If you want to update and restore your kitchen cabinetry without paint, here’s the tutorial for my DIY re-varnished cabinet fronts.
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 for the rest of the townhouse makeover. One thing we decided to keep was our kitchen cabinetry.
But our cabinets needed a lot of work. There’s such a fun trend of people keeping older kitchen cabinets and giving them incredible transformations with paint, but that wasn’t an option for me. With a husband who grew up in a wood working studio, getting him to part with natural wood can be difficult. He wanted to keep the current wood cabinet color. Eventually I grew to love the grain of our cabinetry too so I decided to try DIY re-varnished cabinet fronts and restore kitchen cabinetry without paint.
Here is the Before:
I asked my woodworker father-in-law for some advice and then headed to our local home improvement store to pick up supplies. My father-in-law recommended a chemical stripper because a belt sander might remove too much veneer (the cabinet doors had very thin veneer).
Supplies to Re-Varnish Cabinet Doors:
- Chemical stripper
- Water based varnish (i used semi-gloss)
- Inexpensive brush for stripping
- Better brush for varnish application
- Chemical rubber gloves (the stripper ate right through the first pair)
- Sandpaper (80 & 180 or 200)
- Paint scraper/putty knife (metal, not plastic)
- Protective eye wear
How to Re-varnish Cabinet Doors:
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 for Re-Varnishing Cabinets:
- 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.
- And don’t forget about-varnishing 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 important: A 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.
Here is the After:
Now the cabinets look (almost) brand new! The doors are glossy and uniform, and the warm wood tone actually looks good with the black and white floor and MCM teak table and chairs. We did eventually also replace the laminate counters with new grey laminate counters and we made budget-friendly subway tile look special with a herringbone pattern. We also sold the old hardware and bought some inexpensive, simple silver handles.
See more “after” shots of the kitchen makeover here.