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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 degreasing 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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  • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

    Hi Amanda,
    Thanks so much. I love the results and everyone who comes over to our house loves the new look of the cabinets. I just couldn’t take the builder grade oak any longer! The result was well worth the effort and time involved.

  • Sara

    What degreaser did you use on the cabinets when you were cleaning them before the stain?

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      Hi Sara,
      The degreaser is called Greased Lightning Orange Blast cleaner. It really works and bonus- it smells good too!

  • Anna

    I love your cabinets! I am just wondering, the gel stain is oil-based, but the poly/acrylic is water-based. Is that correct? From what I gather by reading your blog, they work well together. I was always under the impression that both had to be the same, either both oil-based, or both water-based. Can you explain, please? Thank-you!

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      Hi Anna,

      Thanks so much. I’m working on a follow up post right now about how my cabinets have held up over the last year. Here’s a hint- they look as good as the day I finished. Haha! The gel stain is oil-based and the top coat I used is water-based. I was super nervous about using them together because I had always heard not to mix them. But for some reason these 2 products work beautifully together. Since both are made by General Finishes and recommended to be used together I took a leap of faith. I highly recommend both! Hope that helps.

      • Anna

        Yes, it does. Thank-you very much! I will look around for the General Finishes stuff. I don’t think it’s sold in this part of Canada. I may have to buy in the US (we’re 15 minutes from the border) or order from amazon.
        P.S. You conversations with your kids are hilarious!

  • Delia Gibbs

    OMG! Your cabinets are just plain gorg!! As I type, my kitchen cabinet doors are off, in preparation of me staining them. I already purchased my Java Gel Stain and Poly Coat, and I am fully excited to start.
    BTW, my name is Delia as well :-)

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      Hi Delia (great name, by the way!),
      I love my cabinets so much. I’m working on a follow up post right now about how they’ve held up over the last year. They look perfect! Good luck and I know you’ll love the results. It’s well worth the effort and hard work!

      • Delia Gibbs

        Thanks a lot! I will check in on your post.

  • Janelle McCreary

    Thank you so much for this post! I can’t wait to try it. One question: does the gel make the cabinet texture feel sticky? Or is it nice?

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      Hi Janelle,
      The gel stain is stick while it’s drying but once it’d dried completely it is smooth and hard. Once the poly coats are dried the cabinets felt just like they did before I gel stained them.

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  • CanShar

    Hi there
    I just completed this a few weeks ago. It was not an easy task because I didn’t realize that I had so many cabinets. I did 2 bathrooms and my kitchen 30 doors, 10 drawers and an island.The results were fantastic. Thanks for your tip!

  • Kala

    You left the insides of the cabinets the original color? I have been debating whether to do the entire inside and out or just both sides of the doors? how did you decide and do you wish you would have stained the inside of the door as well???

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      I did leave the inside the original color- mainly because my carpal tunnel was killing me by the time I got to the kitchen cabinets. My mother was appalled. I think if we were planning to move in the next 10 years I would have done the inside of the cabinets but we are expecting to stay in this house long term. I figure I can always go back and do the insides later….yeah, right.

      • Amie Johnson

        How are your hinges holding up? I’m tempted to do what you did and paint over them. Did they turn out ok?

        • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

          Hi Amie,

          The hinges are holding up really well. I actually am working on a post right now about how the cabinets as a whole have held up over the last year. I don’t see any areas on my hinges where the stain has come off but it also helps that my hinges were darker to begin with. Hope that helps!

  • Nick Seeley

    The cabinets look excellent! What grit sandpaper did you use?

  • Kristin Hoffman

    Can you tell me how you redid the ikea styled island?!

  • Mandi

    Beautiful!!! Do you know if this gel stain will also work on knotty alder? Their website says all wood but I looked at over 200 projects posted on Pinterest and couldn’t find one knotty alder. Also, did you notice heavy fumes while using this gel stain? Thanks for the wonderful details and pictures in your tutorial.

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      I haven’t seen the gel stain used on knotty alder but I imagine it would work just fine. It’s thick and covers easily. I did not notice any fumes at all. It has a slight odor but not unpleasant and not strong. I used it in our small hall bathroom with the door closed and didn’t have any issues. Good luck!

  • Heather

    This looks amazing! My husband and I have been discussing quite often lately doing something to our same builder-grade oak cabinets but with limited budget, so your post is exactly what I needed to see! We still haven’t been able to figure out why the builder used oak for the kitchen cabinets and stairs and railings, but chose a darker wood for the wood floors! I saw you mentioned you used the gel on your railings also, so now I have to go in search of pictures you put up of that :) One quick question – did you use the water- or oil-based gel stain? Thanks again for the awesomeness. :)

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      The General Finishes gel stain is oil based. And it’s so easy to use, that’s why I love it! Good luck!

  • http://colraycabinets.com.au/ Scott

    Very helpful tips. Thanks for sharing

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  • Margery

    I’ve seen this technique quite a bit online with the Java gel stain. My question is: Can I do this with a somewhat lighter stain, or does that not turn out well, for some reason? I still want to take our honey oak cabinets darker, but I was thinking more of a walnut or mahogany. Any idea if that would work? Many thank; your cabinets look great!

