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How to Sand & Refinish Old Kitchen Cabinets (DIY) - Modernize Your Living Space!

Updated on September 9, 2016

Five years have gone by where I’ve lived in this old house, built in the 1950’s. Finally, I got tired of looking at the yellowing kitchen cabinets, and decided to do something about it. They were coated in a thick varnish that turned amber with age. For this reason, I wanted to thoroughly sand away all residue, for a fresh start. I tackled the project head-on with my Makita Hand Sander & the hope that I hadn’t gotten in over my head! After refinishing the cabinets, replacing the ancient coil-top stove with a shiny new glass top, creating an extra window, and adding an adhesive backsplash, it looks like a whole new kitchen. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a very difficult remodel!

How to Sand Old Varnish off Cabinets

During this specific tutorial, I will be focusing only on steps for sanding & refinishing the kitchen cabinets. This was a rather lengthy process, as I did it cabinet-by-cabinet when I had small amounts of free time. With two people working, you could probably complete the task within 1 labor-intensive weekend.

Things you will need for sanding:

  • Drop Cloth
  • Dust Mask
  • Makita hand sander
  • 40 or 60 grit sand paper
  • Small broom or brush

Begin by covering your work area with a drop cloth, as sanded varnish residue will fly all over the place. Remove any structures or objects that you wish to remain sand-free. Wear a dust mask, such as this carbon filtered protector from Amazon.

I purchased 40 grit coarse sand paper in 9x11 squares, and cut them into 4 pieces to fit the Makita Hand Sander. For removal of old paint or varnish, the 40 grit sand paper works fastest, and thoroughly removes all traces. The cabinet doors are much easier to sand down once you've removed them. During sanding, press down firmly, move slowly, and be sure to work with the grain of the wood (not in the opposite direction). Also don’t keep the sander pressed down in one place for too long, as this could sand away portions of wood, changing the actual shape of the wood. Keep checking your work to make sure you are removing only varnish.

Each door took 10-15 minutes to sand completely. The front and sides of the cabinets still attached to the walls took an additional 15 minutes each. It’s best to allow a few days to complete the entire task, as this can become quite tiring for one person. After sanding each door or cabinet surface, you will definitely feel the need to rest your arms for a few minutes. At this point, the wood will look bare, and the cabinets will be covered in dust. Using a small broom or dry scrub brush, whisk away any remaining dust residue.

Sanded cabinets
Sanded cabinets

How to Stain Freshly Sanded Kitchen Cabinets

Now you’re ready to begin the stain application! It works best to work on one set of cabinets at a time.

Things you will need for priming/staining:

  • Wood Primer or Conditioner
  • Paint Brush or Paint Pad
  • Rubber Gloves
  • Plain Cotton White Socks
  • Gel, Oil or Water Based Wood Stain (I used oil-based)

First, apply clear primer using a paint brush or stain pad, to the first set of cabinets. I prefer using a stain pad because it coats better than a brush, and is less messy. No longer than 2 hours after application of the primer, go ahead and apply the wood stain. (Each primer may have different instructions, so read yours carefully). The brand I selected was Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Primer Conditioner, and the instructions said to allow the stain to set for 15 minutes minimum, 2 hours maximum.

Next, apply the colored stain. Normally, a wool mitt is suggested for stain application. I would usually agree, as a couple of years ago when I applied stain to my freshly sanded hardwood floors, the wool mitt worked beautifully. However, when I tried using a mitt for the kitchen cabinets, tiny fibers of wool got stuck in the wood. The kitchen cabinets (which I suspect to be Pine) were not as high quality as my oak flooring, and had an inconsistent grain. Even though I was careful to sand only in the direction of the grain, there were still a few rough spots.

Seeking another option besides a messy paint brush, I checked out a few blogs online. Several suggested the use of a plain white cotton sock for staining (over a gloved hand). I had several mismatched pair stowed away in the dresser, so I plucked one of them out and started the project. Dipping my gloved & socked hand into the Minwax Sedona Red Stain, I began smoothing it onto the cabinets. The sock method worked flawlessly! It held just enough stain to soak the wood without dripping product all over the place. After going back over the wood few times to disperse the stain & remove excess, it provided a perfectly even finish.

Remember to apply the stain using up/down motions (never circular motions) as this prevents a blotchy coat. The stain I used is oil-based, which provides a deep, saturated color that really sinks into the wood, allowing the grain to show through. I waited about 30 minutes, then applied a second coat, to add depth of color. Everything dried completely after about 4 hours.

Glossy Top Coat

It’s been a few months and I still have not applied a finishing coat to the cabinets. This will be the final step, and I plan on using Varathane’s Triple Thick Polyurethane Gloss. I used this finishing gloss for a project where I applied stain to a small end table, and the result was beautiful. I really love the glossly look, but some people prefer more of a matte finish. In that case, try Minwax’s Satin Polyuerthane, which creates a shine free protective layer. Finishing coats only require 1-2 coats, and work best when applied with a soft, flexible paint brush.

Below, you can see full shots of before and after ~ it feels like I live in a new house after this revamp! Underneath the before & after pictures, I've also included the cost for the cabinet overhaul, and for the rest of my kitchen remodel.

Original Kitchen Cabinets - Ugly Yellowed Varnish
Original Kitchen Cabinets - Ugly Yellowed Varnish
Kitchen Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain
Kitchen Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain
Cabinets directly after sanding
Cabinets directly after sanding
Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain
Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain

Adding New Hardware to Cabinets

I almost forgot to mention the new cabinet pulls and drawer handles! My previous cabinet handles appeared to be copper that just needed cleaning. Wrong! After I purchased copper cleaner and began cleaning them with a soft cloth, I quickly discovered that it was just plating. When the copper coating wore off, underneath was a scratchy looking dark silver. I went in search of new cabinet pulls and actually scored a great deal on Amazon. I highly suggest looking for these online, as the prices are at least 50% less than any hardware store I went to. Just make sure to measure the length between holes on your existing cabinets. Most are the standard 3" or 5" length. The shiny new hardware made a great difference in refreshing the look of the kitchen!

Here's a brief breakdown of all expenses incurred, separated by "cabinets only" and "additional remodeling". After discovering how much it would have cost for someone else do this work, the amount I saved was well worth the time invested!

Remodel Cost (Cabinets Only):

Makita Hand Sander: $40

Sand Paper $20

Primer/Stain/Finish: $60

Nickel Hardware: $50


Additional Remodeling Costs:

Painting Supplies: $20

Framing for Extra Window: $35

Adhesive Backsplash: $90

Behr Paint for Walls: $40

Glass Top Stove: $450


My Grand Total = $805

My total wasn't bad at all! About a year ago, someone from Home Depot came out to give me an estimate for installing new cabinets, stove, and flooring – and the lowball estimate came to $4500. Considering all that’s left to do is flooring, which I estimate will cost around $300 if I tackle the project myself, I’ve saved around $3400.

How do you feel about doing your own kitchen remodel?

Is it worth the effort to sand & stain your own cabinets?

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