After buying unfinished cabinet doors, along with the stiles, rails, panels and kicks (facing) you'll need to decide on a staining and clear-coating process.

Stains can be applied and left on or brushed then wiped off. Other stains use a spray on application. Having a protective layer over top of your stain or clear-coat as it's called means choosing a lacquer, waterborne or urethane.

On this page I explain each type of stain and the process for wiping the stain onto your cabinet doors then removing it.

Even though it says doors below, all procedures apply to the, stiles, rails, panels and kick boards etc. Once your done reading about strains you'll find a link at the bottom of this page, the link takes you to step by step instructions for clear-coating unfinished kitchen cabinets, doors and facings.


Stains come in a number of formulations, the type you choose is entirely up to you. Spray on stains (my preference) tend to be the most difficult to apply. Alcohol based stains along with other quick drying solvents are normally used as spray stains.

Layering is an advantage of spray stains causing them to become darker while giving the look of depth. Spray on stains also preferable because they are cleaner and do not require wiping.

I don't recommend a spray on stain for your unfinished cabinet doors unless you have a good amount of skill using a paint sprayer and some spray stain experience.

Pigment and wax stains are also made for the professional woodworker and tend to be used on expensive furniture. Latex stains are easy to use if your doing smaller projects while larger pieces on the other hand require a slower drying alkyd wiping stain.


When it comes to wiping stains, I choose a high quality alkyd based (oil) product. Alkyd based stains have a slower drying time and are therefore easier to touch up.

Water based stains (latex) are, when it comes to larger staining projects, difficult to work with especially when smudges or runs occur.

Using an alkyd stain lets you see the smudge before it dries giving you the ability to wipe the smudge away. Re-staining dried stained surfaces along with removing imperfections while wiping away runs or smudges can also be done with alkyds.

If you try and re-stain a dried water based stain it tends to become darker and in the end doesn't remove the smudge anyways.

I do mention a couple tricks below to get rid of stubborn, drips runs or smudges even so, my preference is for alkyd stains.

Water based stains do have their advantages though. Fast drying time is number one, less smell is another and water based wiping stains work best when applying a very dark stain colors.

Be sure to do a test on wood that's the same as your kitchen cabinets then decide on the type of stain and procedures that will work best for your situation.


Heres a list of tools and materials to get your unfinished cabinet doors completed. As every project is different you need to decide on the requirements to get the specific job done.

  • Your chosen stain
  • 2 1/2" or three inch sash brush/cut can
  • Quick or whizz roller with foam cover (sleeve) and tray
  • Box of white wiping rags
  • Rubber gloves
  • Proper face mask for the job
  • Tarps or drop cloths
  • 2x4 lumber for the woodwork to sit on while staining and drying
  • Plastic covered table/s or sawhorses with sheets of plywood
  • 1" inch putty knife
  • Wood putty same color as the stain
  • Both paint (to clean tools) and Lacquer thiner for repairs
  • Sand paper (120, & 320 to 400 grit)
  • Electric palm sander and sanding sponge
  • Tape, plastic, masking paper (as needed)
  • Good lighting & a trouble light

Anything you don't have can be purchased or rented form a paint store, rental agency or home improvement center.


For the best possible outcome your unfinished kitchen cabinets should be unassembled if at all possible. When dealing with assembled units take them apart or in the very least remove doors and hardware prior to staining.

If you'd rather skip the staining steps proceed down to the clear-coating link, otherwise be sure to protect any unstained surfaces with masking paper, tape and plastic.

Staining is easier and faster with extra hands, so ask for some help. Also, consider doing the job in your driveway, backyard or garage. Applying stain to unfinished cabinet doors is messy, requires good ventilation and uses a lot of space.

When doing the doors outside check your whether forecast, a calm, dry not to sunny few days should do the trick.

Stain can be sprayed on but does take a certain amount of skill to do so. Instructions for applying a wiping stain, since it is the easiest process, follow below.


Lay down some drop cloths or tarps then secure them to the ground (if needed). In the middle of your tarp place a plastic covered table (the picnic type works best). I use two tables but do what works best for you.

When rolling or brushing try not to load either tool with to much stain. Most stains are watery and can cause quite a mess so be careful when pouring into trays or cans.

