Get rid of old-fashioned cabinetry with this easy DIY gel stain project

Before: Honey oak raised panel cabinets, feminine hardware, an old electric range, and peel ‘n stick tile for a backsplash: who wouldn’t love this kitchen? (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Before: Honey oak raised panel cabinets, feminine hardware, an old electric stove, without the new peel ‘n stick tile and with our new range. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Looking for a kitchen upgrade that won’t break the bank and comes with minimal hassle? Try using a gel stain on these orange yellow honey oak cabinets to give your kitchen a new look.

There are many good reasons to freeze cabinetry 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 right. You will also be able to use your cabinets while you work on this project. Only the doors and drawer fronts are removed for frost stains. And because this type of stain dries quickly, just like water-based polyurethane, you can redo the project in a day or two.

Gel stained wood cabinetry can also give your kitchen an updated look before you put your home on the market. Just change the material and – ta-da! – you have “new” cabinets.

The gel stain resists normal wear and tear. I am a very messy cook who drips and splashes water and food on my kitchen doors and drawers daily. Our kitchen cabinets were stained with frost about six months ago and I haven’t noticed any change in color or shine.

Our cabinets always look great.

The project

My husband, Tom Weber, loved our new home from the moment he walked through the front door. I do not have.

To begin with, he had no character; everything was of builder quality. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of open concept living. How would I hide my dirty dishes from guests if they walked directly into the kitchen / living room?

But the kitchen was a decent size with plenty of counter space, drawers, and cabinetry – surprisingly well-built cabinetry. More cabinets than we had seen in any other home in our price range.

Of course, Tom liked the wardrobes. Again, I didn’t. They were honey oak kitchen cabinets with raised panel doors. The color was an orangey yellow which shouted at me: “1990 has called and wants to get his cupboards back”.

Finally, within two days, he convinced me that we didn’t want to buy another older repairer. He promised that I would be able to add my personal touch to each room. In addition, I had never lived in a house with a laundry room on the ground floor and a master bedroom with a walk-in closet. Who in their right mind would refuse this?

However, we didn’t have time to strip, sand and stain the many cabinets before moving in. Other projects took priority, such as installing bamboo flooring, replacing a honey oak banister in the basement with a wall and creating my dream office space.

We signed the documents two weeks after the COVID-19 hit and moved the following month. Since then we have been busy making the house our home. The kitchen was functional after replacing the stove and faucet. I made my peace with honey oak cabinets until bigger projects were completed.

Explore finishing options

In early spring, it was finally time to tackle some kitchen projects. And when I say “we” did a remodeling project, what I mean is I come up with the idea and the plan, and then Tom does all the work.

I looked for a finishing option that didn’t require painting (Tom likes wood), cabinet removal (how am I going to cook?), Or sanding or stripping (too messy).

Pinterest has become my go-to for affordable and creative DIY ideas. This is where I discovered gel coloring booths. Tom was skeptical but was ready to test the idea inside a cabinet door before saying no.

In early spring, he removed a lower cabinet door, bought some gel tincture, and tested the process. He was quickly won over by the idea. You will be too.

What you will need

• Krud Kutter (or similar cleaner / degreaser)

• Protective canvas

• Purchase rags

• Gloves

• Coloring gel

• Water-based polyurethane

• Easel or substitute

• Brush

• Screwdriver or drill

• New material (optional)

You will only stain one side of the cabinet doors at a time. If you don’t have easels handy, you can use boxes. This is what we did for this interior project.

You can reuse drop cloths multiple times, as you can see from ours, so it’s worth investing in one or two drop sheets. You will need lint-free cloths. And gloves are a must have unless you want to rub your hands together forever and still end up with a gel stain French manicure.

We mixed two colors of gel stain to get the look we wanted. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

About the gel stain

Do not try to use any other type of dye. Why? Gel stain covers existing stain and finish. Even products like Minwax PolyShades require “light sanding”. No thanks, who needs dust?

This method only works with the coloring gel. With gel stain, you will still be able to see the grain and texture of the wood, even with the darkest colors.

