Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets – Paint or Stain?

Paint or Stain

I received an interesting question about refinishing or painting kitchen cabinets on another blog post. Since more people are refinishing and remodeling in these difficult economic times, I thought this topic might be valuable to several more people, so I decided to give it it’s own posting.

Joyce L. asked:

Thank you for the wonderful site! I am about to “redo” my kitchen. We will be installing light coloured tiles in the kitchen and have new oak floors in the rest of the house. The cabinets are of course the original goldish coloured, raised panel oak cabinets from the 80’s. The problem is that the finish on some of the cabinets almost looks new while other cabinet doors, especially those around the sink and stove area, are in dire need of refinishing. I’m afraid that if I try to refinish some of the cabinets they will not match the existing 30 year old wood/stain of the others. And refinishing all of the cabinets seems like too daunting a task. I’m almost afraid to ask this question but…I have heard that a grain filler can be applied to all the cabinets and then they could be …primed and painted (maybe white, I’m thinking country blue). There seems to be alot of controversy over painting wood, especially oak due to the pores. I would appreciate your advice. 

 Here’s my answer:

Joyce – I so glad you like the site. Thank you for the compliment.

I’m not familiar with grain filler, but it sounds like a risky way to go. I would imagine it might be hard to control the outcome and potentially require a lot of sanding. You are correct that painting oak is not necessarily a great thing to do, since the “pores”, or open portions of the grain will show through strongly. But, believe it or not, there are actually new cabinets sold that are exactly that, painted oak. The texture of the oak is prominent and it’s part of the desired “look.” I personally do not like that look. But that is a matter of taste and you might feel differently. That’s why Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors. We don’t all like the same thing.

A big problem with painting cabinets in a kitchen is that the painted surface will not be as durable as if it were painted in a cabinet shop or factory. The manufacturers of the better cabinets don’t actually use a paint. They use a conversion varnish which cures to a much tougher finish than regular paint. You can wipe it down many, many times with no damage. Regular paint will wear through on your most often used cabinets.

I have two suggestions for you. One is to take the doors and drawer fronts off and take them to a cabinet shop and have them paint them there using conversion varnish. You could then paint the cabinet frames with paint of the same color without removing them from the wall. That’s the part of the cabinet that gets the least wear, so regular paint should work just fine.

The second suggestion would be good if you really would prefer the natural wood look and don’t care to paint over the oak. You can not just refinish teh worn doors. They will look too different from the originals since the finish on the originals has probably yellowed over the years. You need to do all of them.

Look at a products from Minwax, or similar polyurethane removers. These products will easily strip away the polyurethane finish without too much effort. There is no need to sand through the original finish. This product dissolves it and you simply scrape it off or wipe it off with steel wool. It’s available in an aeresol to help strip the areas with curves, grooves, or tight corners that might be hard to get into with a brush. Next, you clean the surface with a Poly & Paint Remover Wash to remove any residue of finish. Once that is done, you can apply a new polyurethane finish and the cabinets should look like new. If you have any rough spots, you may need to do a bit of light sanding.

If you do the refinishing yourself, take the doors and drawer fronts off. That way you can spread them out in the garage and work more comfortably than if you tried working on them in place. You might even try refinishing the doors and drawer fronts only and see if you really need to do the cabinet frames or not. If you have full-overlay, Euro-style cabinets, not much of it will show when the doors are closed. You may have to do any exposed cabinet sides, though.

I hope this helps. Good luck and let me know how it turns out.

I hope this information is helpful to you. You might want to get yourself a copy of my best-seller, Designing Your Perfect House. It is chockfull of valuable tips and advice that will save you many times the cost of the book on your house building or remodeling project. You might also like The Well-Centered Home: Simple Steps to Increase Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and Happiness Where You Live. It will show you how to make your home a happy place.

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Bill Hirsch | Architect

Bill Hirsch


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  3. Remodeling Kitchen Ideas on February 17, 2010 at 12:26 am

    Great Post. Wish I had read this sooner. However, If I had only just hired a contractor first, I wouldn’t have wasted so much money.

  4. Darren on September 10, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Hi bill my wife and I are planning on changing our light color alder wood kitchen cabinets to an antique white/cream color. Is it better to stain or paint the cabinets….both will be professionally done but we are torn on what to do and have received positive feedback from both.

    Thanks darren

    • Bill Hirsch | Architect Bill on September 11, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Darren – New cabinets will have a conversion varnish clear top coat over the paint of stain to protect the finish. It allows you to clean the cabinets without gradually wiping away the finish. This would be true with either a paint or a stain. So the “livability” of the finish should not be an issue with the clear, durable finish over the colored finish. I would suggest a paint if you want to have a solid color for the cabinets. You could use a “wiped off” paint or stain if you want to see some of the grain of the wood showing through. I can’t say which is better. They are both good. The answer will depend on what final look you want. The wiped off paint will leave more color behind than the wiped off stain. Be sure to have the cabinet finishers make up some samples for you before you make your final decision.

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