use without gloves.
Use a cheap 2-inch paintbrush that you can throw away when you're finished to spread the Ready-Strip on the area to be stripped. Apply a layer about as thick as cake frosting.
Let the Ready-Strip sit for six to 10 hours. When it turns from green to white, scrape it off with a plastic putty knife. The waste is as safe as the product, so you can throw it out with your regular trash.
If you still see some color on the wood, don't worry. The Ready-Strip has removed the finish, so what you see is the stain, which is easy to sand away. The wood also will lighten as it dries. If you're stripping paint, you may need to apply Ready-Strip a second time to remove it all.
Step 3 - Clean the cabinets
Spray Ready-Strip Wash on the freshly stripped area. Let it sit for a couple of minutes and scrub it clean with paint and varnish stripping pads. Replace the pads when they become covered and "gunky." The wash will take off more stain and any remaining Ready-Strip.
Once the surface has been cleaned, wipe it down with a clean white rag.
I spent the afternoon of the final Chicago Bears game of the past season calling every hardware store in the Quad-Cities looking for Ready-Strip Wash when I realized we were going to run out. I ended up having to order it online, but it's worth waiting for.
Step 4 - Sand
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Wait 24 hours after cleaning to sand the wood, first with a 120- or 150-grit sandpaper and next with a 220-grit sandpaper. We found that an electric orbital sander worked well on broad surfaces and that an electric detail sander was best for corners. Sand curved surfaces by hand. (Given the scope of this project - and possible future projects - we decided to invest in the purchase of orbital and detail sanders.)
The sanding will remove any remaining stain, restoring the wood to its natural color.
Step 5 - Stain
Wait an hour or two after sanding to let the dust settle. Wipe down the area to be stained with a tack cloth to remove all dust.
Stir the stain thoroughly, making sure the sediment that has settled at the bottom of the can is incorporated into the liquid.
Apply the stain to the surface with a foam brush, following along the grain of the wood.
Fifteen to 20 minutes after application, work the stain evenly into the wood by lightly wiping the wood with a clean white rag in a circular motion. You may want to wear disposable latex gloves for this step to keep your hands clean. Allow 24 hours for drying.
Step 6 - Apply polyurethane
Wipe the area with a tack cloth to remove dust and apply the polyurethane with a foam brush along the grain of the wood. Be careful to avoid build-up by applying the finish in small sections. Once the length of wood has been covered, run the brush from one end to the other in one stroke to ensure an even application.
Step 7 - Sand
If you're going to mess up, it's going to be on this step. We did. On the first cabinet we refinished, I applied too much pressure to the sanding block and took off the polyurethane as well as the stain, revealing a spot of bare wood. If you can live with the mistake, just move on to the next step. If you can't, you have to start over.
But here is the right way to do it. Let the polyurethane dry for 24 hours and then lightly hand-sand along the grain of the wood with 400-grit sandpaper placed in a sanding block. The goal is to smooth the bumps in the polyurethane and not remove the finish or stain. Use steel wool with a 0000 grade for this step when sanding curves.
I find it easiest to run my hand over the surface before sanding to get a feel for the texture of the wood. Then I lightly run the sanding block over the surface one time and run my hand over it again. If the wood is smooth, you're done. If it's not, then lightly sand the area that is bumpy. Continue this process until the entire surface is smooth.
Step 8 - Repeat
Repeat steps six and seven, making sure to wait 24 hours between applying a coat of polyurethane and sanding it smooth.
Step 9 - Finishing
Apply a third coat of polyurethane, according to the directions in Step 6. Then use 1,000- or 1,500-grit sandpaper in the sanding block to very gently sand wood along the grain line. Then lightly buff the wood with grade-0000 steel wool. Wipe the cabinet down with a tack cloth to remove any dust - and you're done!