Embarking On Espresso

May 25, 2012   //  Posted in: DIY, Kitchen   //  By: Emily   //  20 responses

I’m kicking off on a brand new home improvement voyage: staining our oak kitchen cabinets. Dark espresso brown. DIY-style. And I’m downright scared about every step of the process. Looking for the Gel Stain that I used to stain the kitchen cabinets? I couldn’t find it in stores, and my best resource was General Finishes via Amazon. Learn more about the product and purchase it for yourself right here

The cabinets have been one of my most despised home components all this time. Using stock models from the local big box, the kitchen received a total overhaul in the late 90’s which included moving the plumbing, creating more counter space, adding a dishwasher, upgrading the windows, and voila, adding umteen-million heavy oak cabinets. They’re inexpensive, this I know because I’ve seen them at The Home Depot, but in mass quantity I can’t exactly blame the previous homeowners for buying them. There still aren’t many affordable and easily accessible options when it comes to kitchen design. As shown on move-in day, aren’t they plentiful? Sorry for the terrible photos.

Kitchen, move-in day.

Kitchen, move-in day.

All in all, I know things could be way, way worse. The inset routing could be all swirly and curvy. The doors could mismatch. They could be not level. Even the hardware, a brushed nickel, has been totally bearable over the last three years. I’ve had bigger projects to tackle.

I had considered painting them right away, maybe a nice clean white coupled with fresh hardware, but my plan fell through when a few friends (and my more notoriously opinionated family members) pointed out that generally speaking, people like, no, love hardwood cabinets, so blah, blah, maybe I should live with them awhile and give them a chance. Maybe they’d grow on me. Maybe I’d come to my senses and love-me-some-serious oak when the VOC’s from other projects cleared from my brain cavity.

Leaving the oak cabinets as-is for resale was one thing that continued to resonate with me, but with no immediate plans to move out and with the rest of the house pretty much customized to my tastes, it felt wrong to not pull the kitchen into the 21st century and give it a deserved update (regardless of what Grandma is going to say when she sees it, I gulp loudly). After living with them for 3 years, even though I removed a bunch of them, my decided verdict was still a firm no. The oak had to change.

Even if there are fewer cabinets now, they're still an unfavorable color.

The big change, as you know by this far into the post, wouldn’t involve paint. Maybe my friends and family were right, natural wood had grown on me. Staining the cabinets seemed like a win-win-win option; it would tie the kitchen in with the shiplap walls in the neighboring dining room, leave the wood natural for future homeowners, and most of all, update the kitchen in an impacting way. And of course, if this all fails I will be painting over it. So, yeah, I have a Plan B. One way or another, the kitchen will look better.

But, as I said in the very first sentence here, I’m downright scared about my first ditch staining process for a number of reasons:

  • The sanding. It’s going to be a lot of sanding. As in, a lot more sanding than you’d have to do if you were just cleaning and smoothing out the grain to paint it.
  • The staining could be inconsistent. I’ve been perfecting my staining technique over the last year, but I’m still no pro. No way, no how.
  • The grain might look uglier when it’s darker. Is it possible? Sure, maybe.
  • Will a dark stain make the gray and black flecked countertops look weird? Ummm, if I keep over thinking this, my head will absolutely explode.

All of those factors in the back of my mind, I did what I do best, I tested my theories and concerns using a real-life model. After I removed seven of the cabinets a few years ago, I stored them in the attic with the thought in mind that some future homeowner might want that extra kitchen storage. Easy to take down, easy to put back up. I even labeled each unit and kept the screws taped to the inside of the door to keep it tidy. Deciding to sacrifice one of them for the better good, I brought it down and positioning it off the asphalt in the driveway, I was ready to see how this would look, beginning to end.

My oak-y test subject.

Naturally, what I’m getting to here is that I spent a long, sweet afternoon working on my first test subject. No details left behind, here’s how the whole process went:

1. With the door, hinges, and hardware removed, I mixed up my first-ever batch of TSP, a heavy-duty, strong, skin-irritating cleaner in a large bucket. Sure, it sounds intense but it’s heavy-duty stuff and affordable (one <$4 box will probably last me my entire DIY life). With junky clothes covering all my limbs, I donned pretty latex gloves and took things seriously. Scare tactics on the packaging worked this time for whatever reason. I used 1/8-cup of TSP to 1-gallon of water to create a stronger-than-everyday-cleansing formula.

