How to Stain & Varnish Kitchen Cabinets

Adding fresh stain and varnish to your cabinets can go a long way in updating your kitchen without having to invest in a costly remodel. Staining and varnishing generally takes up only a part of the weekend and can be done solo or with the help of a partner. Let your wood shine with a shade of stain that complements the other colors in your kitchen, and enjoy a varnish finish that provides an easy to clean surface.

Remove your cabinets and lay them on a workbench or table. It is possible to stain and varnish when the cabinets remain in place, but it is much more difficult.

Prepare your cabinets for a new stain and vanish. You can stain directly over your old stain if you select a darker shade. Thoroughly wipe down your cabinets with denatured alcohol on a lint-free clean white rag to remove grease, dust and other dirt.

Remove the old stain if the new stain is lighter in color. Remove the dark stain by applying paint thinner or a similar product manufactured for removing wood stain. Follow product instructions when using chemicals and make sure your work area is well-ventilated.

Sand your cabinets to prepare them for primer. Work by hand or with an electric sander, using coarse-grade sanding paper. Dust away particles with a soft rag. Sand again with fine grade sandpaper. Don't sand so hard that you make indentations into the wood, but do make sure the surface is uniformly smooth.

Select a high-quality stain. Apply by dipping a white cloth into the stain and wiping with even strokes over the entire surface of the cabinet, or "paint" it on with a sturdy, top-notch brush.

Wait 15 minutes and then wipe off excess stain. You will easily see excess in the form of "puddling" where the stain has pooled. Remember, the longer you leave on excess stain the darker the area will be. Work on a single cabinet at a time to avoid long leave times.

Apply a second coat of stain if needed to deepen to the color you want. Stain exactly as before after waiting an hour for the first coat to dry. You may need to go over certain areas with more stain than others, but note that it is natural and looks best for there to be variations in shading over the surface of the entire cabinetry.

Varnish your cabinets with a waterproof, polyurethane product. Paint the varnish over the entire surface with long strokes. Keep the windows open and seek fresh air routinely, as the fumes from varnish can be quickly overwhelming.

Put on a second coat of varnish after allowing for 24 hours of drying. Some recommend a third or even fourth coat depending on how glossy you want your finish. Each coat affords greater durability.


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