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Need some advice from you woodworkers

Having gotten the living room of my new (old) house to the point where I can sit in it without itching to paint something, I’m now tearing into the kitchen — a much bigger, more serious job. And a job on which I could use some advice from you more experienced wood-workers.

Although the house is more than 100 years old, it had its last remodel somewhere in the late 1950s. Since then, all anybody has done is paint over the 50s stuff. I’ve decided to keep the 50s look, partly because it makes me laugh and partly because it’s the least expensive option, especially in the kitchen, which is seriously large (37 cabinets and drawers).

So … I’m hoping to strip all the cabinets back to bare wood, then varnish them. Here’s the start I got on the job this weekend:

And here’s where I could use some advice. I’ve got two sanders: a belt sander for the rough work and an orbital sander for the finishing. The belt sander (just by the nature of the beast, as far as I can tell) leaves occasional small gouges and scrapes in the surface. I’ve been counting on the orbital sander to take those marks out. But so far, no luck. I’ve tried a couple of different combinations of grit for the two sanders but haven’t come up yet with a combo that minimizes the marks from the belt sander and maximizes the ability of the orbital sander to take them out.

So first question: what are the ideal grits and best techniques to get those cabinets really smooth?

And second question: What’s the best way to sand the frames? The belt sander works fine in some areas, but please don’t tell me (or do tell, if it’s the truth) that I’ll have to hand sand in all the tricky little areas like up under the counter edge and in the corners).

Third question: Both the doors and frames have quite a bit of surface damage — mostly water stains and burns, but also a few gouges that somebody appears to have tried to fill with … well, it looks like construction-grade bubble-gum to me, but I suppose it’s some sort of spackle. How to I get that goo out of the gouges, and what do I replace it with if I want the cabinets to be just varnished wood? If I get wood filler, should it be the same color as the bare wood? Or more like the color I expect the wood to be after varnishing?

And final question: Some of the surface damage is in really tricky spots, as in the picture below. That dark water stain would come right out if I could take the belt sander to it. But in that spot? Not possible. What’s the best way to get rid of surface damage in tight spots? Should I try wood bleach? Or do I just have to get in there with sand paper and elbow-grease it?

Thanks for the help, you guys who are good at this sort of thing. And thanks for being patient, you who aren’t interested in project stuff.

Once I put the finishing touches on these two doors and their frames, it’ll be two down and only 35 to go …


  1. Roberta X
    Roberta X September 27, 2010 5:04 am

    Claire, I don’t do big cabinet work — bookshelves and a window seat ( are about it — but for power sanding in tight corners, you want a buzzy little gadget called a “detail sander,” which has a triangular-shaped working surface among the options. A plain cabinet scraper is also very useful, not the paint-removal tool but the wood-finishing kind, a simple piece of saw-grade steel with a formed edge ( but note you have to file the edge and then turn it with a burnisher — round screwdriver shank will do in a pinch, see at: ).

    As for the old filler and what to replace it with, if you will stain, look for a stainable filler that matches the wood tone. Small areas won’t show much — and small irregularities, if they are smooth, add character. At least that’s what I claim!

  2. Claire
    Claire September 27, 2010 6:12 am

    Thank you, thank you, Roberta X! That’s a big help — and I admit I’ve never even heard of a detail sander or a cabinet scraper. Off to the hardware store.

    And if that window seat doesn’t constitute “big” work, I don’t know what does. I’ve got to see more of your site …

  3. G.W.F.
    G.W.F. September 27, 2010 8:11 am

    I would second Roberta X’s comment on the detail sander. It does not need to be anything overly fancy. You can pick a cheap one up at Harbor Freight that will get you through your project for about $12:

    If you are going to get into cabinet refinishing full time, there are certainly better options, but I always tell people to buy a cheap version and see how well it works for your needs. You can always upgrade later.

