Reviving tired cabinets with gel stain

The stain I usedWe built our house in 1993, and a couple decades with our big clan has left many things looking well worn, including all the cabinets in the house.  In 2012, I gave two bathrooms a $40 makeover. I’ve been wondering about doing a similar makeover in our worn kitchen.  But I was leery of making our kitchen that dark, and I really wanted to still see the grain in the wood. So when I finally got brave enough to try some stain, instead of ‘java’, I selected a lighter tone called brown mahogany, which was brown with red undertones.  I wasn’t quite sure how it would look on my worn honey oak cabinets, but I figured it could only look better.  Here’s my kitchen pre-makeover.

 Kitchen - before


And here’s a closeup of some of the drawers, showing how much of the finish was worn off.

Drawers- before

I began by taking all the cabinet drawers off and washing them well several times.  This step might go more quickly if you used a degreaser.  And this whole job was simplified by the fact that none of my drawers and cabinets had any handles or upraised panels on them.  They are very plain jane cabinets.

Reviving old cabinets with stainTo get a feel for the way the stain would lay down on the cabinets, and to decide how thick I wanted it to go on, I experimented on the insides of several cabinet doors. My tools included rubber gloves for my hands, and old tube socks with which to lay on the stain.  Though the stain definitely dries faster outdoors where there’s a little air movement, I recommend working in the shade, so that your surface doesn’t get tacky too quickly.

Begin with a moderate amount of stain on your sock-clad, gloved hand. Take long smooth strokes from end to end, going with the grain.  It’s wise to practice on the backs of your cabinet doors first, so that you can decide how thickly to lay on the stain, and to get a feel for how to lay on the stain most smoothly.

If you are overly cautious and use only a tiny bit of stain, the stain will begin to get tacky very quickly, making the work blobby and bumpy.   I found it worked better to load my sock with a generous amount of stain, and make 4 or 5 quick thick stripes down the length of a door, as shown in the photo below.  Make the next 5 or 6 strokes in between your original strokes, to fill the whole door in with color.  Then finish with another dozen or fewer strokes, working quickly, until the whole surface is smooth and even.

Spreading stain on

Here’s a photo showing the before of one of my doors and the after of another.  If you end up not liking the effect, no worries.  This stain, while fresh, washes off very easily with paint thinner, allowing you another try.  And you will gradually get better. Do you biggest, most visible surfaces last of all, to take advantage of your growing skill.  And if this project, done in the kitchen, sounds way too daunting, you might want to start in the laundry room, where mistakes are likely to bother you less.

I was lazy and did not remove the hinge components from my doors, which made it harder to make the backs of the doors around the hinges look smooth.  If you’re more of a perfectionist than I am, you probably ought to take the time to remove all hardware.  Remember also to label doors and drawers somehow, so that you don’t get things mixed up.

Doors- before and after

I worked through the kitchen a section at a time, so that at any given time only one portion of the kitchen was wet. One day I did half of the lower cabinets.  The second day I did the rest of the lowers.  The third day I did all of the upper cabinets.  I don’t have many uppers, or it probably would have required a 4th day.  I HIGHLY recommend blockading the wet places of the lower cabinetry with chairs and/or signs.  I can’t tell you how many times kids forgot things were wet and came rubbing against cabinet edges.  Depending on how thickly you lay down stain, and how good your ventilation is, some surfaces may feel tacky and be prone to rub marks for up to two days.

In each section, first I did the backs of each door, and the faces of the drawers for that part of the kitchen, outside in the shade, moving them to a sunny place to finish drying as I finished each surface. Then while those surfaces were drying, I came inside and stained the cabinet faces.

Usually by the time the indoor staining of a section was done (a few hours) the door backs that I’d set in the sun were dry enough to carefully turn over.  Then I could stain the door faces, leaving them to dry overnight, moving on to the next section the next day.

