August 1, 2014

Cabinet Refinishing: Paint vs. Stain vs. Cabinet Coating Systems

I have a handful of cabinetry makeovers under my belt and, completely accidentally although we'll say it's been in the pursuit of penning a substantive blog post on the subject, I've tried a different method/combination of supplies nearly every time.  Some cabinet-refinishing newbies have asked me for help so I thought I'd share my experiences in one comprehensive post, along with some links to other great cabinet makeovers, plus a few pros and cons for the most popular methods.  I've also got a rough sketch for the steps involved but my bulleted lists are by no means meant to be exhaustive.  Before I embark on a new-to-me project, I Google around, talk to the pros and then figure out the best course of action.  Because I'm no pro - just an avid DIYer - I'm hoping you'll chime in with your experiences and tips for anyone about to embark on this fun and daunting project!

I've painted two sets of cabinets in my DIY past with latex paint: the half bathroom cabinet in the townhouse and the kitchen cabinetry in the lakehouse.  In the first I used primer & eggshell paint leftover from painting the bathroom wall.  The bathroom was minimally used so chipping/wear was never an issue but the eggshell finish was difficult to clean.  Dust stuck to it and hung on for dear life.

It's impossible to tell, but I changed up the cabinet colour from dingy cream to pale grey:

The kitchen makeover was, obviously, much more dramatic, and my second foray into cabinet painting:

For the lakehouse kitchen I used Zinsser primer and CIL Premier Latex paint in a semi-gloss finish.  But Sherry and John, from Young House Love, used a satin finish for their kitchen makeover in House Two (Benjamin Moore Advance), which seemed to work well for them.  Personally, I love the semi-gloss finish because it's so easy to wipe down and keep clean.  It doesn't look too shiny, in my opinion, and was recommended by the paint pros at Canadian Tire

  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Putty any holes with wood filler (I skipped this step)
  • Sand putty (I skipped this step)
  • Clean the surface with a degrease (I used dish soap and a chore boy scrub pad)
  • Sand the surface so the glossiness of the previous finish is removed (although the primer I used said sanding is unnecessary, I did a light sand anyway)
  • Vacuum dust (I skipped this step)
  • Wipe down surface with damp cloth, let dry
  • Prime, using a brush or spray gun
  • Sand smooth any imperfections/raise brush marks (I skipped this step)
  • Apply paint, using a brush or spray gun (I also used a roller for large, breakfast bar area)

Here's a detailed post about how we painted the cabinet fronts with a paint spray and here's how I painted the boxes.  This post lists all of the supplies we used.

REVIEW:  Although I sanded before priming and used a good quality primer, there have been a few spots of paint-loss after an impact or banging furniture against it.  Luckily, touch up has been a breeze and after those first few days of settling in, no other paint loss has occurred.  Paint can take a month to fully cure, so we should have been more careful.  A tutorial on Curbly advocates a rigorous sand/prime/prime/prime/sand/paint system for the extra cautious, which might also help ensure maximum adhesion.  It sure seems like a lot of work, though! 

PROS: Unlimited colour options, various finishes, easily acquired supplies, can dramatically change the look
CONS: Lots of prep (sand, prime, paint for good adhesion), needs time to cure, can show brush strokes


Chalk paint has won over people because often you can skip sanding!  I actually went to an Annie Sloan stockist when I was planning the kitchen makeover because I was lured by the supposed ease of use.  Unfortunately, the colours - even when custom-mixed - were a little antiquey for what I wanted.  If you're curious, there's a whole website devoted to how to use chalk paint.  If you Google or search Pinterest, you'll find tons of cute kitchen makeovers that have used Chalk Paint as well.  Simply Rooms has a good tutorial.

Photo Source: Bella Tucker
  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Prepare surface by cleaning with a degreaser and let dry
  • Make sure the surface is free of lint or dust
  • Paint away!  Seriously, no sanding or priming unless an area is uneven or won't take the paint (I've heard some people - even pros - have experienced bleed through and needed to prime)
  • Seal the piece using clear wax or furniture paste

PROS: Decent colour selection, limited prep required, distressing is an easy option for a cottage-inspired look, has a chalky finish (which you may like)
CONS: I've heard getting the finish right can be tricky - especially the Annie Sloan wax, more expensive than latex paints, limited availability in some cities, has a chalky finish (which you may not like)


For the main bathroom and half bathroom in the lakehouse I used Rust-Oleum's Cabinet Transformations system.  The steps were a little different than just painting, but with a similar result.  Happily, there was NO sanding (yay!!) because a de-glosser was used instead. 

