How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets Featured image

We’ve all seen stained wood cabinets before, but very few of us have taken the time to stain anything. If you’ve never attempted to stain your old kitchen cabinets, this brief guide will tell you everything you need to know how to stain like a pro. The only hard part of staining is the work that goes into it, which is the most satisfying part of taking on this kind of project.

When it comes to renewing the look and feel of your kitchen without purchasing new cabinetry, staining existing cabinets offers an affordable solution to updating your kitchen’s decor.

What Materials Do You Need to Stain Cabinets?

Materials for staining

Most of these items are probably in your garage already, but if you don’t they are easy enough to pick up at the local hardware store or home improvement center. Despite the variety of styles to stain a cabinet, certain items can be left off the list if you chose to use a select type of staining method.

Here’s what you need:

  • Sandpaper and sanding pad (220-250 grit sandpaper works fine)
  • Tack cloth
  • Disposable rubber gloves and a dust mask
  • Painter’s tape (not masking tape)
  • Paintbrush or foam brush
  • White rag material (from old t-shirts)
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner
  • Wood stain
  • Polyurethane sealer
  • Flathead screwdriver (for opening stain and sealer cans)
  • Phillips head screwdriver (for removing cabinet doors and hinges)
  • Paint sticks
  • Sawhorse benches (for placing cabinet doors)
  • Drip cloth plastic
  • Vacuum cleaner

How To Stain Cabinets Yourself

Girl staining cabinets

The following steps are for preparation before and after the work to stain kitchen cabinets. Like any other DIY project, you want to set up work areas that are dedicated to giving you enough room to do the job correctly. It’s best to find a room where dust is at a minimum but there is enough airflow. This is so you don’t get overwhelmed by stain fumes or polyurethane odors.

How To Start

The first thing to do is to remove all the cabinet doors from the kitchen cabinet frames. Additionally, remove all the knobs, hinges, and hardware that might get in the way of staining. All of the screws that attach can be kept with their accompanying hardware or stored separately. Small baby food jars or Ziplock bags make handy storage for them while they are being stained.

Prepping Cabinet Surfaces

Anything that’s inside your cabinets can stay put but it does need to be covered if you do any sanding. Cover these items with plastic sheeting or newspaper and a bit of painter’s tape to hold them in place. Sanding cabinet doors is easy to do by placing them between two sawhorses or a worktable covered in plastic sheeting. The outside of cabinets where wood is seen also needs light sanding, so small wedges of wood are best for getting in tight nooks.

You don’t need to sand the surface too much, so it just needs to have the sealed layer exposed so the wood stain can get into the wood. For older cabinets, this can take a couple passes to remove all of the protective coatings.

Make Sure Surfaces Are Clean

This is where your vacuum cleaner is going to come in handy and keep leftover dust from making you cough or track it all over your home. All surfaces also need vacuuming so the excess dust isn’t left behind. As an extra step, use a tack cloth to wipe down everything that’s been sanded. If you can’t find a tack cloth, a baby wipe that doesn’t have excess skin moisturizers also works great.

Prep Wood With Wood Conditioner

Just to be clear, a wood conditioner is actually a primer that helps open up the wood grain so it will allow the stain to penetrate into the wood. Some conditioners recommend that you let it soak into the wood for 30 minutes to a couple of hours tops. Don’t let it sit overnight since it won’t let the stain get into the grain. Use a white cloth to apply the conditioner and be sure to wear some gloves. Wipe off the excess if you add too much.

Add Stain In Several Coats

Now in that 2-hour break before you add your stain, choose which kind of applicator will work best for you. Some people like using a foam brush (don’t use a paintbrush since it can leave streaks), while some like using a rag dipped in stain. Be sure to have enough airflow so the stain fumes aren’t too much for you. Let the stain stand on the wood for 5-minutes and wipe off the excess to see how much stain has been absorbed.

You can add another stain layer (if you want to have darker results), and then wait for another 5-minutes before repeating the wipe down once again. When you reach the right shade, you can let these dry overnight. Repeat this for all the pieces you are staining on one side only so the next day you can repeat this process on the opposite side. Don’t forget that the opposite side will need wood conditioner prepping also.

