How to Refinish Oak Cabinets: A Step-by-Step Guide


    If you’re looking to update your kitchen without breaking the bank, refinishing your oak cabinets is a great option. Not only is it cost-effective, but it can also give your kitchen a fresh new look. But where do you start? In this article, we’ll guide you through the process of how to refinish oak cabinets, from preparation to finishing touches.

    If you want an economical way to update your kitchen, consider refinishing your oak cabinets. Here’s how:

    1. Remove Cabinet Doors and Hardware – Take down your cabinet doors and remove the hardware.
    2. Clean Cabinets – Clean the cabinets thoroughly with a gentle cleaner and a sponge. Remove any remaining cleaner with a damp cloth, then dry.
    3. Sand Cabinets – Sand all the cabinets using a finer grit sandpaper.
    4. Use Wood Filler – Fill in any holes or dents in the wood with wood filler and let dry.
    5. Stain Cabinets – Apply your chosen stain to the cabinets in the direction of the grain. Wipe off any excess.
    6. Seal and Finish Cabinets – Apply polyurethane sealer to the cabinets and let dry. Apply once more, then re-attach your cabinet doors and hardware.

    Following these steps will give your oak cabinets a renewed, beautiful look.


    Preparation is the key to any successful cabinet refinishing project. By taking the time to gather your materials and properly clean your cabinets, you’ll set yourself up for a smooth and successful renovation. In this section, we’ll guide you through the necessary steps for sanding, staining, and sealing your cabinets to achieve the perfect finish. Whether you’re a DIY enthusiast or simply looking to refresh your dated cabinets, this guide will help you achieve professional results. So, let’s get started!

    Gather Materials

    To begin the process of refinishing oak cabinets, you will need to gather materials before diving into the project. This will ensure that you have everything you need on hand and can start and finish the project without interruption. Here is a list of materials you will need:

    • Sandpaper (80 grit, 120 grit, and 220 grit)
    • Stain (oil-based or water-based)
    • Paintbrushes or foam brushes
    • Sealant (polyurethane or varnish)
    • Damp cloth
    • Dry cloth
    • Degreaser or TSP (trisodium phosphate)
    • Scraper or putty knife
    • Drop cloth or plastic sheeting
    • Masking tape
    • With all these materials on hand, you can proceed with the rest of the project with ease.

      Clean the Cabinets

      To properly refinish oak cabinets, you must clean them thoroughly. Before starting the cleaning process, it is best to remove all items from the cabinets, including dishes, food, and other items. Use a degreaser to clean the surface of the cabinets and remove any grease or grime that has built up over time. You can use a cloth or a sponge to apply the degreaser and then rinse it off with warm water.

      Next, use a scraper to remove any peeling paint or loose wood particles. This will ensure a smooth and even surface for sanding. After scraping, use a cloth to wipe any remaining debris from the surface.

      To prep the cabinets for sanding, use masking tape to cover any areas you do not want to be sanded. This includes the walls, countertops, and floor. This will help to prevent any accidental damages.

      List of materials needed for cleaning cabinets:

      • Degreaser
      • Sponge or cloth
      • Scraper
      • Masking tape
      • Cloth for wiping

      Remove Cabinet Doors and Hardware

      Removing cabinet doors and hardware is necessary before sanding, staining, and sealing oak cabinets. It’s important to label each door and its corresponding hardware for easy reassembly.

      To remove cabinet doors, use a screwdriver to unscrew the hinges from the cabinet frame. Keep all screws in a labeled container for safekeeping.

      For hardware such as knobs and handles, use a screwdriver or drill to remove them from the doors and drawers. Keep hardware and screws in labeled containers as well.

      Once all doors and hardware have been removed, place them on a drop cloth in a well-ventilated area ready for sanding, staining, and sealing.


