How to Remove Paint and Refinish Wood Kitchen Cabinets

By Joanna Swanson

Kitchen cabinets can get dirty from constant use or simply show their age and detract from the look of your kitchen. Like many people, you may choose to replace the cabinets; while this is expensive, it allows you to change the layout of the cabinets. If you are happy with the layout of your kitchen and would like to save money, you can refinish the surfaces of the cabinets using paint or stain and varnish.

List of Items Needed

  • Steel wool
  • Degreasing cleaner
  • Water
  • Rags
  • Power sander with coarse-, medium- and fine-grit sand paper
  • Oscillating tool with wood sand paper accessories
  • Wood filler (optional)
  • Paint stripper
  • Old paintbrush
  • Putty knife
  • Oil-based primer (paint method)
  • Paintbrush (paint method)
  • Stain (stain method)
  • Oil-based varnish (stain method)

    Prepare the Surfaces

  1. Remove the cabinet doors and drawers. Completely remove all of the hardware and save it to replace later, or buy new hardware.

  2. Scrub the doors, drawers and cabinets with steel wool. Synthetic steel wool works best and will remove set-in deposits.

  3. Clean the surfaces with a strong degreasing cleaner that is safe for wood. Follow all safety precautions indicated on the label. Rinse with water and a rag. If you will stain the cabinets, you must completely strip every bit of paint or old finish. Apply paint stripper with old paintbrush. Scrape off the softened material using a putty knife. Wipe down the cabinets with more stripper to remove the residue. Follow all instructions and safety directions on the label.

  4. Sand the cabinets using a power sander for large, open surfaces and an oscillating tool for edging, corners and hard-to-reach areas. Start by using coarse-grit sand paper (such as 60-grit) to remove stubborn bits of stain or paint. Fill dents and cracks with wood filler, allow this to dry, and then sand all surfaces with medium-grit sandpaper (like 120-grit). Finish the surface with fine-grit sand paper (such as 240-grit).

    Paint the Surfaces

  1. Apply oil-based primer to all of the surfaces of the cabinets, doors and drawers using a paintbrush. Primer helps conceal imperfections and smooths the surface. Let the primer dry.

  2. Apply oil-based paint using a paint brush. Apply another coat if desired. Let the paint dry.

  3. Attach the hardware to the drawers and cabinet doors and reinstall the doors on the cabinets.

    Stain and Varnish the Surfaces

  1. Rub stain into the wood with a rag using circular motions to help it penetrate. Wipe off the excess immediately, following the grain of the wood. Let it dry and apply another coat, if desired.

  2. Apply an oil-based varnish to seal the stain and protect the cabinets. Let the varnish dry completely.

  3. Reattach the hardware to the cabinet doors and drawers and reinstall them.

Tips and Warnings

  • Oil-based paint self-levels, so don't worry about brush marks. They will settle on smooth as the paint dries.
  • Water-based paint will not adhere to oil-based primer.
  • Apply a rubbed oil finish to the bare wood instead of paint, stain or varnish for a soft, natural glow.
  • Stains do not seal the wood, and they can cause the grain to lift. If this happens, sand the wood lightly and apply another coat of stain before applying varnish.
  • Wear safety goggles and a respirator mask when using power sanding tools, especially indoors.

© Demand Media 2011