Refinished Oak Cabinets

12 Materials
6 Weeks

My oak kitchen cabinets were the original color of brown and looked really dated. I know that white is a big color for cabinets these days, but I just couldn't bring myself to paint the oak cabinets. I like white cabinets, but I know from our lakehouse reno that they are more work to keep clean. Every single spec of food and dirt shows up...Here are the before photos:

Step 1 ~ Design and Planning

Light is also an issue in my kitchen, I needed a brighter/lighter look. We plan on updating our countertops, backsplash and kitchen sink, but I wanted to make color/style decisions slowly as I finished each phase, instead of deciding all up front. Originally, my kitchen had black appliances except for the refrigerator, which is stainless steel with a small amount of black trim. When my dishwasher and oven died last year, I replaced it with stainless. The only thing left black was the oven hood and micorwave. 

For the cabinets, I would strip and sand all of the original color off down to the raw oak wood. This would mean a fairly big mess inside my home, so I started this project by moving out of my kitchen. I stored everything in my dining room during this phase, which is next to the kitchen. It was pretty easy to still operate and make the family meals around the mess.

Step 2 ~ Project Prep
  • Remove everything from cabinets and drawers
  • Remove and label cabinet doors and drawers
  • Remove top cabinet trim
  • Use drop cloths or old sheets to cover any walkways or openings to the room for when you sand
  • Cover flooring if you plan to use any non-toxic stripping agent
  • Remove any outlet or switch covers
  • Remove range hood and microwave cover
  • Once you have stripped the cabinet base and cleaned off the stripper, use a palm sander to get the rest of the old finish/stain off the wood
  • Start with a really coarse grade paper like 40 and finish with a 120 or lighter for your palm sander
  • Depending on the detail of your cabinets, you may need to consider other tools like a rotary tool to get in the cracks
  • In the picture below, you can start to see how beautiful the oak wood is under the old finish

Step 4 ~ Stain and Sand

I experimented with several different grey stains, but most of them were too dark, until I tried Minwax Classic Grey you are going for a ligher look, a stain/polyurathane one step product will not work, they are way too dark.

  • Make sure you have wiped down all sanded areas with a damp cloth and the area is completely dry
  • Gather up a bunch of rags that you don't mind trashing after you are done
  • Use a paint brush to apply the stain, then immediately wipe off with a clean rag to achieve the very light grey you see below
  • After the stain has completely dried, use a fine grained sanding block to lightly sand for a super smooth finish
  • I noticed that the stain did vary in how the wood absorbed it, so I held off applying the polyurathane top coat until I got the doors / cabinets finished and put back on. I wanted to make sure I could add stain or sand off some of the stain if areas were too dark.

Step 5 ~ Appliances

Instead of spending money on a new microwave and range hood , I thought I would try spraying them with stainless steel spray paint. This paint is amazing! But be careful to spray evenly with no drips. I found that if you hang the item, it's much easier to achieve a smooth finish with no drips instead of laying on the ground and turning over once dried for the other side. Make sure to tape off any knobs or labelling.

Step 6 ~ Cabinet Interiors

After the mess of sanding inside the house is done, consider your cabinet interiors.  Notice the freshly painted range hood, you really can't tell it was painted.

Step 7 ~ Trim and Finishing touches

My original trim was attached at an angle, which made the kitchen look smaller and more dated. I am replacing it with wider trim that will be attached with small nails and straight up and down instead of an angle/crown molding look like before.

My original trim was attached at an angle, which made the kitchen look smaller and more dated. I am replacing it with wider trim that will be attached with small nails and straight up and down instead of an angle/crown molding look like before.

One small issue that I ran into was that the trim, after staining with the grey did not have the same look as the cabinets...the trim wasn't oak, so I had to add some oak stain to achieve the same hue.

The end look is slightly darker than I planned but very rich and warm and I think the cabinets will look great with light countertops and white backsplash...our future project. Next steps include new lighting over cabinets and island, and new sink. When I need to replace the microwave and fridge, I will go with all stainless but for now, I think they are fine. In the end, this was a whole lot of work, but I really love how they turned out. For additional info and pics, check out my blog!

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Want more details about this and other DIY projects? Check out my blog post!


Have a question about this project?

3 of 4 questions
  • Smooches
    on Feb 26, 2019

    how does the kitchen look w lights on?

  • Beverly
    on Feb 26, 2019

    I have oak cabinets in my kitchen, but it’s a paper finish on the wall. It is peeling off. What do I do for a new look. My kitchen is dark (no windows) a condo.

    • Onwingandhoof
      on Dec 5, 2019

      Doreen Kennedy, even with pressboard frames and doors, you can paint your cabinets. I did and I'm really pleased with the out come. Mine were a fake oak look, super ew. I used white chalk paint and waited a day between coats for it to dry. However, I was going for a farmhouse/industrial look so I used a damp cloth to rub the edges down for a worn look and purchased matte black knobs and pulls. If its your home, just pick an inconspicuous spot and test some ideas.

  • Maggy
    on Feb 27, 2019

    What stainless steel paint did you use?

    • Charise.
      on Oct 26, 2019

      Well, that's a tidbit that is uber frustrating. Thanks for letting that cat out of the bag.

Join the conversation

2 of 67 comments
  • Lisa West
    on Nov 1, 2019

    You could always dry brush a cream and or a lighter grey paint or stain on the cabinets to brighten the kitchen up. I love your kitchen the size is perfect and also the placing of the appliances. The back splash remember you dont have to do regular tyle. Remember you can use flooring paint and stencils. If have dying channel lool up Texas flip and move. It's a show. I love it. The snow sisters and randy always come up with some thing really cool for kitchens and bathrooms. The snow sisters neices ate now flipping homes watch them to. May be they can give you some ideas as well. Also make sure you have fun doing your kitchen. It's more doable and fun that way.

  • PAM
    on Nov 2, 2019

    I absolutely LOVE your cabinets and they really do not seem dark. When you do your countertop and backsplash lighter, it will make a HUGE difference. I really LOVE the color......GREAT JOB!!!!

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