How to Finish Unfinished Cabinets

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how to finish unfinished cabinets

As you might recall from my wood countertop article, I just redid my kitchen. Well, at least part of it. The remodel included new cabinets, aforementioned countertop, a sink and new plumbing and electrical work. Everything went pretty smoothly, but our ambitious goal was to keep it under $1000 for everything. It was a bit of a challenge since my wife also wanted the butcher block counter. To cut some of the cost, I bought unfinished cabinets from Lowe’s and decided to finish them myself. There are a couple things I should point out about these cabinets before outlining the finishing process. First, the prices are great. I got the two unfinished cabinets I needed for the cost of a 36” sink base cabinet that was already finished. Second, you get what you pay for. The faces are all unfinished oak and are manufactured decently, but the rest of the frames are pretty cheaply produced, as you might expect for the price. With that said, a little prep work and diligence can still yield a nice set of cabinets for half the price. Here’s my technique for how to finish unfinished cabinets. 

How to Finish Unfinished Cabinets – The Ingredients

  • Fine Sandpaper (150 grit will work)
  • Wood Conditioner (I used Minwax)
  • Foam Paint Brush
  • Tack Cloth
  • Stain of Choice ( I suggest using one with polyurethane)
  • Stain Grade Paint Brush
  • Paint Thinner
  • Clear Polyurethane or Varnish

Step 1

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Set up an area where you can sand and stain that is fairly consistent weather wise. I used my kitchen and just laid plastic down. It made it simple and I didn’t have to move a lot.

Step 2

Remove drawers and cabinet doors. This allows you to treat and stain all of the face of the cabinet as well as front and back of the doors.

Step 3

Give everything a light sanding before you apply the conditioner.

Step 4

Using the foam brush apply a light coat of the wood conditioner. This draws out the grain of the wood. It also helps ensure a more even coat of stain across the whole piece so you don’t end up with a blotchy cabinet.

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Step 5

Allow the conditioner to sit for 15 minutes to dry. You should notice that the previously smooth wood is now fairly rough. Sand everything down smooth. Follow this with a wipe from a tacky cloth to remove any dust.

Step 6

Apply an even coat of stain across everything. Make sure you don’t leave any drips as they’ll cause problems for you later. Now wait.

Step 7

Try and wait at least 6 hours for the stain to set. With that said, products other than MinWax may have different suggestions. You should be able to see the grain very well and the wood may not even look stained that much to you. If this is the look you’re going for by all means stop here. However, if you want a little darker look a second coat of stain will do the trick. Plus it will help protect the wood better if you’re using a stain mixed with poly. Then wait some more.

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Step 8

If you used a stain with polyurethane you’d be done now. Otherwise, you’ll want to add at least two coats of urethane to seal and protect the cabinet.

And there you have it. Sure it might have taken you a day longer to install but the cost savings are pretty incredible. Plus, you can add a new skill to your resume!

Photo of author

About Leroy

LeRoy was born into a long line of contractors/carpenters/missing links which maybe why he fell naturally into tools and fishing with his paws, errr, bare hands. He has since punctured, stabbed or electrocuted every appendage that can be discussed in mixed company. Given his natural fur vest, he has never been cold. In his parallel life he is a mild mannered environmental scientist where he builds, destroys and builds again. Which let’s face it is much cooler than Superman’s parallel life.

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10 thoughts on “How to Finish Unfinished Cabinets”

  1. I’m so disappointed in the “Project Source” – unfinished cabinets from Lowes. We liked that way they looked and when I used a Minwax wood conditioner (it raised pieces of wood all along the whole piece), then I tried a primer – the same thing happened again (raised wood – always sanding between) then I put the first coat of paint on (raised wood again) the amount of time I’ve put into these cabinets is NOT worth the frustration. I’m a DIYer, building my own Tiny House on Wheels, I’ve done tons of projects and have NEVER had such a problems with cabinets before. I hope to returned them as nothing seems to be working. Very upsetting and this has cost me a lot of wasted time for this project and I am now well past my dead line. Sadden Customer – Diana

  2. We purchased nearly exact base cabinets from Lowes. How do you finish the sides when exposed? Just paint the particle board? Cover it with plywood? This is our first adventure in doing it ourselves. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Hi Christina! I wasn’t the author on this one, but I’ll chime in to say that painted particle board on the sides isn’t ideal – it’s just not going to have a very finished look. If you’re able to exchange what you got for a version with finished sides (meant to be visible / exposed) rather than unfinished (which is meant to be butted up to a wall or another cabinet), that would probably be ideal. If that’s not feasible, you might be able to adhere a very thin laminate to create a finished side. If you add something thick like plywood, then you’ll need to deal with the exposed edges of the plywood. Hope that helps a little, and good luck with the project!

    • I would buy the end panels that match the cabinets that you purchased. Lowes has large pieces of oak panels by the paneling section. Also smaller pieces of other kinds of wood. It is cheaper to buy the larger section and cut down the size you need

  3. Your bio was probably my favorite part of that article! About to purchase my cabinets and i want to make sure I’m going to end up with something I love. Thanks for the tips.


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