How to Restore Oak Cabinets


Cabinets are a major feature of any kitchen or bathroom. A lot of time is spent planning for and installing them. But over time, due to use and water exposure, they begin to lose their luster. The top coat starts degrading and the finish below it starts to disappear. Many people just call their local kitchen remodeler and start over when the cabinets get to this shape. It is easy and much less expensive, however, to simply restore oak cabinets than to start from scratch.

Things You'll Need

  • Water
  • Ammonia
  • Scotch Brite pad
  • Medium-bristled bush
  • Linseed oil
  • Stain
  • Solvent
  • Paint brush
  • Top coat
  • Remove any door hardware such as pulls and hinges. These can either be reconditioned or replaced with new hardware and reinstalled after the oak cabinets are reconditioned. New hinges will most likely work better than the old ones.

  • Clean the oak cabinets thoroughly with a mixture of 80 percent water to 20 percent ammonia. Since the open pores in oak can trap dust, in addition to a cloth or soft Scotch Brite pad, use a plastic, medium-bristled brush to clean the pores and remove any trapped dust.

  • Recondition the wood. On parts of the oak cabinets that are solid wood, usually the face frame and the doors but not the sides, apply a coat of boiled linseed oil and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Wipe off any oil not absorbed by the wood with a lint-free cloth. Don't apply the oil to plywood surfaces because it could affect the glue and cause the plywood to de-laminate.

  • Apply stain to any parts of the cabinet where the stain is missing. Alternatively, apply stain to the whole cabinet and wipe it off as you go. This will apply stain to any area that is missing the protective top coat. Since stain usually only gets damaged or degrades in areas missing the protective top coat, applying stain to the whole cabinet will only allow the stain to penetrate the areas where the top coat is missing. If you were to stain the cabinet after stripping the top coat, the stain would darken areas that still had stain more than areas without, leading to a blotchy look. As cabinets age, the wood takes on a patina that only time can provide; restaining the cabinets entirely will mask that patina under a new coat of stain.

  • Determine the composition of the top coat by testing different solvents on the bottom of a door. Most cabinets are finished with lacquer, but some have a varnish or polyurethane finish. Start with lacquer thinner and work your way through mineral spirits and paint thinner and even denatured alcohol or xylene until you find a solvent that removes the top coat.

  • Dip a brush into the solvent and begin brushing the surface of the cabinets. The solvent in the brush will cause the finish to flow together and fill in any missing or rough spots. It will also reduce the thickness of the finish, so another top coat might be needed.

  • Apply a finish, or top, coat to the cabinets, if needed. The new top coat should match the existing coat. To obtain the best results, use an airless sprayer to apply the finish. This is the only way to get an acceptable finish with lacquer, and while brushing can provide a decent finish with other types of top coats, it doesn't compare with spraying the finish on.

Tips & Warnings

  • Lacquer is the most common top coat applied to cabinets, so apply lacquer thinner first. Find small quantities of these solvents at most home improvement stores. A great way to get just enough to test a small area is to ask neighbors if they have any. Once you determine the type of solvent needed, purchase a larger container to strip the cabinets with.
  • Take a drawer to your local home improvement or paint store so that someone can match the stain color for you. He might also be able to determine the type of top coat as well.

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