How to Refinish Wood Cabinets the Easy Way

How To Refinish Wood Cabinets the Easy Way

Are you thinking about ways to refinish wood cabinets?  You probably know that the “correct” way to refinish wood cabinets is to follow these steps: strip, sand, stain, poly.  Sounds like (and is!) a lot of work.

So what are your options if you want to refinish wood cabinets, but don’t have the time or energy to do all that work?

This is the situation that I was in.  I wanted to refinish wood cabinets in my kitchen, but didn’t want to live without a kitchen for weeks while I was waiting for the process to be completed.  So I started researching ways to refinish wood cabinets that didn’t include all that time and effort.  There were several options.  My first idea was to paint them.  I knew that this would removing the doors, sanding everything, priming everything, spraying the doors with paint sprayer, painting the bases with a brush, more sanding, more sanding, spraying and painting, and then putting everything back together.  I didn’t want to go through all this if I didn’t have to.  Plus, it was the dead of winter, and I couldn’t spray the doors outside for at least 2 more months.

My next option was to figure out how to stain them easily.

I stumbled upon a product called Minwax PolyShades.  It claimed that it could go over stained wood furniture that has a polyurethane finish.

To test this, you can take a cotton ball and soak it in acetone nail polish remover.  Then, put it on your stained furniture in an inconspicuous place.  If the finish gets gummy, or the cotton ball sticks to the wood, then you cannot use PolyShades.  But, if nothing happens, you can refinish wood cabinets using PolyShades.

Well, I tried it out, and to my delight, nothing happened!  So, I headed out to purchase the color I wanted.  We wanted a super dark color, so we settled on Tudor.  Minwax also makes an Espresso color but we couldn’t find it at either of the two stores we tried.

Here is how we refinished our wood cabinets using PolyShades.

First, my before picture:

The cabinets were that really light oak wood that was popular in the 90’s or so.  They were actually really pretty cabinets though, with nice decorative moulding on the top, so I knew they had potential.

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Materials List:


Our first step was to wash the cabinets.  We used Spic and Span because it is a non-sudsing cleanser that doesn’t need to be rinsed (if you dilute it with water).  After scrubbing it really well, let it dry, and then started to sand it.

Thankfully, Minwax only recommends a light sand before applying the stain.  Yes!  So we used 220 grit sandpaper and sanded every surface.  When we were doing this, we noticed that the ledges on the cabinets above the microwave were gummy from grease.  Yuck.  So we scrubbed those again REALLY WELL with the Spic and Span.  A liquid sandpaper would have also worked, but we didn’t have one on hand.

After sanding all of the finished surfaces, we wiped it down again with a wet rag to remove all of the sanding dust.  (In retrospect, we should have also vacuumed all of the crevices… live and learn I suppose.)

Time to Stain!

First, let me say, see how quick that prep work was!?  This is the sort of DIY I love, because I always want instant gratification on my projects (and with 3 kids 4 and under, I don’t have an extra second to waste).

So anyways, on to staining.

I opened the stain and stirred it well with a paint stick.  Then I used my Purdy natural bristle brush to apply it.  Because it is a stain with a poly built in, it is a little bit thick and sticky.  It is really important to keep a “wet edge,” which basically means to make sure you’re not dragging a dry brush across the surface.  This will ensure that the stain goes on evenly.  Also though, make sure you do not put this on too thick!  You need to put on a very light coat, but make sure you keep a wet edge the whole time.  It takes a bit of practice to get the right amount of stain on your brush.

I started by staining the door faces.  I did the center part in long, even strokes from the top to the bottom.  Then I went back and did them from the bottom to the top.  The stain stays wet for a minute or two, but after that it will start to get gummy so make sure you don’t over work it.  After the door face was done, I ran my brush down and across the decorative edges in a box.  Then, I brushed the very outer part of the door frame.

At this point, take a look at what you’ve already done.  Check for places where the stain is starting to drip.  If you put it on too this, it will drip, and it may not show up right away.  Remember to keep checking back!  If you see a drip, run your brush across it.

Once the doors were done, I opened the doors up and did the cabinet boxes in the same way.  Always brush in the same direction of the grain, and check back frequently for drips.

