Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

November 27, 2010

DIY Re-Varnished Cabinet Fronts

This project makes a subtle but important difference.  Here’s the back-story and the how-to:

We have sent a lot of renovation detritus to the landfill.  None of what we tore out was suitable for the Habitat for Humanity Restore (or anyone else).  Literal truckloads of carpet and baseboards were hauled away, plus two toilets, two vanities, two bathroom sinks, two bathroom faucets, a kitchen sink, and other bits and bobs.  So we have been trying really hard to salvage what we can.  One thing we decided to keep was our kitchen cabinetry.
But our cabinets needed a lot of work.  Although keeping cabinetry seems to be a new trend in renovating (especially when budget is an issue) a lot of folks paint their cabinets as a solution.  Well, painting ours weren’t an option.  With a husband who grew up in a wood working studio, getting him to part with natural wood can be difficult.  And eventually I grew to love the grain of our cabinetry too. 
But what to do when they looked like this?
"Before" - Yikes.

Not our taste, but I sold these handles at a garage sale!

We headed to our local Home Hardware store for advice and while there, also garnered some advice from a professional in the field.  My father-in-law (a woodworker) recommended a chemical stripper because a belt sander might remove too much veneer.  So, with everyone's advice in mind, we made a list:

Chemical stripper
Water based varnish (semi-gloss)
Inexpensive brush for stripping
Better brush for varnish application
Rubber gloves (the stripper ate right through the first pair)
Sandpaper (80 & 180 or 200)
Paint scraper (metal, not plastic)
Protective eye wear
How to re-varnish cabinet fronts:
  • Take down cabinet fronts and remove hardware
  • Put on gloves and protective eyewear (stripper will sting!)
  • Decant stripper into a glass or metal container for ease of use
  • Apply chemical stripper with a cheap brush
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions for wait time
  • Using metal scraper, scrape with the grain, removing finish
  • Reapply stripper as required until finish is removed
  • Use a rag to wipe off excess stripper
  • Lightly sand areas with 80 grit that didn’t get reached by stripper
  • Use a clean rag to wipe off an dust/debris
  • You could stain cabinet fronts at this point
  • Apply a light coat of varnish with a good brush (don’t want to lose bristles)
  • Use slow, smooth strokes in the direction of the grain
  • When dry (follow manufacturer’s instructions) lightly sand with 180 or 200 grit sandpaper
  • Wipe clean with dry cloth
  • Apply second thin coat of varnish, try to smooth out any bubbles
Some Tips:  Water based varnish was recommended by a professional in the field because it easy to clean and easier to breathe, but still try to do this in a well-ventilated & well-lit area.  Do all of the removal and then all of the varnishing at the same time.  And don't forget the cabinet boxes, for a unified look.  There are many finishes available—a bit of gloss/sheen will reflect light and camouflage small flaws.

Very importantA fan may seem like a good idea to speed up the drying process, but you might just blow dust onto your tacky cabinet fronts.  Just a hint. 

After the re-varnishing and onto the tiling.  But look at those cabinets gleam!

"After" - New hinges and handles helped spiffy up the cabinets

See more "after" shots here.


  1. I love wood with or with out stain and really like the true wood to show. I’ve done our old wood floors with my husband doing most of the word and me doing the cleaning and grunt work. Our floors have a high shine but my cabinets have low shine to almost no shine at all.
    We are going to redo our old real wood cabinets this spring. I enjoyed the information and will keep it to reread when we are ready.
    I liked the old cabinet handles but that is why we have so many choices.
    It looks like we have the same white tile floors.
    Great work! Don’t believe all the sales people in hard ware stores. Some of them don’t know what they are talking about or are just trying to sell there stuff. The library is the best place to find books and study the job from different people. This is well written.
    My Dad was a builder who did his own work and was very good at it. He and my Mom loved the stone, wood and all natural materials with as little massing them up as possible.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! If you've re-done wood floors, it sounds like I could learn a thing or two from you - you sound quite handy. Good luck with refinishing your wood cabinets in the spring. Isn't it just so hard to have to wait? I'm anxiously awaiting spring so I can tackle a few projects too.


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