Kitchen cabinets are often one of the most noticeable features in a home. Their appearance can dramatically affect the overall look and feel of the kitchen space. Many homeowners choose to refinish or re-stain their cabinets to give their kitchen an updated, refreshed aesthetic. Staining kitchen cabinets allows you to transform the color and change the wood tone, providing an easy way to renovate your kitchen without a full cabinet replacement.

Staining cabinets is a relatively affordable and straightforward process that can be completed by the average DIYer. However, careful planning and preparation are required to achieve the best results. There are several factors to consider when staining kitchen cabinets, from choosing the right stain color and type to proper sanding and application techniques. This comprehensive guide will provide tips and advice on how to successfully stain kitchen cabinets and end up with a beautiful, professional-looking finish.

Getting Started with Staining Kitchen Cabinets

Before beginning the staining process, take time to adequately prepare your kitchen cabinets. Proper planning and setup will ensure the project goes smoothly and minimize the chance of errors.

Assess the Existing Finish

Examine the current finish on your cabinets to determine if they have been painted or stained. Painted finishes must be sanded down to bare wood before applying stain. Previously stained cabinets may only need a light sanding before adding a new stain color. Identifying the existing finish will inform the amount of sanding and preparation required.

Choose a Stain Color

With numerous stain color options available, selecting an appropriate shade for your kitchen can be overwhelming. Keep in mind that the natural wood tone will affect how the color appears. Light woods like maple or birch will show stain colors more clearly, while darker woods like walnut will mute the hues. Cool undertones like grays work well for contemporary spaces, while warm reddish browns provide a traditional look. It’s a good idea to test samples on spare cabinet doors or wood scraps before committing to a certain color.

Purchase Supplies

Gather all the necessary supplies prior to starting the project. Here is a checklist of recommended items:

  • Sandpaper and sanding block/power sander
  • Rags, tack cloth, drop cloths
  • High-quality wood stain
  • Stain brushes and foam applicators
  • Stir sticks & plastic container
  • Painters tape and paper
  • Cleaners and degreasers
  • Wood filler/putty
  • Stainable wood sealer (if needed)
  • Rags and mineral spirits for clean-up

Remove Cabinet Doors and Hardware

Detaching the cabinet doors and removing the hardware, like handles and hinges, provides easier access for staining. Number doors and hardware to ensure everything gets reattached in the right spot. Use painters tape for marking or lay cabinet doors out in order.

Clean the Cabinets

Cleaning is imperative for stain adhesion. Grease, dirt, and residue will block the stain from penetrating the wood. Use a degreaser like TSP substitute to thoroughly clean inside and outside cabinet surfaces. Rinse off any soap residue and let dry completely.

Prepping and Sanding the Cabinets

Sanding provides the necessary preparation for the new stain to adhere to the wood properly. This key step levels the surface and strips away any existing finish.

Fill Any Holes and Imperfections

Inspect cabinets for holes, scratches, or dents. Fill small defects with wood filler, allow time to dry, then sand smooth. Stain won’t penetrate properly over uneven areas.

Sand Surface Smooth

Use 120-150 grit sandpaper to sand the cabinets until bare wood appears. Always sand in the direction of the wood grain. For detailed areas like edges or trim, use a hand sanding block for control. Wipe away dust frequently and continue sanding until the surfaces feel smooth and even.

Remove Dust

Eliminate all dust and debris from sanding by wiping down with a damp rag or tack cloth. Any remaining particles can impact how the stain penetrates the wood. Let cabinets dry completely before moving onto staining.

Apply Wood Conditioner

For soft woods like pine that absorb stain unevenly, use a pre-stain wood conditioner. Following the product directions, apply a thin coat with a cloth and let it penetrate for 5-15 minutes. Then wipe off any excess conditioner before it dries. This helps regulate absorption to prevent blotchiness when the stain is applied.

Stain Application Tips and Techniques

With prep work complete, you’re ready to begin the staining process. Carefully apply the wood stain using these helpful application tips:

Stir the Stain

Always stir stain thoroughly before and periodically during use. Tint pigments in the stain can settle, resulting in inconsistent coloring if not mixed. Pour into a disposable plastic container for easier use.