      Now that all of the necessary preparations have been made, it’s time to move onto the sanding process. This is an essential step in achieving a smooth and even finish, as it helps to remove any existing paint, stain or varnish that remains on the surface of the cabinets. Sanding also helps to smooth out any rough spots, scratches or dents that may be present, ultimately resulting in a polished and refined look. It’s important to approach sanding carefully, though, as it can be a time-consuming and delicate process. Here’s everything that you need to keep in mind as you embark on this important stage in your cabinet refinishing journey.

      Sanding Tools

      When it comes to sanding oak cabinets, you need the right tools to achieve a smooth and even surface. Here are some sanding tools that you might need:

      • Sandpaper – You can use various grits of sandpaper for different stages of the sanding process, such as 80, 120, or 220 grit. Start with a coarse grit for tough spots and finish with a fine grit for a polished finish.
      • Sandpaper Block – This tool will help you wrap the sandpaper around it and apply even pressure on the surface of the cabinets.
      • Sanding Sponge – A sanding sponge is a flexible and versatile tool that can reach tight corners and contours that regular sandpaper can’t.
      • Sanding Machine – If you have a large project, you can use an electric sander to save time and effort. A drum sander or a random orbital sander are good options for sanding oak cabinets.
      • Make sure to wear protective gear such as gloves, a dust mask, and safety goggles when sanding to avoid inhaling dust or getting particles in your eyes.

        Sanding Techniques

        When sanding oak cabinets, use the appropriate grits of sandpaper to effectively remove old stains, paint, or varnish. Here are some tips for sanding oak cabinets:

        • Start with a coarse sandpaper of about 60 grit to remove the topcoat and any rough spots or dents.
        • Progress to a finer sandpaper of about 120 grit to smooth the surface and remove scratches made by the coarse sandpaper.
        • Finish the sanding process with a very fine sandpaper of about 220 grit to achieve a polished finish.
        • Sand in the direction of the grain to avoid damaging the wood fibers.
        • Use sandpaper blocks or sponges to sand tight or curved areas and prevent accidentally sanding away too much material.
        • After sanding, clean the dust off the cabinets with a cloth or vacuum before moving on to staining.

          Clean the Dust

          After sanding the oak cabinets, you’ll need to clean off the dust before moving on to staining. Follow these steps to get the cabinets dust-free:

          • Use a tack cloth or a lint-free cloth to wipe down the cabinet surfaces.
          • Use a vacuum or a brush attachment to clean out any dust that’s accumulated in corners and tight spaces.
          • Wipe down the cabinets with a clean, damp cloth to remove any leftover dust.
          • Let the cabinets dry completely before moving on to staining.
          • Cleaning the dust off your cabinets is an essential step in the refinishing process. If you don’t remove all the dust, it can mix with the stain, creating a gritty finish that’s difficult to fix.


            After sanding your oak cabinets to perfection, the next step is to add color with a stain. Staining cabinets involves applying a translucent layer of color that enhances the natural beauty of the wood grain while blending in any discolorations or blemishes. Choosing the right stain can be a daunting task with the various types, colors, and finishes available. This guide will provide expert tips on selecting and applying the perfect stain for your oak cabinets.

            Choosing the Right Stain

            Choosing the right stain for oak cabinets can be overwhelming due to the vast range of options available. Here are some expert tips for selecting the perfect stain:

            • Consider the existing color of the oak cabinets and pick a stain that matches or complements it.
            • Determine the desired level of opacity – opaque stains fully conceal the wood grain, while semi-transparent stains allow some of the grain to show through.
            • Decide on the level of glossiness – stains are available in finishes ranging from matte to high-gloss.
            • Test samples on small, inconspicuous areas of the cabinets to see how the color and finish look under natural and artificial light.
            • Consult with professionals at home improvement stores or seek advice from expert cabinet refinishers.
            • With these tips in mind, choosing the perfect stain for oak cabinets can be a fun and rewarding experience.

