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How to Make Oak Cabinets Look Like Cherry Cabinets

Wade Shaddy
Table of Contents

Learn two different methods for changing an oak cabinet finish to a cherry finish with instructions for sanding or stripping.

Oak has bold, pronounced grain lines in flame patterns. Cherry has subtle grain lines that wander in curves. Oak without stain, is amber or gold in color. Cherry is reddish-pink. They might seem at opposite ends of the spectrum. But with the right preparation and materials, oak cabinets can be made to resemble cherry cabinets.

Get Stains

How Gel Stains Work

Gel stains, unlike traditional solvent or water-based stains, do not need to penetrate into wood. Gel stains are more like paint, with pigment that remains on the surface of the wood. Some woodworking aficionados frown on gel stains because of lack of clarity, but gel stains are the only way to change oak to cherry color without sanding off a previous finish.

Contemporary woodworkers have had some success changing cabinet color with gel stains. Gel stains don't require excessive pre-sanding, because they can be applied over an existing finish.

Test Your Finish

Test your cabinet's finish before application by dabbing an acetone dampened cotton swab, on an inconspicuous area of the finish. If the cotton ball sticks or softens the finish, it's lacquer, varnish or shellac. If it has no effect it's polyurethane. Gel stains are not recommended, but not excluded, for application over a lacquer finish. If you're not sure, apply some gel stain, allow it to dry and then attempt to scrape it off. If it comes off easily, it won't work on your finish.

Steps to Apply Gel Stain

  1. Remove all of the doors and drawers from the cabinets. Clean the cabinets with a wood cleaning agent.

  2. Sand the cabinets, doors and drawer fronts lightly with 220-grit sandpaper. Wipe off the residue with a tack cloth.

  3. Dip a natural-bristle brush into an open can of gel stain, to cover 1/2 to 3/4 inch of the bristles.

  4. Apply an even coat of stain to the wood with the brush, working in manageable sections or individual pieces, moving with the grain of the wood.

  5. Overlap previous strokes by at least 1 inch, smoothing and blending the stain as you proceed with each new stroke.

Starting from Scratch

In the event that you don't want to use gel stain, or can't use it, traditional stripping, sanding and staining is another option to change the look of oak to cherry.

  1. Remove all the doors and drawers from the cabinets. Place them across sawhorses.

  2. Strip the previous finish off everything -- there are two options: Use an orbital sander with 100-grit sandpaper, followed by hand sanding with 220-grit sandpaper to remove the previous finish. Option number two: use a chemical stripper by wiping it on, scraping off the old finish, allowing it to dry, and sanding with 220-grit sandpaper.

  3. Dip a soft cotton cloth into an open can of cherry stain. Wipe the surface of the wood liberally, in manageable areas, and wipe it off immediately with a dry cloth. If the stain begins to dry before you wipe it off, you're moving too slow. Make the application area smaller.

  4. Allow the stain to dry for the recommended time printed on the packaging. Oil-based stains may require up to 72 hours to dry. Water or solvent-based stains require only minutes or no more than about 2 hours to dry.


If oak cabinets are stained darker than cherry, gel stain won't won't work. Gel stains work only when oak is lighter than cherry. If the previous finish is darker, it must be removed completely.


Chemical strippers are caustic. Wear gloves, eye and breathing protection And use them only in well-ventilated areas.


Run some tests before proceeding with your project. Remove a door, and use the back to run through the Steps. If the color is not dark enough add another coat of stain. If the grain of the oak is too obvious, run another test applying grain filler before adding the stain.