Use High-Quality Brushes

Look for stain brushes made specifically for applying wood finishes. The bristles should be densely packed and tapered for smooth, even coverage. Foam or cloth applicators also work for large flat surfaces. Avoid low-quality brushes that can leave behind stray bristles and streaks.

Maintain a Wet Edge

Work in sections, applying stain across the wood grain. Maintain a wet edge where new stain overlaps into areas that are still tacky. This prevents lap marks as it transitions wet to dry.

Remove Excess Stain

Wipe off any puddles or drips that form before moving onto the next section. Use a lint-free rag to gently remove excess stain on the surface. This helps control how much color is absorbed into the wood.

Work Quickly

Speed is key when applying stain. Once stain begins drying, overlap marks appear as you work. Stain just small sections at a time to prevent lap marks and uneven coloring.

Follow Direction of Wood Grain

Using smooth, even strokes, wipe the stain in the direction of the wood grain. This allows for a more uniform look as the stain penetrates the natural texture of the wood.

Stain Cabinet Boxes Separately

Due to their large size, stain cabinet sides and frames before doors and drawers. Quicker application means more consistency in color.

Seal Stain When Needed

For porous woods like oak, applying a thin coat of wood sealer according to package directions can help regulate absorption. This prevents the stain from drying too quickly before it penetrates the wood.

Check for Coverage

After the initial stain application, examine the cabinets to ensure the wood has absorbed the color evenly. Apply additional coats if needed to darker areas until the coverage is uniform.

Let Stain Dry

Allow the stain adequate drying time per the product instructions, usually a minimum of 8-12 hours. The longer stain cures, the more protected the finish. Proper dry time enhances stain durability.

Applying Topcoats to Stained Cabinets

After staining, a clear protective topcoat provides added durability and enhances the wood grain. Consider applying a product like polyurethane or varnish in the following manner:

Ensure Stain Is Dry

Only apply a topcoat after the stain has fully cured. Check the stain directions for dry times. Insufficient drying can cause bubbling or clouding of the topcoat.

Lightly Sand Between Coats

Use extra fine (220 grit) sandpaper to gently smooth between topcoat layers. This aids adhesion and provides a flawless finish. Thoroughly wipe away any dust after sanding before adding the next coat.

Apply Thin, Even Layers

Use a high-quality natural bristle or foam brush to apply topcoat in smooth, thin coats. Too much topcoat applied too quickly can create drips. Allow proper drying time between coats.

Work in a Dust-Free Space

Prevent dust nibs in the finish by coating cabinets in a clean, dust-free environment. Lightly sand and wipe any debris between layers. Allow topcoat to dry completely as specified by the manufacturer.

Check for Full Cure

Test hardness by lightly pressing a fingernail into the topcoat. If it leaves an indent, more curing time is needed before use. Fully cured topcoats prevent imprints, damage or sticky surfaces.

Applying a protective topcoat over stained kitchen cabinets locks in color, provides durability, and showcases the wood grain for a rich, flawless finish.

Staining Kitchen Cabinet Doors

Staining kitchen cabinet doors follows a similar process but on a smaller scale. Due to their size, cabinet doors offer more flexibility for staining offsite or in a workshop. Here are some tips for success:

  • Remove doors from cabinets and detach all hardware. Keep organized by numbering doors and hardware.
  • Clean, fill imperfections, sand and prepare doors following the same steps used on cabinet boxes.
  • Lay doors flat on sawhorses or across supports for staining. This allows access to both sides.
  • Use smaller brushes and applicators to stain door panels, edges and any detailed trim or profiles.
  • Maintain a wet edge and wipe away excess stain before repositioning.
  • Stain the door backsides and edges after the front face has dried.
  • Let stain cure fully before adding protective topcoat following product directions.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While staining kitchen cabinets is relatively straightforward, beginners can make some common mistakes. Being aware of potential pitfalls will help avoid frustration and redo work.

