How to Revarnish Existing Kitchen Cabinets

Mike Matthews
Revarnishing your cabinets can be an inexpensive alternative to replacing them.

When it's time to revarnish your kitchen cabinets, there are three things to keep in mind. First, of course, is restoring the beauty of your wood cabinets. Secondly, you must make certain the new varnish is tough enough to resist the daily bangs, scrapes, greasy handprints and steamy cooking environment common to any kitchen work area. But as a third consideration, it's also vital to the health of your family to avoid using any chemicals that could release toxins into your food.

Safety First

Many paint and varnish removers are formulated with petrochemicals, carcinogens and other toxins that are released into the air during the refinishing process. Varnishes may also contain petroleum-based solvents, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals which can become trapped within a closed cabinet where your breakfast cereal is stored. Read the safety warnings on product labels carefully before selecting the material you will use in food storage and preparation areas. Although the aroma will disappear, some coatings can continue emitting toxins into the air for over a year.

Sanding Off The Old Varnish

If the old varnish is flaking off, sandpaper may be the quickest and cleanest method of removing it from your cabinets. Start by using a 120 grit sandpaper, which is a medium grit, to remove the bulk of the old varnish. Finish by sanding the wood smooth with a 180 or 220 grit sandpaper. Homeowners who own a vacuum sander can work without creating any dust. Other Do-It-Yourselfers should lay a drop cloth under the sanding area to collect the sanding residue.

Fast-Acting Strippers

Instead of sanding you can use chemical strippers, and varnishes respond to a variety of paint removing chemicals. Fast-acting strippers are formulated with aromatic solvents, and they evaporate so quickly that you can only work on a small section at one time. Rub the stripper into a one-square foot segment of the varnish, then use a metal paint scraper to peel the old coating away. The ingredient list for these types of paint and varnish removers may include methylene chloride, acetone, toluene, and denatured alcohol, so it's important for users to wear rubber gloves, safety glasses and a cotton face mask.

Slow Acting Strippers

Slow acting paint and varnish removers may take two to four hours to work. You can brush the stripper paste onto the entire cabinet at once and then peel the combined varnish and paste mixture off a few hours later using a plastic putty knife. Follow up by wiping the entire cabinet with denatured alcohol to remove any trace of the stripping paste. Slow acting strippers may contain N-methyl pyrrolidone and a mix of solvents derived from soybeans or citrus fruits. Users are advised to wear gloves and safety glasses while working around these paint and varnish removers.

Protective Varnishes

The preferred finish for protecting newly manufactured kitchen cabinets today is water-based polyurethane. Select a low-VOC polyurethane for your stripped or sanded cabinets to minimize odor and chemical exposure. This type of varnish resists moisture, abrasion, and household cleaning fluids, and it will not turn yellow. For best results, apply two coats of polyurethane to your cabinets, lightly sanding with a 220-grit sandpaper between coats. Be sure to use a high-quality synthetic fiber paint brush to reduce the risk of brush marks in the finish.