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Stain oak cabinets

Amber Irving
April 22, 2019

hi. I know this has been discussed but I get so lost in all the posts. I'm wanting to stain my 90 oak cabinets. they are in great shape so I just want to bring them into this year. I'm wanting to stain them to a walnut colour. I'm torn between gel stain or reg stain. I'm going to strip them first since they have a really hard poly? finish on them and I want to do it right. painting is not an option. so please share your advice.. gel stain or reg stain.. best practices?? the pic on the left is my inspiration.. the pic on the right is my dated kitchen... I am planning on doing a new backsplash and counters in the future...

Comments (17)

  • Mrs Pete

    I have sanded /restained a whole kitchen full of cabinets ... don't for a moment underestimate how much work it is. I strongly suggest you begin with a laundry room cabinet as a trial ... you know, so you're not committed to finishing the whole kitchen. You have 90 cabinets? Wow. I have 25 in my kitchen, and it took me more than a month. Seriously, 90 cabinets?

    How'd I do it? Lots of sandpaper + elbow grease ... and a liquid stain; might've been MinWax or some other common product. I removed one section at a time and was careful to number the cabinets and doors. The upside: The whole project cost less than $50, though that was probably a decade ago.

    You might consider losing the appliance garage. That's thin wood, and it'd be hard to refinish.

    And a warning: the cabinets in your inspiration pix were cut to bring out the grain ... even with a darker stain, your cabinets will not come out looking the same.

    Personally, I'd consider starting with the lighting, the dark backsplash, and the floor ... they'll be so much less work.

  • PRO
    Debbi Washburn

    I would suggest testing the inside of one of the doors first..this will allow you to test how many coats of stain you will need to get the desired color. Also, it is hard to tell from the picture if the doors are solid wood center panels or if they are veneers. Veneers will finish slightly different since they take the stain differently.

    Hopefully one of the cabinet builders will chime in with great suggestions for you...

  • Amber Irving
    sorry I meant I have 90's cabinets... not 90;)
  • Amber Irving
    ive already removed the light fixture and the floors are brick so they are staying. also thinking on maybe briwax? has anyone used briwax on their oak cabs?
  • Amber Irving
    yes I'm going to have my bf make an appliance garage:)
  • oic57

    Six years ago, I used gel stain (general finishes mahogany) and I am still very happy with the result.

  • jhmarie

    I have 15 door and it took me all summer:) If you are stripping to the wood, you can use either a regular stain or a gel stain. gel stain works as a stain on bare wood and more of a translucent paint if over a finished cabinet. Many have done the gel stain over an older finish and I have heard mixed results as to look and durability.

    I did use a gel stain on my stripped cabinets because it was the right color tone, but I used Miniwax and never again - it dries so fast that it was hard to deal with it. I used Varathane gel stain (as a stain on bare wood) on my stairs and it took over 24 hours to dry. What I liked about the gel stain was that it did not penetrate the wood as much as regular stain. I have oak cabinets and I did not want the stain to get into the grain and be too pronounced.

    If your drawer fronts can be removed from the drawer boxes, the back of those are good for testing stains once they have been stripped.

    Beth is a frequent contributor here and she may chime in. She has done a lot of refinishing and I believe she recommends a soy based stripper for the poly. She commented on this older post of yours and had good advice:


    I also stripped some really old cabinets (1970's) for my basement kitchenette. I used "special walnut" regular stain from Rustoleum on those. They were dark to start with and there is no getting the dark stain totally out of the grain, so I used the walnut to help blend the dark grain.

    The cabinets in your inspiration picture are very pretty. I've got that pic in one of my idea books on another site and it list the wood as wormy chestnut. You might not be able to get that exact tone since it is a different wood.

    This blog post had the same inspiration pic. You might be interested in what she did:


  • Amber Irving
    thanks for pulling up that old post.. I forgot about it..I'll read the comments again.. I've obviously been thinking about this for a while;)
  • Amber Irving
    oic57 did u do any stripping? I have a hard coating on mine.. they look great
  • jhmarie

    lol - with my fickle memory I don't know what made me remember and check your past posts. They must be memorable special cabinets:)

  • Amber Irving
    has anyone had luck with toning? I just want them more brown.. less yellow
  • oic57

    That was also my goal. Now not only they are more brown, but also have more depth to them. Almost like a translucent caramel sauce.

    I did not strip. I did a test on the back of the small door above the fridge to get my confidence first. I figured if I ruined it nobody would notice :)

    I first cleaned them well with tsp or similar. Then, roughed them up with sandpaper (very light sanding). Next, cleaned them well with spirit to remove all the dust. I applied a very thin coat of gel stain using and old cotton t-shirt, followed by a clean t-shirt to remove excess. It is almost like waxing them. Go always along the grain direction. Waited until dry ~8-12 hrs and did another coat. I like doing very thin coats. In the end I applied 4 or 5 coats, plus a couple of clear coats. There are many YouTube videos that show how to do it. Again, avoid doing thick layers. patience is your friend.

    To work the whole kitchen, I first removed all doors (number them! So you know which is which). Did first the doors, then the drawers, then the boxes. I did the whole kitchen in a couple of weeks. Doing two coats/day.

    hope this helps!

  • Amber Irving
    yes thanks for the tips.. my main issue is that the gf guy says if you've used Murphy's oil you can't use the gel stain and my bf has oiled the cabs over the years
  • millworkman

    "if you've used Murphy's oil you can't use the gel stain"

    Correct, there is not much you can do over that. Hopefully you can get enough of that crap off and out of the wood for ANY finish to adhere well.

  • salex

    Strip/sand the backs of a few doors. Buy GF gel stain (way better than the yellow brand, IMO) as well as 2 or 3 other types of stains. Test, test, and test again - not just with the stain, but with any topcoats you might apply as well. I've often used half a dozen coats to get exactly the color and depth that I want, and what it looks like halfway through does not indicate what it will look like after a full finishing treatment. Each coat can change it.

    Also, keep in mind that your kitchen will not "feel" like the inspiration photo. You have raised-panel doors with arches on top, whereas the inspiration photo has flat-panel doors and drawer fronts, as well as upper glass-doored cabinets. I'm not saying your kitchen won't look great after a transformation, but it won't have the same period feel as the inspiration photo without those details.

    Good luck! This is an ambitious project and I hope you end up happy with the results.

  • Amber Irving

    I'm worried about it adhering to the fronts as they've been oiled so I'm going to have to test it on the fronts.. which I find scary:( I think I 'm going to try to sand off as much of the finish and try GF toning... I've been thinking about this project since we moved into the house 3 years ago.. took a year to get hubby on board with any changes..he was dead set against it in the begining but years of looking at pictures of cabinets I've worn him down.. I'm expecting it will take me a couple months from start to finish but I'm ready to put in the hours:) Then new backslash and counters....

  • herbflavor

    I would live with what you have for another 3 yrs...then I would plan a new kitchen. Your cabs will be around 25 yrs old...cabs have a lifespan. the kitchen will be further dated and your work is not worth it. it's pleasing enough with all the woodtones, currently.

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