How To Stain Kitchen Cabinets

Staining kitchen cabinets, and how you prepare to stain depends on what you are starting with.

  • Are you building your own cabinets?
  • Are your cabinets unfinished in your garage waiting to be installed?
  • Are your cabinets new and already installed, but in need of staining?
  • Are you stripping your cabinets and then re-staining and refinishing them?
  • Or are you going to try your hand at re-facing?

You will prepare and stain a bit differently for each of the above situations; however, there are some basic steps and supplies that are universal when you are staining kitchen cabinets.

List of Basic Supplies You Will Need:

  • a good stain (I like a good oil-based stain, like a Sherwin-Williams oil based wiping stain)
  • stirring stick
  • sand paper (150 to 320 grit)
  • saw horses or work bench to stain on
  • drop clothes/cardboard
  • cotton rags
  • carpet pieces or other tool to apply stain (the right carpet really works well to get into those nooks and crannies)
  • clothes/shoes you don't mind getting dirty (the stain won't come out - it's a good idea to invest in a body apron that you don't mind getting ruined)
  • dust mask/respirator face mask
  • latex or rubber gloves
  • lacquer thinner or acetone (to remove stain off of where you don't want it - like hinges or the floor; if you don't have these, you can use finger nail polish remover, most contain acetone)
  • well ventilated area to work in
  • area to set wood to dry

Step #1 - Remove Doors, Drawers, Hardware and Lay Flat
If you are building your own cabinets, staining them is simply a step in the building process. You can stain everything, and put finish on it too, before you ever put anything together.

If your cabinets are pre-built, try to remove as much hardware as possible (handles and hinges). It is much easier to put the hardware back on than to try and clean it later. If you can take the hardware off, number each piece, then also put that same number on the wood where the hardware sits - making sure it is inconspicuous.

You should also remove the doors and drawer fronts before you begin staining kitchen cabinets, if you can, so you can lay them flat. Again, if you remove hinges, etc., do so and number so it won't show on your finished product.

The advantage of having an item lying flat while you are staining kitchen cabinets is that the stain and finish won't run all over and create a look you don't want - sloppy. Who wants to put a lot of work, time, and effort into staining kitchen cabinets, just to see the finished product look sloppy and completely unprofessional? Learning how to stain kitchen cabinets means ending up with a stain job that looks beautiful and professional and says to the world that you know what you're doing. You want your cabinets to look like you paid a fortune, even if you didn't.

Step #2 - Look Your Pieces Over and Sand If Necessary

When first staining kitchen cabinets, look over the pieces you want to stain. Do they need to be sanded first? Most likely they are already sanded well, and you'll just have to sand out small scuff marks which resulted from handling them or installing the cabinets.

Use a fine grit sandpaper, 150, 220, or even higher. Once you begin staining kitchen cabinets, any marks you've missed in sanding will jump out at you. You can always sand out marks and scuffs after you've stained your kitchen cabinets, but that takes more time and energy, so try to do a good job of sanding initially.

Step #3 - Setting Up The Area Where You Will Be Staining Kitchen Cabinets - Remember Safety First!

It is a good idea to stain items on saw horses if you have them, or on any sturdy table or bench that is about waist high. As you learn how to stain kitchen cabinets, you will be glad you used a drop cloth or cardboard on your floor or on any area that you don't want stain on. You can use lacquer thinner or acetone to wipe up stain, but it doesn't always work (like you can almost never get stain out of clothes). Also, lacquer thinner or acetone might melt or ruin what the stain is sitting on. If you don't have lacquer thinner or acetone, use finger nail polish remover. It has acetone in it. Don't inhale the fumes of such products, or get them on your hands.

You'll also need to mask off any parts of the cabinets you don't want stained, such as the interiors.

Wear clothes and shoes you don't mind getting dirty, and/or a full body apron.

You should also wear latex or rubber gloves and safety glasses when you are staining kitchen cabinets. These precautions are not only for when you are learning how to stain your kitchen cabinets, but are necessary even if you become an expert. Safely is of the utmost importance.

ALERT: BEWARE OF DANGEROUS FUMES. Wearing a dust mask won't do any good against fumes. Only wear a dust mask if you are in the sanding process. You will either have to invest in a respirator face mask for your safety, or ensure that you are in an extremely well ventilated area, such as your garage with doors wide open, or both. Fumes from the chemicals used while you are staining your kitchen cabinets are extremely dangerous, not only to breathe in, but, if concentrated enough, they can cause an explosion. And, don't be fooled by water-based products. They can give off fumes and hazardous odors as well. Each product's danger level is different, but error on the side of caution. Knowing how to stain kitchen cabinets means knowing how to do it safely.