              Staining Techniques

              When staining oak cabinets, it’s important to work in small sections to ensure the stain doesn’t dry before it’s evenly applied. Here are some helpful tips for successfully staining your oak cabinets:

              • Apply the stain using a brush or rag, following the grain of the wood.
              • Wipe off excess stain with a clean cloth after a few minutes to avoid dark spots or streaks.
              • Allow the stain to dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions before applying a second coat if desired.
              • For a darker finish, multiple coats of stain may be necessary.
              • Test the stain on a small, inconspicuous area before applying it to the entire cabinet to ensure the desired color is achieved.
              • Following these staining techniques will help you achieve a beautiful and professional-looking finish on your oak cabinets.


                Now that the cabinets have been sanded and stained, the final step to achieving a professional finish is to seal them. Sealing oak cabinets protects the wood from moisture and wear while also enhancing the color and texture of the stain. Choosing the right sealant and applying it properly requires careful consideration and attention to detail. In this section, we will cover different types of sealants, techniques for application, and how to ensure the cabinets dry properly.

                Choosing the Right Sealant

                Choosing the right sealant is crucial for protecting oak cabinets against wear and moisture while enhancing the color of the stain. Here are some factors to consider when selecting a sealant:

                • Type: There are various types of sealants, including polyurethane, lacquer, and wax. Each has its pros and cons, and choosing the right one depends on personal preference and the intended use of the cabinets.
                • Color: Clear sealants are available, but some can add a slight tint to the wood. Be sure to test sample finishes before applying to the entire cabinet.
                • Sheen: Sealants come in a range of sheens from matte to high gloss. Consider the level of sheen that complements the stain and enhances the look of the cabinets.
                • When applying the sealant, use these techniques for the best results:

                  • Apply in a well-ventilated area and wear protective gear. Avoid using sealants on humid or rainy days.
                  • Apply in a thin, even layer with a brush or cloth, following the direction of the grain.
                  • Wait for the recommended drying time before applying additional coats. Some sealants may require sanding between coats.
                  • Sealing Techniques

                    Once the stain has dried on the oak cabinets, it’s time to apply the sealant. Here are some techniques for applying sealant:

                    • Apply sealant in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling any fumes.
                    • Use a quality paintbrush or sprayer to avoid brush marks or uneven coverage.
                    • Work in thin, even layers, and follow the direction of the grain to avoid any bubbles or air pockets.
                    • Wipe off any excess sealant after a few minutes.
                    • Let the sealant dry completely before applying an additional coat.
                    • The drying time for sealant varies depending on the brand and type. Be sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for drying time. Generally, sealant should dry for at least six to eight hours before applying a second coat. It’s important to allow the sealant to dry completely before reassembling the cabinets.

                      Drying Time

                      Once you have successfully applied the sealant on your oak cabinets, it is essential to allow ample time for it to dry. The drying time for sealant can vary depending on factors such as humidity, temperature, and the brand of sealant used. However, a general guideline is to allow at least 6-8 hours of drying time between each coat.

                      During the drying period, ensure that the room is well-ventilated to assist with the drying process. Avoid touching the cabinets or placing any items on them until they are completely dry to avoid any fingerprints or smudges on the surface.

                      To check the sealant’s drying progress, touch an inconspicuous area gently. If it is still tacky, it needs more time to dry. Once the cabinets are entirely dry, you can apply a second or third coat of sealant, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions.

                      It is essential to follow the recommended drying time before reassembling your cabinets to achieve the desired professional finish. Rushing the drying process may result in smearing or damage to the sealant, requiring you to start again from scratch.


                      After hours of sanding, staining, and sealing your oak cabinets, it’s time for the final step: reassembling them. The reassembly process requires attention to detail and patience to ensure that every piece is put back together correctly. This guide provides guidance on how to reinstall the hardware and cabinet doors to complete your newly refinished cabinets. With proper reassembly, your cabinets will look as good as new and add a touch of elegance to your space.

