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How to stain oak cabinets?


I've done a few DIY projects, including painting our kitchen oak cabinets using brushing putty as the primer (followed John Dee's excellent tutorial on TOH). However, I've decided to stain the oak cabinets in our master bathroom and I haven't been able to find thorough instructions on stain prep, technique, etc. I'm hoping to get some good advice on this forum.

Here's a few specifications with regards to the cabinets:

1. As mentioned before, the cabinets are Oak and in almost new condition. There's a very light varnish on the wood, which can easily be lightly sanded off so this isn't a problem. Is 100 grit sandpaper sufficient for this?

2. I'm looking to do a very dark stain, like an espresso black so any brand/color(?) recommendations would be great. Should I go with an oil-based or water-based stain?

3. Do I need to apply any sort of conditioner to the wood before staining? Should I use a brush or a staining rag? If a brush is better, do I need to get a specific kind?

4. How long do I let the stain sit post-application, before wiping the excess off?

5. What should I use to seal the stained surface? Varnish or polyurethane? I've heard polyurethane is better? If that's the case, which brand should I go with, and what type of brush should I use for the application?

Thanks in advance for any help that is provided.

Re: How to stain oak cabinets?


It is very difficult to get virgin oak to stain very dark. To get stripped oak to go really dark is almost impossible with normal penetrating oil stains. Water based stains tend to be easier to get dark because water opens up the grain of the wood . Dye stains will go much darker than a penetrating stain. You will not find dye stains in the "big box" stores, nor most paint stores serving professional painters. Dye stains are carried by woodworkers stores.

The very dark, almost painted finishes that are now somewhat popular in stores, are not wiping stains at all, but rather sprayed on all in one finishes with the pigment in the finish, usually a lacquer. MinWax makes a similar product called PolyShades with dark pigment suspended in a urethane varnish. With these products, since the color is in the finish, every coat of finish darkens the finsish.

I am not a big fan of stripping finishes by sandpaper alone, especially if there is much detail to be sanded. It is very difficult to open up the grain evenly with sandpaper. When you have your floors sanded, they are taking off at least 1/16th of an inch of wood wall to wall. Cabinetry cannot afford to surrender this amount of surface. Further, most cabinetry utilizes some veneer which cannot be seriously sanded.

I prefer to use chemical strippers and steel wool to remove the old finish. If sandpaper is used at all, it is done very judiciously. No, virgin wood is never reached, but what residue remains is evenly distributed and will take the new stain more evenly.

Virgin oak does not normally require a pre-stain sealer as its grain is hard and even in porosity. Also, a pre-stain sealer will make it difficult to get a very dark color. The wood just will not accept enough pigment after a sealer is used.

If you are using a penetrating wiping stain, it is not all that important what is used to apply the stain as all the excess stain will be wiped away. The longer the stain sits on the surface, the darker the stain, within reason, However, the stain should not be allowed to dry on the surface.

As to the finish: urethanes are by far the toughest of the finishes commonly used. Some woodworkers, however, do think they look somewhat "plastic". If you have the equipment, spraying will give the most professional results. On smaller projects, I have actually used MinWax spray cans of urethane varnish with great results.

On grainy oak, use of a sanding sealer will help lessen the heavy grain. Make sure that the sanding sealer is compatible with the finish. Old fashioned sterate sanding sealers are not compatible with urethane, nor is regular shellac as a sealer. Many of the urethanes are actually self-sealing. You just sand after the first coat to set the grain, and then give 2 or 3 more coats.

Hope this has helped somewhat, and not just added to the confusion.

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