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

August 1, 2014

Cabinet Refinishing 101: Latex Paint vs. Stain vs. Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations vs. Varnish vs. Chalk Paint vs. Wood Conditioner

Cabinet Refinishing 101: Latex Paint vs. Stain vs. Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations vs. Varnish vs. Chalk Paint vs. Wood Conditioner

Want to refinish your kitchen or bathroom cabinets, but can't decide between paint, stain or a specialty cabinet coating systems, like Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations?  Maybe you're thinking just some kind of wood conditioner or varnish would be enough to revive your cabinetry?

I have a few cabinet makeovers under my belt and I've tried different methods and supplies each time.  Some DIY newbies have asked for me to weigh in on the best way to refinish cabinetry, so I thought I'd share my experiences in one comprehensive post, along with some links to other great cabinet makeovers, plus a few pros and cons for the most popular methods.  I've also got a rough sketch for the steps involved, but my steps are by no means meant to be exhaustive - I just want to give you an idea of the work involved.  Also, these thoughts are just based on my experience, so if you've had a different experience (good or bad), I'd love for you to chime in, in the comments section! 

I've painted two sets of cabinets with latex paint: the half bathroom cabinet in the townhouse and the kitchen cabinetry in the lakehouse.  In the bathroom I used primer & eggshell paint leftover from painting the bathroom wall.  The bathroom was minimally used so chipping/wear was never an issue but the eggshell finish was difficult to clean.  Dust stuck to it and hung on for dear life.

It's impossible to tell, but I changed up the cabinet colour from dingy cream to pale grey:

Cabinet Painted with Latext Paint - Review

The kitchen makeover was, obviously, much more dramatic, and my second foray into cabinet painting:

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

For the lakehouse kitchen I used Zinsser primer and CIL Premier Latex paint in a semi-gloss finish.  Sherry and John, fellow DIY enthusiasts from Young House Love, used a satin finish for their kitchen makeover (Benjamin Moore Advance), which seemed to work well for them.  Personally, I love the semi-gloss finish because it's so easy to wipe down and keep clean.  It doesn't look too shiny, in my opinion. 

  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Putty any holes/damage with wood filler
  • Sand putty
  • Clean the surface with a de-greaser (I used dish soap and a chore boy scrub pad)
  • Sand the surface so the glossiness of the previous finish is removed (although the primer I used said sanding is unnecessary, I did a light sand anyway)
  • Vacuum dust or remove with tack cloth
  • Wipe down surface with damp cloth, let dry
  • Prime, using a brush or spray gun
  • Sand smooth any imperfections/raise brush marks (if required)
  • Apply paint, using a brush or spray gun (I also used a roller for large, breakfast bar area)

Here's a detailed post about how we painted the cabinet fronts with a paint spray and here's how I painted the boxes.  This link lists all of the supplies we used.

Painting Cabinets with Paint Sprayer

REVIEW OF PAINTING CABINETS WITH LATEX PAINT:  Although I sanded before priming and used a good quality primer, there have been a few spots of paint-loss after an impact or banging furniture against it.  Luckily, touch up has been a breeze and after those first few days of settling in, no other paint loss has occurred.  Paint can take a month to fully cure, so we should have been more careful.  A tutorial on Curbly advocates a rigorous sand/prime/prime/prime/sand/paint system for the extra cautious, which might also help ensure maximum adhesion.  It sure seems like a lot of work, though! 

PROS: Unlimited colour options, various finishes, easily acquired supplies, can dramatically change the look
CONS: Lots of prep (sand, prime, paint for good adhesion), needs time to cure, can show brush strokes
PURCHASE: I bought my supplies at Canadian Tire but you can find Zinsser primer on Amazon.  It's a good base for any furniture/paint project.


Chalk paint has won over people because you can often skip sanding!  I actually went to an Annie Sloan stockist when I was planning the kitchen makeover because I was lured by the supposed ease of use.  Unfortunately, the colours - even when custom-mixed - were a little antiquey for what I wanted.  If you're curious, there's a whole website devoted to how to use chalk paint.  If you Google or search Pinterest, you'll find tons of cute kitchen makeovers that have used Chalk Paint as well.  Simply Rooms has a good tutorial (obviously I love the color!)

