This post describes the steps needed to paint or stain unfinished cabinets or bookcases, which you can order online on our website to save money and get the custom finish you want.

Unfinished cabinets prepped for staining.

1. Remove the doors and drawer fronts

Mark them with a number or location, so you know where each cabinet door or drawer front goes when you complete the job. Remove the hinges and hardware with a screwdriver. To remove the drawer front, take a screwdriver, and remove the screws from the back of the wood panel.

2. Prepare the surfaces

Unfinished cabinets might have some unfilled nail holes or imperfections, so they may need a little wood putty. If you plan to stain, use a stainable putty. If you plan to paint, a white putty would be good. You might need to lightly sand and prepare the surface before applying your first coat of stain or paint.

Most manufacturers will have already done the majority of sanding. Some light sanding with fine-grit sandpaper (about 200-400 grit) will help you get the smooth finish you desire. If the surface is not already smooth or you have to remove imperfections, start with 120 grit sandpaper and then switch to a more fine grit. As you start to prep your drawer fronts and cabinet doors, there are a couple of things you’ll want to focus on:

  • Wear protective glasses and a mask to protect you from getting the fine sawdust in your eyes or lungs.
  • Always sand with the grain, whether it’s vertical or horizontal.
  • Sand gently by hand. You’re trying to get a clean, smooth finish.
  • If you prefer to use a powered hand sander, be very careful. You don’t want to sand unevenly or leave some indents or scratches on your door surface.
  • Make sure you wipe off all the wood dust on the cabinet doors and drawer fronts once completed. Wipe the cabinet components with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or debris.
  • Each time you sand the panels, use a hand vacuum and a tack cloth to remove the dust left over from sanding.

3. Choose a finish or paint color

Choose a finish color for your cabinets and drawer or enhance the natural pattern in the wood grain with a colorless polyurethane finish.

  • Leave your existing wood unfinished: If you like the current natural wood color of your cabinets, you could apply a finish without painting or staining them. A colorless polyurethane finish protects your wood cabinetry from moisture and stain damage.
  • Complement the color of your rooms: Most kitchens and bathrooms are monochromatic for a clean, modern look. You can add a mix of colors to change up the look of your living space. Consider making your cabinet doors a contrasting color to your cabinets. You could also choose different colors for high and low cabinets.
  • Choose between natural wood or a different paint color: One natural wood panel is different from others that look like it. If you’d rather have a bold, uniform look, use any color paint you want on your wood cabinet doors and drawer fronts. White cabinets add a modern, clean look to your bathroom or kitchen. Before you choose a paint color, check the paint’s label to find out if you can use it on wood.
  • Consider the texture of your finish: You could choose between matte, semi-gloss and glossy. A matte finish creates a more opaque appearance. A glossy finish adds a reflection to your wood cabinet doors and drawer fronts. How you want to stain unfinished drawer fronts depends on your style.

4. See below for details about painting or staining.

What is the best way to paint unfinished kitchen cabinets?

The best way to paint kitchen cabinets is with a paintbrush and a small roller. Spray painting is also an option if you want the process to move more quickly, but it can be tricky. Done improperly, you can have thicker spots that will not sand evenly or thin spots where the paint does not evenly cover the surface. 

Start by removing all of the hinges, hardware, doors and drawers from your cabinets. Label each door with masking tape so you’ll remember which one goes where and put all of the hardware in plastic bags so you don’t lose anything. If you can fit a worktable in your kitchen, it will be much easier to paint the doors. 2×4 wood boards propped on buckets, boxes, or work horses will also do. If you don’t have those materials, work on top of a drop cloth.

You’ll want to prep all of the doors and drawers properly to ensure your paint will stick. Start this process by scrubbing your cabinets to get rid of any grease or residue. If you’re planning to use new hardware, cover the current holes with wood filler. Next, use 100-grit sandpaper to make all of the surfaces smooth and make sure to wipe away any dust with a tack cloth before drilling your new holes. To ensure a nice finish, use caulk to fill in any gaps or seams.

If you want professional-style results, it’s imperative to prime the boxes, door fronts and drawers before you begin painting. Once your primer has dried, use an angled brush and a mini foam roller to apply your paint. A latex satin finish works well on kitchen cabinets and it isn’t as hard to work with as oil paint. Start working in sections with your angled brush and go over your work with the roller for a perfect finish. When you’re done painting, you can also use very fine grit sandpaper for a final sanding and even a coat of a satin polycrylic for extra durability as well. Once your paint has dried, reinstall the doors and drawers and install your hardware.

Spray paint is another option for painting kitchen cabinets, but this process is best done outside or in a designated workspace so you don’t have to worry about overspray. If spray painting your cabinets, you’ll follow the same process as above but instead of working with a paint brush and roller you’ll use spray paint instead.

What is the best way to stain unfinished kitchen cabinets?

There are liquid and gel-based stains. Liquid stains are applied similar to how you paint. Start by sanding and conditioning the wood, then apply the stain with a bristle or foam brush. After that’s dry, put on two coats of polyurethane and your cabinets will look just as good as any professional could have done for you.

  • After sanding, apply a wood conditioner to seal the wood and allow it to better accept the stain.
  • Apply liquid stain with a bristle or foam brush or a rag.
  • Use a rag to work stain down into the pores of the wood.
  • Make a final pass working in the grain of the wood.
  • Once the stain has dried, lightly sand again with a very fine sandpaper.
  • Apply a clear polyurethane top coat with a brush, taking care not to brush too quickly, which could create bubbles in the finish. Use an oil-based polyurethane with an oil-based stain or a water-based product with water-based stain.
  • Once the polyurethane has dried, lightly sand again with a very fine sandpaper.

Gel Stains

Instead of a traditional liquid stain, try a gel stain, which is thick like pudding. Gel stain is applied to the surface of the wood but not rubbed-in like traditional stains; the application is more comparable to painting on multiple thin layers.

  • While gel stain does go on thick and sit on the surface of the wood, I found that you can still see and feel the natural wood grain beneath, unlike paint.
  • Gel stain will not require you to sand the product to a raw wood finish. It can be applied over only lightly sanded pieces just as well.
  • The condition of the wood does not play as big of a role in the finished result of the gel stain. For instance, the knots in your knotty pines will look less pronounced when the job is done.
  • Gel stain is more forgiving. Because you will need to do multiple coats, you can even out the finish over time.
  • The first coat of stain is an important one. Specialists and makers of the product advise one to apply a thick first coat — so thick that you could theoretically finger paint in it. Do not wipe it clean like you would a normal stain, but also do not leave it so heavy that it is inclined to drip. Wipe the excess gel off with a rag after it has had time to soak in. 
  • Apply 3-4 coats of gel stain. Each coat of stain needs about 24 hours to dry, so plan accordingly. Continue doing daily layers of stain in the same way until you can no longer see streaks in the finish.
  • Once the final coat of stain is dry, you may want to apply a polyurethane finish to seal the stain. Roughly 1-2 coats will do.

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!