Restain Cabinets for a New Look


Is it possible to restain cabinets and have a new look? Yes it is. A dramatic change like light golden oak being changed to medium cherry is possible, but there are limitations to just how far the color can be changed.

You have two choices about how to accomplish this new look, either strip off the finish then apply a stain or apply a gel stain over the existing finish.

I will explain how to apply a gel stain over the existing finish for a new look.

This method is more efficient and in some respects easier to accomplish. But, it can only be used to darken prefinished cabinets not lighten them. If your cabinets are too dark now then this method won’t work.

Quick Look at This Cabinet Restaining Method

  • Remove the door pulls and hinges.
  • Clean all surfaces that will be restained.
  • Hand sand to roughen and dull the existing finish. (Very Important)
  • Wipe down all surfaces with a liquid sander.
  • Apply gel stain and allow to dry overnight.
  • Apply clear protective wood finish.


The steps needed to restain cabinets are easy to understand, but all of them are very important. Skipping just one of them could ruin the entire project.

Restain Cabinets Using Gel Stain — The Steps Involved

At this point it is a good idea to practice before committing to the whole job, especially if this is an entire kitchen. It took me a couple of practice runs before I felt comfortable restaining cabinets using this method.

Practice on the back of a door. This really applies to the gel stain application. It isn’t easy and will take a little finesse. If you don’t like the results easily remove the stain with mineral spirits (paint thinner) and a clean rag. Keep practicing until you are happy and comfortable with the results.

Remove the Doors and Drawer Fronts

It’s much easier to prepare and restain cabinets if the doors are removed and refinished in a horizontal position. If the drawer fronts are removable now is a good time. The entire frame can be exposed with all these pieces removed. Now is a good time to cover any items inside the cabinets with light weight plastic. This will keep the sanding dust from getting on dishes.

Clean All Surfaces

A surface free of grease, soap scum and other contaminates will help make sure your new stain and finish stick for the long haul. A strong cleanser can be used. I like which is also available in a friendlier no rinse formula. You can also use a scrub pad on heavy deposits. Allow to completely dry before continuing to the next step.


This step will degloss and roughen the surface so the stain will stick. Hand sanding is the best method. A palm sander is a bit too aggressive. A combination of sandpaper and sanding sponges will work great. Use 150-180 grit for the paper and fine sanding sponges. If you have any peeling clear finish use 120 grit sandpaper to remove anything that is loose then finish with 150 grit to blend the damaged areas.

Wiping cabinet surface with Paso Deglosser

The idea is to produce an even haze after sanding. Try not to remove any finish or stain. After sanding remove the fine dust with a shop vac and tack cloths.

Clean Again

This step isn’t absolutely necessary but a good idea. I like to do one more final cleaning to remove anything that might be present and get rid of any remaining dust. For this I use a . My favorite is Paso Liquid Sander. It is a very potent chemical that has a strong smell, but does a great job.

Use clean white rags saturated with Paso and wipe every surface. It’s a good idea to aggressively ventilate during this operation. Allow the surface to dry for 1 hour before applying the stain.

Apply the Gel Stain

This is by far the hardest part. Using gel stain to restain cabinets with an existing finish requires a light consistent use of the brush and a little artistic flare. The gel stain I like and highly recommend is Old Master Gel Stain. I have found that it is the easiest to use.

What you will need is the stain, a very high quality white china bristle brush (1-1/2—2 inch) and a few clean white rags.

Apply the stain in the same direction as the wood grain and apply in thin coats. You can always apply another coat after 24 hours for a darker color. Use quick short strokes of the brush in one direction only. Pull the brush towards you, reach out and pull toward you and so on. This way you are brushing in only one direction, not back and forth.

Use a small amount of stain and start applying an inch or so away from the last stained area. Use a rag to remove excess stain from the brush with a dabbing motion. To blend one area into another remove the excess stain from the brush and use short quick brush strokes to pull the excess stain away from the thick area. This is why it takes some practice.

Apply the Clear Wood Finish

The stain must dry for a minimum of 24 hours before a clear wood finish can be applied. Any good finish can be used; including acrylic urethane, water based polyurethane, regular polyurethane and spar varnish. (Check out Wood Finishes – How To Get a Smooth Wood Finish for details.)

Two coats are needed with a light wiping of a clean tack rag between the coats. A very careful and light sanding with a worn fine sanding sponge is necessary if dust settles on the fresh finish.


Using this method to restain cabinets for a new darker color is a doable project for many. But, getting a consistent look with the gel stain isn’t easy. You will have to practice until the brushing method mentioned above feels natural. It’s easier to apply the stain when all of the preparation is accomplished. This prepped surface, cleaned and sanded, grabs hold of the stain allowing an easier time with blending.

After the final coat of finish is applied allow a few days for proper curing and hardening. You can still use your cabinets, just be careful not to damage the stain or finish and leave the doors open. This way nothing has a chance to stick and cause damage.

4 Responses

  1. how can I match stain on other cabinets. I have several doors that the stain is coming off.

    1. You will need a piece of wood, same kind as your cabinets. This wood will be used for samples. Some stains are available as sample packets, this is a good place to start. Apply stain that you think will work to the board and see which colors matches as close as possible. Unfortunately there is no easy way to do this.

  2. Great info! Thank you…I’m leaning in this direction. What color of gel stain was used in the above picture, on the oak cabinet?

    1. That was an Old Master gel stain. A custom mix of Rich Mahogany and Dark Mahogany. Custom mixes are possible with Old Masters Gel Stains but always test it out before committing to the entire project.

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