  1. Place two unfinished cabinet doors onto the table. With your brush quickly stain edges and concaved areas that you can't get at using the roller.

    While your doing that, the other door can be rolled by your partner. Once your done brushing do an exchange. Now your helper can roll your door while you brush theirs. Do one side then move onto the other.

  2. As soon as the doors are are coated remove excess stain with your wiping rags. What I mean is apply the stain, wipe it off then flip the door over and do it again.

    You need to wipe the door dry in the direction of the grain. There should be no smudges, smears, runs or drips. Try and wipe off as much stain as you possibly can.

    Even if you don't stain the front and back of the door at the same time be sure to wipe both sides anyways. Otherwise your going to be surprised by a run or smudge that may have got away on you.

  3. Now lay your drying doors, front side up (if you stained both sides) on top of the lengths of 2x4 boards that you placed on your lawn or driveway. Don't forget to situate tarps below the 2x4s.

  4. After a few hour/s (look on the label for dry to the touch time) flip the doors over, stain the other side, then wipe and let the backs dry. Don't place the door fronts into wet stain that's on the tarp.

  5. As you wait for the doors to dry, stain other pieces such as side panels kicks or face pieces including the stiles and rails etc.

  6. While the woodwork is drying be sure to throughly check all pieces for runs, drips, and sags wipe them away as need. If you end up with a hard to remove run etc., let the entire surface dry then make your repairs by rubbing them away with your stain. Follow up by re-staining that side of the entire door.

  7. Your now ready to either spray, wipe or brush on some type of protective coating, the link below will help you decide on what's going to work best for your particular situation.


Glue sometimes gets onto the surface of your unfinished cabinet doors or other wood pieces during assembly. Unfortunately these nasty little glue splotches don't show up until after you have locked them in with your stain.

It's recommended that woodwork should be sanded with a sponge sander (hard to get at places) and electric palm sander prior to staining. Sanding removing glue, scratches and other marks on the wood itself.

To minimize the amount of sanding you need to do, use lacquer thiner (smelly and very flammable) to eliminate any markings that you might see. Use a bright up close light otherwise you'll miss a lot of hidden imperfections.

Lightly spot sand stubborn marks with 320 or 400 grit sand paper if needed.

Fill holes in the wood using wood putty, let it dry, sand flush, then fill it again if needed.

When staining your raw work wipe off as much excess stain as possible. Your trying to see the wood grain as opposed to smeared on stain marks. Use a putty knife wrapped in a piece of rag to remove pools of stain from all the nooks and carnies.

I stain both sides of a door at the same time it can be cumbersome and messy though. If your staining one side at a time do the backs first, let them dry then flip and stain the fronts. Always check both sides of the woods surface for runs, drips and smudges.

Lacquer thinner will remove a thick dried on run but also dis-color the stained wood, apply as little of the thinner as possible if you need to use it.

Wood stain gets darker the longer it's left on (before wiping), it's easier though and less time consuming to immediately wipe the excess stain away.

When applying a dark colored stain, sponge on a light (damp) coat of water then let the water dry. Doing so, opens pores of the wood helping the stain penetrate better.

Most importantly, test and practice before taking on your main project. Buy pieces of the same type of wood that your cabinets are made from.

Sand the wood, wet it down, make a hole, fill the hole, do some spot sanding, dab on a little lacquer thiner, remove the dust then brush, roll and wipe away your stain. Let the stain dry and apply at least three layers of your selected clear coat. If it looks good proceed to staining your unfinished cabinet doors etc.

Some stains depending on the product and wood being used require a conditioner or pre-staining. Read the labels and be sure to talk to your stain supplier regarding the job at hand including tools and materials required. .

If your interested, Bret Spottke has created a well planed out how to step by step eBook.

Brets eBook has loads of pictures and excellent instructions for installing Ikea type cabinets. Your set up might not be from Ikea but that doesn't really matter you'll save some money and learn a ton of stuff regarding the proper way to do a cabinet instillation.

Once your done the staining use this clear coating page to get your project completed.

From unfinished cabinet doors to the interior projects page

Return to the home page

If your not in need of help with unfinished cabinet doors, check out other painting and decorating information by using the home link above.

On the home page you will find navigation buttons such as ask a question along with interior or exterior projects and ideas.

Using the navigation bar should help find what you need or project your looking for.