How to Clean and Refinish Old Kitchen Cabinets

Outdated kitchen cabinets can quickly look icky and out of place – not exactly the feeling you want when whipping up culinary delights.

Everyone knows that cabinets are the biggest expense in a kitchen. But they don’t’ have to break the bank if you know where to shop for discounted kitchen cabinets.  Plus, you’ll want to work with a reputable company that installs cabinets.

The truth is, getting a fresh new look is easy and doesn’t have to cost a lot. A simple hardware change is a great way to revitalize your cooking space. Or simply change the finish on your hardware to something like:

  • Gold
  • Bronze
  • Chrome
  • Stainless Steel
  • Brushed Nickel
  • Black
  • Colors

But before we get into changing hardware or refinishing your kitchen cabinets, let’s go over how to properly clean them first. Here’s the best way to get your cabinets looking shiny and new.


Clean Dirt and Grime off Your Kitchen Cabinets

First, you’ll want to remove your kitchen cabinet doors and the hardware so it’s easier to clean them. Label or number the cabinets as you take them off so it’s easier to reattach them in the right place later.

Place the hardware in a cleaning solution and allow it to soak.

When choosing a cleaning solution, make sure you aren’t using chemicals so harsh that they’ll take off the varnish or paint from your cabinets (unless you’re going to refinish them). You might consider spot testing the cleaner in an inconspicuous area before using it all over.

For an environmentally friendly DIY solution, make a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and warm water. Put a few drops of dish soap in the mix and spray it on the cabinets. 

Allow the cleaner to sit for several minutes before scrubbing and wiping it off. Follow the same process for the cabinets still attached to the wall. Continue wiping them down until the water runs clear.

Now for some of you, simply giving your cabinets a thorough cleaning might be enough. But if you’re looking for a brand new look to reinvigorate your cooking space, refinishing your cabinets is a solid option. Here’s how to do it yourself on a budget.


How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets Like a Professional

Begin by laying down drop cloths to protect the floors, countertops, walls, and appliances. You might also want to empty the cabinets to give yourself the most space and prevent unwanted materials from getting all over your dishes.

Next, you’ll have to figure out what kind of finish is on your cabinets so you can find the appropriate stripper. Here are some common strippers and the types of finishes they remove.

  • Turpentine or mineral spirits dissolve wax finishes
  • Denatured alcohol dissolves shellac finishes and latex paint
  • Lacquer thinner dissolves lacquer, polyurethane and shellac finishes
  • Xylene dissolves water-based finishes

Your local hardware store should be able to help you decide the type of stripper you’ll need for your cabinets. Choose a gel over liquid stripper when possible as it will make it easier to work with a vertical surface.

Alternatively, you can remove the finish by sanding your cabinets. The fastest way to do this is with a sander and by using 200-grit fine sandpaper for crevices the sander can’t reach.

Once you’ve removed the finish, fill in small holes, dips, and dings with wood filler. Allow it to dry.

If you are going to paint, start with a primer. Once the primer is dry, apply two coats of paint for an even look. Finish with a layer of polyurethane to protect your cabinets and make cleaning them easier.

If you are going to stain your cabinets, there’s no need to prime. Choose an all-in-one stain with a polyurethane finish to simplify the process. Using a rag, apply the stain to your cabinets. For more intense color, add an additional coat.

Now, use a brush to go over the hardware pieces. Place them on a towel to dry. At this point, you can apply polish or give your hardware its new finish.

And finally, reattach your cabinets and hardware, step back and congratulate yourself on a job well done!


Cleaning and refinishing your existing kitchen cabinets is easy and a fraction of the cost of replacing them or hiring a professional. Keep in mind the entire process may take several days. But overall, doing it yourself is not difficult.

What kind of look do you want your kitchen cabinets to have?

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