  • Remove cabinet fronts & all hardware
  • Clean the cabinets with the included de-glosser, then remove de-glosser with a damp rag and water
  • Apply thin coats of the paint (called a "Bond Coat")
  • Wait 2-3 hours in between coats, use 2-3 coats for best coverage
  • Apply the Decorative Glaze coat (optional - I skipped this)
  • Apply Protective Top coat
  • Let dry and follow manufacturer's instructions regarding when the cabinets can be used/cleaned

REVIEW:  I loved this cabinet finishing system.  Almost everything was included which made things so much easier.  The de-glosser took some time to apply and wash off but it was so much less messy than sanding and priming.  The paint went on like a dream - so smooth, such even, beautiful coverage.  Honestly, it was super fabulous stuff.  The clear coat was the only tricky part because touching it up is nearly impossible so it's important to get an even coat - check the finished piece from all angles to spot any matte areas.  Also, the clear coat dries quickly so you need to work quickly.  Once we put cabinet bumpers on, we have had NO areas of paint loss.  No chips, scuffs - and it cleans so easily.  I've even had to scrub the cabinets to get some gunk off and the finish held strong.  I've also tested it on melamine and it works on it too (although it takes longer to get an even finish on melamine- an extra coat, so no big deal really).

PROS: Easy application, durable, no sanding, great for beginners because it's a kit with educational materials and everything is laid our clearly
CONS: Clear coat is tricky to apply, de-glosser is time consuming, involves chemicals, limited colour selection, not the cheapest option


Although I've stained lots of furniture and other wood projects (like our kitchen counters!), I have yet to stain kitchen or bathroom cabinetry.  One pain is that with water-based stains you typically need to get down to the bare wood, especially true if you want to stain cabinets a lighter colour.  A chemical stripper is great for this - especially on veneered fronts, which you don't want to accidentally sand off.  Finishing the job with sandpaper and a sanding block is time consuming but results in a nice finish.  With solid wood cabinets (or a thick veneer), using a sander is an option and will speed things up.

Researching this post I chatted with folks at a local paint and stain shop who delivered the sad news: there's no stain on the market right now that eliminates the need for sanding altogether when refinishing wood.  BUT, I have heard that you can use gel stain right on top of existing finish with minimal sanding.  I have yet to try it, but it sounds like a great option for re-staining cabinetry with minimal fussing.  Basically, you just want to glossy clear coat/sheen removed.  Jen, from the Creative Cubby has a great tutorial with super clear, step-by-step photos.  It seems infinitely easier to stain cabinets darker than it is to lighten them.  Erin, from Magenta & Lime did a fabulous job staining her light wood kitchen cabinets espresso:

Photo Source: Magenta and Lime
  • Remove cabinet fronts & remove all hardware
  • Sand or use a chemical stripper to remove the previous finish - the amount of labor depends on the type of stain used
  • Clean the surface of all gunk, dust and goo (TSP is good)
  • Apply a pre-stain wood conditioner if required
  • Allow surface to dry
  • Apply stain, using a foam brush, rag or a sock (you can use a spray gun, too)
  • Follow manufacturer's suggestions for dry times
  • Apply a sealant/protective top coat

PROS: Can dramatically change the look of cabinetry, some people think stained cabinets look more expensive than painted (so potentially good for resale value), allows wood grain to peek through
CONS: Stain can be blotchy, clean up is messy


When Hubby fell in love with the natural wood veneer of our townhouse kitchen cabinets, I did what any good Wifey would do - set aside my dreams for a painted kitchen and put on my rubber gloves.  I stripped the varnish and sanded the fronts and boxes smooth before applying a new satin clear coat.  Hubby so rarely voices a preferences in decor that it only seemed fair to let him have wood cabinets!  Stripping the cabinets and applying the new varnish took a few days but it really refreshed the cabinetry without hiding the wood he loved so much.

