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.

ONE FINAL AND IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT SAFETY AS YOU LEARN HOW TO STAIN KITCHEN CABINETS

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.



1 comment:

  1. Great article.You have covered all the things one need to consider about stain kitchen.Surely will follow this.
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