I’m kicking off on a brand new home improvement voyage: staining our oak kitchen cabinets. Dark espresso brown. DIY-style. And I’m downright scared about every step of the process.
The cabinets have been one of my most despised home components all this time. Using stock models from the local big box, the kitchen received a total overhaul in the late 90’s which included moving the plumbing, creating more counter space, adding a dishwasher, upgrading the windows, and voila, adding umteen-million heavy oak cabinets. They’re inexpensive, this I know because I’ve seen them at The Home Depot, but in mass quantity I can’t exactly blame the previous homeowners for buying them. There still aren’t many affordable and easily accessible options when it comes to kitchen design. As shown on move-in day, aren’t they plentiful? Sorry for the terrible photos.
All in all, I know things could be way, way worse. The inset routing could be all swirly and curvy. The doors could mismatch. They could be not level. Even the hardware, a brushed nickel, has been totally bearable over the last three years. I’ve had bigger projects to tackle.
I had considered painting them right away, maybe a nice clean white coupled with fresh hardware, but my plan fell through when a few friends (and my more notoriously opinionated family members) pointed out that generally speaking, people like, no, love hardwood cabinets, so blah, blah, maybe I should live with them awhile and give them a chance. Maybe they’d grow on me. Maybe I’d come to my senses and love-me-some-serious oak when the VOC’s from other projects cleared from my brain cavity.
Leaving the oak cabinets as-is for resale was one thing that continued to resonate with me, but with no immediate plans to move out and with the rest of the house pretty much customized to my tastes, it felt wrong to not pull the kitchen into the 21st century and give it a deserved update (regardless of what Grandma is going to say when she sees it, I gulp loudly). After living with them for 3 years, even though I removed a bunch of them, my decided verdict was still a firm no. The oak had to change.
The big change, as you know by this far into the post, wouldn’t involve paint. Maybe my friends and family were right, natural wood had grown on me. Staining the cabinets seemed like a win-win-win option; it would tie the kitchen in with the shiplap walls in the neighboring dining room, leave the wood natural for future homeowners, and most of all, update the kitchen in an impacting way. And of course, if this all fails I will be painting over it. So, yeah, I have a Plan B. One way or another, the kitchen will look better.
But, as I said in the very first sentence here, I’m downright scared about my first ditch staining process for a number of reasons:
All of those factors in the back of my mind, I did what I do best, I tested my theories and concerns using a real-life model. After I removed seven of the cabinets a few years ago, I stored them in the attic with the thought in mind that some future homeowner might want that extra kitchen storage. Easy to take down, easy to put back up. I even labeled each unit and kept the screws taped to the inside of the door to keep it tidy. Deciding to sacrifice one of them for the better good, I brought it down and positioning it off the asphalt in the driveway, I was ready to see how this would look, beginning to end.
Naturally, what I’m getting to here is that I spent a long, sweet afternoon working on my first test subject. No details left behind, here’s how the whole process went:
1. With the door, hinges, and hardware removed, I mixed up my first-ever batch of TSP, a heavy-duty, strong, skin-irritating cleaner in a large bucket. Sure, it sounds intense but it’s heavy-duty stuff and affordable (one <$4 box will probably last me my entire DIY life). With junky clothes covering all my limbs, I donned pretty latex gloves and took things seriously. Scare tactics on the packaging worked this time for whatever reason. I used 1/8-cup of TSP to 1-gallon of water to create a stronger-than-everyday-cleansing formula.
2. With two separate sponges, I wiped everything down with the TSP mixture, let it sit a few minutes even though the packaging wasn’t specific if I needed to, and then wiped it off with a clean sponge dampened with fresh water. And then I let the whole thing dry and TSP’ed it again for good measure.
Contrary to some super-outdated online forums yet totally aligned with our friend Heather’s experience, the TSP actually did very little to remove any manufacturer’s finish, but it did leave the wood feeling very smooth and not grimy, which I now notice most of the cabinets of the kitchen are from the years of cooking and touching (awesome, it’s so gross).