TSP prep in a clean bucket in the driveway.

2. With two separate sponges, I wiped everything down with the TSP mixture, let it sit a few minutes even though the packaging wasn’t specific if I needed to, and then wiped it off with a clean sponge dampened with fresh water. And then I let the whole thing dry and TSP’ed it again for good measure.

Contrary to some super-outdated online forums yet totally aligned with our friend Heather’s experience, the TSP actually did very little to remove any manufacturer’s finish, but it did leave the wood feeling very smooth and not grimy, which I now notice most of the cabinets of the kitchen are from the years of cooking and touching (awesome, it’s so gross).

TSP clean-down. Swiping away all of that scandalous grime.

3. The surface of the cabinets didn’t start to look different until I began sanding with a brand new piece of some medium-grit sandpaper (which is what we had on hand with the multi-tool). As opposed to the round random orbital palm sander that was my second choice, the triangular head of the sanding attachment gave me a little more control when it came to getting into the inset areas on the cabinets.

Getting into the angles of the cabinet door with the sanding attachment on the multi-tool.

As expected, sanding it in entirety wasn’t quick, but I started to see progress pretty quickly. Moving with the grain and applying even pressure, the true oak exposed itself. This next picture really demonstrates how nicely the edges of the multi-tool fit along the inside bevel in the cabinet.

Sanding the inside of the door.

The only questionable observation? The sharp bevels of the detailing on the front of the door did dull down a little bit. Do I care? Not sure yet, but I’m not going for that distressed look here.

Roughly sanded oak cabinet door.

The whole sanding process took me about one hour (no exaggeration, I took my time and tried to be really thorough). Knowing this, I have a more realistic expectation of how long it’s going to take me to finish (1 hour x 24 drawer and door faces of varying size means that I could very easily spend a full 24 hours sanding). I also know I’ll want to use a fresh piece of sandpaper for each door to keep it easy and consistent. Mo’ money, but still less expensive than gutting the room apart.

4. Identifying what stain I wanted to use was an adventure in and of itself. With oak, many blogs and forums I referenced cited using General Finishes Gel Stains thanks to its thicker consistency that makes hand-application a little easier on cabinetry, and on pieces with more detail. Products like Rust-Oleum, by contrast, can be runnier and therefore soak in too quickly making the piece stain unevenly.

Fortunately for me, there was one specialty furniture store within 15 minutes from my house that was listed as a distributor of the General Finishes product. Unfortunately for me, the gel product was discontinued (likely minutes before I walked into the shop after a month of putting off stopping in). The owner and woodworker himself suggested trying the General Finishes brand water-based wood stain in Espresso (the same color I had been shopping for in gel) and he promised that it was still going to be markably thicker than any commonly store-bought stain. For just $10, I was willing to give it a try, knowing full well that if it sucked, it was still just $10 (two mochas, or four iced coffees). And if it worked I might be able to get away with only spending $20-30 to refinish the entire kitchen (whoop-ah). Stain goes a long way.

I think, I hope, that here, you can tell that the consistency is a little more like watery pudding than common watery stain. Or maybe partially-solidified Jello when it’s startin’ to get that jiggle.

General Finishes Water-based Wood Stain.

5. Even though I have full intention of using nice foam brushes to evenly lay each coat of stain (and effectively get into all of the crevices in the bevels), this trial time around, I gave staining a try with a plain old rag. Because I forgot to buy foam brushes the last 4 times I was at the Home Depot.

First thoughts with this first coat:

  • “AHHHHH, OMG.”
  • “Hmmm, it stains a little more easily on the edges that were sanded down excessively”
  • “Is that dark enough?”
  • “Is it sanded enough?”
  • “Do I see more grain now?”
  • “Do I see less grain?”
  • “Where’s the grain?”

