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Refinishing and Cleaning Kitchen Cabinets

Got some free time this weekend and want to do some home improvements you can brag about on Monday? Why not use that time to update your kitchen cabinets? It's easier (and cheaper) than you might think. With a little elbow grease and creativity, you can update your kitchen cabinets without going through the hassle of an entire remodel.

Refinish and Clean Kitchen Cabinets

Cleaning Kitchen Cabinets

Heat, water, grease and food residue can take their toll on your kitchen cabinets. You might be surprised what a good scrubbing can do. When you're ready to clean your cabinets, have the following on hand:

  1. Label or number the cabinet doors if you remove them so you'll put them back in the right place. (If you're sanding or painting, don't sand off or paint over the marks.) The holes for the hinges (door and frame) need to match too, so you can easily determine which door goes where.

  2. Lay plenty of drop cloths to protect countertops, appliances and floors.

  3. Wear gloves and eye protection when using a cleaner such as TSP (trisodium phosphate).

  4. Clean thoroughly, following the cleaner's instructions. Keep a clean surface of the cloth in contact with the cabinet for best results.

  5. Rinse the cabinets. If the rinse water looks dirty, repeat the cleaning process.

  6. Allow the wood to dry.

Cleaning and Updating Cabinet Hardware

Cabinet Hardware

Hardware (including hinges) gets greasy and dirty, too. Since you have the doors off, remove the knobs and hinges, and clean the hardware:

  1. Soak the hardware in a soapy-water solution for 30 minutes.
  2. Scrub lightly with a soft brush and rinse.
  3. Let dry and apply the proper polish.

If you need to replace one or two pieces, take one set with you when you go to your local Lowe's. But if your cabinet hardware is older, it may be difficult to find an exact match. With all the knobs and hinges off, it's a great time to shop for new hardware. You should also take some of your old hardware along to make sure the new hardware will fit your existing doors.

Many decorative styles of hinges, knobs and pulls are available in various colors, metals and finishes:

  • Antique Copper
  • Polished Chrome
  • Polished, Sterling or Antique Brass
  • Nickel
  • Aged Bronze
  • Ceramics (knobs and pulls)
  • Iron

When choosing the finish for your hardware, think about what style will look best in your home. If your style is traditional, brushed finishes, polished brass, nickel or pewter will complement your décor. If you have a more contemporary décor, choose finishes with an enameled or high-gloss-metal shine.

Adding Moulding to Cabinets

You can dress up drab cabinet doors with moulding. Applying a contrasting finish or color is a quick and inexpensive way to change the look of your kitchen. Keep the following safety tips in mind when you add moulding:

  • Always apply finishing materials in a well-ventilated area.
  • Wear eye protection and rubber gloves to prevent exposure to finishing materials.

Stripping and Refinishing Cabinets

If your cabinets still don't look spectacular after cleaning, you may have to refinish or paint them. The cabinet-refinishing process is similar to the one for refinishing furniture.

Unless you're planning to take your cabinets down, there are a few extra things to remember. As you've already discovered from cleaning, working with cabinets in place on the wall can be messy and awkward. Liquid strippers work best, but use the gel or semipaste types. They won't drip as much when used on vertical surfaces. However, before you can buy the proper stripper, you'll need to find out what kind of finish is on your cabinets.

The original finish is one of several possible materials. Most of them look identical to an untrained eye. Use the chart below to determine what type of finish you have. Find an inconspicuous spot on the wood to perform the tests.


If You Suspect
Your Finish Is

Determine By


Put a few drops of turpentine on the wood. If the finish dissolves, it's wax-based.


Apply a few drops of denatured alcohol. If the finish dissolves quickly, it's shellac.

Lacquer or Shellac

Try a few drops of lacquer thinner to dissolve.

Water-Based Finish

A few drops of Xylene liquefies water-based finishes.

Polyurethane or Varnish

Paint / varnish remover strips these materials, but you'll probably still have to sand some of the old finish off.

Other Finishes You May Encounter (and What to Do About Them)

Penetrating Oil

The product does just what its name says, so nothing can remove it. The color isn't strippable since it's become part of the wood. If the wood is dry, it can be clear-coated, waxed or painted.


Determine whether the paint is oil-based or water-based (latex).

Rub a rag or cotton ball moistened with denatured alcohol on the paint surface. If it rubs off or gets soft, it's latex. Alcohol won't affect oil paint.

Latex paint can be applied over oil if the old surface has been lightly sanded and properly primed.


Vinyl-Covered or Formica Surfaces

Don't attempt to paint or refinish. A professional should refinish cabinets surfaced with these materials.


Always let the stripping agent do the work. These products are relatively easy to use. But if you're not an experienced refinisher, you may want to start with an inconspicuous area or door. Remember to keep countertops, appliances and floors covered when stripping and refinishing.

After stripping and before refinishing or painting, patch any conspicuous holes, scratches and nicks with wood filler. When dry, sand lightly to smooth out the patch. Before painting, sand lightly and prime. For detailed instructions, see How to Prep and Paint Kitchen Cabinets.

Note: Before you decide to paint floating-panel cabinet doors, remember that the wood expands and contracts with the seasons. This will cause the paint bead to separate and expose unpainted wood.

Good to Know

Before undertaking refinishing, remind yourself that it takes a lot of time and effort. Also, remember that your kitchen may be out of commission for a while.


When using any chemical, always follow the manufacturer's instructions for use and safety.