Wiping coat of clear finish over cabinet panel with brush

Refinishing is time-honored method of updating cabinetry, and if your cabinets are in reasonably good repair, it can yield attractive results - along with a sense of personal satisfaction.

Below, we'll take a look at the basics of refinishing and how to tell whether it's a good choice for your cabinets. We'll also suggest a couple of alternatives, including refacing your cabinets with veneer, and ordering new doors and drawer fronts through Rockler's Custom Door and Drawer Front Program.

The Realities of Refinishing

Refinishing an entire set of kitchen cabinets is a significant undertaking. But if you have a preference for natural a wood finish (stained or unstained with a clear wood finish) and you're cabinets can pass a basic refinishing "fitness test" it may be worth the effort. Here's a little advice on determining whether your cabinets are a good candidate the refinishing process: Check your cabinets over to make certain that the joinery is solid and in good condition, that the visible surfaces of the cabinets are not excessively worn, and that there are not numerous missing parts and repairs needing to be done. While you're at it, decide whether the quality of your cabinets makes them worth refinishing. A word of caution: Not all painted cabinets hide beautiful hardwood cabinets waiting to be refinished; look for unpainted surfaces on the cabinets to determine the species of wood, and consider stripping the paint off of a sample area to get an idea of what to expect underneath the paint. If your cabinets fail this basic refinishing appraisal, a natural wood finish is still possible: Consider refacing your cabinets with wood veneer.

Custom Doors and Drawer Fronts

Whether you refinish or reface your cabinets, you will still have the doors and drawer fronts to contend with. Cabinet doors and drawer fronts aren't very often candidates for refacing, and even if they're in acceptable condition for refinishing, the task can be daunting. One way to greatly simplify the process is to order new doors and Drawer fronts through Rockler's Custom Door and Drawer Front Program. For less than you might think, you can have new doors and drawer fronts custom made to the size and style that suits your current cabinets, and delivered to your door ready to finish and install.

Refinishing Basics

To help you get started, we'll cover the essentials of the refinishing process, but we won't have the space to cover the finer points in detail. Since the quality of your refinishing job will depend in a large part on your refinishing knowledge, we recommend picking up a refinishing book or DVD for further study.

Removing the Old Wood Finish

The first step in your refinishing project is in all likelihood will be removing the old finish, which for practical purposes means chemical stripping. Most stripping projects can be easily accomplished with a "safety stripper" - one that contains none of the most caustic solvents used in stripping (methylene chloride and methyl ethyl ketone) such as organic and bio-degradable Soy Gel. For a really tough job, like removing industrial finishes or multiple layers of paint, you may have better results with a more aggressive stripper. Before you get started, make sure you have all of the "basic stripping equipment" like steel wool, rubber gloves, rags, etc. on hand. You can speed the process of stripping intricate decorative edges or moldings with a contour scraper like the Three Blade Shavehook. Remember, too, that if you are using strippers and solvents that contain toxic chemicals, to follow the manufacturers directions, provide adequate ventilation, and protect yourself with a suitable respirator and safety glasses.

Preparing the Surface for Finishing

Before finishing the freshly stripped wood, you will need to do a little prep work. Clean the surfaces with solvent or furniture cleaner as directed by the stripper manufacturer. In most cases it will also be necessary to sand the raw wood surfaces to take care of any grain that was raised during the stripping process, and to remove small amounts of old finish left behind. Norton 3X sandpaper is specially coated to resist clogging and is ideal of the purpose of removing residue and finish. Use contour sanding grips and abrasive cord to get into tight spots.

Finishing the Wood

Now you're ready to pick out a wood finish. Here you have a lot to choose from. For more information on finishing and finishes, read . The most common approach for cabinets is to stain the wood with a water based or solvent based wood stain, followed by a clear finish. Remember to do a thorough job of removing dust from wood surfaces with a tack cloth or damp rag immediately before applying the finish. For better results, use a pre-stain wood conditioner before applying stain to difficult to stain woods . Also, apply many thin coats of clear finish - sanding lightly in between coats with 220 grit or finer sandpaper - instead of just a few thick ones.


With all of the time and care you've invested in your cabinets, it may seem a shame to reinstall their old, wear-worn knobs, pulls and hinges. We can help. Rockler offers a broad selection of knobs and pulls to suit all budgets and tastes. New hinges are also worth considering. Many times, simply updating your hinges with self-closing, adjustable hinges can greatly improve the appearance of your cabinets, and make them more "user friendly".