Staining Kitchen Cabinets

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If you’d like to give your kitchen cabinets a new look, staining the wood is a realistic option.  If you're not satisfied with a wood’s hue, you can either stain or bleach it. Stain adds color to wood, while bleach lightens it. Except for certain varnish or sealer types, stains and bleaches do not protect the surface. For that, you’ll need a coat of polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, or varnish.

When you select a stain for your kitchen or bathroom cabinets, make sure that it’s compatible with the finish you'll be applying. Lacquer and some polyurethanes react adversely to the pigments in some stains. Don't let showroom samples determine your final color choice. They give only a general idea of the end result. Most dealers offer small samplers so you can make tests. To find a dealer in your area, visit

Note if the manufacturer recommends sealing the grain before or after you stain it. Also keep in mind that most stains dry a shade or two darker than the color you see. You control the color by the length of time you let the stain penetrate the wood on the kitchen cabinets. If it gets too dark, moisten a cloth with the recommended thinner and wipe again to dilute and wash away some of the pigment.

A few stains contain white pigment for a blond or "pickled" look, but a better way to lighten wood on kitchen cabinets is to bleach them. Wood that has been bleached will render the stain a more vivid color. Bleaching wood is typically a two-step process that involves an overnight wait for the chemicals to work their magic.

Laundry bleach or oxalic acid also can be used, but must be neutralized after application with white vinegar or ammonia. Mix 1 part vinegar or ammonia with 10 parts water. Provide plenty of ventilation. Bleach and ammonia give off toxic fumes that can irritate your sinuses and eyes, so wear a mask and goggles while staining kitchen cabinets.

Choosing a Stain for your Kitchen Cabinets

There are many stains from which to choose for your bathroom or kitchen cabinets. Some are designed for ease of use, but in turn, you give up control over the result. Others are for the perfectionist who doesn't mind the numerous steps required for achieving the deepest, clearest finish. Consider the end result desired, and then decide on the product for the job. Always follow the directions.

Oil-based stains - These are traditional stains, good for touching up or restraining kitchen cabinets, and they’re permanent. They don’t fade or raise the grain, and additional coats will darken the color. However, they’re difficult to clean up, have an unpleasant odor, and are flammable. There are also concerns about the environmental and health effects of petroleum vapors.

Water-based stains – This type of stain in replacing oil based stains because it’s easy to use and safe for the environment, as well as easy to clean up and safe to use. Additional coats will darken the color.

Penetrating oil stains - Also called Danish oils and rubbing oils, these protect the wood, as well as stain it. They work well with woods that have an attractive grain and don’t require a finish coat. They wipes on with a rag and don’t hide the grain. However, they come in a limited choice of colors and are flammable.

Gel stains – These are the simplest for the amateur to use since gel adheres to vertical surfaces and doesn’t run. They works well with complicated surfaces, is simple to apply, and doesn’t raise the grain. However, it’s expensive, difficult to clean up, and comes in a limited choice of colors. Additional coats will not darken the color.

One-step stain and finish – This is the quickest way to finish wood on kitchen cabinets if you’re not picky about achieving an exact color. It obtains uniform results, doesn’t raise the grain, and is quick to use. Additional coats will not darken the color.


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