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How to Stain and Seal Your Wooden Cabinets

How to Stain and Seal Your Wooden Cabinets

Wooden cabinets have an enduring appeal that many homeowners love. But they do need some care and attention, especially when you install new wooden cabinets that have not previously been stained or sealed. Once this has been done, maintenance will be minimized and all you will normally need to do is keep them clean.

Even a clear sealer will change the color of wood a little, but it will also bring out the natural color hue and will enhance the grain too. From left to right: white oak, red oak, and beech.

The stain – if you use one – and sealer chosen for wooden kitchen cabinets will depend largely on the wood itself. Various different wood species are used for cabinets and cabinet doors, particularly hardwoods like alder, beech, birch, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, poplar, and even more exotic walnut. But it also depends on whether you want to highlight the grain and color of the wood or whether you simply want to color it to fit the character, theme, and/or style of your home.

Once you have identified the effect you want to achieve you can find a suitable product that will enable you to do just this.

In general terms, the choice will be:

  • Stain and/or
  • Clear sealer
  • Tinted sealer
  • But within these categories, there is so much choice it can be confusing.

A black stained collection of cabinets.

The style is modern and minimal, and the character enchanting. If you didn’t recognize the typical oak grain on these kitchen cabinet doors you probably wouldn’t even think “wood”! But these cabinets are indeed made from oak, and whether it was white or red to start with really doesn’t matter any more.

Stains for Wooden Cabinets

Traditionally wood stains were made to imitate the color of … well … wood! Often they were used on inexpensive wood cabinets to make them look as though they were made from more expensive types of wood. For example, oak, and beech were often stained to look like walnut or mahogany. Today wood stains are available in a vast array of hues from yellow, green, and blue, to typical wood colors like antique oak, mahogany, ebony, imbuia, and traditional teak.

Traditionally, too, wood stains were spirit-based or oil-based. Still available, it is more difficult to apply spirit-based wood stains than water-based stains that appeal to a less professional market than trained cabinet-makers. They are also flammable and not environmentally friendly. Today, in addition to water-based stains, there are environmentally friendly, relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use gel stains that appeal the full spectrum of people wanting to transform their kitchen cabinets, including the growing numbers of DIYers.

While the method of application of different generic types is similar, it is vital to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

That said, if the wood surface isn’t absolutely clean and smooth you will need to sand it lighting in the direction of the wood grain. Start with a relatively coarse 120 grit silicon carbide wet and dry or “water” sandpaper – the one that has a black backing. Then use a finer 220 grit sandpaper. Many people then apply a pre-stain wood conditioner. Just be sure that it is compatible with the stain you are using. If necessary, contact the manufacturer telephonically or via email to check.

When it comes to applying the stain itself read the instructions carefully before you get started. Be sure to wipe the surface before you start to get rid of dust and dirt. If you are going to apply two coats make sure you allow sufficient drying time between these. Even if the instructions say a day, don’t reapply until the first coat is completely dry. This might entail waiting a couple of days.

Sealers for Wooden Cabinets

Traditionally cabinets (as in furniture rather than kitchen cupboards) were oiled, waxed, or polished. Varnish was then developed and used out-of-a-tin in the place of these hand mixed finishes. Polyurethane varnish was a game changer, particularly for anything that was going to be used outdoors and in kitchens where the wood would be subjected to moisture, heat, and the abuse of sharp utensils like knives. However, one problem with anything that contains polyurethane is that it tends to yellow. Not a major problem for most wood hues, the yellow factor can kill other colors, especially blues and greys that will tend to turn a greenish shade. Bearing in mind that stains aren’t always wood-colored, this is something that must be taken into account. The other factor is that many polyurethane sealers have a gloss finish that makes the surface ultra-shiny.

There are now also now many water-based varnish products. Totally unlike the originally varnish products developed prior to the advent of polyurethane, water-based sealers are considerably easier to apply, quick drying, and they aren’t hazardous in any way.

Polyurethane and water-based varnish is available tinted to popular wood colors and as a clear finish. Most manufacturers give the option of both a shiny “gloss” and dull “suede” or “matte” finish.

Additionally, some manufacturers produce sealers that contain way that literally “feeds” the wood. While easy to apply they generally require mineral turpentine for cleanup.

You have plenty of choice!