Can You Use Chalk Paint on Kitchen Cabinets
Photo Source: Bella Tucker
  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Prepare surface by cleaning with a de-greaser and let dry
  • Make sure the surface is free of lint or dust
  • Paint away!  Seriously, no sanding or priming unless an area is uneven or won't take the paint (I've heard some people - even pros - have experienced bleed through and needed to prime)
  • Seal the piece using clear wax or furniture paste

PROS: Decent colour selection, limited prep required, distressing is an easy option for a cottage-inspired look, has a chalky finish (which you may like)
CONS: I've heard getting the finish right can be tricky - especially the Annie Sloan wax, it can be more expensive than latex paints, limited availability in some cities, has a chalky finish (which you may not like)
PURCHASE: Most cities have stockists various brands of chalk paint but if you can't track it down in person, you can easily find the right tools and many different brands of chalk paint on Amazon.


For the main bathroom and half bathroom in the lakehouse I used Rust-Oleum's Cabinet Transformations system (in the colour Castle).  The steps were a little different than just painting, but with a similar result.  Happily, there was NO sanding (yay!!) because a de-glosser was used instead. 

Review of Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations System

  • Remove cabinet fronts & all hardware
  • Clean the cabinets with the included de-glosser, then remove de-glosser with a damp rag and water
  • Apply thin coats of the paint (called a "Bond Coat")
  • Wait 2-3 hours in between coats, use 2-3 coats for best coverage
  • Apply the Decorative Glaze coat (optional - I skipped this)
  • Apply Protective Top coat
  • Let dry and follow manufacturer's instructions regarding when the cabinets can be used/cleaned

REVIEW OF RUST-OLEUM CABINET TRANSFORMATIONS:  I loved the cabinet finishing system.  Almost everything was included which made things so much easier.  The de-glosser took some time to apply and wash off but it was so much less messy than sanding and priming - really a benefit if you're working inside or don't have a garage.  The paint went on like a dream - so smooth, with such even, beautiful coverage.  Honestly, it was super fabulous stuff.  The clear coat was the only tricky part because touching it up is nearly impossible so it's important to get an even coat the first time - check the finished piece from all angles to spot any matte areas.  Also, the clear coat dries quickly so you need to work quickly.  Once we put cabinet bumpers on, we have had NO areas of paint loss.  No chips, scuffs - and it cleans so easily.  I've even had to scrub the cabinets to get some gunk off and the finish held strong.  I've also tested it on melamine and it works on it too (although it takes longer to get an even finish on melamine- an extra coat, so no big deal really).

I wrote a post about how the entire budget-friendly bathroom makeover, plus the Rust-Oleum cabinetry transformations, held up with wear and you can read it by clicking here.

PROS: Easy application, durable, no sanding, great for beginners because it's a kit with educational materials and everything is laid our clearly
CONS: Clear coat is tricky to apply, de-glosser is time consuming, involves chemicals, limited colour selection, not the cheapest option
PURCHASE: Most improvement stores carry it now, but you can also find the cabinet refinishing system on Amazon.


Although I've stained lots of furniture and other wood projects (like our kitchen counters!), I have yet to stain kitchen or bathroom cabinetry.  One pain is that with water-based stains you typically need to get down to the bare wood, especially true if you want to stain cabinets a lighter colour.  A chemical stripper is great for this - especially on veneered fronts, which you don't want to accidentally sand off.  Finishing the job with sandpaper and a sanding block is time consuming but results in a nice finish.  With solid wood cabinets (or a thick veneer), using a sander is a faster option.

Researching this post I chatted with folks at a local paint and stain shop who delivered the sad news: there's no stain on the market right now that eliminates the need for sanding altogether when refinishing wood.  BUT, I have heard that you can use gel stain right on top of existing finish with minimal sanding.  I have yet to try it, but it sounds like a great option for re-staining cabinetry with minimal fussing.  Basically, you just want the sheen/gloss coat removed.  Jen, from the Creative Cubby has a great tutorial with super clear, step-by-step photos.  It seems infinitely easier to stain cabinets darker than it is to lighten them.  Erin, from Magenta & Lime did a fabulous job staining her kitchen cabinets espresso:

How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets Darker
Photo Source: Magenta and Lime
  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Sand or use a chemical stripper to remove the previous finish - the amount of labor depends on the type of stain used
  • Clean the surface of all gunk, dust and goo (TSP is good)
  • Apply a pre-stain wood conditioner if required
  • Allow surface to dry
  • Apply stain, using a foam brush, rag or a sock (you can use a spray gun, too)
  • Follow manufacturer's suggestions for dry times
  • Apply a sealant/protective top coat

PROS: Can dramatically change the look of cabinetry, some people think stained cabinets look more expensive than painted (so potentially good for resale value), allows wood grain to peek through
CONS: Stain can be blotchy, clean up is messy
PURCHASE: Talk to the pros at your local paint/stain store to make sure you get the right product and supplies.


