Cabinet finishing – whether you’re using, paint, stain, oil, urethane or something else – is an easy, fun job that doesn’t require a ton of tools or years of experience. There are a few common tricks and techniques that will help you get that perfect factory finish. In fact, with the great deals that you can find on unfinished cabinetry, there is really no reason not to tackle the finishing job yourself! If you want to try painting, staining or varnishing unfinished cabinets, here are some of the things you’ll need to know to do a flawless finishing job.

Unfinished Oak Cabinets

Unfinished Oak Cabinets

Sanding and Surface Preparation

The biggest mistake that you can make is failing to prepare the surface of the cabinet properly, or neglecting to sand your finish between coats. On an unfinished base cabinet or wall cabinet, the manufacturer will have already done most of the sanding. However, one more light sand with a fine sandpaper – at least 200 grit, although 400 grit is even better – will help you get a silky-smooth finish.

As you sand, there are two things to remember: Always sand with the grain, and sand gently so that you don’t damage the veneer. Avoid power sanders, because the rotational or back-and-forth motions that these tools use can cause scratches across the wood grain.

Sanding between coats is even more important than sanding before the first coat. As you apply the finish, tiny bubbles will form and small bits of dust and debris will adhere to the surface, leaving the initial coats with a somewhat rough texture. Use 400-grit sandpaper or steel wool to open up those bubbles and remove any roughness.

Painting From the Can

Painting From the Can

Less is More

Another key to success is remembering that less is more. When you apply the first coat or two to an unfinished wall cabinet, it’ll be tempting to apply a thick coat simply because the finish will soak into the wood and look extremely patchy. However, thick coats of finish come with several problems:

• Heavy layers of finish tend to bubble more than thin coats.

• They take longer to dry, which means the wet finish has more time to collect dust and debris.

• Thick coats of finish are prone to drips, runs and other flaws.

If you want smooth paint or a perfectly glossy urethane finish, shoot for at least three to five thin coats rather than one or two thick coats of finish.

Staining By Hand

Staining By Hand

Which Tools are the Best Tools?

The beauty of cabinet finishing is that it doesn’t require lots of expensive or complicated tools. You’ll need brushes, cloths, sandpaper and something to clean up the mess – water for water-based finishes and paint thinner or mineral spirits for oil-based finishes. But how do you decide when to use a brush and when to use a cloth for the finish? Here’s a run-down of the best way to apply a variety of finishes:

• For stain, use a cloth. Traditional stains are very thin and runny, which means it will be difficult to get an even coating with a brush. Gel stains are too thick for a brush – you’ll just push them when you should be rubbing them into the wood grain.

• Urethane, polyurethane, varnish and other oil-based clear coats can be applied with either a brush or a cloth. However, cloths are generally the preferred method because they allow you to apply the thinnest, most even coating.

• Oils – like teak oil or tung oil – are somewhat thin, so they should always be applied with a cloth.

• Paints – both latex paint and oil paint – need to be brushed on. Use a soft brush for the thinner latex paints and a stiffer brush for oil paints.

As you can see, most finishes are best applied with a clean, lint-free cloth. Use either cheesecloth or old t-shirts. If you go the t-shirt route, cut them up into rags and then run them through the washing machine at least twice to remove any loose threads or fuzzy bits from the edges.

Unfinished Birch Cabinets

Unfinished Birch Cabinets

Finishing your own cabinets is an easy, rewarding job. These tips and techniques will give you that perfect showroom look no matter what finish you choose. So the next time you see a great deal on unfinished kitchen cabinets, don’t hesitate to take them home and give DIY finishing a shot!

A designer checklist for avoiding installation problems

A designer checklist for avoiding installation problems in the field

Verify refrigerator dimensions

Provide sufficient clearance

Verify type of range

Verify type of range 2

Dishwasher placement

Dishwasher placement 2


Dishwasher placement 3


Cooktops and built-in ovens


Check ventilation needs


Ensuring proper clearance


Ensuring proper clearance 2

Heat shield requirements

Appliance considerations

Microwave placement

Microwave placement 2


Sink sizes


Clearances around doors and windows


Clearances around doors and windows 2


Clearances around doors and windows 3


Clearances around doors and windows 4


Fillers for cabinets

Staggering heights of corner cabinets

Varying cabinet depths

Varying cabinet depths 2

Working with square corners and blind cabinets


Cabinet clearances


Ensuring proper cabinet clearance


Calculate correct moulding quantities


Note hardware location


Glazed finishes


Follow these 10 basics for beautifully painted kitchen cabinets.