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      I would think it would work the same with a lighter color stain. I almost went with the mahogany stain instead of the java but my husband didn’t care for it as much. It might take one more coat to cover but I’m not sure. As long as you use a gel stain- and General Finishes makes a bunch of different colors- I would think the process would be the same. Good luck- I bet it looks awesome when you’re done :)

  • Ashley

    Can you still clean them? I want to do this so bad but I am terrified I’d go to clean them a month later and the stain would be ruined or it would come off….

    • http://semidomesticatedmama.com/ Delia James

      Hi Ashley,

      I still clean mine. I use windex multi-surface for every day cleaning and I’ve even used a de-greaser on them after a small issue with frying chicken. It wasn’t pretty. I haven’t had one chip, smudge, or scratch in the gel stain. It still looks brand new and it’s been 4 months now. My kids have bashed the cabinets with chairs, stools, a skateboard, a power wheel trike, and more toys that I can count and the cabinets still look new. I’m amazed! I highly recommend this stain.

      • Ashley

        Great and I am glad it is kid friendly too! Your kitchen looks amazing and I can’t wait to start this project! Thank you so much!!!!!!

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  • Cheryl Thornton

    I found your cabinets on Pinterest..love how they turned out!!

  • Cheryl Thornton

    I found your cabinets on Pinterest..love how they turned out!!

  • http://www.kitchenssquared.com.au/ Jacob Tayller

    Oak cabinets is definitely an amazing one idea to install them at home. Although I just love to read your blog. Thanks for this great guidance and cheap way to update kitchen.

    http://www.kitchenssquared.com.au/

  • http://www.kitchenssquared.com.au/ Jacob Tayller

    Oak cabinets is definitely an amazing one idea to install them at home. Although I just love to read your blog. Thanks for this great guidance and cheap way to update kitchen.

    http://www.kitchenssquared.com.au/

  • http://www.bohowillow.com/ Jona@BohoWillow

    This is so beautiful! Nicely done!

  • http://www.bohowillow.com/ Jona@BohoWillow

    This is so beautiful! Nicely done!

  • Darcie

    May I ask what you used as your degreaser?

  • Darcie

    May I ask what you used as your degreaser?

  • Christine DiMasso Rodman

    I absolutely loved your blogging and pictures throughout!! I also find your sense of humor so refreshing! I am wondering if you’d have suggestions for my small apartment. My kitchen is not only boring but I hate looking at it. I have one window over a counter with the sink in the corner just to the left. The stove and frig sit on each end of the counter. One wall holds a long table that holds my desktop computer. And there is a narrow pantry with a door. With an odd-shaped wide entry way, it flows into the living room, with one very large window almost across from the kitchen window. I’ve been searching for a way to BRIGHTEN it up and bring in the light. I’m still clueless. Help?

  • Christine DiMasso Rodman

    I absolutely loved your blogging and pictures throughout!! I also find your sense of humor so refreshing! I am wondering if you’d have suggestions for my small apartment. My kitchen is not only boring but I hate looking at it. I have one window over a counter with the sink in the corner just to the left. The stove and frig sit on each end of the counter. One wall holds a long table that holds my desktop computer. And there is a narrow pantry with a door. With an odd-shaped wide entry way, it flows into the living room, with one very large window almost across from the kitchen window. I’ve been searching for a way to BRIGHTEN it up and bring in the light. I’m still clueless. Help?

  • Liz

    I have been wondering how to update our golden oak kitchen and was thinking that I couldn’t stain it since it has the particle board sides, but it sounds like it worked for you!!! I am so glad to hear that! I must go and check out that stain now and tell my hubby…he loves the dark wood look.

  • Liz

    I have been wondering how to update our golden oak kitchen and was thinking that I couldn’t stain it since it has the particle board sides, but it sounds like it worked for you!!! I am so glad to hear that! I must go and check out that stain now and tell my hubby…he loves the dark wood look.

  • Krista thehappyhousie

    Wow – they look amazing!! Like a whole new kitchen… Thanks so much for sharing at Work it Wednesday this week:) Hope to see you back!

  • Krista thehappyhousie

    Wow – they look amazing!! Like a whole new kitchen… Thanks so much for sharing at Work it Wednesday this week:) Hope to see you back!

  • Megan Bailey

    This is awesome! I really want to help my mother paint/stain her cabinets so this will be a life save. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Megan Bailey

    This is awesome! I really want to help my mother paint/stain her cabinets so this will be a life save. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Lisa @ Flour Me With Love

    This is beautiful; I love the dark color! We are getting ready to do our cabinets and this post is so helpful…thanks for sharing at Mix it up Monday :)

  • Lisa @ Flour Me With Love

    This is beautiful; I love the dark color! We are getting ready to do our cabinets and this post is so helpful…thanks for sharing at Mix it up Monday :)

  • Patience Brown

    The colour really suits your kitchen! And strangely; it seems brighter with the dark cabinets!

  • Patience Brown

    The colour really suits your kitchen! And strangely; it seems brighter with the dark cabinets!

  • http://amandasadorables.blogspot.com/ Amanda M.

    This is so impressive. I absolutely love this and your tutorial is INCREDIBLY helpful for those of us who might want to do this!

  • http://amandasadorables.blogspot.com/ Amanda M.

    This is so impressive. I absolutely love this and your tutorial is INCREDIBLY helpful for those of us who might want to do this!

  • Erin Downing

    That is absolutely amazing! It looks great!

  • Erin Downing

    That is absolutely amazing! It looks great!

    • Amie Johnson

      How are your gel stained hinges holding up? I’m tempted to do the same thing today. Thanks