    They also have some cheap sandpaper deals. Doing what you are doing is a HUGE amount of work. I started a project like that once, but after doing one cabinet quickly decided to go the paint route. Paint covers all those old sins in the wood. For gouges in the wood just start with a coarse grit (maybe a 24) and keep slowly working down to at least 100 grit if you are going to varnish it. The wood will end up very smooth at 100 grit. Slowly working with finer grit will do away with all the sanding marks…..but it it ALOT of work.

    You did not mention if you were going to use a stain. With the bleach question I am guessing you want to use a clear varnish? You may consider a very light stain first. It will even up the colors, hide the dark spots fairly well, and really bring out the wood grain. It does not have to be anything super-dark. They make some very light stains that will be just enough tint to where you should not see the dark spots.

    The wood filler is a tough one. You try to match the wood color, but it is going to be more dense than the wood around it, so it will take the stain/varnish a little different (usually darker). It is really hard to do and not see the patched areas….and why I lean more toward painting ๐Ÿ™‚

    Good luck…. it really looks like serious work, but the sanded cabinet looks really nice.

  4. G.W.F.
    G.W.F. September 27, 2010 8:52 am

    Oh yeah……thinking about the 35 cabinets to go. Have you considered a “sanding party”? Invite over friends, relatives, neighbors, people passing by on the street. Play some music that will get people moving (maybe the songs on the free CD in Grey Zone). Hand everyone a beer and a few sheets of sand paper and point then to the kitchen. A case of beer can go a long way in getting your cabinets free of that old paint.

  5. Matt
    Matt September 27, 2010 9:24 am

    I did a similar project when I moved into an old house about 20 years ago. The doors were so scratched and gouged and burns that I threw them all out and made my own. The underlying wood of the cabinets was actually teak. I just did a fast light sanding and stained everything dark, then put on a good coat of spar varnish to protect it. I only had a small kitchen fortunately.

  6. Claire
    Claire September 27, 2010 9:33 am

    G.W.F. — I’m hoping not to use stain. There are places where the old 1950s finish was left; the wood appears to be just varnished, then darkened a bit with age — and it’s so beautiful. But your thought about a very light stain would certainly make life easier. (And perhaps that old wood does have a light stain on it; I really can’t tell.) I’ll keep that in mind and play it by ear.

    As far as a sanding party goes … good thought. But I’ll already be grabbing friends and strangers off the street to help me tame my wildly overgrown yard, so I think that’ll use up my quotient of goodwill for a while. ๐Ÿ™‚ Besides, I’m utterly, totally lost and terrified at the thought of getting plants into shape; on the other hand, the prospect of sanding cabinets seems daunting but completely do-able (even sort of meditative, if one can meditate through the roar of sanders).

    But yeah … it has already occurred to me that paint would take about 1/10 the work. I’ve considered quitting about five times already, but so far I’m running on stubbornness — and as is so often the case, the advice of friends.

  7. Plug Nickel Outfit
    Plug Nickel Outfit September 27, 2010 2:24 pm

    Claire – I do have some experience in this sort of thing. My own kitchen cabinets were found in a thrift store – 30+ feet of uppers and lowers made in the 60s with oak faces and fronts – very little veneer and of much better quality than most cabinetry made nowadays. Best of all the entire set was only $150 – the downside was the 2-3 coats of paint all over it!

    It looks to me like the wood of the frame is Maple – can’t tell if the faces are veneer or not, but given the dates you’ve given – if they are veneer at least it’ll be relatively thick. Sorry to say this – but sanding may not be the most efficient way to strip these. There are paint strippers out there now that aren’t seriously volatile, stinky, and caustic – and some of them actually work though you may need to do a second application to really clean the cabinets.

    There’s nothing like a belt sander to do irreparable harm quickly – especially when working with installed cabinets. One can gouge thru a veneer with little effort with just a little twitch or inattention. So – if you must use the belt sander – take your time and be steady.

    I’ve heard of using heat (heat gun or blow dryer) to soften paint and then using a scraper to remove layers at a time. Haven’t done this myself but it might be useful if you insist on not using a stripping compound.

