How To Stain Cabinets? (5-Step Guide)

Last Updated On September 22, 2023

Are you working on staining cabinets in your home?

You've come to the right place! 

In this guide, you'll learn:

  • Everything you'll need to know about staining cabinets
  • Supplies you'll need to stain your cabinets right
  • The step-by-step process to staining cabinets like a pro

And much more!

How To Stain Cabinets?

So, before you do stain your kitchen cabinets, I recommend you read this quick guide that will help you not miss a step.

What Do You Need To Know About How To Stain Cabinets?

Staining cabinets is a meticulous job that takes some patience to be done correctly. It's not something we recommend for people who are new to DIY projects that involve paint or stain jobs as it can be challenging. 

So, before you commit to staining cabinets on your own, check out this quick tutorial for some additional helpful hints:

What Supplies Will You Need For Staining Cabinets?

Here are some key supplies you'll need for staining your cabinets:

Painter's Tape 

You'll need some painter's tape to cover metal hardware and all surrounding surfaces to protect them from getting stains on them.

Your Wood Stain/Varnish of Choice 

There are so many different paint colors/stain colors to choose from when selecting the right stain for the job.

We recommend you talk to a paint pro(pop us a question on our home page), or do a quick internet search to find out which stains go best with the type of wood you're staining. Try something like a General Finishes gel stain for the best results.

Steel Wool 

You can scrub down the cabinets with steel wool after the first coat is applied to create maximum adhesion for the second coat.

Always sand and scrub in the direction of the wood grain to avoid weird marks in the wood.

Foam Brush/Paintbrush

Use a foam brush or a paint brush to evenly apply stain to the surface of the cabinets.

Paint Sprayer

A fast way to paint cabinets is by using a paint sprayer. Just be sure to wipe away all excess stain after you spray to avoid blotching.

Spray in between all cracks first, and then more open areas after.


120-grit sandpaper is the most common sandpaper that professional painters use when refinishing cabinets.

The best way to sand cabinets is with a sanding sponge because it will help you get in between all the nooks and crannies.

Tack Cloth 

Tack cloth is a good solution for getting rid of small specs of dirt and dust from the cabinets before painting.


You'll need some screwdrivers to remove the hardware/doors from the cabinets. Even if you don't want to completely remove metal pieces, you'll want to separate the doors from the shelves for easy painting.

Solvent/Mineral Spirits

Use the proper solvent for the type of stain you'll be using to help remove stain in unwanted areas. Solvents will also help you clean your paint sprayer afterward.

Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner

Softer woods like pine require that you use a pre-stain conditioner to help the stain sink evenly into the pores.

Drop Cloth

Use a drop cloth to prevent getting stain on the floor. For full hardwood floor/tile protection, you'll want to completely mask the surface off with paper or plastic floor covering sold on Amazon or at your local paint store.

Read More >> How Do You Clean A Paintbrush Like A Pro?

How To Stain Cabinets (5-Step Guide)

Now that you've gathered all of the supplies you'll need to get the job done right, let's walk through the step-by-step process to stain your wood cabinets.

(Psst! You can click on any of the links below to jump straight to that step.)

  1. Sand the surface
  2. Mask all surrounding surfaces
  3.  Apply one coat of stain
  4. Apply a second coat of stain
  5. Apply polyurethane clear coat (optional)

Step 1 – Sand the surface of the cabinets

First, you'll need to remove the doors of the cabinets and all the hardware.

Sanding the surface beforehand is a good idea. Use the 120-grit sanding sponge to rough up the whole area of the cabinets, including between all of the grooves.

We don't recommend sanding with any higher than 220-grit sandpaper on most stain projects as the stain won't be able to fall into the pores of the wood.

You can use a palm sander/vibrating sander to sand the cabinets, but we don't recommend more power sanders like belt sanders because they will take off too much of the wood and create weird indentations.

To be honest, we recommend that you sand your cabinets by hand with the sanding sponge. It will take a little bit of extra elbow grease, but it looks better in the end.