  1. Clean dirt and grease off cabinets using TSP (trisodium phosphate) found at your local home or hardware store. Be sure to wear gloves when handling!
  2. Remove cabinet faces, drawers, and hardware using a screw driver. Number and group each so you know which pieces belong together — you will thank yourself for this foresight when reassembling.
  3. Sand cabinet base, drawers, and faces so that your paint will “take” — make sure to wipe down with a tack cloth after to remove residue.
  4. Repair any cracks or other damages in wood by using wood filler — be sure to sand down so there are no rough spots and clean residue thoroughly.
  5. Tape off ceiling, counter, and cabinets and lay plenty of drop cloths where needed.
  6. Apply one coat of good-quality primer on all wood surfaces.
  7. Apply two coats of gloss or semi-gloss interior latex paint or high-quality acrylic paint specifically made for kitchen and bath woodwork (to withstand moisture and wear) — allow several hours to dry between coats.
  8. Once your two coats are applied, scout for needed touch-ups and let paint dry for at least 24-48 hours.
  9. Apply two coats water-based polyurethane to act as a seal; again, allow at least 24 hours to dry before putting cabinets back together.
  10. Reattach hardware and cabinets and reload all your displaced contents. Then, enjoy your new, colorful, and stylish kitchen!

This page consists of two pages reproduced from One of the articles has been reconstructed here since the original instructions are out of order. You can view the original links here: Preparation Article and Installation Article.


After the demolition phase, there is usually some preparatory work to be done before you can install your new kitchen. If extensive structural, electrical, plumbing, drywall or paneling work is included in your plans it should take place at this time as well.


  1. Gouges or holes in the walls must be repaired with wall board compound, spackle, or patching plaster. Stuff larger holes with newspaper or fine wire mesh to hold the compound. If you have gaping holes or many gouges it may be necessary to replace the surface with dry wall.
  2. Usually, installing new cabinets will call or some changes in the position of the cabinets, requiring that the walls be painted. If drywall or large patches of filler are being used to prepare the walls, a coat of sealer or primer should be applied before the color coat.
  3. Locate and mark the wall studs on the floor and ceiling as a reference for attaching the new cabinetry.


If you plan to replace your floor, the time to prepare for it is BEFORE installing the cabinets and permanent appliances. Ceramic tile floors are usually placed before the installation of cabinets while vinyl flooring can be laid either before or after the cabinets are in place. If the new floor will go directly on top of the existing one, it is very important to fill any areas that may have dipped, buckled or bulged, as well as any holes or gouges, and nail down protruding boards. Remove glue or paint that may have spilled. Countersink nail and screw heads that are sticking up above the surface. If the old floor is embossed or has dips and/or hollows in it, these should be filled in with cement filler using a 5 to 10-inch wide putty knife.

Water damaged floors must be repaired before laying down a new floor. You will need to remove the existing flooring to expose the damaged subfloor. Damaged portions of sub-flooring must be replaced. Should you find the entire sub floor to be too badly damaged for salvage, it will be best to lay new one. This can be laid directly on top of the existing floor.

The Order of Installation

These instructions are to be used as a guide but you should always follow the specific manufacturer’s instructions where there are deviations. Putting the kitchen together should occur in a logical sequence.

  1. Primer and paint
  2. Ceramic tile, vinyl or hardwood flooring*
  3. Wall cabinets
  4. Base cabinets and islands
  5. Cabinet doors, drawers and hardware
  6. Plywood base for tile countertops
  7. Recessed sink
  8. Counter tops – wood, marble, tile
  9. Surface mounted sink & fittings
  10. Disposal
  11. Dishwasher
  12. Ice-maker connection
  13. Over the range hood/vent
  14. Cook top
  15. Wall oven and microwave
  16. Vinyl Flooring*
  17. Range
  18. Refrigerator, freezer, trash compactor & icemaker
  19. Lighting fixtures
  20. Finishing touches – trim

*Note: Hardwood flooring and ceramic tile are always laid before cabinets are installed while vinyl flooring can be placed after the cabinetry is in place.


Most Common Mistakes

  1. Not installing level or plumb,
  2. Not attaching to studs,
  3. Damaging or marring cabinets,
  4. Not aligning cabinet doors,
  5. Damaging the walls during installation,
  6. Not cutting sink opening to proper dimension,
  7. Drop-in appliances not properly fitted and installed,
  8. Not making exact fits and cuts, or
  9. Not installing all needed utilities.

Whenever installing stock cabinets, accurate measurements are critical to assure a snug fit. Custom made cabinetry is usually sold with a warranty conditional on having the cabinets installed by the dealer. In fact, the dealer will probably send someone out to make their own measurements.

Most ready-made cabinets come with a scribe allowance at the edges to allow you to adapt them to irregular walls. Scribing simply involves running a strip of masking tape along the side to be scribed; then, positioning the cabinet. (See Fig. J) Set the points of a pencil compass to the width of the widest gap between the side of the cabinet and the wall. Run the compass down the wall and the irregularities will be pencil marked on the tape. Now you can plane or sand down to the line so the cabinet will rest flush against the wall. If the scribe edge is not included on your cabinets or if your cabinets go all the way to the ceiling, plan on trimming the edges with a small piece of molding.