When Hubby fell in love with the natural wood veneer of our townhouse kitchen cabinets, I did what any good Wifey would do - set aside my dreams for a painted kitchen and put on my rubber gloves.  I stripped the varnish and sanded the fronts and boxes smooth before applying a new satin clear coat.  Hubby so rarely voices a preferences in decor that it only seemed fair to let him have wood cabinets!  Stripping the cabinets and applying the new varnish took a few days but it really refreshed the cabinetry without hiding the wood he loved so much.

How to Re-Varnish Cabinets without Changing Color

  • Remove cabinet fronts and all cabinet hardware
  • Using a chemical stripper, remove the previous finish (apply, wait, scrape off)
  • Wipe down the surface to remove the gunk
  • Using 80 and then 220 grit sandpaper and sanding block, sand the surface smooth
  • (With solid wood, you can use a belt or orbital sander, not recommended for veneer - don't want to sand through!) 
  • Clean the surface with TSP and let dry
  • Using a brush, apply varnish (I used water-based in semi-gloss) in a thin coat, allow dry overnight
  • Lightly sand the surface smooth with 180 or 220 grit sandpaper - just a light sand
  • Re-apply the clear coat, typically 2-3 coats is sufficient

REVIEW OF REFINISHING CABINETRY BY RE-VARNISHING:  See this post for the full-length tutorial.  I absolutely hated this process because of my own ridiculousness.  I insisted on wearing flip flops and almost seared my toes off when the chemical stripper dripped down to my exposed feet - repeatedly, because I refused to put on shoes.  My memory of this event is coloured and I only remember it as painful.  The cabinets definitely looked 98% better but one slightly water damaged area kept it from looking 100% better.  It was a lot of work and I would have liked a more dramatic look, but both real estate agents and prospective buyers agreed they loved the kitchen with the natural wood finish.  I spent four years thinking of different painted looks I could give the cabinetry, but never truly regretted the decision.

PROS: Doesn't need to be sanded as well as for staining, foolproof (no streaking, chipping, etc), the finish could have an impact (like going from matte to high-gloss) but can also be very subtle
CONS: Messy, doesn't change the look as much as stain or paint, involves chemical and/or laborious sanding, won't disguise flaws like a dark stain or paint can
PURCHASE: Any paint store will carry a varnish and most will have a display so you can see a sample of the finish.


Alternatively, you can try something like Restor-A-Finish which just wipes on and wipes off.  It won't make a dramatic change, but it can remove blemishes and, quite obviously, restore the finish.  There are a number of different one-step products and homemade solutions out there that will similarly freshen wood cabinetry that might be a little beat-up.  It's a simple way to keep the same look, but update the feel of cabinetry by erasing (many) signs or age and wear.  Centsational Girl has a great post about restoring wood furniture, but the same tips can be applied to wood cabinets as well.

How to use Restor-A-Finish

PROS: Perfect for renters who want a fresher looking kitchen without changing the look, simple, foolproof
CONS: Won't change the look much, involves chemicals, limitations to what it can fix
PURCHASE: Resor-A-Finish is a brand I trust and it comes in different finishes to match your wood.  Try to find a sample in stores but if you can't track it down you can find it on Amazon.  


1. Remove the door and hardware - it will make life so much easier.
2. Use quality painter's tape to tape off areas you don't want to paint/stain and put down drop cloths.
3. Set up a dust-free area to work in and create a little assembly line.
4. Use painter's pyramids/triangles to lift up doors (I use empty yoghurt containers and random surplus building materials but just getting the pyramids is neater and easier, I'm sure).

