How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets
Build | Kitchen | Room Makeovers

Thrifty Kitchen Cabinet Makeover

After redoing the kitchen in our first house, we were hoping that our new house would have an old kitchen.

Then, we could just gut it and start fresh. Plus, an old kitchen would save us some money on the asking price.

However, that was not the case with the house we bought. The house itself was amazing, but the kitchen had somewhat modern granite countertops with old, dated cabinets.

I spent so much time in the kitchen, from trying to get my one-year old to eat to upholding my title as family baker, and this kitchen begged for an aesthetic update.

Gel Staining Kitchen Cabinets for a Thrifty UpdateDIY Kitchen Decisions

Currently, it had brown countertops, black appliances, oak cabinets with gold pulls, and there was red stone backsplash just behind the oven.

Even though brown granite would not have been our first choice, we didn’t want to gut the kitchen and waste the stone.

My thinking was to come up with a plan that worked around the granite.

How to Update Kitchen Cabinets with Gel StainHow to Reface Kitchen Cabinets with Gel Stain

I made some subtle changes first – I painted the walls a lighter color, which was the same color I had painted the open family room.This gave the downstairs a seamless feel and the lighter kitchen worked with the brown granite more than the tan did.

Ash also replaced the ’70s vinyl baseboard with freshly painted white wooden baseboard.

We had also planned to switch out our old black appliances with stainless steel ones. The oven and fridge didn’t keep their temperatures properly – Ash was constantly microwaving his ice cream because it was too frozen and my cookies were constantly burning even though the middles were cooked through.

We had been waiting for Black Friday to get the best deals, and we did pretty well!

Next, I had to make a decision about the cabinets. I wanted to gel stain them like I did with the bathroom vanity, yet I was nervous about it. It was a huge undertaking!

When I did the bathroom vanity, it was one cabinet.

This was 22 cabinets!

I came up with some other options, like staining just the frames and then replacing all the doors and drawer fronts; however, even those costs added up, and there was no guarantee that the colors would match.

I hemmed and hawed over it, until I saw the forecast for the upcoming weekend.

It was mid-November and the forecasters were calling for the 50s on Saturday and Sunday! Mild weather meant I could easily air out the kitchen from the gel stain.

I decided it was now, or let the kitchen continue to drive me crazy until Spring.

​So, now it was 🙂

Gel Staining Kitchen Cabinets

I used the same General Finishes Antique Walnut Gel Stain that I used for the bathroom vanity.

I needed about 3 quarts in total for both projects and 2 quarts of the General Finishes Polyurethane. (To read about how I used this gel stain on the bathroom vanity, including the tutorial and gel stain tips, click here.)

​I did three coats total (plus a little touching up here and there); in hindsight, I wished I had done four.

My primary focus was getting the cabinet frames finished and the kitchen properly aired out.

My secondary focus was the doors and drawer fronts because I could do those in the garage in batches.

Preparing the Kitchen

Prior to starting, we emptied the cabinets completely, and then covered the countertops very thoroughly, placing old bedsheets on the counters and then wrapping it all in plastic.

We covered the appliances and the floor with plastic too.

Gel Staining Kitchen CabinetsWorking on the Cabinet Frames

After two coats of stain, the cabinet frames were looking good!

​As you can see, we ventilated the room really well, strategically placing the fans so the fumes could exhaust efficiently.

How to Gel Stain the Kitchen Cabinets for an Easy UpdateAfter three coats of stain, the cabinet frames were looking awesome! The dark brown was a big improvement.

I should also mention this was the point in the project where I wasn’t sure if I liked it.

It happens to me with every project. After I put in a lot of work, but I can’t yet see the final result, I start thinking, “Oh no, what did I start?!”

Rest assured, once the cabinet doors and drawers were back, the new appliances came, and the backsplash was installed, I knew all the hard work paid off.

Gel Staining Kitchen Cabinets and Saving Thousands!Sidenote: On the left of the above photo, you can see the difference in the kitchen wall paint colors since I didn’t bother to paint above the countertops due to the upcoming backsplash. Therefore, you can see the old tan compared to the light ivory. The lighter color made the room appear bigger and was less matchy-matchy with the countertops. Sometimes when you try to match too much, the end result isn’t the best. 

Gel Staining Kitchen Cabinet Doors and Drawers

After I was finished staining the kitchen cabinet frames, the instructions called for 5 days of dry time before the polyurethane.

During this time, I started on the doors and drawers out in the garage. The weather was still pretty mild, which was great for drying.

​I worked on the doors and drawers in batches of six – which took me about 45 min per session.

As soon as I got the last coat of stain completely on one batch, I moved onto the next batch.

This way while one batch was amidst its drying cycle, I was able to keep the project moving forward.

The below structure is something Ash made so that I could stain both sides of the doors during the same session.

He used two sawhorses and two 2 x 6s to make this makeshift staining station, threading wire through the hinge holes to let them hang dry.

Gel Staining Kitchen Cabinet Doors - Garage SetupI did most of the staining with the doors flipped up on the wood, and then I got to the hard-to-reach places while it was hanging.

Updating Hardware and Hinges

Here’s Ash putting the doors back on with their new hardware and hinges.

He doesn’t look too thrilled, but trust me, he was!

​We were over the moon to have a functional kitchen again.

How to Gel Stain Kitchen Cabinets for a Thrifty MakeoverTime & Cost of Gel Staining the Kitchen

From start to finish, our kitchen was down for about 6 weeks; however, it was functional after 8 days – there just weren’t any drawers or doors yet 🙂

Coincidentally, I decided to stop eating gluten around the time we undertook this project – so instead of ordering pizza night after night (which we definitely would have done otherwise), we saved a bunch of money chomping on fruits, veggies, and frozen meals that we made ahead of time.