  • Remove cabinet fronts and all cabinet hardware
  • Using a chemical stripper, remove the previous finish (apply, wait, scrape off)
  • Wipe down the surface to remove the gunk
  • Using 80 and then 220 grit sandpaper and sanding block, sand the surface smooth
  • (With solid wood, you can use a belt or orbital sander, not recommended for veneer - don't want to sand through!) 
  • Clean the surface with TSP and let dry
  • Using a brush, apply varnish (I used water-based in semi-gloss) in a thin coat, allow dry overnight
  • Lightly sand the surface smooth with 180 or 220 grit sandpaper - just a light sand
  • Re-apply the clear coat, typically 2-3 coats is sufficient

REVIEW:  See this post for the full-length tutorial.  I absolutely hated this process because of my own ridiculousness.  I insisted on wearing flip flops and almost seared my toes off when the chemical stripper dripped down to my exposed feet.  Repeatedly, because I refused to put on shoes.  My memory of this event is coloured and I only remember it as painful.  The cabinets definitely looked 98% better but one slightly water damaged area kept it from looking 100% better.  It was a lot of work and I would have liked a more dramatic look, but both real estate agents and prospective buyers agreed they loved the kitchen with the natural wood finish.  I spent four years thinking of different painted looks I could give the cabinetry, but never truly regretted the decision.

PROS: Doesn't need to be sanded as well as for staining, foolproof (no streaking, chipping, etc), the finish could have an impact (like going from matte to high-gloss) but can also be very subtle
CONS: Messy, doesn't change the look as much as stain or paint, involves chemical and/or laborious sanding, won't disguise flaws like a dark stain or paint can 


Alternatively, you can try something like Restor-A-Finish which just wipes on and wipes off.  It won't make a dramatic change, but it can remove blemishes and, quite obviously, restore the finish.  There are a number of different one-step products and homemade solutions out there that will similarly freshen wood cabinetry that might be a little beat-up.  It's a simple way to keep the same look, but update the feel of cabinetry by erasing signs or age and wear.  Centsation Girl has a great post about restoring wood furniture but the same tips can be applied to wood cabinets as well.

PROS: Perfect for renters who want a fresher looking kitchen without changing the look, simple, foolproof
CONS: Won't change the look much, involves chemicals, limitations to what it can fix


1. Remove the door and hardware - it will make life so much easier.
2. Use quality painter's tape to tape off areas you don't want to paint/stain and put down drop cloths.
3. Set up a dust-free area to work in and create a little assembly line.
4. Use painter's pyramids/triangles to lift up doors (I use empty yoghurt containers and random surplus building materials but just getting the pyramids is neater and easier, I'm sure).

5. Use a spray gun for door fronts for a smooth and factory-like finish, but don't worry if all you have is an angled brush because it does a lovely job too.

6. Use a small artist's brush to apply paint/stain to the narrow or hard to reach areas.

7. Don't try to speed up dry time with a fan in the early stages - you might blow dust around and it will stick nicely to the freshly painted/stained/varnished surface
8. Keep a damp cloth or rag on hand for the inevitable goofs and spills

Whew, that's a lot!  I'm certain I've missed steps/pertinent information but hopefully it's a good start for anyone considering a cabinet makeover.  Take the time to do the prep work for whatever method you chose and you'll thank yourself later.  Most importantly, don't be intimidated.  There's nothing that can't be fixed!  If you run into a snag, you can always sand and start fresh.  In my experience, no matter what method I've tried, I've always been so happy with the result. 

July 28, 2014

Half Bathroom Makeover

Just moving into a new home and doing nothing would make me so twitchy.  I need to put my stamp on things as soon as possible, even if the change is minimal, unfinished, and at the expense of a plan.  I like a fresh canvas.  The powder room is slated for a full gut job when the laundry room and kitchen see their Phase II renovations but until then, like the kitchen and laundry room, I had to give it a little facelift.

Behold...the oak-less, duck-less space:

Here's a reminder of the "before":

I'm the first to admit it's a pretty unremarkable makeover - it just sort of happened, despite my having a million neat ideas.  (Do you have any rooms like that?)  Still, it just feels so much better!  Newer, fresher, cleaner, and brighter.

