Dark Refinish for Existing Maple Cabinets

Advice on using sealcoat and toner over a factory finish to darken maple cabinets ó a tricky process that may yield unsatisfactory results. January 28, 2013

I've been asked to re-finish maple kitchen cabinets which I have never worked with. I know that the preferred way is to completely strip the cabinets and build up color with dyes/toners and stain but this client is on a tight budget for a property remodel.

Is it possible to get acceptable results if I simply clean and lightly sand the surface and then build up color with toned lacquer then seal coat? The cabinets are natural (factory finished) maple and they want them darker. The thought of stripping 16 doors and 10 drawer fronts is daunting, not to mention outside the budget. What are the downsides? If itís possible, does anyone have a recommended schedule and/or compatible finishes?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor F:
The downside is if the finish you put on doesn't hold up, you now own those doors! I can't help you with shading and sealing over a factory finish as I've never tried it and I donít plan to either! My first thought is if there's no budget to do it correctly then offer them a painted finish instead.

From contributor M:
I do this all the time. I don't strip anything so everything I do is over existing surfaces. I use WB so I specifically don't trust anything solvent based. I clean and scuff and then I do a light coat or two of clear because fisheyes are a disaster with toners. After the clears you will have a good surface to build up the color. You have to take it real slow with the amount of color because you can't fix any screwups. It is very difficult to get really dark with toners without making a mess so I actually brush on a woodtone colored glaze to get it dark in a hurry, but thatís another topic.

So, yes toners work but it takes a lot of finesse. Plus it all has to match when you put it back together, easy to say but hard to do with just toners. Another thing is that maple doesn't have much grain and when you add toners it slowly gets covered up so you really end up with a solid color anyway. I would suggest a dark espresso color if they want dark.

From contributor J:

You are on the right path. Clean with a scrubbing pad (Scotch-Brite maroon) with mineral spirits or VMP naptha, then scrub with TSP/sodium sesquicarbonate/potassium oleate and rinse well. Scuff with 320 to the tooth. Apply a thinned catalyzed sanding sealer coat (if it fish-eyes, mist on multiple light coats - barely wet). Thin the toner coats based around the catalyzed sealer. Scotch-Brite etch and then glaze if needed. For a good quality pre-cat topcoat - full wet. Let the client know that you are stretching the finishing limits in order to meet their budget (and can't warranty the work since you don't know the limits of the factory finish).

From contributor A:
I have tried this on multiple occasions and every time it is a failure. Perhaps Iím picky about how my finished product looks, but let me tell you if you try to tone a clear finished door to a dark color it will look weird. Black grain with translucent green undertones look weird and I donít think itís worth the effort. Get new doors and veneer the boxes. The alternative is buying a new kitchen and which do you think a homeowner on a budget will choose? If they can't afford to reface, then paint the cabs. It's the only solution that won't cost you untold hours of frustration.

From contributor H:
I think I'll investigate alternative options with the customer just to be safe. If I have a chance, I'll definitely try this on some scrap cabinets or ones for a garage before I risk someoneís kitchen.

From contributor J:
Couldn't you tint with a little red first or mix some with your dark color?

From contributor A:
Yes but I was just using green as an example of the disaster that toning to change a stain color presents. Nothing wrong with using a toner to slightly alter a color - I do it all the time finishing new stuff. When it comes to re-finishing and people with clear cabs wanting them espresso - there's just no way to make it look right.

From contributor E:
It can be done but it needs to be done correctly. First off is the existing finish in good shape? You have to have a sound base to work on and it helps a lot if you know what the finish is because you have to use a compatible finish over it. As others have stated, cleaning and prep sanding work are very important, do not skimp on these steps.

Once everything is prepped and ready, I make a toner out of a highly thinned out pre-cat vinyl sealer, adding pigments and/or dyes. Thinning it out lets you build color without building much film thickness. This is important if the finish is catalyzed to avoid cracking due to too much film thickness. Spray multiple light coats of the toner mix to about 80% of the final color. Spraying even coats with a wide fan will help keep the color even and avoid streaking.

To ensure an even color as possible from one door and one elevation to the next, lay out all the doors at once, arranged in the same fashion that they go on the finished cabinets and spray them all together so you can judge the color consistency.

After the toner use a glaze to fill in the profiles where the toner gets light and the last 20% of color on the face. If a highlight glaze is not desired use one that is close to the color of the toner just to fill in the profiles. Let the glaze dry and top coat as desired.