Test stain trial #1.

Fast forward 6-hours and I tested out a second coat. And later on, a third coat. Close up where the second and third coats overlap, it looks rough, but the tips to get it nice are to let it dry really well between coats and then re-apply evenly from edge to edge without picking up the brush or the rag you’re using.

Test staining on the kitchen cabinet door.

The best looking part of the door happens to be this outer edge with three coats of stain. Now, what are the odds that I can do the entire kitchen looking this nice?

Test staining on the kitchen cabinet door.

The cabinet itself looks great after its test run, and applied much more easily on the first try because it’s so sharp-edged and not beveled. This photo was it after one coat.

Test stain trial #1.

For experimentation’s sake, I applied a second coat to the cabinet too:

Test staining on the kitchen cabinet base.

And because you’re probably wondering about my plan for the insides of the cabinets, I’m going to paint them. It’s going to be a real pain in my you-know-what, but while the doors and trim are solid oak, the rest of the cabinet is partially faux.

Final thoughts? Still scared crazy, but I’m going to try it while the weather’s nice and I can sand and stain outdoors. Summertime project high-five. If anyone reading this has actually done their own cabinets and can offer any words of advice, speak now.

Will keep you updated as I begin the process!

Editor’s Update: In reality, the technique used to refinish my oak cabinets went much smoother than this test run. Check out the finished cabinets right here.

Looking for the Gel Stain that I used to stain the kitchen cabinets? I couldn’t find it in stores, and my best resource was General Finishes via Amazon. Learn more about the product and purchase it for yourself right here

  • AnDee
    6 years ago - Reply

    My Bestie did the same thing to her kitchen and it looks amazing! There are a few spots where the stain would not take, or it took in a different way because of the grain {!} but over all it is so, so awesome…
    You will not regret it!
    I think she did 4 or 5 coats and a satin protective coat…It took a very long time…
    Good luck!

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      SO GOOD TO HEAR. Thanks AnDee! 4-5 coats, huh? I’m going to add a few more coats to my test object and see how it looks!

    • Vanessa
      2 years ago -

      I’m no pro, just remembering what I learned in my woodworking class… When refinishing wood surfaces with stains, it’ll have to be sanded down to bare wood, using the most coarse grit sanding paper to remove most of the old finishes with either a sanding block or get one of those orbital sanders, then move on to #150 grit, and then #220 grit. After you’re done with all the sanding and removed all existing finishes, vacuum wood dust, then use a tack cloth to pick up the rest. Set it somewhere dust-free, apply wood conditioner liberally, ( I’ve only tried Benite wood conditioner sold by Daly’s, and it worked great for me.) let it soak in a bit then wipe off the excess, let sit for about a day, then start applying first coat of stain, second coat (at the most, if needed). Lastly apply a coat of whatever gloss, satan, matte finish you want, let dry, lightly sand over finish with a #220 grit sand paper, dust off with tack cloth, then apply second coat of finish. Hands off, let it dry.
      I know people generally recommend using wood conditioner only when the wood species is porous, but when it comes to refinishing wood, I always use wood conditioner, or it’ll look blotchy. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

  • Barb
    6 years ago - Reply

    We are preparing ourselves to do the exact same thing. We even picked Espresso as our colour. Unfortunately the stain we have to sand off is green. Who chooses that? There was a scrap piece of kickplate board in the basement so I did a series of tests – soap, TSP, hand sand, power sand. The first three had almost no effect. Looks like it’s going to be powersanding for me too.

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      Oh man. Is the green stain really saturated in there? Did the stain cover whatever remained when you tested the color? Green to espresso is going to be a beautiful transformation in your home!

  • kit @ DIYdiva
    6 years ago - Reply

    That’s it, you’ve ruined me. lol. I was totally planning on painting the not-my-favorite-oak mismatched cabinets in the bathroom I’m working on, but I kept having this niggling thought that I might want to stain them instead, except for all that sanding. And there’s only 4 little doors and 3 drawers. If you can do your whole kitchen, I have no excuse not to sand those things down now.

    I’m loving espresso finish, so I can’t wait to see how your kitchen turns out!