As far as cost, we spent about $150 on the gel stain and polyurethane and about another $20 on foam brushes and chemical-resistant gloves.

The kitchen cabinet pulls worked out to be around $200, making the total cost just under $400.

Now, it was a big time commitment, but if you dislike your kitchen cabinets that much, it’s 100% worth it!

Here is an after picture – with the refaced cabinets, new appliances, and the tile backsplash Ash did right after we put the cabinet doors and drawers back.

How I Redid My Kitchen with $400Here is another look at before and after and the difference that gel staining kitchen cabinets made.

Updating My Kitchen for Less than $400We also replaced the gold chandelier with this modern one from Overstock.

How to Gel Stain Our Kitchen Cabinets for Less Than $400While our kitchen looked 10 years younger, it was far from complete. Next on the list was:

Look for future posts regarding the rest of the list! Thanks for reading!

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50 Comments

  1. Really appreciate this wonderful post that you have provided for us.Great site and a great topic as well i really get amazed to read this

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your compliments! This project was a lot of work but we love the results!

  2. Wow, looks great! How much stain did you end up using? I have a large kitchen with lots of cabinets I am considering doing this to. Not sure if I’m up to the task though!

    1. Hi Erika! Thanks for your compliments! Between the kitchen and the small bathroom vanity, we used three quarts of the general finishes gel stain in antique walnut. I did three full coats and touched up in certain places. But four full coats probably would have been better. If you use their darker stain (espresso), I think you could get away with less coats.
      It is a huge project, but it depends on how much you dislike your kitchen. If you really don’t like it, it is an awesome solution! Also, I did ours in the fall when we could comfortable open the windows to air out the house. Let me know if you have any more questions:))

  3. I love case studies. Looks really great. Before and Afters are my favorite. I own a cabinet and countertop company and I love seeing the end result. Great information.

  4. Oh, wow! Isn’t it amazing what a change of color can do for a space? Your new kitchen looks great with the darker stain and new backsplash! Thank you for sharing this makeover at Tuesdays with a Twist LINKY PARTY! -Marci @ Stone Cottage Adventures

    1. Hi Marci, Thanks so much!! Yes it was all small color changes – and cost very little compared to the cost of redoing kitchens! 🙂 Happy New Year!

  5. What a transformation! The dark cabinets and light paint make a huge difference. I’ve been dreaming of a white kitchen, but this makes me want to give dark stain a try, too. Thanks again for sharing at the #happynowlinkup!

    1. Thanks, Leslie!! Yes – we are so happy with it! I love white kitchens too but we were working around the brown granite to keep the cost down. Happy New Year!

  6. I have the same kitchen layout that came with the same boring cabinets. It was one of the first things I changed when we moved in, went with a mahogony gel stain. I still have my bathroom cabinets to do….not looking forward to that. Did you sand your cabinets first? They turned out terrific!

    1. Hi Audra, I just read your other comment too – just a very light sanding, giving the stain something to stick to. Aww the bathroom will go by sooo fast after doing your whole kitchen!! 🙂

  7. Wow! That looks amazing! I am thinking about painting our cabinets white, but a little scared to try. Great job!
    #trafficjamweekend

    1. Hi Barrie – Thanks so much!! I was scared too – but I was so tired of our kitchen that I finally just did it! Good Luck :))

  8. Wow! Great job! I wish you two and your blog had been around when we were doing so much to our house, but I’m still fascinated by the subject even if I don’t have a place to apply it right now, so … I’ll be back!

  9. Wonderful job! I didn’t read about the bathroom makeover but I am wondering why Gel Stain is chosen? Does it penetrate or hide better? The new metal handles and appliances really gave your kitchen some great updating too!

    1. Hi Liz – We chose gel stain because the only sanding needed was a very light coat (one min per door). With regular stain, we would have needed to get it down to bare wood to get a nice even coat on everything. Also, in contrast to paint, which cover the grain of the wood, with gel stain you can still see the wood grain. Gel stain also covers nicely and is easy to apply. I wrote a more in-depth article on General Finishes gel stain on this post – https://www.justmeasuringup.com/blog/a-new-look-general-finishes-gel-stain

  10. Turned out just fabulous! Thank you for sharing with us at the To Grandma’s House we go link party last week, you will be featured in the next party that starts tomorrow morning! Hope to see you there!

  11. Looks great! I know how much work this is; I did mine a couple years ago, and still haven’t posted about it! 😛

  12. I love the darker cabinets and this is a really great makeover. Thank you for sharing with us this week at Celebrate Your Story, have a great week.

  13. Looks very nice – you did a great job. It is amazing how much difference doing small things such as changing colors or patterns can make in a kitchen or any room- without spending a small fortunate.

    1. Thanks, Theresa! Good luck!! We still have the lighting and window trim to do 🙂 Hope to get to these this year!

  14. Hi. I came across your blog while researching gel stain. So many tutorials use the java stain so I was happy to see a final result using Antique walnut like I am. If you wouldn’t mind helping me though…. I have 2 coats of stain on. I used a foam brush and lightly wiped off excess with paper shop towels. While the stain is even I can still see the oak grain very prominently. I’d rather they look more solid like your cabinets appear to be. What can I do differently? I feel I have to wipe off the excess because the stain does not go on smoothly like paint would.

    1. Hi Karen! I just kept putting on coats until I was happy with the coverage. I might have done 3 or 4 coats. You could do the extra coats on the cabinets that are in more prominent spots 🙂

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