    Sanding – working up thru the grades is a matter of patience and time. I’ve spent a lot of years working exotic hardwoods up from the rough (chainsawed) all the way to bobbing compound and jeweler’s rouge. If you skip steps and try to cheat the process – it will be visible.

    Starting with a 45 grit will leave some serious scratches in your surfaces – something from 75-100 grit may be a bit gentler – especially if you’ve got veneers. You probably want to go up about 50-75 grits per sanding when in these low ranges. I.E. – 75-100 grit, then 125-150, and finish at 200-225. You may not need to go up to 225 grit, but if you do – the cabinets (esp. if they’re Maple) will really look nice once you oil, wax, or otherwise finish them. I prefer oil or wax finishes, but they do tend to darken over time as they’ll attract dust and grunge over time and absorb it – commercial finishes like a matte polyurethane will seal out that same stuff. When you’re sanding – if you can still see deep scratches once you’ve moved up to the next grit size – those same scratches will stand out even more once you put a finish on the wood.

    I’ve used Oxalic (sp?) crystals for bleaching discolored woods – that should work well for the discoloring you’ve pictured.

    Seriously – consider a paint stripper and a scraper – it’ll save you all kinds of time and potential damage to the wood. Once stripped – you might be able to start your sanding at 150 grit.

  8. Plug Nickel Outfit
    Plug Nickel Outfit September 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    About the wood putty… I prefer water based. That way – when they’ve dried up sitting on a shelf I can just add a bit of water to reconstitute it. Wood putty does come in different shades- and an imperfect trick is to take a closely matched putty and blend in sanding sawdust from the piece you’re working on into the putty. This helps but as mentioned earlier – putties tend to absorb stains and finishes differently than the raw wood.

  9. Patti Canaday
    Patti Canaday September 27, 2010 2:36 pm

    I have done exactly what you are doing–twice. Both times it was a tremendous amount of work, I won’t lie about that. But it really was worth all the time, labor, and piles of sandpaper I went through. The first cabinets I refinished were of cypress wood which I stained a color called ‘golden pecan’, and the second were of a light oak which I stained a golden oak color. Both came out beautifully, but yes, it was work with a capital W.

    I would second the suggestion of an inexpensive detail sander to reach tight spots. As for the filler—be sure you buy a product that will accept stain! I bought one very popular brand that said it would accept stain, and it did not, and I had to scrape it out and replace it because it looked like yellow blotches on my cabinets.

    Are you taking the doors off the hinges and taking them outside to sand them? I did with mine, layed them out assembly line style on the porch and sanded them one after the other. It was quicker than trying to do them one at a time inside the house. Plus, it kept the mess outside.

    Good luck, your cabinets look like they will come out beautifully. Don’t give up!

  10. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 27, 2010 3:46 pm

    Looks like everyone has you headed in the right direction already….I dearly love one of these, for those tight spots …..mine’s older, has a variety of attachments, so I’m not sure how they are sold now a days… for sandpaper, I generally stick to 100-150-200 grades when it comes to old wood, better to do a lot of layers/passes than to start off with paper to rough……

    And a liquid stripper is sooooo much easier on you, if you can find one with minimal fumes – even better……

  11. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 27, 2010 6:45 pm

    Wait! Are those PINK countertops?????

  12. Joe
    Joe September 27, 2010 10:45 pm

    I’d look at paint strippers first followed by a laquer thinner wash.. If those cabinets have 1950’s paint, it for sure is lead based. Lead particle dust masks would be a really good idea. Also washing any food/skin contact surface with 1 cup bleach + 1 tbls TSP(or similar) to 1 gal water.

  13. Joe
    Joe September 27, 2010 10:51 pm

    Meant to add “after sanding lead based paint”.

  14. Claire
    Claire September 28, 2010 7:56 am

    Thanks for the continuing good advice — and especially the voices of experience from you guys who’ve tackled daunting (but rewarding) refinishings of bargain cabinets.

    To answer (and perhaps ask) some questions:

    Yep, I’m taking the doors off to sand. Didn’t take those first two outside because it was raining (and although the new house has a garage, it’s in deplorable shape right now). But after cleaning every surface in the kitchen, I think I’d rather sand in the rain than do that again!

