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How to Re-Varnish Cabinets

If you want to update and restore your kitchen cabinetry without paint, here’s my tutorial for how to re-varnish cabinets.

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.  I really wanted to paint them, but Hubby loved the wood, so I decided to strip and re-varnish the cabinets.

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:

UPDATE: Since tackling this DIY re-varnish project, I found a chemical stripper that works even better than what I used for this project.  Check it out here.

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 on Kijiji and bought some inexpensive, simple silver handles and shiny new silver hinges.  See more “after” shots of the kitchen makeover here.

Not settled on going the DIY re-varnished cabinets route?  Looking for more cabinet refinishing tutorials?  Check out this post and find my Cabinet Refinishing 101 post, reviewing different methods of paint, stain and other cabinet refinishing options.

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  1. Anonymous
    December 14, 2013 / 1:14 am

    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.

    • Tanya from Dans le Townhouse
      December 14, 2013 / 4:55 am

      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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