3. The surface of the cabinets didn’t start to look different until I began sanding with a brand new piece of some medium-grit sandpaper (which is what we had on hand with the multi-tool). As opposed to the round random orbital palm sander that was my second choice, the triangular head of the sanding attachment gave me a little more control when it came to getting into the inset areas on the cabinets.
As expected, sanding it in entirety wasn’t quick, but I started to see progress pretty quickly. Moving with the grain and applying even pressure, the true oak exposed itself. This next picture really demonstrates how nicely the edges of the multi-tool fit along the inside bevel in the cabinet.
The only questionable observation? The sharp bevels of the detailing on the front of the door did dull down a little bit. Do I care? Not sure yet, but I’m not going for that distressed look here.
The whole sanding process took me about one hour (no exaggeration, I took my time and tried to be really thorough). Knowing this, I have a more realistic expectation of how long it’s going to take me to finish (1 hour x 24 drawer and door faces of varying size means that I could very easily spend a full 24 hours sanding). I also know I’ll want to use a fresh piece of sandpaper for each door to keep it easy and consistent. Mo’ money, but still less expensive than gutting the room apart.
4. Identifying what stain I wanted to use was an adventure in and of itself. With oak, many blogs and forums I referenced cited using General Finishes Gel Stains thanks to its thicker consistency that makes hand-application a little easier on cabinetry, and on pieces with more detail. Products like Rust-Oleum, by contrast, can be runnier and therefore soak in too quickly making the piece stain unevenly.
Fortunately for me, there was one specialty furniture store within 15 minutes from my house that was listed as a distributor of the General Finishes product. Unfortunately for me, the gel product was discontinued (likely minutes before I walked into the shop after a month of putting off stopping in). The owner and woodworker himself suggested trying the General Finishes brand water-based wood stain in Espresso (the same color I had been shopping for in gel) and he promised that it was still going to be markably thicker than any commonly store-bought stain. For just $10, I was willing to give it a try, knowing full well that if it sucked, it was still just $10 (two mochas, or four iced coffees). And if it worked I might be able to get away with only spending $20-30 to refinish the entire kitchen (whoop-ah). Stain goes a long way.
I think, I hope, that here, you can tell that the consistency is a little more like watery pudding than common watery stain. Or maybe partially-solidified Jello when it’s startin’ to get that jiggle.
5. Even though I have full intention of using nice foam brushes to evenly lay each coat of stain (and effectively get into all of the crevices in the bevels), this trial time around, I gave staining a try with a plain old rag. Because I forgot to buy foam brushes the last 4 times I was at the Home Depot.
First thoughts with this first coat:
Fast forward 6-hours and I tested out a second coat. And later on, a third coat. Close up where the second and third coats overlap, it looks rough, but the tips to get it nice are to let it dry really well between coats and then re-apply evenly from edge to edge without picking up the brush or the rag you’re using.
The best looking part of the door happens to be this outer edge with three coats of stain. Now, what are the odds that I can do the entire kitchen looking this nice?
The cabinet itself looks great after its test run, and applied much more easily on the first try because it’s so sharp-edged and not beveled. This photo was it after one coat.
For experimentation’s sake, I applied a second coat to the cabinet too:
And because you’re probably wondering about my plan for the insides of the cabinets, I’m going to paint them. It’s going to be a real pain in my you-know-what, but while the doors and trim are solid oak, the rest of the cabinet is partially faux.
Final thoughts? Still scared crazy, but I’m going to try it while the weather’s nice and I can sand and stain outdoors. Summertime project high-five. If anyone reading this has actually done their own cabinets and can offer any words of advice, speak now.
Will keep you updated as I begin the process!
Editor’s Update: In reality, the technique used to refinish my oak cabinets went much smoother than this test run. Check out the finished cabinets right here.
Looking for the Gel Stain that I used to stain the kitchen cabinets? I could not find it in stores, and my best resource was General Finishes via Amazon. Learn more about the product and purchase it for yourself right here.