back to all TIPS & IDEAS
Homeowner’s Guide: How to Stain Wood Cabinets

Homeowner’s Guide: How to Stain Wood Cabinets

By Shannon Wells


Solid wood cabinets are a favorite among homeowners for their substantive look and timeless style. Unfortunately, some of the more sought-after cabinets are made from types of wood that can be prohibitively expensive. But, thanks to a variety of wood stains, more accessible woods like birch and pine can be a dead ringer for rich mahogany or warm cherry cabinets. If you’ve got a brand-new kitchen with unfinished cabinets, learning how to stain wood yourself if a great way to save some money while beautifying your kitchen. Here’s how to do it:


Choose Your Products

Choosing which type of staining product is an important first step as it will direct your prep work and any other supplies you’ll need.


When to Choose an Oil-based Liquid Stain

Liquid stain is known for its ability to highlight the beauty and depth in wood and enhances the look of the wood grain. Liquid stain can be more challenging to apply and doesn’t absorb as evenly, though the use of a wood conditioner can help with this.


When to Choose a Gel Stain

Gel stain is an ideal product If you’ve opted to keep your cabinets in place, as it will be less likely to run.  It also applies smoothly and is better suited for beginners. Lastly, gel stains are best for non-porous woods like cherry and pine.


Gather Supplies

Once you’ve chosen your stain, gather your supplies.

Drop cloths

Dust masks

Nitrile gloves

Sand paper (both 120 and 220 grit)

Tack cloth

Vacuum with brush attachment (optional)

Wood conditioner





Safety Considerations

This is a project best done in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors. If you can’t work outdoors, be sure to cover your floors with drop cloths and consider taping drop cloths around doorways to keep dust and fumes from entering the rest of your home. As you’re sanding, always wear a dust mask or respirator. There are plenty of masks to choose from; we like 3M’s 8661PC1-A, but choose the one that works best for you.


Prepare Your Cabinets

Taking the time to organize this project in the beginning will pay off big time when it comes to putting your cabinets back together. As you remove your cabinet drawers and door fronts, use masking tape to label the doors and where they go. If you’re planning to reuse your current hardware, keep the hardware and screws together and labeled.



Begin sanding your cabinets with a rough 120 grit sand paper. Once you’ve sanded the entire area, you can switch to the finer 120 grit sandpaper to get a smooth surface. Remember to always sand in the direction of the wood grain; otherwise you’ll risk scratching the wood. Once you have a smooth surface, use a vacuum with a brush attachment to remove any sawdust. With more ornate cabinet styles, you may want to use a tack cloth to remove any dust in any cracks or crevices.


Note: This guide covers how to stain wood cabinets that are unfinished. If you’re working with cabinets that have previously been stained, you’ll need to thoroughly clean them with TSP (trisodium phosphate) prior to sanding.  



With smooth and dust-free cabinets, you’re ready to apply your wood conditioner (sometimes called a sanding sealer). A well-conditioned wood soaks up the stain much more evenly and prevents blotchiness. This is an especially important step if you’re working with a liquid stain.  


Once you’ve conditioned your cabinets, apply your stain in an inconspicuous spot to ensure you’re getting the look you’re after. If it isn’t as rich as you’d hoped, allow the stain to fully dry and apply another coat until you achieve the desired look. Once you’ve figured out how many coats you want, it’s most efficient to lay out your cabinets and stain them in an assembly line fashion. To save yourself the backache, place the cabinets on a table or saw horses rather than working on the floor. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for drying time and be careful not to flip the cabinet doors over prematurely or the stain may stick to the drop cloth. If you’re working indoors, remember to open windows and set up fans to circulate the air.



For long-lasting color and durability, finish off your cabinets with an oil-based polyurethane. Drying times among products vary, but most are safe to reapply after 4 hours. Be sure to apply two coats; the first acts as a primer and sealer and the second is a finish coat.  


Reassemble Your Cabinets

Once your cabinets are dry, all that’s left to do is reassemble your cabinets, step back and enjoy the view!

Shannon Wells is a freelance writer and DIY enthusiast. She’s happiest when she’s in the middle of a home improvement project, which lucky for her, is most of the time.

We use cookies to enhance your user experience. Learn More