Darkening the Finish on Existing Cabinets

A newcomer to finishing gets advice on applying a darker tint to existing cabinets in place. January 13, 2006

I have a client that wants to darken her existing kitchen cabinets. Her designer thinks I can lightly sand and glaze them. I am not a professional wood finisher... I am a decorative painter with limited finishing background. Is there anything that is relatively simple as far as product and process to darken pre-finished oak cabinets?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor I:
Sanding a bit and finishing with tinted lacquer.

From contributor D:
Don't sweat it! Changing the color of the cabinets is possible with very low tech products, although having some spray capabilities will help. I come from a similar background. Was trained primarily as a decorative painter and eventually got into wood/furniture finishing.

1. Mask off all surrounding surfaces to prevent accidents.

2. You'll need to disassemble the cabinetry. Remove all hardware, doors, drawer heads and hinges.

3. Clean all surfaces with a degreaser. Be extra careful at this stage - a little grease can ruin a lot of hard work.

4. Sand all surfaces using either 150 or 180 grit sandpaper. There is a catch - sand with the grain and pay particular attention to the structure of the doors, meaning do not sand past joints in the cross grain direction.

5. Apply stain to the surfaces. This can be a little tricky. You are trying to glaze an even coat of color over the entire piece. Use a smooth cloth rag dampened, not wet, with the stain to manipulate the color. Note: Since the wood is finished, you will be able to wipe all of the color off with a dry rag and a heavy hand. Be careful and patient.

6. Apply sealer. If using waterbased products, apply at least two coats.

7. Sand the sealer with 320 grit sandpaper followed by maroon scotchbrite pads.

8. Finish with choice of topcoats.

I have done this process many time and had great results.

From contributor M:
Not so fast... You need to first know what coating was used on the cabinets, and is that coating an evaporative or a reactive coating? Then you need to know what coating you can use that will not react with the first coating. You need to know if you need a barrier coat. You will need positive answers about the cabinet's coating before you can begin any process.

From contributor G:
There's no such thing as lightly sanding. You have to thoroughly sand. I'd suggest superfine 3M foam pads (being careful of cross-grain and miters) and then some Minwax Polyshades. Do your testing on the back of a door. If you need it darker, you can add some Microton.

From contributor J:
What kind of stain would you use - oil or water? If you just stained without some sort of primer, could the stain be easy to scratch off?

From the original questioner:
This is great! I have some answers. The one thing I don't know about is evaporative or reactive.... I don't even know what that means. But, I do have a great resource at an industrial finishing product and equipment shop to figure it out further. I do not want to use any spray equipment... so I will discuss products with them, too. Any additional information regarding products would be appreciated.

From contributor G:
If you're adamant about not spraying, the difference between reactive and evaporative finishes won't make much difference to you, although for your own information, you may want to look in the Knowledge Base for these terms.

You are pretty much limiting yourself to padding, and again, unless you do want to get involved with evaporative/reactive, you are looking at polyurethanes (which will go on just about anything), of which Minwax Polyshades is a tinted variety that can be rubbed on with a pad, allowed to dry (the drawback - takes 8 hours) and then scuffed and recoated if you need a darker color. It can also be tinted to make it darker.

Be advised, however, this is a time and labor intensive job and not a cheap fix. It'd be likely your customer would get off more cheaply sending the doors to a refinishing shop for a tinted lacquer touchup, where somebody else can worry about the evaporative/reactive problem.

From contributor M:
Another option is color glazing, which is done by hand by wiping and brushing out the glaze - this will add color to the finish. It's very important for you to know the type of coating that you will be working over, as compatibility with your final clear coats can cause a reaction when you go to seal in whichever coloring medium you choose to use, regardless if it's a shading stain or a coloured glaze. Think twice, finish once.