Step #4 - Applying The Stain

Once you know where you are going to be staining kitchen cabinets, and have yourself and your area prepared, open your stain can and stir well. This cannot be overstated enough. When the can sits for any length of time, the stain will separate and sediment (color) will sit at the bottom of the can. If you do not stir well, the stain you use from the top of the can will be much lighter than the stain you end up using at the bottom of the can (and at the end of your project). These results will not look good. The things you stain first will be much lighter than the last pieces you stain.

To apply the stain, one of the easiest tools to use are old carpet remnants. Cut them into approximately 4 x 3 inch rectangles. Dip one end of the carpet into your stain, then rub the carpet onto your wood. It doesn't matter if you go with the grain or against the grain at this point, you just want to make sure that you cover all surfaces. If you are doing intricate work, such as doors with groves or raised panels, be sure to get stain into corners. Over staining at this point is a good idea, because the excess will be wiped off. This is where the drop clothes and wearing an apron come in handy, because it can get pretty messy!!

After you apply stain to your piece, look it over to make sure you didn't miss any spots. Areas that are commonly missed in learning how to stain your kitchen cabinets include: grooves, door edges, drawer edges, or any corners - like where the raised panel corners meet the door frame.

Step #5 - Wiping The Stain Off - A Very Important Multi-Step In Ensuring Your Piece Looks Great

As you are first learning about staining kitchen cabinets, I suggest you wipe the stain off immediately. Most cans of stain suggest leaving the stain sit for 10 minutes, then wiping off the excess. I've found that this does not usually change the color, so why wait? Also, if you are staining kitchen cabinets that are already installed, or already built, and you can't lay pieces flat, your stain will run all over if you let it sit for any length of time. You will want to wipe it up as soon as possible.

If you want a darker piece of wood, purchase a darker stain color. The only time that waiting to wipe excess stain off will actually darken your piece significantly is if you can let it sit for over 30 minutes. This is really a false darkening, and the problem with it is that your stain is usually so dry by then that it's difficult to remove smudges and wipe off the piece properly. The stain ends up sitting on top of the wood, not soaking in. Use your own judgment. If you decide to wait the 10 minutes, do it on every piece to ensure consistency.

Actually wiping the excess stain off in itself is a two step process.

First, have several cotton rags at your disposal. Put a rag in each hand. Never touch your wood with bare or gloved hands alone after it's been stained, as it will leave a smudge mark. Wipe off the bulk of the excess stain. At this point it doesn't matter if you are going with the grain or not, you just want to get the big spots of stain wiped up.

The second step is a finishing type step in staining kitchen cabinets. Take another clean rag. Go back over your piece of wood, this time with the grain. The second rag takes more stain off, preventing smudge marks. The biggest enemy in staining is leaving smudge marks.

Following these two steps and not being afraid to use rags as needed will ensure that you don't leave any smudges. Look your piece over. If you have left any smudges, wipe off gently and blend color in with your cotton rag.

Step #6 - The Final Step In Staining - Set Your Pieces Aside To Dry

Now that you've learned how to stain kitchen cabinets, set your pieces aside to dry (or just let them hang there if they are already installed). You can lay your piece on a flat surface if only one side is stained. If your piece has multiple sides that are stained, you can lay it flat on something that allows for air circulation to the back, such as saw horses, or if you do enough staining, purchase a professional staining rack. One caveat: where the saw horses or rack touch the stained piece, smudge marks may be left. Before you finish a piece that has dried on such equipment, you may need to touch up that side.

You can also lean your piece against a wall to dry. When your stain is drying, it is best to let air get to as many sides that you have stained as possible. It's also okay to let fans run in the area where you are drying your piece. This helps it to dry faster and doesn't hurt the end result; however, never let fans run on a a piece that you've put finish on.

How long your piece has to dry depends on what type of stain you are using. Read the label and act accordingly.


Remember to hang your rags to dry, ensuring air movement around them as well. Too many times, bunched together wet staining rags have caused a tragic explosion resulting in fire and even death. Please be careful!!

You Are Now Ready For The Next Step - Finishing

Congratulations!!! You have learned how to stain kitchen cabinets and have completed your staining project!

After your pieces are completely dry, you are ready for the next step - putting a beautiful, clear finish on your beautifully stained kitchen cabinets!

And remember - HAVE A HAPPY KITCHEN!!!