I painted the walls, ceiling, trim, and door white when the rest of the house was painted.  When the main bathroom got it's makeover, I used leftover supplies to paint the oak cabinetry grey, the dated 90s tile cream, and the gold light fixtures and hardware matte black - thanks to my friends at Rust-Oleum.  A matching towel ring courtesy of Plumber's Surplus replaced the old towel bar and glass shelf (not pictured).  Hubby's Grandpa's bold green painting, hung in a fit of "all of our favorite art will get damaged if we don't hang it right this second!!" makes a great statement.  In the adjacent laundry room there are two more of his paintings so it feels planned.  The other two prints in the washroom are from Hungary.

Because I don't have a floor plan for the house, this photo might help a bit.  The powder room is just beyond the laundry room.

Since initially updating the powder room, I've thought about going bolder - maybe hanging my silhouettes en masse? They would have so much more impact in a small space.  Turquoise stripes on the wall?  A bright green ceiling?  Because it's immediately beyond the turquoise adorned laundry room and the bold turquoise kitchen, I think guests might like some respite from the bold choices to collect their thoughts in the more neutral powder room.

While I ponder, I'm turning my attention back to other projects.  We need bedroom curtains and closet doors.  The office is demanding to be more than a glorified storage room.  The Etsy shop is currently a maze of boxes.  Plus I have gallons upon gallons of exterior paint and deck stain taking up real estate in the garage.  I also have a hankering for a really do-able, afternoon-type project.

So I'm especially happy I gave this space a little love when I had the chance, even if it's kind of humble.

July 25, 2014

A Lotte Better

My Instagram photos got a lot more touristy last week because my friend Erica was visiting from Massachusetts.  We went to the Amethyst Mine, Fort William Historical Park, the Grand Marais art fair (plus this sweet flea market), in addition to hitting up the local boutiques and antique stores.  We even found a surprise roadside estate sale where I scooped up a new-to-me Pyrex pattern and Erica found beautiful brass flatware.  Erica works for two interior designers so near the end of her visit I decided to mine her eye for design and get her opinion on a small living room tweak.

Even though some readers didn't love it, I really liked the chrome lamp in the living room but after the turquoise kitchen makeover was completed, I started to feel like that part of the living room looked bland in comparison.  With such a bold kitchen, I don't want the adjacent living and dining areas to compete but they also need to hold their own.  I decided I wanted a lamp with some colour but given that the plans for the living room are up in the air, I didn't want to spend any money (the original lamp had been free too).  My Mom had de-commisioned two vintage blue Lotte lamps and I decided to try one.  I'd been reluctant to haul it over because I was convinced the blue was wrong, but Erica and I agreed: much better!!

As a reminder, this was the lamp there before:

The Marimekko sofa pillows don't have the same blue in them, but the paintings in both the living room and dining room have that exact shade - as do the antique Lake Superior post cards on either side of the fireplace, so when you look at the entire space the blue lamp makes sense.

Even though I'm a turquoise-enthusiast, I'm crave a variety of watery hues.  Inch by inch, I'm getting closer to what I envisioned for the space.  Maybe if I go ahead and re-upholster that mid-century sectional I'll add some more Marimekko throw pillows with some blue and aqua mixed together to tie in the blue even more definitively.  Or maybe at that point I'll be obliged to return the lamp... I know it sounds like I've begged, borrowed and stolen a lot from my Mom this week but if the trading seems lopsided, ask yourself, "where are the two small yellow Lotte lamps Tanya had in her living room, and where is that gorgeous big one she had in the guest room?"

On a side note, we scooped up a petite little brown Lotte lamp thrifting the other day.  I bought it for the shop, but my Mom has hidden it.  Why do we love Lotte lamps so much?  They evoke such a classic, mid-century feel.  Even more special than that, Lotte lamps were originally produced in Canada!  The company was sold in 1997 and current production is based in Ohio - which is still pretty cool because I'm all about keeping jobs in North America (woo-hoo, jobs!).  Find out more about the history here and click here for sources.
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