Don’t Forget To Seal The Surface

When you are done staining everything, these surfaces need to be sealed with a good wood sealer. It’s recommended to use a polyurethane wood sealer so this will protect the wood surface from scratches and daily kitchen wear and tear. It can take as many as 3 to 4 coats to get the best seal, but often it comes down to how you like the finish. It will be important to lightly sand in between coats to keep little lumps or bumps to a minimum.

Be sure to clean off the excess dust after doing any sanding. The best method for adding polyurethane sealers is to apply using a cloth rag instead of a foam brush. Pooling and excess sealer will take longer to dry and create uneven surfaces. Doing it this way also ensures the layers are thin enough to build up a professional finish that looks like you hired a pro.

What Types Of Stains Are Best for Cabinets?

Man staining cabinet

There are a lot of wood stains on the market, so understanding what each one does will help you make a better choice. Here is a basic crash course to what each kind of good for.


This is the workhorse of all wood stains and contains linseed oil that is great for soaking into the wood. Since this type of stain is easy to wipe off, this is why you need to wait for 5-minutes in between layers to the stain will have time to get into the wood.


This is different from oil-based and needs to work in combination with water-based sealers. This doesn’t work if you try to use an oil-based sealer since the water-based stain doesn’t mix due to its chemistry. Despite this, water-based stains often dry faster and aren’t a good choice if you aren’t prepared to work quickly.

Varnish Stain

If you have some experience with using stains, these are a good choice since they dry hard. This can be a problem if you are unsure of adding too much stain since it does dry so quickly. This type is better for professional use until you have more experience with wood stains.

Gel Stain

Gel stains were developed to combat uneven absorbing with select types of wood such as pine. Because this stain can be applied in trouble spots, it’s good for making touch-ups on lighter spots that can be blended around a lighter area that didn’t absorb enough stain the first time around.

Lacquer Stain

This is a stain that dries too quickly to most DIY projects, so it’s not recommended for amateurs to try using it. This is best used by professionals who know how to apply this stain correctly without making mistakes that are hard to correct. It also has more fumes than the other types of stains which can be too smelly for doing in your home.

How Long Does Staining Take?

Staining takes time

Not everyone works at the same rate although in general, it can take on average about half a day to make preparations before you start staining. The staining process will take at least a couple of days if you consider that drying times need no less than 5 to 6 hours to dry in between. When it comes to the sealing process, it will take more time to allow each sealed layer to dry before adding another layer.

There is also the reattaching of the hinges, knobs, and pull handles that will take some time. It’s not 100% certain this project will take any less than 4 to 5 days total to complete if you take your time.

Do You Need To Sand Beforehand?

Man preparing poor state cabinet

This is a question that you need to ask yourself if the condition of your cabinets is in a poor state. It’s just a precaution to pre-sand to remove any prior sealer and let the wood absorb the stain. If you don’t, the results might appear lumpy bumpy, and won’t look as professional.

Can You Stain Over Pre-Stained Cabinets?

Girl staining over pre stained cabinet

There’s nothing wrong with adding stain on top of the preexisting stain as long as you are prepping the older stain surface first. The color can be just as attractive if you’re looking to add rich stain colors over an old stained surface.

Is it Better To Stain Or Paint Cabinets?

Staining vs Painting cabinet

Stain is great because it brings out the wood grain in ways that make wood cabinets appear richer and more expensive-looking. Covering them with paint simply covers the natural beauty that can make wood cabinets appear more exotic rather than covered up with paint.

Is It Worth The Work To Stain Cabinets?

Beautifully stained kitchen cabinets

The biggest effort that goes into staining is the amount of time that’s spent. It’s rewarding to see the finished results that will be impressive for others who look at your kitchen cabinets. In terms of having cabinets done by a professional, the price difference is night and day. Sure, there is a lot of work that goes into doing it yourself, but it’s totally worth it!

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