116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Looking for a kitchen upgrade that won’t break the bank and comes with minimal fuss? Try using a gel stain on those dated orange-yellow honey oak cabinets to give your kitchen a new look.
There are a lot of good reasons to gel stain cabinets when you want to refresh the color of wood cabinetry. It’s an easy way to give your kitchen or bathroom a new look without sanding or stripping. Yes, you read that correctly. You’ll also be able to use your cabinets while you’re working on this project. Only the doors and drawer fronts get removed for gel staining. And because this type of stain dries fast, as does water-based polyurethane, you can refinish the project in a day or two.
Gel staining wood cabinets can also give your kitchen an updated look before you put your home on the market. Just change the hardware and — ta-da! — you’ve got “new” cabinets.
Gel stain holds up to normal wear and tear. I’m a very messy cook who daily drips and splashes water and food on the doors and drawers in my kitchen. Our kitchen cabinets were gel stained about six months ago, and I haven’t noticed any change in the color or sheen.
Our cabinets still look darn good.
My husband, Tom Weber, loved our new house as soon as he walked in the front door. I did not.
For starters, it had no character; everything was builder grade. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of open concept living. How would I hide my dirty dishes from guests if they essentially walked straight into the kitchen/living room?
But the kitchen was a decent size with lots of counter space, drawers and cabinets — surprisingly well-built cabinets. More cabinets than we’d seen in any other home in our price range.
Of course, Tom loved the cabinets. Again, I did not. They were honey oak kitchen cabinets with raised panel doors. The color was an orangey-yellow that screamed to me, “1990 called and wants its cabinets back.”
Eventually — within two days — he convinced me that we didn’t want to buy another older fixer up. He promised that I’d be able to add my personal touches to every room. Plus, I’d never lived in a home with a main floor laundry room and master bedroom suite with a walk-in closet. Who in their right mind would turn that down?
However, we didn’t have time to strip, sand and stain the many cabinets before we moved in. Other projects had priority, such as installing bamboo flooring, replacing a honey oak railing to the basement with a wall and creating my dream office space.
We signed the paperwork two weeks after COVID-19 hit and moved in the next month. Since then, we’ve been busy making the house our home. The kitchen was functional after the range and faucet were replaced. I made my peace with honey oak cabinets until bigger projects were completed.
Exploring refinishing options
Early this spring, it was finally time to tackle a few kitchen projects. And when I say “we” did a remodeling project, what I mean is I come up with the idea and plan, then Tom does all the work.
I researched a refinishing option that didn’t require paint (Tom loves wood), removing the cabinets (how would I cook?) or sanding or stripping (too messy).
Pinterest has become my go-to for affordable and creative DIY ideas. That’s where I learned about gel staining cabinets. Tom was skeptical but was willing to test out the idea on the inside of a cabinet door before saying no.
Early this spring, he removed a lower cabinet door, bought some gel stain, and tested the process. He was quickly sold on the idea. You will be, too.
What you’ll need
• Krud Kutter (or similar cleaner/degreaser)
• Drop cloth
• Shop rags
• Gel stain
• Water-based polyurethane
• Sawhorse or substitute
• Screwdriver or drill
• New hardware (optional)
You’ll only be staining one side of the cabinet doors at a time. If you don’t have sawhorses handy, you can use boxes. That’s what we did for this indoor project.
You can reuse drop cloths many times, as you can tell from ours, so it’s well worth investing in an actual drop cloth or two. You’ll need rags that are lint-free. And gloves are a must unless you want to scrub your hands forever and still end up with a gel-stain French manicure.
About gel stain
Don’t try to use any other type of stain. Why? Gel stain covers over the existing stain and finish. Even products like Minwax PolyShades require a “light sanding.” No, thank you — who needs the dust?
This method only works with gel stain. With gel stain, you’ll still be able to see the wood grain and texture even with the darkest colors.
Choose — or create — your color
My goal was to tone down the orangey-yellow in the honey oak finish while adding a rich, light brown tone. That meant avoiding any stain with even a hint of red or yellow. I also didn’t want to go too dark with the stain.
If you can’t find a gel stain in a color that you love, do what we did: mix two or more. Minwax has some nice darker gel stain tones, but none with the hint of gray or blue that we needed to balance out the yellowy-orange.
We chose Varathane Premium Gel stain, a Rust-Oleum product, because we knew we’d be blending stains to get a color that worked for us. We combined Varathane gel stains in Hickory and Briarsmoke until we got the color we wanted. After a little trial and error, we went with a 50/50 mixture of the two stains.
Choose your finish
You’ll need to top your gel stain with a clear coating to protect the wood and keep it from drying out and looking dull. We used water-based polyurethane because it’s easy and has lower volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Polyurethane comes in matte, satin and semi-gloss. We used Varathane in a crystal clear satin finish. This added some shine and dimension to the stain without being too glossy for me.
The easiest way to tackle a lot of cabinets is to do a few at a time over the course of a couple of weeks. We set up boxes leftover from Tom’s mancave cabinet project in the family room and used those instead of the dirty sawhorses he uses in the garage.
Tom removed the doors, drawer fronts and hardware a section at a time. He then put on gloves and cleaned everything with Krud Kutter. It doesn’t have a particularly strong odor, but It is best to do this project in a space with windows that you can open.
Tape off walls and the insides of cabinets.
Lay down drop cloths to protect your furniture and flooring from splatters and spills. The gel stain will have a little bit of an odor.
It will take a little trial and error to figure out how thick to wipe on the stain, so start with a clean inside cabinet door. Wipe on fairly heavy, let dry for a couple of minutes, then wipe off. Repeat until you get the color you like.
Let twice-stained wood dry for at least a couple of hours.
Tip: We found it best to do one side completely (cleaning, staining, polyurethane and drying) before tackling the other side of doors and drawer fronts.
Choose a water-based polyurethane because it won’t have a strong odor and will dry fast. Use a soft-bristle paintbrush to apply the polyurethane. Apply two light coats on the back and three light coats on the front.
This polyurethane dries within an hour. Buff between coats with a cloth or light sandpaper (150 grit) if you notice any bubbles in the polyurethane.
It will take a day to do one section of the cabinets at a time. Tom did about two door cabinets and one drawer cabinet per section.
It took Tom a few weeks to finish gel staining all the kitchen cabinets — we have a lot. He didn’t work non-stop on the project and still got it done in less time than he had planned. He used the rest of the stain on windowsills in the open concept living room/dining room/kitchen.
My kitchen looks great as-is, but I see an island with lots of drawers and a tiled backsplash in my kitchen’s future. Perhaps with new quartz countertops?
But more kitchen upgrades will have to wait. Tom still wants to finish my garden shed (already in process), replace and extend the deck, install a patio, add gutters to the garage … the list goes on.
He might let me help stain the wood fence he built this summer. Maybe.