Inadequate Sanding

Failing to sand surfaces completely can cause staining issues like blotchiness or uneven penetration. Spend time needed to strip cabinets to bare wood.

Using Low-Quality Brushes

Cheap brushes don’t apply stain smoothly. They can leave behind streaks and stray bristles stuck in the finish. Invest in high-quality stain brushes.

Not Maintaining a Wet Edge

Allowing stain to dry in some spots before applying new overlapping stain causes lap marks in the finish. Always maintain a wet edge as you work.

Failing to Wipe Away Excess

Not wiping up drips or puddles means too much stain will absorb into the wood in those spots, creating a uneven, blotchy appearance.

Rushing the Job

Working too quickly leads to mistakes. Allow enough time for careful stain application. Rushing through and missing spots requires redoing work.

Insufficient Dry Time

Applying topcoats or reattaching doors before stain has fully cured leaves them susceptible to damage or transferring color. Honor minimum dry times.

FAQs About Staining Kitchen Cabinets

Many homeowners have additional questions when learning how to stain kitchen cabinets. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:

Does Wood Type Affect Staining?

Yes, wood species impacts how stain absorbs and its appearance. Soft woods like pine are more porous than hardwoods like oak. Pine will absorb stain quickly requiring more frequent wiping to prevent uneven pigment. The color undertones in each wood influences the stain hue as well.

Do You Have to Sand Cabinets Before Staining?

For stained cabinets, thorough sanding is mandatory prior to restaining. Sanding removes the existing layer of stain and creates a smooth, fresh surface for new stain to adhere. For unfinished or painted cabinets, sanding opens up the wood grain so stain can properly penetrate.

Can I Stain Over Painted Cabinets?

Painted cabinets must be sanded down completely to raw wood before applying stain. The porous wood needs to be exposed to absorb and bond with the stain. Dark paints may leave behind a tinge affecting the end color.

What Supplies Do I Need to Stain Cabinets?

Recommended supplies include sandpaper, wood filler, high-quality stain brushes, wood cleaner/degreaser, stir sticks, stainable wood conditioner (for soft woods), lint-free rags, painters tape, and drop cloths. Buy high-quality wood stain in your preferred color.

What Sheen Finish Should I Use?

A satin or semi-gloss clear topcoat provides a subtle sheen that enhances wood grain while allowing the stain color to show through. Matte finishes mute the stain hue. Glossy topcoats create bold reflections that may distort stain colors slightly. Consider the aesthetic you want to achieve.

How Long Does Cabinet Stain Need to Dry?

Allow stain a minimum of 8-12 hours drying time per manufacturer instructions. Drying factors like humidity can lengthen the process. Test for tackiness before adding topcoat. Insufficient drying leads to issues with topcoat bubbling or clouding.

How Do I Make Stained Cabinets Shine?

Wipe cabinets with a damp microfiber cloth followed by a dry cloth to remove dust between coats. Proper sanding prep creates a smooth foundation for stain and topcoats to look glassy when dry. High-quality brush application also minimizes brush marks.

Can I Stain Just Cabinet Doors?

Definitely. Staining only the doors is a smart way to refresh the look without the intensive process of refinishing the entire cabinetry. Use the same preparation, sanding and application process focusing just on the doors.

Staining kitchen cabinets allows you to reinvent the look of your kitchen easily. With the right planning and preparation along with careful application techniques, you can achieve beautiful, professional results. Investing the time into proper wood staining procedures will lead to cabinets with rich, flawless color and a durable, quality finish.


Staining kitchen cabinets provides a relatively simple and affordable way to update the look of your kitchen. With the right tools, materials, and techniques, you can change the color, deepen or lighten the wood tone, and give your cabinets an entirely fresh appearance. While proper preparation is crucial, the staining process itself is approachable even for novice DIYers. Following careful application procedures helps ensure your cabinets turn out with a durable, consistent, professional-level finish. The results will revitalize the aesthetic of your kitchen space for a fraction of the cost of new cabinetry. If your existing kitchen cabinets are structurally sound but showing wear or an outdated look, applying a new layer of wood stain offers an easy makeover option.

Staining Kitchen Cabinets