Crystal co-owned a custom cabinet shop for 14 years (1992-2006). She is now a stay-at-home mom who writes on the web, sharing all that she's learned from her years building and installing kitchen cabinets.

Kitchen Cabinet Installation - Step-By-Step Instructions on How to Install Kitchen Cabinets Yourself

Now that you have your new kitchen cabinets, you are ready to move on to the next big step.....Installing your kitchen cabinets. While the actual installation of the Kitchen Cabinets isn'tall that hard, the critical first step is measuring and marking out where the cabinets will go. By placing layout markings on the walls and floors, it will not only help you with kitchen cabinet placement and stud locations, but it will also help you locate where adjustments and shims will be required. Before we get started there are a couple of items that you will need for the project:


Level or Laser Level


Tape Measure

Stud Finder


1" x 3" Piece of lumber (6'-8' in length) or an Inverted U-shaped frame (see notes below)


Screws (long enough to go 1 1/2 into the studs)

Utility knife or chisel

Marking Compass

An extra set of hands (you may have to bribe one of your friends)

As I mentioned above, you have the option of using a piece of 1' x 3' lumber for the installation or building a frame to support the cabinets (I have included a picture of a sample frame below). This can be made out of 2' x 4's and should be tall enough to support the bottom of your wall cabinets. If you plan on installing more than one kitchen, then I would suggest the frame, but a piece of lumber will do just fine if this is a one time event. In either case, you will need another set of hands to help with the installation.

In this case we bought (RTA) Ready-To-Assemble Kitchen Cabinets from RTA Kitchen & Bathroom Cabinet Store. Now the kitchen cabinets are assembled, we are ready to start marking out our layout lines. Some people start with the base cabinets, but we are going to start with the wall cabinets first. There is no right or wrong way to start, I just prefer to start with the upper cabinets first.

1. Use a level and a pencil to draw a parallel line across the wall about 3 inches up from the floor. Measure down from this line, to the floor, and find the floors high point (if it has one), and mark a line at that point. From that high point, Measure up 34 1/2 inches and draw a level line across the wall to designate the top of the base cabinets.

2. Now that you have the top of the base cabinets marked, measure up another 19 1/2 inches and a level line across the wall to indicate the bottom of the wall cabinets. Lightly mark each cabinets' dimensions and placement on the wall to make sure that your original layout is correct.

3. Use a stud finder to locate the wall studs. Use a pencil to mark the stud locations at least 6 inches above and below the line for the bottom of the wall cabinets. Draw straight vertical lines between the top and bottom marks to indicate the center of the studs.

4. If you decided to go with the piece of 1' x 3' lumber, now is where you will use (if you decided to go with the U-shaped frame, it will come into play after all your lines are laid out). Screw a temporary 1' x 3' support rail to the wall, aligning the top edge of the rail with the line for the bottom edge of the wall cabinets. Attach it by driving 3 or 4 two inch screws through the rail into the wall studs.

5. Now that we have all the lines marked, it is time to start installing your kitchen cabinets. We are going to start with the corner cabinet (here is where your helper's extra set of hands will be needed). Place the corner cabinet onto the temporary support rail and have your helper hold the corner cabinet in place. Drill pilot holes through the sturdy cabinet back or its support rail and into the wall studs. Screw the cabinet into the wall using two screws that are long enough to penetrate the studs by at least 1 1/2 inches. Check the top of the cabinet for level and the front of the cabinet for plumb. If you have to correct the position, just back the screws out a little bit and top shims behind the cabinet at the stud locations. If it is plumb and level, drive the screws all the way in and add several more into each stud to ensure that the cabinet is secured tightly to the wall.

6. Now we are going to move onto the cabinets on either side of the corner cabinet. As you install each one, use the clamps to secure each cabinet to the neighboring cabinet and then check it for plumb with your level. On faceframe cabinets, it is a good idea to drill two 1/8 inch pilot holes through the sides of the faceframe and use screws. In this case, with frameless, ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets we are going to screw through the plywood sides and use shims in between the cabinets to ensure a tight fit and make sure that the cabinet faces are plumb.

7. After all the wall cabinets are in place, install the corner or end base case cabinet. Use shims where needed to level the cabinet and raise it up to the line which indicates the high point of the floor. Be sure it is level from front to back and from side to side, then screw it to the wall studs. If you don't have a diagonal corner cabinet or blind base cabinet in the corner, push the adjoining cabinet into place and clamp the two units together. Add a filler strip if needed to allow the doors and drawers enough clearance to open and close properly. If necessary, tap shims under the cabinet and behind it to adjust for plumb and level.