It is easier to install the upper wall cabinets first because you have room to work with them. Since they will hang from the wall, you must make certain they are securely attached.


Before installing any of our new cabinets, remove all the drawers, doors and hardware and label them as to their original locations for quick reassembly. This will make the units much lighter and more manageable.

    1. Use a chalk line to mark the position of the wall studs on the walls from ceiling to floor.


    1. Measure the height of the base cabinets. If your floor is not level, measure from the highest point. Add to that measurement the thickness oft e counter top. Measure this distance up from the floor and draw a horizontal line across the wall. Use a level to assure this line will be true horizontal. This will indicate the surface of the counter top.


    1. Measure to another point above the line to where the bottom of the upper cabinet will rest (usually 18′ to 19″ above your 1st line) and draw another horizontal line across the wall. This line (approximately 54 inches above the floor) should also be made with a level to assure it is true horizontal and parallel to the line for the counter top.


    1. Nail a temporary l x 2 ledger board to the wall so that the top of the board is even with the line for the upper cabinets. Be sure you are nailing into the studs. Now mark the cabinet widths along the length of the ledger strip.


    1. You will need to make a few temporary jacks to support the wall cabinets while you attach them to the wall. The total length of the jack should reach from the floor to the bottom of the upper cabinets. Wide blocks of wood nailed to both ends of a 2 x 4 work well for this purpose. Put the jacks into position near the ledger.


    1. When readying the cabinets for installation, we recommend you first prepare those cabinets that will house a hood/vent, ducts and plumbing: Place the cabinet upside down on the floor with the hood in position upside down on the (bottom of the) cabinet. Trace the outline of the vent hole onto the base of the cabinet. Drill a starter hole for your sabre saw, then, cut around the outline and remove the cutout, Next, make a paper template of the ceiling or wall where the cabinet will be placed that shows where the end of the duct will enter. Place the template into position on the cabinet top or back and outline the duct hole. Again, drill a starter hole and cut out the circle with your sabre saw. Mark the location of the Wall studs on each cabinet’s hanging cleats; then, drill pilot holes for screws at these points. Self-drilling bugle head screws can also be used. These require no pre-drilling, except when using at face frames. With the doors removed, lift the first cabinet into position onto the ledger board and the temporary jacks. Check to see that the cabinet is both level and plumb in position and, if needed, add shims at the back of the cabinet to bring it into a plumb position.


    1. Screw the 2-1/2 inch No. 8 flathead wood screws through the cleat at the back of the cabinet and into the wall studs – two at the top and two at the bottom. Use longer screws if needed to assure at least 1 -1/4″ to 1-3/4″ penetration into the studs. Each unit should be attached to a minimum of two studs. If only one stud is located behind a unit, add a toggle bolt as an additional fastener.


    1. Attach each of the upper cabinets in this manner. Then, go back and screw the adjacent units together. When connecting adjoining cabinets, it may be necessary to loosen wall screws to allow the faces of the cabinet to be attached flush to each other. Use hand screws or a C clamp with soft wood screws between the jaws of the clamp and the face frame often cabinet to hold the units flush while you screw them together.


    1. Recheck all for level and plumb.


    1. Remove the jacks and the ledger board and repair any holes in the wall.


    1. If your lower cabinets have freestanding bases, set the bases in position and level them, shimming if necessary. Also, use a framing square to square them where your base cabinets meet in a comer. When placing shim material, place a block of wood between the shim and the hammer so as not to damage the flooring.  Then anchor them to the floor and place the cabinet units on top of them. Those cabinets without freestanding bases must be leveled and anchored in position as a unit. As you set the base cabinets in place, measure and leave room for our appliances, adding a 1/4 inch for clearance – more if you will be adding end panels. Check the position of your base units against the line on the wall, making certain the tops are equally below the line by the thickness of your counter top.


    1. Attach the cabinet units together so that the faces are flush. Slide a level down the entire length of the cabinets, adding a shim where there is a gap or to bring it up to level. Place your level front to back on the top of the cabinet to check for plumb – a again shimming if necessary. Then, screw the entire length o cabinets into the wall with the 2 – inch screws through the top cleat and into the wall studs. often, due to some unevenness in the wall, there will be gaps between the back of the cabinet and the wall. To avoid pulling your cabinets out of kilter as you position them to the wall, shim the gaps at the fastening point (where the stud is located) before screwing the cabinet into place.


    1. Island cabinets must have the individual units screwed together and laced into position before leveling and plumbing on all four sides. I the base is separate, level and plumb it. Then, fasten it to the floor With toe nails or angle brackets. Place and anchor the cabinets to the base. When installing an island unit, it is important to square it to the cabinets along the wall and to the wall itself, as well as lining it up properly with the overhead fixtures (stove vent or lighting). Measure off on both ceiling and floor to determine the exact location.