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

Updated on March 16, 2018
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Punkmarkgirl is a freelance writer with a passion for DIY projects, natural health & makeup - featuring the best products for oily skin.

Back in 2013, I moved into a house that was built around the 1950’s. It looked decent, but required a LOT of updating. Since I love cooking, I finally I got tired being boxed into this walled-off kitchen with yellowing cabinets, and decided to do something about it.

The pine cabinets 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, painting over the Grimace-purple walls, creating an extra window that allowed connection with our living room, and adding an adhesive backsplash, it looks like a whole new kitchen. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a very difficult remodel!

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

How to Remove Old Varnish From Cabinets


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 below:


Unscrew and remove all cabinet doors (as they are MUCH easier to sand down when detached from the units). Completing the sanding process works best when done outside, as it prevents a heavy amount of atmospheric dust.

During sanding with the electric Makita unit, 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 can add divots to the wood, changing its actual shape and surface texture. Keep checking your work to make sure you are removing only varnish.

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.

Makita BO4556K 2.0 Amp 4-1/2-Inch Finishing Sander with Case
Makita BO4556K 2.0 Amp 4-1/2-Inch Finishing Sander with Case

Hand sander for removing paint and varnish from small househould items.


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 down cabinets, after re-attaching doors.
Sanded down cabinets, after re-attaching doors.

How to Stain Freshly Sanded Kitchen Cabinets

Now you’re ready to begin the stain application. Be sure that all dust has been removed from the cabinets by using a dry brush. If necessary, wipe them down with a slightly damp towel, and allow to dry for 10 minutes before proceeding.

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 more than 2 hours after application of the primer, you can 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.


Now, you're ready to 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


For the final coat, I used Varathane’s Triple Thick Polyurethane Gloss. This keeps the stain color-true, and adds a protective layer that's easy to clean (an important feature for the kitchen). Use a foam applicator or bush to apply, but don't brush over the area several times, as this can cause an abundance of air bubbles. Instead, use one smooth swipe, going with the grain of the wood. This particular product only requires 1 coat for a fantastic finish.

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.

And (drum-roll).... here is the finished product:

Kitchen Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain
Kitchen Cabinets after Minwax Sedona Red Cherrywood / Redwood stain

Below, you can see full shots of before and after, in different views ~ it feels like I live in a new house after this revamp! After the cabinets were done, nailing up the window border and applying the adhesive tile background were quite simple.

Underneath the before & after pictures, I've also included the cost for the cabinet overhaul, and for the rest of my kitchen remodel in case you're interested.

Original Kitchen - Ugly yellowed cabinets, old coil stove, unfinished window.
Original Kitchen - Ugly yellowed cabinets, old coil stove, unfinished window.
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?

See results

© 2016 Ashley Bergin


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