    And yes, naturegirl — those are PINK countertops. With little gold sparklies in them. See what I mean about 1950s decor making me laugh? The kitchen also has one of those pull-down lamps that looks like a flying saucer. And a bizarre under-counter mechanical device that (I am told) is specially designed to lift Grandma’s giant old Mixmaster up to counter height then tuck it away again out of sight.

    As to paint strippers … Now there I’m puzzled that so many people recommend them. Actually, I did use strippers (both chemical and heat) to remove most of the paint from the cabinet doors and frames. They required hours of work. They left paint residues. They didn’t do much (if anything) to take off the old varnish. And I still had to sand afterward. So what benefit are strippers supposed to give? I’m more than willing to use them and didn’t mind the work. But I don’t understand the WHY of it. I could definitely see using strippers on carved or convoluted surfaces. But since these surfaces are mostly flat, won’t it be quicker just to whack everything with a sander and do away with the slow, tedious, and only partially useful stripping step?

    Lacquer thinner wash … Hm. Never heard of that. I would dearly love to get both the paint and varnish off and be able to avoid the rough sanding. So might be worth a try.

    As to grits to use … very helpful, thank you. FWIW, I’ve been using 80 grit on the belt sander and up to 150 grit on the orbital. I just got some 100 and 120 to try to get a better transition. But points well taken about being cautious with the belt sander and the possibility of lead-based paint (though I think the paint was probably applied within the last 20 years).

    Plug Nickel Outfit — yep, I believe the cabinets are maple — solid on the frames, veneer on the doors (but as you guess, veneer much thicker than you’d see nowadays).

    As to detail sanders … Per your links (and my own expeditions to local hardware stores and eBay), I see there are two designs — the little triangle heads like the Ryobi and the “mouse” types that have a tapered tip but a larger, flatter surface. Without having tried either, it seems as if the mouse type would be easier to use but the triangle type might give better contact in tight areas. Any insights there?

  15. Plug Nickel Outfit
    Plug Nickel Outfit September 28, 2010 12:37 pm

    Claire – the reason I’d recommend using a stripper is that (in theory, anyway) you can avoid a step or so in the sanding. To remove the paint via sanding one usually uses an aggressive grit, and that leaves deep scratches once the paint’s removed – requiring one to then work out the deep scratches before getting into the finer grits. After using a stripper one might be able to start their sanding at 125-150 grit.

    I guess another reason is that good sandpaper can get expensive and I hate using gummed up sandpaper. When doing extending sanding I’ll usually keep a small brass wire brush nearby and give the paper a few swipes before any gummy residue builds up on the surface – I seem to get more mileage out of the paper that way. (tho’ one could argue that I’m knocking grit off the paper withe the wire brush…)

    Btw – Claire – are you sanding with the grain – not across? Looking at the picture of the cabinet faces it almost looks like some of the sanding has been done horizontally. One can’t always go with the grain with assembled pieces, but it’s a general guideline to avoid visible sanding marks. I realise orbital sanders don’t really sand with the grain – but they’re usually used for finish work with finer grits so the scratches are finer. Even with an orbital sander one usually moves it along the grain rather than across.

    One trick to sanding with the grain on assembled pieces is to wrap a strip of sandpaper over the edge of a putty knife and sand right up to the joint using the edge of the putty knife as the point of focus to avoid overlapping the joint.

    Are you using sanding blocks? For cabinets and such I’d probably use those with the rough grits over using the belt sander just to avoid the gouging and uneven wear that usually happens with a belt sander.

    The cabinets ought to look nice when you’re done. It’s such a shame to see a fine wood covered with layers of paint – and such a pain to remove said paint.

  16. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 28, 2010 1:38 pm

    Hehe, we use to have one of those lamps….eons ago…..

    And I haven’t seen that color (countertops) in a long time either… trippy!!!

    I’m another natural wood lover, I cringe when I see painted wood…..

    Alot of good tips in this comments section, too! Thanks everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

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