Step 2 – Mask all surrounding surfaces

You'll need to cover up the hardware, countertops, trim work, appliances, etc. so they don't get stain on them. If you're using a paint sprayer, you'll need to cover up basically everything in the work area to avoid overspray.

We highly recommend using a 3M paint masker because it allows you to connect the masking material and tape for easy distribution.

Use a painter's razor blade to accurately cut the painter's tape along each surface.

Step 3 – Apply one coat of stain

You may want to use a pre-stain wood conditioner on your makeover project because it allows the stain to fall evenly into the pores of the wood. Pre-stain conditioner is more important on softer woods like pine and cedar, so it's not completely necessary on oak cabinets and other hard woods like cherry, mahogany, etc.

Apply the first coat of stain using your preferred method. There are plenty of different ways that stains can be applied, so the method you use depends on factors like how big the job is, what supplies you have at hand, etc.

Regardless of the method you use for staining, the key is to move in the direction of the grain for the smoothest application. Another important step when applying the stain to cabinetry is wiping off the excess stain before it dries to avoid blotching.

Be sure to check the drying time on the specific stain product you will be using.

Step 4 – Apply a second coat of stain

Some painters will sand with a steel wool substitute in between stain coats for maximum adhesion. You could also use regular sandpaper to lightly rough up the surface before the next coat.

Apply a second coat of stain, wipe off the excess, and wait for the cabinets to dry referring to the recommended time on the stain can.

Step 5 – Apply polyurethane clear coat (optional)

If you want your stain job to be professional, you'll paint a layer of polyurethane over the top of the wood to create a hard layer that protects from scratches, UV rays, water, etc.

Applying a thin layer of polyurethane is a great choice because it acts as a rock-hard sealer. Just be sure to wait 24-48 hours after staining for the best results.

So, your cabinets are all painted, and now it's time to clean up! Peel off all the masking from surrounding areas, and throw it in the trash. We hope the new look in your kitchen or garage suits you well.

Read More >> How Much Does It Cost To Paint Kitchen Cabinets?

Staining wood can actually increase its lifespan. This is because the stain prevents splintering, rot, and rain from destroying the wood's surface.

Other Valuable Tips on How To Stain Cabinets

Now that you're a pro on the staining process for cabinets, take a look at these other helpful tips that will help you wrap up your project with ease!

Are you re-staining old cabinets? You may want to use stain stripper

Painting new cabinets is one thing, but if you're painting cabinets with old finish then you'll need to remove it first for the best results – that's where you'll want stain stripper. 

Here are a few quick steps to help you remove the old stain on your project.

1 – Wet the cabinets with warm soapy water

Wetting the cabinets with warm water will open up the pores of the wood and allow the stain stripper to properly work its magic.

2 – Apply the stain stripper, and let it sit 15-30 minutes

Apply the stain stripper with a paintbrush or rag, and allow it time to sit. The existing finish will rise to the surface of the wood.

3 – Scrape the stain off with a plastic scraper/Steel wool

Use a plastic scraper on the wider surfaces, and steel wool on the tight corners.

4 – Re-sand the surface 

Re-sand the surface with 120-grit sandpaper, and clean the surface of the wood with a citrus-based cleaner.

5 – Apply the new stain

Now you're ready for the new stain. Follow the steps above. Enjoy!

Meet Your Pro Paint Corner Author

Ryan Nichols

Ryan Nichols

I first painted professionally in my late teens. I have painted everything from long military base walls to spraying cedar wood siding on cabins in the mountains of Utah. I am also an automotive technician with plenty of auto body and paint experience. In my spare time, I even enjoy artistic oil painting.

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Ryan Nichols

Ryan Nichols

I first painted professionally in my late teens. I have painted everything from long military base walls to spraying cedar wood siding on cabins in the mountains of Utah. I am also an automotive technician with plenty of auto body and paint experience. In my spare time, I even enjoy artistic oil painting.

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