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      Funny you should mention that. I saw your cabinets and the new so-dark-blue-it’s-almost-black paint and thought “I wonder if when I stain the cabinets I should paint the whole kitchen a dark, dark color too… Things are lookin’ good over there!

  • Kate
    6 years ago - Reply

    So how does the stain match with the countertops? Do you like how they look together?

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      It’s OK when compared side-by-side, still hard to tell. The countertops themselves I’m not a huge fan of, but I’m hoping that darkening the cabinets might make me like them more.

  • Bane
    6 years ago - Reply

    I have similar cabinets which I similarly despise. And I like the look of dark stain. I’m not going to stain the existing cabinets, which are old, poor quality and badly placed, but I’m thinking of buying new unfinished cabinets and staining them myself. And, yeah, the prospect is a little scary.

    I look forward to seeing pictures of what will no doubt be a success story for you (either via plan A or Plan B). :) Good luck and happy staining!

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      Thanks Bane! Buying new in stained would make it so nice and easy! My biggest worry is that I’ll somehow not sand one of the doors enough and it won’t accept the stain consistently no matter what I try…. That wouldn’t be an issue with new materials!

  • Mickey
    6 years ago - Reply

    Whenever I build a new piece of furniture-desk, table, platform bed etc-I always use wood conditioner before I stain. It makes the stain go on in a more even consistent look. Good luck!

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      Does it work well with Oak? I’ve heard that it’s strongly suggested with pine, not as strongly with other types of wood.

  • Henry
    6 years ago - Reply

    Did you research Homer Formby type solvents for refinishing? Dissolving the top finishing and then using scotchbrite pad?

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      I haven’t! But I will. Now.

  • Loren
    6 years ago - Reply

    So, we are planning on doing the same thing in our kitchen and have just recently started compiling things together. We are also going for the espresso finish…. My father mentioned to me that we should use paint stripped first, then steel wool to sand it down after scraping off the current gloss…. Which is pretty much just a glaze over some Faux looking cabinets… Ya know the stock ones they put in new homes for cheap?! Anyways, we have 27 cupboard doors and 10 drawers and our cabinets themselves are mounted from an extra piece of wall going around the kitchen. Not sure what it is called, but looks like a wrap around block shelf made with drywall… I would have to take a pic to show you. Do you think if we used the TSP that we could skip the “stripper”? Also, we were going to but a sander like the one you used, what is the difference between a “multi-tool” and a sander just like that? Thanks Emily!!! Also, your buffet table looks AWESOME!

    • Emily
      6 years ago -

      Thanks Loren! I have no idea which process for removing the finish is more effective; the TSP-PF dulled the finish and took off some of the greases that had accrued on the surface (yuck) but there are LOTS of different suggested methods out there. Thinner and steel wool doesn’t seem like it is a bad idea, I just don’t know how much effort it would entail or how much sanding would still be required. Send a picture when you have a chance, I’d love to get a better visual.

      Maybe do a test with the TSP (it’s really only about $4 for so much that you’ll never, ever run out) compared to the thinner technique?

      Our multi-tool is actually a corded utility tool that has a rotating head; it comes with (and you can buy additional) various attachments that cut, sand, grind, etc. It’s by Craftsman, but there are lots of other options out there too, including similar options that are just for sanding.

      Hope this helps!

  • Andrea B
    6 years ago - Reply

    Oh! Thank you for sharing this! I will check back for updates, for sure. We have some not-bad-but-not-great cabinets but I’m so scared to begin the long journey to stain them … you’re inspiring me. :)

  • Shel
    5 years ago - Reply

    We did this using General Finishes – Espress as well to our upstairs master bath double vanity and it looks PERFECT. 3 coats of stain and 3 of satin poly. 1 day drying between EACH COAT applied with an old sock. 2 days curing before putting hinges on and rehanging doors. It looks BRAND new …seriously. Wondered how the entire kitchen project turned out as I am planning to do our kitchen this summer. Total cost for double vanity with enough left for next bathroom is about $30.00. Cannot get overhow great they really look!

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