January 04, 2019

How to finish your unfinished cabinet doors and drawer fronts

Taking on a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) project of finishing your cabinets can be an easy and rewarding experience that does not require you to be a professional or hire a contractor. Whether you are finishing your cabinet doors and drawer fronts with paint, stain, urethane or another finish or want to attempt to paint, stain or varnish unfinished kitchen or bath cabinets, below are some simple tips and tricks that will help you get you the finish you want and be rewarded for all of your hard work! 


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Prep Work

To start your prep work you'll want to remove your Cabinet Doors and Drawer Fronts (if you bought unfinished kitchen or bath cabinets) from the cabinets so it will be easier to work with. You might want to consider marking them with a number or location so you know which cabinet door or drawer front goes when your done! You'll want to remove the cabinet door hinges and hardware from the cabinet doors (and not the cabinet) with a screwdriver. If these are existing cabinets that are painted or stained you'll probably want to use a chemical stripper to take off the stain/paint and scrape and sand away the existing finish vs hand sanding. It probably depends on how many cabinet doors or drawer fronts you're re-finishing. You just need to follow the manufacturer's recommendations, wear protective gear for your eyes and hands and make sure you're in a well ventilated area. Once removed you'll want to lay each door and drawer front on a cloth or newspaper. You hopefully have an open space, like a garage, so once you start staining or painting you have some fresh air since the fumes from the materials can be a little overwhelming. 

The key to a successful end result is all in the prep work you do on your unfinished Cabinet Doors and Drawer Fronts. Depending on the type of unfinished cabinets or individual cabinet doors and drawer fronts you buy (most are either birch or oak) and who you buy them from, you might need to do some sanding and surface preparation prior to applying your first coat. If you are purchasing unfinished cabinet doors in a paint-grade species there might be a few areas that you might need to lightly putty and sand prior to starting to get a smooth finish. MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is a great option for painting and requires little prep work. If staining and applying urethane to your cabinet doors and drawer fronts, you can choose from a variety of wood species that accept stain easily including hard maple, red oak, cherry, alder and several other species. Just make sure before you apply your first coat that your surfaces are completely prepped as paint or stain will show some of the blemishes once you apply the primer or first coat. You might want to consider a wood conditioner as well before applying stain for a better and more even finish and appearance.   

unfinished cabinet doors and drawer fronts


Most manufacturers will have already done the majority of sanding (they have nice big machines that do this for them) but some light sanding with a fine sandpaper (200-400 grit) will help you get the smooth finish you desire and get you the right results. As you start to prep your cabinet doors and drawer fronts, there are a couple of things you'll want to to focus on:

  • Always sand with the grain (vertical or horizontal) 
  • Sand gently...we're just trying to get a nice smooth finish
  • We recommend hand sanding but powered hand sanders are OK to use but be very careful as you don't want to sand unevenly or possibly leave some indents or scratches on your door surface. 
  • If your cabinet doors or drawer fronts have some gouges or indentations this might be a good time to fill them in.
  • Wear protective glasses and a mask and make sure you wipe off all of the wood dust on the Cabinet Doors and Drawer Fronts once completed.
  • Wipe down the cabinet components with a damp cloth to remove any dust or debris.

Lastly, sanding between coats is critical!! As you apply the first coat of your selected finish you may see brush marks, small bubbles or some dust that might adhere to the surface. Once your first coat is dry (and make sure it is completely dry) you'll want to use the same 200-400 grit sandpaper to smooth out the finish. 

unfinished cabinet door and drawer fronts 

When you finally done with your prep work and are ready to apply the first coat keep in mind that you'll be doing several coats (and sanding in between) so try and keep each coat the same thickness. We're not trying to finish the cabinets or cabinet doors and drawers with one coat! To do this right you'll probably end up with at least 2 coats and maybe 3-4 coats. Keep in mind the more coats of stain you apply the darker your cabinet doors and drawer fronts will turn out.

How to best apply each finish

The great part of finishing cabinets, Cabinet Doors or Drawer Fronts is that it does not require lots of fancy or expensive supplies or tools. You’ll need some good paint brushes, a couple cloths or rags and some fine grit sandpaper. Even some old t-shirts can work as well!

Here’s our opinion on the best way to apply stains, paints or varnish:

  • Stain - we recommend using a lint-free cloth or clean rag as most stains are very thin so a cloth/rag allows to evenly apply and rub the stain into the wood. A good foam paint brush might work as well. This is especially true of your cabinet doors and drawer fronts have some type of edge or panel profile with a sharp edge. Staining with a paint brush takes longer and might leave brush marks. Make sure you follow the manufacturer's directions for the best results.
  • Paints - there are two type of paints - latex and oil - and we recommend using a new, clean paint brush. To get the best results you might want to consider a softer bristle brush for the thinner latex paints and a stiffer brush for oil paints.
  • Urethane, Polyurethane, Varnish, Oils -  you can go either way here - brush or lint-free cloth - but like stains it might be best to get a even finish and full coverage with a cloth/clean rag.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. If you are staining your cabinet components you might want to consider adding a clear polyurethane for a protective finish. 

unfinished cabinet doors and drawer fronts

Again, make sure you are in a well ventilated area like your garage or outside storage area when you start to paint, stain or varnish your cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Paint brushes can be clean easily with paint thinner. 

Your final step once all of the Cabinet Doors and Drawer Fronts are completely dry (wait at least a full day) you can re-attach the hinges and hardware.

And now enjoy the fruits of your labor and show all of your friends your new kitchen or bath!

replacement cabinet doors and drawer fronts  replacement bath cabinet doors

When staining wood everyone who knows the basis can be pretty successful, however, when your stain does not come out as you anticipated that could be problematic for you and the wood.
In my research I've come across some great articles from different trade magazines and experts on finishing cabinet doors and drawers.
Here are a couple from Wood Magazine:





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