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How To Gel Stain Your Kitchen Cabinets

I’ve been whining about my horrible builder grade oak cabinets for years. Years. Matt was tired of hearing about them. He hated them too but not enough to shell out the cash to replace them. I know, hypocritical. Men.
Originally I planned to paint them but seeing how quickly my neighbor’s painted cabinets got scratched and dinged I re-evaluated. Stain seemed like the only option for my limited budget. I researched and decided on get stain- specifically General Finishes gel stain. I chose the color Java for the dark, almost black, appearance. I bought the stain from Amazon because I could not find it in a store near me {not an affiliate link}. I bought the quart size because I knew I had a few different projects in mind and it was enough to do 3 coats on the kitchen cabinets, 3 coats on a bathroom vanity, and 3 coats on my stairway rails. A little goes a long way!
I learned a whole lot throughout this process and today I’m going to share my newly found wisdom with the masses. You’re welcome. There was a bit of trial and error involved in this process and it took longer than I imagined, of course. If you’re looking for a quick weekend project, this is not for you. But if you’re looking to totally update your kitchen for under $100 then read on, my friends!
As you can see from the picture below, my builder grade oak cabinets were looking rough. The varnish was rubbing off in places and they just looked old and worn out.
I will tell you up front, the worst part of this whole process was the prep work. It took the longest amount of time and was the most labor intensive part. The first step was to remove all the handles and clean the cabinets. I used Lysol scrubbing wipes for the first cleaning then I used a de-greasing spray cleaner to make sure all the built up grease was gone.
Then I sanded. Barely. I used a sanding block and did a really quick and rough sanding on every surface. Be sure to sand with the grain so you don’t scratch the wood. If you have cabinets with the cheap particle board sides like I did, sand them the same way you sand the real wood. I spent maybe a minute per drawer and 3 minutes per door. You don’t need to sand down to the bare wood, just enough to scuff the gloss a bit.
After sanding all of the wood surfaces, it’s time to protect everything around the cabinets. I used wide painters tape to protect the walls and floor. I know a lot of people use plastic tarps and paper to cover every surface but honestly that’s overkill for this project. I did drip a few times onto the hardwoods and it wiped right off with no problem. I also dripped in the bathroom on the ceramic tile and it also wiped right off. So don’t feel like you have to go crazy with covering everything up.
Now, if you are a super Type A personality who must have everything perfect then you will want to take off all the cabinet doors. I, fortunately, am not afflicted with the Type A gene. I did not remove the cabinet doors. In fact I stained right over the hinges- I know, gasp. In my defense, they were a brass turned rusted bronze color anyway so there was really nothing that could make them look worse. I also didn’t stain the inside of my cabinet doors. That’s because I’m lazy. If your little Type A heart is gasping in horror right now then you should probably plan to stain the inside too.
The secret to gel staining is to do a very light coat, allow it to dry completely, and repeat. And repeat. If you use a thick layer of stain, you’re going to end up with a clumpy, streaky, mess. I used a combination of a white athletic sock and a foam brush to apply the stain. Please learn from me and use a double layer of vinyl or latex disposable gloves underneath your white athletic sock. Trust me. For a week I looked like I was afflicted by some sort of rare, exotic disease that turned my fingers brown.
Apply a thin layer of stain all over your cabinets- even the particle board parts. Wipe with the grain. It takes very little stain to cover so don’t glob it on there. Unlike with other stains, you do not need to wipe this layer off after you’re done. I have 19 cabinets, 4 drawers, and 2 faux drawer fronts to stain. It took me about 2 hours to stain all of them. I was impressed even after just one light coat, the difference was amazing.
Granted it’s all streaky and doesn’t look good at all, but don’t worry. It will get better, I promise. Don’t freak out. Resist the urge to add another layer of stain, you will regret it. Just walk away and allow it to dry completely. Now I started this project in the middle of the summer with high humidity so I let the first coat dry for a full 24 hours before applying the second coat. In the winter when the humidity is lower it would have dried much faster. Now for the second coat, grab another athletic sock. Don’t use the same one.
It started looking really good after the second coat. I was getting excited, envisioning the final product! I let the second coat dry for a full 48 hours. If you touch the cabinet and it’s still a little sticky or tacky to the touch, wait. If you try and stain it while it’s still sticky the stain will just wipe right off and you’ll have to start over.
After I applied the third coat with my trusty athletic sock- again, grab another clean one- I busted out a small paintbrush and made sure to get in all the small corners and crevices. The third coat took the longest because I was meticulous in making sure every single small area was fully covered with stain. It was worth the effort, I promise.
I allowed the third coat to dry for a full 48 hours before closing the cabinet doors.
It was so nice to have the cabinets closed for the first time in over a week. Side note- this is a perfect time to clean out your cabinets. I cleaned out every single cabinet and drawer while waiting for the stain to dry. I found that I could only look at the mess inside for so long before it started to really bug me. Apparently I have a clutter limit, who knew? Once the doors were closed I could see some spots that I missed or that needed to be touched up. So once again I used a small art paintbrush- I stole it from my kids- to do those touch ups. If you see any streaks, now is the time to fix them.
I let the cabinets dry for another full 48 hours after the last touch up, just to be safe. They have to be completely dry before you start sealing them with the top coat. I bought the General Finishes satin poly/acrylic top coat from Amazon {not an affiliate link}. I didn’t want a high gloss finish but if you want high gloss then make sure you choose the correct top coat.
Again, I just used a white athletic sock to apply the top coat. Don’t forget to double glove under the sock though. It takes very little to cover a large area and it goes on easily and smooth. It took me under an hour to do the first coat of the top coat. I could see a big difference in the finish after just one coat.
I let the first top coat dry for 12 hours before applying the last top coat. The last one really made the cabinets pop and shine. It was amazing! I only let it dry for a few hours before I couldn’t wait anymore and I took off the protective tape.
I let the final top coat dry for a full 24 hours before I put the hardware back on the doors, just in case. Once I had all the handles back on the doors I just stood back and gawked at my kitchen. The transformation cannot be explained in mere words.
You can see the full kitchen tour HERE if you missed it the first time.
I had a lot of questions from friends and family about the durability of the stain- if it chips or scratches. Well let me tell you, I accidentally had a screwdriver slip while putting on the handle of one of the cabinets. It scraped across the front of one of the cabinets. I held my breath and was afraid to look but it didn’t make one mark! The cabinets have been done for a few weeks now and again- not one mark, scratch, or chip.
If you’re wanting a cheap way to update your kitchen and you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty- this is a fantastic DIY project! Final tip- be patient and don’t rush the process. Oh, and be prepared to live in clutter and chaos for a couple of weeks. Just keep chanting- it won’t last forever, it won’t last forever. I promise, it won’t last forever and it will be totally worth it! If I can manage this project during the middle of the summer with 4 kids home all day every day then anyone can do it! I still find myself yelling out “Don’t touch the cabinets” whenever one of the kids goes into the kitchen. It’s a reflex now.

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