How to Strip Varnish From Cabinets

A simple cabinet refinishing project will make your bathroom or kitchen seem brand new, at a fraction of the cost of other cabinet remodeling projects.

Varnish provides a transparent coating to protect wood from sunlight and water damage.Varnish provides a transparent coating to protect wood from sunlight and water damage.
To refinish cabinets, strip away existing finishes to prevent the new finish from overlapping and developing ridges or discolored spots. Varnish must be removed if you intend to repaint or re-stain cabinets, because a rough surface is needed to make paint and stain stick.

Remove cabinet doors, hinges and handles to prevent damage to hardware and make the stripping process easier. A Phillips or flat-head screwdriver should remove most hardware without much trouble. If paint or varnish has hardware stuck, you may risk ruining the hardware by applying paint thinner or the varnish stripper so you can remove the hardware. You may replace ruined hardware easy and inexpensively, if necessary, however.

Apply the varnish or paint stripper to the face frames, doors and sides of the cabinets with an old paintbrush. Allow the stripper to set for approximately 15 to 30 minutes or for the time suggested on the stripper container.

Strip the varnish from all cabinet surfaces by scraping a plastic putty knife or stripper tool across the bubbled varnish. Wipe varnish from the tool with an old towel after three or four strokes and continue scraping until you can no longer lift any varnish with your stripper tool.

Scrub cabinet surfaces with steel wool to remove remaining varnish. Apply stripper again, as necessary, to finish removing varnish.

Remove small amounts of remaining varnish by sanding the cabinet surfaces with a hand or power sander. When the cabinet surfaces become matte, you are finished stripping away the varnish.

Things You Will Need

  • Screwdrivers
  • Liquid varnish stripper
  • Old paintbrush
  • Plastic putty knife or stripper tool
  • Old towel
  • Steel wool
  • Sandpaper or power sander


  • Wear a face mask and work in a ventilated area to prevent dizziness from fumes in the varnish stripper.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions when using chemical varnish strippers to prevent damage to cabinet surfaces and health risks.
  • Spray-on varnish stripper is also available.

About the Author

Penny Porter is a full-time professional writer and a contributor to "Kraze" magazine. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in journalism at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky.