How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets Without Sanding?

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Tired, dingy, or dull kitchen cabinets need a refresh? Don’t have the time, space, or energy to spend hours sanding? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with some general tips and step-by-step instructions for three kitchen cabinet refinishing methods – no sanding required. 

Staining Kitchen Cabinets Without Sanding

Before getting into specifics, here are some general tips for working with kitchen cabinets and stain. 

  • New cabinets generally come sanded and ready to accept stain. Check with your supplier to confirm. 
  • Always stain new cabinets before hanging them, and before attaching the doors. For existing cabinets, remove the doors and the hinges (or cover them with painter’s tape) 
  • Sometimes, sanding isn’t avoidable. Dents or deep scratches can’t be fixed with a coat of stain. Stainable wood filler can be used to patch up gouges or scratches, but it doesn’t always absorb color in the same way as the wood around it. For best results
  • Use a solid stain or gel stain to completely change the color of your cabinets. Use a color enhancer or a stain with some transparency if you’re just looking to refresh your kitchen cabinets without changing the color. 

How to Stain Kitchen Cabinets Without Sanding

While sanding down to bare wood may be the preferred method for refinishing kitchen cabinets, it’s far from the only option. To save your time and energy, choose one of these three methods and follow the step-by-step instructions to a great outcome. 

Applying a polyurethane on a wooden cabinet

Method #1: Use a Chemical Stripper

This method works best for new cabinets or those with light-colored stain. It relies on a chemical stripper to remove old stain, and a de-glosser to prepare the surface to accept new stain. 

  1. Protect your workspace. Use newspaper or plastic sheeting to protect countertops, floors, walls and kitchen appliances. Open the windows and doors in your kitchen to increase air circulation. 
  2. Strip the cabinets. This step is only necessary if you want to use traditional (non-gel) stain, and the cabinets already have a finish on them. Apply stain stripper (or paint stripper) to the cabinets using a brush or small roller. Wait the designated amount of time, until you see signs such as bubbling or puckering that indicate the product has worked. 
  3. Scrape the cabinets. Use a plastic scraper to scrape off the old finish, discarding it in the trash. Work in the direction of the grain. Use a putty knife for corners. 
  4. Clean and degloss the cabinets. Look for a wood cleaning product that also contains a deglosser. Wipe the product all over the cabinets, making sure to remove any lingering paint or stain stripper. Wait for the cabinets to dry. 
  5. Evaluate your work. If most or all of the original finish came off, you can move on to staining with a product of your choice. If the stripper left significant color behind, you won’t be able to re-stain without sanding or priming. Priming will cover up not only the patchy stain left behind, but also the natural features of the wood. 
  6. Apply new stain. Using a cloth or a brush, apply the stain of your choice to the prepared surface. (If you primed the wood, you will need to use a solid stain.) Use a cloth to rub it in using circular motions, then wipe away any excess in the direction of the grain. You may need more than one coat, make sure the stain has dried to the touch before recoating. 

If you do end up opting to remove the stain, you can quickly apply a new stain to the cabinets with a sprayer.

Method #2: Use Gel Stain

Gel stain is a viscous wood coloring product with the texture of pudding. It is known for achieving deep, even, and foolproof colors. It’s ideal for staining kitchen cabinets because it can go on over a previous finish, and the texture makes it unlikely to drip or run. Best of all, you don’t need to sand before using it. 

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  1. Clean the cabinets. Make a 50/50 solution of warm water and white vinegar, and put it in a spray bottle. Spray the cabinets, and let the mixture sit on the surface for five to ten minutes before wiping it off. 
  2. Apply the gel stain. Use a brush or a small roller to apply the gel stain in an even layer. Foam products work well for gel stain and do not leave behind brush strokes. 

    Be careful around the corners. Ideally, the stain would be the same thickness all over, and if it accumulates in the corners, those areas may come out darker than the rest of the cabinet. 
  1. Allow the gel stain to dry. Gel stain takes a minimum of 24 hours to fully dry. Leave it undisturbed until at least 24 hours have passed, then gently check the surface with your finger tips.

    Gel stain doesn’t penetrate the surface of your kitchen cabinets. Instead it sticks to the surface. If you touch it before it has finished drying, the stain may pull away from the cabinet. There are ways to help speed the drying process along.
  1. Apply additional coats, as needed. While gel stain is known for coating cabinets with rich, even color, you wouldn’t know it at first. The first coat of gel stain tends to look streaky. Two or three coats are usually sufficient to get the color and coverage you desire. 
Applying minmax gel stain on a wooden surface

Method #3: Use a Cabinet Refinishing Kit

If you don’t want to change the color of your cabinets, you can use a cabinet refinishing kit to freshen up the stain. It requires no stripping and no staining. 

  1. Determine the square footage of your kitchen cabinets. Each refinishing kit has a coverage estimation on the package. You may need to purchase more than one kit if you have a large kitchen. 
  2. Pre-clean dirty areas. Cut through any visible grease splatters or areas of dirt accumulation with a household cleaner or 50/50 water and vinegar mix. 
  3. Use the wood cleaner. While wearing gloves, wet a sponge. Apply the cleaner provided in your kit to the sponge, and use this to wash the cabinets. Make sure to get into every groove, channel, or corner. 
  4. Immediately rinse the wood cleaner. Do not allow the wood cleaner to sit on the cabinets. Using a new sponge, wet it with water and wipe away wood cleaner residue. Rinse the sponge frequently. Dry the wood with a soft cloth – if you see any residue, rinse the sponge and try again. Repeat until all traces of wood cleaner are gone.

    At this point, your cabinets may look a little worse. This is because the wood cleaner contains a deglosser, so any shine or sheen has been removed. Don’t worry – this is a necessary part of the process. 
  1. Apply color enhancer. Wait at least one hour after cleaning to apply color enhancer. Wipe the surfaces with a lint-free cloth. Stir the color enhancer, and pour it into a clean container. Use a foam brush to apply the color enhancer to your cabinet doors and frames. Wait one to two minutes. 

    Work the color enhancer into the surface of the wood using a lint-free cloth. Wipe in the direction of the grain. If desired, wait ten minutes, and apply a second coat of color enhancer. 
  1. Apply a protective top coat. Allow two to three hours for the color enhancer to dry. The last item in your refinishing kit should be a protective top coat. Use a synthetic bristle brush to apply in the direction of the wood grain. Avoid brushing over partially dried areas. Wait another two to three hours before applying a second coat. 

Conclusion

You do not need to sand cabinets in order to give them a new look. Refresh your stain with a color-enhancing cabinet refinish kit. Use gel stain for minimum preparation. Or, remove the light-colored stain with a chemical stripper. 

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.