                      Hardware Reinstallation

                      To properly reinstall the hardware on oak cabinets, follow these steps:

                      • Inspect the screws and hinges for damage and replace any that are necessary.
                      • For hinges, match the existing type and style, and screw them back onto the cabinet frames as well as the door itself.
                      • If using new hardware, ensure it matches the existing holes or drill new ones accordingly.
                      • Line up the new hardware and screw them into place firmly with a screwdriver.
                      • After staining and sealing oak cabinets, reassembling the cabinet doors requires careful attention to ensure a proper fit. Follow these steps:

                        • Check each door for damage or warping and replace any that are necessary.
                        • Place the hinges back into the pre-existing holes on the cabinet and screw into place.
                        • Line up the hinges on the door and screw them into place correctly.
                        • Check that the doors open and close smoothly and adjust if necessary.
                        • With these steps, your newly refinished oak cabinets should look and function like new and add an elegance to your space.

                          Cabinet Door Reinstallation

                          To reinstall cabinet doors on oak cabinets, there are a few important steps to follow. First, check the doors for any signs of damage or warping, and make any necessary repairs before proceeding. Then, follow these steps:

                          1. Screw the hinges onto the door: Position the hinges on the door and screw them in using a screwdriver or drill. Make sure they are evenly spaced and level.

                          2. Screw the hinges into the cabinet: Place the door into its opening and hold it in place. Screw the hinges into the pre-existing holes on the inside of the cabinet.

                          3. Check for smooth opening and closing: Test the door to make sure it opens and closes smoothly. If it doesn’t, adjust the hinges as needed until it does.

                          4. Repeat for all other cabinet doors: Repeat this process for all the other cabinet doors, making sure to match the existing hardware and spacing.

                          By following these steps, you can seamlessly reassemble your updated oak cabinets and enjoy their refreshed look.

                          FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

                          Can oak kitchen cabinets be refinished?

                          Yes, oak kitchen cabinets can be refinished. Refinishing kitchen cabinets involves sanding, staining, and sealing the wood to give it a new look. Professional refinishing services are available, or homeowners can undertake the project themselves with the right tools and materials. It’s important to note that not all oak cabinets may be suitable for refinishing, as damage or structural issues may prevent a successful refinishing project.

                          How do you modernize old oak cabinets?

                          One way to modernize old oak cabinets is to paint them. Choose a bright, light color that will make the space feel open and airy. Another option is to remove the cabinet doors and replace them with glass doors or open shelving. This will create a more modern look and give the room a sense of “lightness.” Finally, consider replacing the hardware with contemporary options like brushed nickel or black metal. This will create a cohesive look that ties the room together.

                          Is it better to Restain or paint oak cabinets?

                          It depends on the desired look and level of maintenance. If you prefer a more natural look with visible grain, restaining is the way to go. However, if you want a completely smooth, even finish or a bold color change, painting may be the better option. Keep in mind that painted cabinets may require more upkeep and touch-ups over time.

                          How do you restore the finish on oak cabinets?

                          To restore the finish on oak cabinets, you should first clean the cabinets thoroughly with a mixture of warm water and mild soap, then rinse and dry completely. Next, lightly sand the cabinets (use a fine-grit sandpaper) to remove any surface scratches and prepare the surface for the new finish. Apply a stain or sealer of your choice, following the manufacturer’s instructions, then allow it to dry completely. Finally, apply a clear coat of polyurethane or varnish to protect the wood and give it a glossy finish. Allow the cabinets to dry completely before using them again.


                          In conclusion, knowing how to refinish oak cabinets can transform dated or damaged cabinets into attractive and durable pieces that add character to your home. Proper preparation, sanding, staining, and sealing techniques are essential for achieving professional results that last for years. Remember to gather all necessary materials, remove hardware and doors, clean cabinets, choose the right stain and sealant, and reassemble properly. With patience and attention to detail, anyone can revive their oak cabinets and enjoy a new and refreshed look in their space.

                          In summary, refinishing oak cabinets requires time, effort, and attention to detail, but it can be a satisfying DIY project that transforms a space. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can achieve a professional finish and restore the beauty of your oak cabinets, adding value and style to your space. From sanding to staining and sealing, each step is crucial for a successful outcome. With a little practice and patience, you can refinish your oak cabinets with confidence and pride, enhancing the ambiance of your home for years to come.