How to Varnish an Old Oak Kitchen Cabinet

Written by roz calvert
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How to Varnish an Old Oak Kitchen Cabinet
Oak (oak tree image by PinkSkyPhotos from

A new varnish on old oak cabinets can be a treat for the eye and protect the hardwood piece for years to come. Varnishing is not a quick process, but when done correctly it is well worth the effort. To do it right you have to remove the old finish first. Getting the old finish off and the new finish on are not tasks to rush. Slow but sure gives the venerable oak the treatment it deserves.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Screwdriver
  • Paint drop
  • Clean rags
  • Medium-grit sandpaper
  • Sanding block
  • Electric hand sander (optional)
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • Tack cloth
  • Scratch filler (commercial or nut meats)
  • Soft-bristle paint brush
  • Rubber gloves

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  1. 1

    Remove doors and drawers with the screwdriver. Take off the knobs or pulls and the hinges. Carry all pieces to a well-ventilated area and lay them on a paint drop. If the cabinet is affixed to the wall, either take it down or do your best to create maximum ventilation in the kitchen. Rub and brush any dirt and dust off the cabinet.

  2. 2

    Sand the cabinet with medium-grit sandpaper and a sanding block to remove the existing stain or varnish from the wood. You can use an electric hand sander to speed up the process or do it all with the sanding block. Sand until you see no shine whatsoever on the cabinet. Change to the fine-grit sandpaper and sand again until the wood grain is exposed.

  3. 3

    Wipe the dust from the cabinet with a tack cloth. Look for scratches and fill any deep ones. A piece of nutmeat can be a good filler. For oak, try a walnut or Brazil nut. You can also use a commercial wood filler. Apply only a little and be careful not to overfill the scratch. If using a commercial product, allow the filler to dry for 12 hours.

  4. 4

    Brush a thin layer of varnish on all oak parts of the cabinet. Follow the grain of the wood and use smooth, even strokes. Allow no bubbles or drips to stand. Do not use more varnish than it takes to apply an even coat to the wood. Apply one coat and let it dry for 24 hours in the ventilated and dust-free area.

  5. 5

    Sand the dried varnish very lightly with the fine paper (do not use the electric sander at this stage) so the next coat can stick. Wipe off the dust with a tack cloth and lay down the second layer of varnish as you did the first. Repeat this entire process 24 hours later with the third coat, but let that layer dry for 48 hours.

  6. 6

    Polish the cabinet's hinges and knobs and reassemble it.

Tips and warnings

  • Wear rubber gloves when handling varnish.

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