How to paint kitchen cabinets
Refinishing Cabinetry

5. Use a spray gun for door fronts for a smooth and factory-like finish, but don't worry if all you have is an angled brush because it does a lovely job too.

Tips and Tricks for Cabinet Refinishing

6. Use a small artist's brush to apply paint/stain to the narrow or hard to reach areas.

Tips for Painting Cabinets

7. Don't try to speed up dry time with a fan in the early stages - you might blow dust around and it will stick nicely to the freshly painted/stained/varnished surface
8. Keep a damp cloth or rag on hand for the inevitable goofs and spills

How to I refinish cabinets?

Whew, that's a lot!

Hopefully this review of stain vs. paint vs. chalk paint vs. varnish vs. Rust-Oleum cabinet transformations vs. wood conditioner was a helpful starting point for anyone considering a cabinet makeover.  No matter what method you choose, take the time to do the prep work for whatever method you chose and you'll thank yourself later.  Most importantly, don't be intimidated.  There's nothing that can't be fixed!  If you run into a snag, you can always sand and start fresh.

In my experience, no matter what method I've tried, I've always been so happy with the result in the end, because it's better than what I had before!


  1. I'm a big fan of staining when it comes to refurbishing wood. I think that stained wood looks good with just about anything in and around your home. Thanks for the tips and ideas, I might use them for a future project.

    1. Stain is incredibly versatile and a great way to preserve the beauty of wood!

  2. This is exactly what I needed! Exactly. I'm moving into a 1980's condo with a melamine and oak kitchen and I've been researching the Rustoleum products. Thanks!

    1. I'm happy to help! Good luck with your move and updating your kitchen :)

    2. I have already purchased the Rustoleum system and after reading this I'm so very glad that I did!!! Thank you for putting all of this out here for us to read. :))

  3. Me, too! We are renovating my mother's little old house, which is in need of lots of gentle updates. I will be back to this post often!

    1. It's so sweet of you to help your mom spruce up her place! I'm going to be adding a few more links to how other bloggers have updated their cabinets. I'm happy this post will be helpful!

  4. Can you please tell me what rustoleum colour you used for the kitchen cabinets?

    1. Castle. If you click the link in this post, it will take you to the post about my experience using the kit. You'll find more pertinent info.

  5. Sorry I mean the bathroom cabinet.

  6. The link for the bathroom rustoluem cabinets isn't working, what color grey did you tint it? It looks good!

    1. Sorry, I'll check the link out and fix it. I tinted them Castle (and skipped the optional glaze).

  7. Have a small kitchen with light-medium color oak cabinets. I wanted to change cabinet to an ivory color. Since I am definitely no spring chicken, is it best to stain or paint?

    1. Staining takes more work, especially of you want to go light. Definitely paint! And consider something like chalk paint or the Rustoleum cabinet transformations, because neither requires primer (although chalk paint needs a wax and the rustoleum comes with a varnish). The result will be more durable, with less work. Good luck!!

    2. my cabinets are honey oak I want to paint them white.what should I use.

    3. I love the Rust-Oleum cabinet transformations kit, myself. They hold up the best and if you're looking for white that's perfect because they have some lovely whites. Almost everything you need is included and there is a step-by-step DVD and 1-800 # there to help you out so it's really a fool proof system. Happy painting!

  8. I really love the stain. Can I know what kind of stain did you use, polyshade or stain - is it mixwax brand and what color is it.
    Thank you

    1. For which project? If it's for the espresso-stained kitchen you'll have to follow the link to that particular post because it's not my project I just shared for reference/inspiration :)

  9. What would you recommend for cabinetry that has never been stained or painted that is in a child's playroom? (Think Home improvement store off the rack, untouched cabinets).

    1. That is the best kind of wood to work with because you don't need to worry about adhesion. I have been dying to try some coloured stains. I've seen teal and blue and green that I'm obsessed with. I'd use the opportunity to try a colorful stain and then finish with a high gloss varnish to make it easy to clean. But you could do chalk paint, a classic stain and clear coat in a more neutral color, primer and paint in a glossy finish. Really the sky is the limit, bare wood takes finish so well!

  10. I am getting ready to jump into the refinishing challenges in my house. I am very appreciative that you put this info together in easy, simple and short list of reading. Plus you added all the pics. You are an angel for sharing all your experiences. Thank you.


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