Then, I let it dry for 6 hours.

My first coat looked like this:

Pretty underwhelming right?  Is it even darker?  Yes, it is.  But just slightly.  Now when I purchased Minwax PolyShades, I was expecting one or two coats to get me to the color on the can.  I was definitely wrong.

So I gave it a light sand all over with my steel wool, wiped it down again and *should have vacuumed it.

My second coat looked like this:

Alright, its getting a little darker again.  But nowhere near what I was hoping for.  So I let it dry again for 6+ hours and sanded with steel wool, wiped, and applied another coat.

My third coat looked like this:

Getting there now!

At this point, I was pretty sure that this stuff was not meant to be applied in multiple coats like this.  It started to get thick in the crevices.  I could scrape them with my nail and get some of the extra stain and poly out, but the darkness in those areas remained somewhat.  We were committed though, so after 6+ hours I sanded with steel wool again, wiped it down, and gave it one more coat.

Here is how my fourth coat looked:

And I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I use a pretty awesome camera filter on my photos that lightens everything up, making the images look brighter.

This is how dark the cabinets actually are (but see how dingy the photo looks?):

Pretty dark!  Not the DARK that I was looking for, but good enough!  So I stopped at four coats, because my sanity, and the Minwax itself, would not allow for any more (it was starting to goop in the little crevices – no worries though, I plan to glaze them in the future).

I didn’t even finish one whole can of the PolyShades, so the stuff does go pretty far.

So here is my side by side before and after:

I love how it turned out, and love the darkness of the cabinets.  As you can see, I also changed out the handles on the drawers for a cup cabinet pull.  It gives a little farmhouse style to the kitchen.

To complete my mini kitchen renovation, I also added trim to and painted the island.

Check out how to add moulding to a kitchen island here.

The best part of this project?  It cost me $40, and that includes the new drawer pulls.  Total cost for the refinishing?  Less than $20.

So all in all, I would call this project a success.  The cabinets did not get as dark as I had originally envisioned, but I really like how they look, and I love that it only took 2 days and $40 bucks!

Leave me a comment below and let me me know what you think!

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How to Refinish Wood Cabinets the Easy Way

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Your kitchen looks great!

    1. Thanks! It was a cheap and fast upgrade – just the kind I like!

  2. I’ve read other reviews about the smell of polyshades being extremely overwhelming. Do you remember that being an issue? I have a built-in book case I had planned on “staining” with polyshades, but I’m hesitant to try since I can’t take it outside!

    1. Hi Mandi! I do not remember the smell being an issue. I use things with fumes pretty frequently, so they typically don’t bother me. BUT since I’m always working with my children around, I’m pretty sure I would remember if the smell was particularly noxious, because I would have had to get them out of the house. To be safe, maybe you could pick up a can and stain the underside of the bottom shelf in a small place. No one will ever see that spot, and it’ll give you a little insight as to whether the smell will be overwhelming for you.

  3. I’m excited to do this on a honey oak bathroom sink cabinet. Did you remove the doors and drawers to sand and paint or leave them on? Would love to send you before and after pics.

    1. Hi Susan! I did not remove the doors and drawers, though you definitely could (it would make it easier). Please do send me pics! I love to see them!!

  4. Do you think this would work on a veneer pressboard piece of furniture? I want to darken a honey oak desk. the sanding might wreck it since the veneer is so thin. What do you think?

    1. Hey Susan! I think that if you’re able to do a really light sand (which is truly all that is required for this) you should be fine. I would use a really fine grit sandpaper, and work carefully. Hand sand it… don’t use a mouse sander. Also, try to start in a place that is sort of hidden to test it out before starting on the face of the furniture. Good luck!

