Refinishing Stained Oak Cabinets

A first-timer gets advice on the basics to kitchen cabinet refinishing. February 12, 2007

I have a customer who has oak kitchen cabinets that are currently golden oak in color. They what them to be more of a natural cherry color. What would be the correct way to accomplish this? Should I sand or strip all they way to bare wood or can I use a gel stain over the existing finish? Thank you for any help.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor T:
I recently finished the same kind of project. We were able to take all the cabinets out of the house, a huge advantage compared to refinishing on-site. I was also fortunate to not have a catalyzed finish on these cabinets (golden oak, just like yours). The sanding I did was really only to clean the years of kitchen grime off, and I scrubbed everything with mineral spirits to help reduce contamination. If the topcoat was catalyzed I would have had to scuff-sand everything. I knew I wanted to tone with MLC Microton reduced with lacquer thinner, so when discussing the new finish with the homeowner and designer, I sold them on also putting glaze in the recesses and subsequently it held up in the oak grain. Originally I was going to use oil based glaze, but I figured out that MLC Amazing Glaze will work on uncatalyzed topcoats if I was very careful and only misted on a little at a time. When toning, it's easier to have the recesses dark already, so I didn't have to struggle with getting toner in the cracks. I then toned everything with two parts Cherry to one part Cordovan Microton dye reduced with lacquer thinner 800%. The reason I reduce so much is I can spray two or three times, eliminating the potential of striping. After the toner had time to flash off, I topcoated with MLC Duravar. I had no adhesion problems, but I did have to use a little fish-eye flowout on some of the doors. Considering how the end product looked (beautiful), this was a very easy fix.

From the original questioner:
Thank you for the insight. To make sure that I understand, I need to clean and then scuff sand, and then tint versus staining? I am not that familiar with tinting. Is it something that an average person can learn rather quickly? What about waterborne tints?

From contributor T:
An even easier solution may be to mix dye into your finish and just spray once or twice with no toning. The reason I tone separately is to have more control and to be able to isolate light parts and bring everything to the same shade. The problem of getting color in the recesses of profiles still exists with tinting the finish, but if your customer doesn't need the color to be much darker, I think you may be able to get away with just coloring the topcoat. There are transtint dyes for waterborne, but that's not my department, yet, in fact, I'm very interested to know if I could do what I did on this job with waterborne.

From the original questioner:
I am going to try waterborne on this project on the back of the cabinets first. I will let you know how it goes. So if I scuff sand, then the finish should burn in and change the color? Do I need to test the existing topcoat first? Thanks again.

From contributor W:
Take 'em back down to the wood. Don't strip them - just take a DA, some 80 grit, and go to town. Be a lot easier than stripping and a lot less mess, unless you've got a dunk tank. You can also match the color of new color and tone over. Hopefully the cabinet takes the new color well.

From contributor J:
If it was veneer, would you still sand to bare wood (color gone)? If you are doing this successfully, what are your grit steps? I always wonder how much it was sanded by the previous finisher?

From contributor W:
If it's veneer, I think you only have two options. 1) Put the doors and drawers, and if possible face frames, in a dunk tank (for stripping), use a square palm sander due to corners, and 120 grit, and sand. Hopefully the golden oak stain hasn't burned into the wood so severely that when you apply the new color, it won't take. 2) Tone. Toning is pretty much 1 shot only - very difficult to do, but it can be done. Remember to cut your new color back if you're going to tone. Very important, because 9 times out of 10, if you don't cut back, it will come out too dark. Tinting is not toning. Veneer sucks.

From contributor O:
I always strip them down to bare wood and then refinish properly. We refinish about 60 kitchens per year and they are all done that way. Adding toner to the lacquer, in my opinion, should be done for a shading effect only. You will not get the same results as stripping down completely. Of course, this depends greatly on what the client is willing to pay. We charge a minimum of $150.00 per opening, which means a 30 door and 10 drawer kitchen would cost $6000.00. There are many finishers in my area that charge approximately $2000 to refinish the same kitchen, but when I explain to the client the process we use, they always prefer our work. The others just shade over the existing finish.