Choose – or create – your color

My goal was to tone down the orangey yellow of the honey oak finish while adding a rich light brown tone. This meant avoiding any stains with even a hint of red or yellow. I didn’t want to sink too much with the stain either.

If you can’t find a gel stain in a color you like, do what we did: mix two or more. Minwax has nice darker gel shades, but none with the hint of gray or blue we needed to balance the yellow-orange.

We chose Varathane Premium Gel stain, a Rust-Oleum product, because we knew we were going to mix the stains to get a color we wanted. We combined Varathane gel stains in Hickory and Briarsmoke until we got the color we wanted. After some trial and error, we opted for a 50/50 mixture of the two dyes.

You will need to coat 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 is easy and contains less volatile organic compounds or VOCs. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Choose your finish

You will need to coat 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 is easy and contains less volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Polyurethane is available in matt, satin and semi-gloss. We used Varathane in a crystalline satin finish. It added shine and dimension to the stain without being too shiny for me.

How? ‘Or’ What

You can use a screwdriver to remove the hinges and hardware, but a drill speeds up the job. Remove all hardware from cabinet doors and fronts before beginning. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Preperation

The easiest way to tackle a lot of cabinets is to do a few at a time over the course of a few weeks. We set up the remnants of Tom’s cabinet project in the family room and used them in place of the dirty trestles he uses in the garage.

Tom removed the doors, drawer fronts and hardware one section at a time. He then put on gloves and cleaned everything up with Krud Kutter. It doesn’t have a particularly strong smell, but it is best to do this project in a space with windows that you can open.

Glue the walls and the inside of the cabinets.

Use a good paint tape to prevent the gel stain from seeping onto areas that are painted or stained in another color. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Krud Kutter, a cleaner / degreaser, removes sticky and grime that builds up on kitchen cabinets. It also leaves a slightly matte or rough surface on which the gel stain clings. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

coloring

Put up drop sheets to protect your furniture and floors from splashes and spills. The gel stain will have a little odor.

Wipe off the gel stain with a shop rag or microfiber cloth. The stain is quite tolerant if you pour too much. Just wipe it off with a little more pressure. Wearing gloves! (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

It will take a bit of trial and error to determine how thick to wipe off the stain, so start with a clean interior cabinet door. Wipe fairly hard, let dry for a few minutes, then wipe dry. Repeat until you get the color you like.

Stained and waiting to dry. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Let the twice-stained wood dry for at least two hours.

Comparison of the newly stained finish to the unstained honey oak finish. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

Tip: We have found it best to do one side completely (cleaning, staining, polyurethane and drying) before tackling the other side of the doors and drawer fronts.

Polyurethane

Choose a water-based polyurethane as it won’t have a strong odor and will dry quickly. 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 in one hour. Polish between coats with a cloth or light sandpaper (150 grit) if you notice bubbles in the polyurethane.

The cabinet door in the foreground has been cleaned with Krud Kutter but not stained yet. The cabinet drawer in the back was stained with two coats and received at least two coats of satin polyurethane. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

It will take a day to make one section of the cabinets at a time. Tom made about two door cabinets and one drawer cabinet per section.

It took Tom a few weeks to finish the gel stain on all of the kitchen cabinets – we have a lot of them. He didn’t work non-stop on the project and still got it done in less time than he expected. He used the rest of the stain on the open concept living / dining / kitchen window sills.

On the left, this is the first section of gel-tinted cabinetry with new matte black hardware. With better lighting, I could really tell the difference from the old honey oak cabinets. Quite an improvement. (Dorothy de Souza Guedes)

My kitchen looks great as it is, but I see an island with lots of drawers and a tiled backsplash in the future of my kitchen. Maybe with new quartz countertops?

But other kitchen improvements will have to wait. Tom still wants to finish my garden shed (already in progress), replace and enlarge the terrace, install a patio, add gutters to the garage… the list goes on.

Maybe he’ll let me help stain the wooden fence he built this summer. May be.


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Margarita B. Bittner

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