8. Drive screws through the cabinet back (and shims) into the wall studs. Trim any excess material from the shims with a sharp chisel or knife. Continue to add adjoining cabinets in this manner, joining them the same way you connected the wall cabinets in step 6.

9. If your cabinets end up butting against another wall, you may need a filler strip to make up the last few inches. If you have custom cabinets, they should have been built to fill this gap, but if you are using stock or RTA Kitchen Cabinets the filler strip may be needed. If you do need to use a filler strip, leave the last cabinet detached from the other cabinets. Clamp a straightedge to the face of the nearest installed unit, extending far enough for you to put alignment marks on the end wall. Allow a 3/4" offset behind those marks (for the thickness of the filler piece) and fasten a cleat to the wall. Then install and fasten the last cabinet and measure the gap between its face frame and the wall.

If the wall is flat, simply rip the filler board to the required width and fasten it in place. If the wall is irregular, you'll have to scribe-fit the filler board. Start by setting a marking compass to the width of the gap, then place a strip of 1"-wide masking tape along the filler board in the area where it needs to be trimmed. Clamp the board to the end cabinet's face frame, then trace the wall contour with the compass. Remove the board and cut along the scribe line with a jig saw, then reinstall it to check the fit. When it's right, drive screws through the adjacent face frame into the edge of the filler board. Screw or nail the other side to the cleat.

At this point, your kitchen cabinet installation is complete. If you purchased matching crown molding or any other details, these should be easily installed now. Depending on whether you had to use shims under the base cabinets, you may have to install some trim pieces by the toe kicks to cover up the shims or any gaps at the bottom of the kitchen cabinets.

I hope this helps make your kitchen cabinet installation as smooth as possible. If you need any help with cabinet selection, kitchen layout tips, or ideas for cabinet styles, check out RTA Kitchen & Bathroom Cabinet Store

Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets Vs. Refacing Kitchen Cabinets

Refinishing kitchen cabinets or refacing them, instead of cabinet replacement, lets you upgrade your kitchen at a price you can afford and allows for the new custom look you desire. If you are planning to remodel your kitchen you have found out that it is not cheap and that a significant portion of the cost is for cabinetry. Also, new kitchen cabinets can be costly and time consuming to install. All is not lost though. As long as your cabinets are in decent shape, with these alternatives you can give your kitchen a fabulous new look quickly, without busting your budget.

The most visible and used elements of your kitchen are also the most abused, the kitchen cabinets. So it makes sense that after a while cabinets start to look tired and worn and so does your kitchen. The fact is that most kitchen cabinets are in good shape structurally and only in need of a new look. With many colors, stains and wood veneers refinishing or refacing kitchen cabinets is a surefire way to transform your kitchen from old and worn to a dramatically fresh new appearance, which is best for you.

The least expensive solution of the two, if you do not want to spend time and money on a big kitchen remodeling job, is refinishing kitchen cabinets. Kitchen cabinet refinishing is achieved by either painting or staining the cabinetry and cabinet doors. This is very inexpensive compared to cabinet replacement and can improve with dramatic effect the look of your kitchen. For the best results, a professional should paint or stain the cabinets. Great results can be achieved by a trained refinishing professional, inexpensively. However a DIY job is possible, if you have the time and tools you can easily refinish your own kitchen cabinets and save even more.

Refacing kitchen cabinets is more expensive than refinishing cabinets but still a fraction of the cost to replace them. Here is how it works, the old cabinet doors and drawers are removed, stripped, and inspected for damage then the door and drawer fronts are replaced with new surfaces ranging from new wood veneer to laminate. The cabinet frames and exterior surfaces are covered or refaced to match and the inside of the cabinets are cleaned and painted to complete kitchen cabinet refacing.

If the kitchen cabinet hardware is not damaged it can be cleaned and re-installed. But, this is a great time to choose new cabinet hardware, doing so will let you really add your personality to the kitchen and complete the stunning transformation of your new look, refaced or refinished kitchen cabinets, on the cheap.

The time required for refacing or refinishing kitchen cabinets depends on the size of the kitchen but usually can be completed within 3-5 days. This means that your kitchen will not be a unusable total wreck for weeks or even months that cabinet replacement requires.

Buying all new cabinets for a complete remodeling of the kitchen is not in the budget of most homeowners. But as you can see up dating your kitchen need not break the bank or be time consuming. Your kitchen and home can have a stunning new look by simply refacing kitchen cabinets or refinishing kitchen cabinets.