And here are some shots of my finished project.  Hooray!  They are still very simple cabinets, but the deeper stain really brought out the lovely grain of the oak, grain that we didn’t really see when the wood was lighter.  My expert woodworker/hubby says that the honey oak looks very much the color of mahogany with this stain.


One really fun thing about this project was that back in 2012 when I did the bathrooms, I bought drawer pulls for the kitchen as well.  So after all the staining was done, John came through the kitchen and installed my new drawer pulls.  I’m amazed at how much better they make my old cabinets look.  Here’s the before and after shot of that section of drawers I showed you above.  Don’t the drawer pulls look lovely?

Drawers- beforeDrawers- after







Another fun thing that we did was cut back the microwave shelf just a little bit. The shelf had been designed for a much bigger microwave, and the depth of it really decreased the usefulness of the counter space below it, especially given the fact that our coffee pot opens upward.  Four inches cut off the back of that shelf makes that counter feel much more open.

 After- by fridge

One funny note:  back when I bought those drawer pulls, I really, really thought I also bought cabinet door handles.  But for the life of him, my husband could not find any door knobs in his shop. And who knows, maybe I only thought I bought them. So for now the doors do not have knobs.  If they don’t show up, I’m thinking of buying ones that look like this. But with or without door handles, I love the fresh look that this project gave my kitchen.  And the cost of that stain?  $16.  That’s what I call an affordable fix!

After - sink area

Kitchen- after



  1. It’s absolutely beautiful! Congratulations on such a wonderful job.

  2. Love it!

  3. I love this!!! It turned out very nice!! I have already rusticated my kitchen cupboards but thinking maybe I should do this….!

  4. Great job!

  5. Very nice! Love the way it turned out!

  6. Lisa Beth W.w says:

    That looks fantastic, Mary! What a great job you and your hubby did. 🙂 It always feels so nice to freshen things up.

  7. Elaine says:


  8. Wow! Beautiful!

  9. Thanks! We are thrilled!

  10. SUPER beautiful! Now I’m thinking through what I could stain… 🙂

  11. They look amazing! And I love that you bought drawer handles 2 years ago and are now getting to it, that makes me feel better about similar things. 🙂

    • Actually, my story is that it was only one and a half years ago…that makes it sound so much more organized than 2, right? lol Glad you can relate. 🙂

  12. Your kitchen update looks great! I am so tempted to gel stain my kitchen cabinets and seeing yours makes it all the more appealing. I am wondering if you just did one coat on all surfaces, or multiple coats? Did you seal them with a clear coat after the stain was cured? Our cabinets are only 10 years old, but definitely showing wear. Can’t wait to be done with homeschooling for the year so I can get going on putting in new flooring, then I’ll see if I have any more energy for another big project. I have relocated one cabinet and mounted one open shelf recently, and even those little things have made a big difference in the feeling of our kitchen. Your blog is always an inspiration.

    • i did one coat in most places, and a light skim of second coat in some situations where a panel seemed light-colored compared to the one right next to it. I really need to add a clear coat, my husband thinks, but I haven’t yet.

  13. Looks amazing! Looks like you remodeled your kitchen!

    Do you have any ideas how one would would do that to white painted cabinets? Would you have to strip the paint first, etc.? Probably a stupid question, haven’t done much stuff like this , ,,kind of tired of the white paint which shows everything…

    • yes, you’d need to strip off the paint. Make sure the wood underneath is decent looking though. (strip the inside of a cabinet first.)

  14. looks beautiful! The wood grain really does show up nicely with that darker color. Not feeling like stripping off my super dark finish, I’m thinking I might just change out the hardware on my cabinets that came with the house so who knows how old they are. I stripped the wallpaper and painted it a few years ago, which made a huge difference, but that was a couple years ago now so I’m wanting another little pick-me-up. 🙂


  1. Luigi Wewege says:

    Luigi Wewege

    Reviving tired cabinets with gel stain | Owlhaven

  2. […] 2014: stain and hardware to refresh the cabinets […]