  5. LOVE how they turned out, wow!! I’m updating the kitchen in our old (1901) farmhouse and am looking for simple ways to darken the oak cabinets. How well did the minwax polyshades last for you? I’ve read reviews that say it can chip, have you had that issue? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Ariel! A 1901 farmhouse – how awesome! How dark are you looking to go for the cabinets? If you just want them a little darker, you could use Polyshades. If you want to really darken them, I would recommend not using it though. It tends to build up in the crevices and get sort of gummy if you do a bunch of coats (to get it darker). I hear that General Finishes (linked so you can see which product it is) makes a gel stain that gets much darker much faster, and that is what I would use if I did it again. I have since moved from that house, but it did chip in one or two places when I lived there. Not terribly, and not noticeably, but it did. I think that if the prep work is done really well it won’t chip. But if there is a bit of grease on the cabinet, if you had to do many coats and its thick, or if you didn’t rough up the surface enough, it will. Hope this is helpful!

  6. I have the same question. The side of our bathroom vanity is exposed and is like a wood-look vinyl. I m wondering how the stain would work out there. Thanks so much for this post. I m about to close on the perfect for me home but it s orange oak throughout! Painting it seemed a gamble and so final but after seeing your results I m convinced it s right for me. Love that you used stain and not solid paint. I m going to copy your stain project and, since it s quite open plan, use the same stain on the kitchen cabinets. Thanks for the pyramid tips! I m excited to get started now!

    1. Good luck to you! I hope it works out well and that you love the results!

  7. Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for the tutorial. I did the cotton ball check and it stuck but there was not any gummy or residue at all. The surface felt normal upon removing the cotton ball. I tried several spots and it would stick but again…no residue or stickiness. Does that sound like it would work?

    1. Hi Stevo! Yes, it sounds like it’ll work! Good luck!

      1. Thanks Lauren. I saw where your picture showed a Satin finish for the miniwax, is that what you recommend?

        1. Hey Stevo! That is what I used, because I did not want a super shiny finish. This is just a preference thing though, not a right or wrong thing. You can use whatever sort of finish you like! Gloss will be the shiniest, followed by Satin, followed by Matte.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience! I have wanted to do this, but have been nervous. Your cabinets look terrific! 💕😀

    1. Thanks Jay! I hope yours turn out well! Good luck!

  9. Love the espresso color. However, I notice after the first coat that there are places where it did not cover. I’m hoping when I use the steel wool it will rough it up absorb more evenly. It’s like it repelled certain spots. Did you have this issue?


  10. Hi Sam! I’m guessing that their was an oil residue on your cabinets in those areas. Before getting at those spots with steel wool, try using a degreased or some oil cutting dish soap to clean them. If you use the steel wool prior to getting the oil off, you’ll likely just push the grease further into the wood instead of removing it. I do think I saw a spot or two like that when I did this, and cleaning it helped. Good luck!

  11. Lauren, we completely remodeled our home about 18 years ago – so we’re definitely ready for an update. I’ve thought about doing this project, but like you did not want it to be huge project. What would you recommend for the cabinets if the cotton ball sticks and the residue is sticky? Thanks

  12. Hi Theresa! Unfortunately, PolyShades is not recommended for use over a finish that softens or gets sticky when you put nail polish remover on it (this means it’s a varnish or lacquer finish). I think you can use General Finishes Gel Stain, because I don’t see anything on their product page saying it won’t go over a lacquer or varnish finish. Before starting, I would suggest calling General Finishes to make sure though. If you can’t use that product, I think the only option would be to paint them. Good luck!!

  13. hi Lauren. i cleaned with tsp and dried and sanded with 220 wiped and applied one coat and after 6 hours it feels gummy…is it still wet and even after steel wool?

    1. Hi Rhonda – oh no! I’m so sorry to hear this! All products have specific “best practices,” such as not applying them when they temperature is too hot or cold, not applying them when the humidity is high, stirring instead of shaking the cans, etc. If you followed all them correctly, I wonder if maybe the coat you applied was a bit too thick. It might not exactly be wet, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it worked how it is supposed to. My best advice is to call Minwax and see if you can talk to someone about the product. I haven’t ever contacted Minwax, but I have been surprised at how easy it is to get an answer about things like this when I’ve called other companies. If you can’t get a hold of them, here is an article that I found that *may* apply: I don’t know for sure if it will work, because this is regarding stain and not a stain with a topcoat like Polyshades is, but it is worth considering. Last, I’m hoping that they will be dry when you wake up tomorrow, and they just needed a bit more time. Please stop back if you think of it and let me know what worked!

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