D.I.Y. cabinet refinishing (also known as cabinet refurbishing)

Last modified

March 11, 2021

Cabinet  refinishing is typically done when the cabinetry starts  to look a little dingy and worn, but is in otherwise in good functional condition. The doors and drawers open and close properly, and the door style and and color are still pleasing to the eye. The process described here will return the look of your cabinets to close their original condition. These instructions are not for changing the stain color of your cabinetry.

Supplies and tools

  • Cordless drill or hand screwdriver
  • 2 quarts of High quality water-based satin-gloss polyurethane
  • Tarps or old blankets
  • A well ventilated work area such as a garage, patio or carport.
  • Masking tape
  • 2 1 quart Plastic mixing pails with lids
  • Rags
  • Fine steel wool,
  • 2 sheets of 400 grit sand paper
  • Saw horses or an old table
  • 2 or 3 2” wide foam paint rollers.
  • 6 or so 3” wide foam brushes
  • Knee pads or a towel, blanket or cloth you can kneel on.
  • Step ladder.
  • Dust mask
  • Stain
  • Inexpensive disposable 1” bristle  brushes for stain touch-up
  • 2 to 3 quarts of water-based polyurethane in satin or low-sheen
  • 1 quart denatured alcohol

How to refinish

The first and most important step. Refinish one cabinet all the way through before trying to re-finish all the cabinets all at once.  This will prevent you from inadvertently making and repeating mistakes and will help ensure good results.

Below are the steps for refinishing a cabinet: 

1. Remove knob or handle and save. Start with removing the least visible cabinet door or pair of drawers.  This should  be a base-cabinet because it is not at eye level, and therefore doesn’t need to look as good as an upper cabinet which is right at eye level. You will complete all the steps on this one door or two door cabinet first because it will teach you how to do the rest of the doors and drawer fronts as well as cabinet-faces, sides and toe-kicks. place an old towel or blanket beneath the door to protect your knees and to protect your floor.

2. Take the door to any business that sells stains and get the closest matching stain you can find. Usually a pint of stain will do. Don’t worry if the stain isn’t an exact match it will blend with the existing stain where it has worn off, or worn thin. Be sure to follow all safety precautions and instructions printed on the stain can.

3. Using a cordless drill or hand held screwdriver, carefully remove the cabinet door from its hinges, leaving the hinges attached to the cabinet, and leaving the hinge screws in the bottom of the cabinet. When you do the rest of the doors you should number the doors by marking them behind where the top hinge was and putting the same number just below the upper hinge in the cabinet. Number the backs of the drawer-fronts and put the same number on the front of the drawer box.

4. Place the door face down on saw-horses or old table in a well ventilated area making sure that there is padding under the door such as an old towel to prevent marring the front. Place a tarp, or old blanket beneath your work area. Put on a dust mask. Using 400 grit sand paper lightly scuff the back of the door. Don’t sand too hard, you don’t want to rub off any of the stain. When scuffing the edges and sides of the door, go very, very lightly. When you are scuffing, it should produce a fine white powder. You may notice that the sand paper gums up a bit. This is often dirt, grime and soap scum, by scuffing you are also cleaning the door. Follow these same steps when doing the fronts of the doors which you’ll do after you’ve learned what you need to learn by doing the backs. If you have areas with excessive gunk or grime, try using a rag with denatured alcohol.

5. Lightly rub the entire back of the door, edges and sides of door with steel wool. You should see more white powder. Be sure to pay particular attention to any crevices like where the center panel of the door meets the frame of the door. Again, don’t press to hard or be too aggressive with the steel wool.

6. If there are any places where the stain has been worn off either from the wear and tear or because sanding and scuffing were too aggressive, touch up those areas using stain. Simply brush on using an inexpensive disposable brittle brush and wipe off with a rag. Make sure to do this in a well ventilated are, and make sure stain rags are disposed of properly to avoid spontaneous combustion fires. (See back of stain can for further instructions or use Google) and allow to dry for  approximately 24 hours.

7. After stain has dried, wipe off back of door with a mildly damp clean  cloth to remove dust particles. Next, apply 1 coat of polyurethane using a 2” wide foam brush. Follow directions on can of polyurethane. After polyurethane drys, very lightly scuff and/or steel wool and apply a second coat.  IMPORTANT! After the second coat has dried inspect the results carefully by holding the door in a well lit area, catch the reflection of light in the finish to see that it looks good to you: Are there visible brush strokes? Are there what appears to be scratches in the finish that bother you? If there are brush-strokes and/or scratches, you should be able to alleviate those by lightly scuffing again applying a third coat. You may need to apply the 3rd coat heavier or lighter than the first 2 coats. If you still aren’t happy with the results, don’t worry! You are learning how to do this by finishing  the back of a door that no one will ever look at. Try refinishing the back of a 2nd door, or as many doors as need be until you get the results that satisfy you. Note: This is the closest anyone will ever look at your cabinet door. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be better than it was before. Try comparing your refinished back of a door to other cabinet door backs that have not been refinished. Don’t make your self crazy with perfection. Sometimes it’s better to take a break for a few hours or until the next day and look at everything with fresh eyes.

8. Once you are happy with what you’ve done to the back of a couple of cabinet doors, you are now ready to finish all the cabinet door backs and all the backs of the drawer fronts. Even if they don’t need it, it’s a good idea to do them all because you will refine your techniques as you go. But if you feel confident enough, you can proceed to doing of the fronts of the doors and drawer fronts. But if you do decide to directly to the fronts, do 2 or 3 to completion and then do all the rest. Or do just the base cabinets and then do the uppers.

9. Refinishing the cabinet boxes: lightly scuff the existing clear coat just as you did with the doors. Apply stain to touch up where necessary. Using a 2” foam roller. Apply a light coat of polyurethane. Have a damp cloth on hand to wipe up any drips that you get on the floor or inside the cabinet. Let dry, very lightly scuff again and apply a 2nd coat.

10. Reinstall all cabinet doors, drawer-fronts and cabinet knobs/handles. Congratulations! You have cabinets that look as good as new!

D.I.Y. cabinet painting

To paint your cabinets follow the same steps as refinishing except that your first coast will be primer. Use Dunn-Edwards Ultra-Grip primer. As the name implies, it adheres very well. For paint use a heavy duty exterior paint with a satin or low-sheen shine.