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Refinishing Cabinets And Millwork


I have a question with touching up some blemishes in my kitchen cabinets. My kitchen cabinets are 15 years old. They are oak cabinets that are finished with a golden oak stain and a clear coat. Frequent use has worn the the clear coat off the corner of one door (where people grab it to open it). How do I refinish this and get it to match the surrounding cabinets? (I am very confident I can accurately match the color, but it is the clear coat that scares me!)

I have a similar situation with my door jambs, stair railing and molding. These have several dings and scratches that go all the way down to the bare wood. The stain and wood on these pieces is different from my kitchen. Can I spot repair these or do I have to completely refinish each piece? How do accurately match the stain and finish? The original clear coat looks like glass. Can I get it to look that good?

Lastly, I am replacing some bedroom doors. I need to accurately match the stain and clear coat with the door jams and molding. I will be replacing 12 doors. I am think that while I am at it, I will replace a majority of the molding in the house. How do you suggest I tackle this?

Brad H.




Personally, I like those stain markers that Minwax sells. I use them for touching up the nail holes when I install pre-finished stained wood trim. They also work great for coloring scratches. But these markers just stain the wood, they don't provide any type of hard clear coating.


It's my understanding that most cabinet manufacturers use lacquer to finish their cabinets. You can tell if the finish is ordinary old-fashioned nitrocellulose lacquer if it can be dissolved readily in lacquer thinner. However, today there are newer types of lacquer that are "catalyzed", which means they undergo a chemical reaction while they dry, so just because lacquer thinner doesn't dissolve the finish doesn't mean that the finish isn't lacquer. Lacquer thinner will also dissolve urethane, but it takes much longer, from my experience.

Cabinet manufacturers use lacquer because it dries very fast and it does not change the color of the stained wood (like oil-based urethane does). But lacquer is not as durable as urethane. New catalyzed or cross-linked lacquers may be more durable. But cabinet manufacturers also seem to use a fairly thin coating of finish, which I suppose explains why it wears off so quickly.

I have used spray cans of lacquer, so it's possible to touch-up the worn finish on your cabinets with a spray can. But I don't know how well the patch will blend in with the original finish. I suppose you could lightly sand the worn areas with fine sandpaper, spray them with lacquer (after you've touched up the stain), and then spray the entire door with a final coat of lacquer. I would prefer to refinish the entire surface of each door.

Caution: Spraying lacquer can be hazardous. Read about spray finishing locations.


Doors and Trim:

It's likely that the "clear coat" on your doors and millwork is just plain old urethane. I have not had much luck with touching up spots of urethane, because you can usually see the boundaries of the new spot.

My approach is to just do a quick light sanding of the old finish and apply a complete new coat. You don't normally need to remove all the old finish, just "feather" it so there are no stark transitions. Only light sanding is desired here, because if you sand too much you will begin to remove some of the stain. I always apply at least 2 coats of urethane, 3 or 4 coats on high-traffic areas. A light sanding is necessary to scuff-up the urethane before re-coating. I can't say that the results will look absolutely perfect, but they won't look scratched up either. Just try a small section.

An important issue with wood finish is sheen (shininess or gloss level). Most cabinets I've seen are a satin sheen. That "glass" look you mention sounds like high-gloss, but highly glossy wood doesn't appeal to everybody. I never use anything shinier than semi-gloss... unless I have a good reason.



Matching stain color is something else. Unless you know the exact brand of stain used originally, all you can do is try some samples on a piece of wood of the same species. If your wood is oak, it's probably red oak, which is the most common hardwood used for stained trim these days.

Personally, I don't always try to make stained wood match. In the case of your doors, if you can't get some samples to match closely, I would consider trying some complimentary stain color... but only if you are planning on refinishing the entire door.

I wouldn't be surprised if your millwork stain is either a name-brand of "golden oak" or non-stained oak. This country is awash in those two colors of millwork. There are many manufacturers of stain and finding the exact color may require shopping around to find a few different brands of Golden Oak or Honey Oak stain.

Usually you can re-stain light-colored woods to a darker stain color. You can do a lot of experimenting, that's all I do.

If you want to re-stain any woodwork, you will need to completely remove the old urethane. Chemical strippers work well but require washing and drying and this takes a bit of time. The stripping is best done outdoors in warmer weather. I recently did a few test pieces on our 95-year-old oak trim. The stripper took the stain out completely. I've got a whole house full of trim to strip, re-stain, and urethane. I can't wait until spring! Read more about stripping old varnished trim. Also, read this article about stripping furniture with chemical paint stripper, which may be more applicable to the task of stripping urethane from trim or doors.

I have made custom-blended stains by mixing carefully measured quantities of various Minwax stains. But keeping track of the color proportions is critical, or else you won't be able to reproduce the stain again. For small test batches I used eye-droppers and count the number of drops of liquid.


Bruce W. Maki, Editor.




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