Applying Wood Protector to Cabinets: What You Need to Know

Why Should I Apply a Wood Protector to My Cabinets?

The kitchen is a chaotic place: home of knives, fire, and messy, messy food. Your wood cabinets are a costly investment and need to be protected from splatters and scratches, otherwise you will wear away the wood and do permanent damage to the cabinetry. While applying a wood protector is strictly a cosmetic task (your house won’t exactly fall apart if you don’t do it), not doing will definitely bring down the value of your home over time, especially with how important your kitchen cabinetry is to your home’s value.

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The most common type of wood protector is a polyurethane varnish, which is basically like covering your wood cabinets in thin–but strong–plastic. You can put a poly varnish on floors, cabinets, and pretty much any wood piece that you want to protect.

There are two different kinds of polyurethane: water-based and oil-based. Water-based polyurethane dries faster, has a clear finish, and is less smelly, so the only real benefit to using an oil based choice is saving money or getting a darker hue on your cabinets. If you can afford it, water-based is the way to go.

What Happens If I Don’t Apply a Wood Protector to My Cabinets?

Failing to protect your wood cabinetry would ultimately just destroy it. The heat from your stove and oven will discolor parts of the wood over time. Food and dirt will sink into the wood and rot it away, and oil splatters will stain it. At best, it will look worn out and dirty, at worst it will have to be replaced. That is expensive (and also wasteful as, ya know, wood comes from trees.)

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How To Apply Wood Protector to Cabinets:


  • 1. Ventilate the room.
    • This is only necessary if you’re using an oil-based varnish and/or a varnish stripper. Open windows and doors, and hook up a fan to keep air circulating. You might also want to wear a work mask.

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  • 2. Prep your cabinets.
    • It’s pretty uncommon to have wooden cabinets in your kitchen and leave them unprotected. There was probably a varnish applied to your cabinets when they were installed. So unless you bought unfinished natural wood cabinets or you built them yourself, you’ll actually be reapplying varnish to an already varnished cabinet. This means you will have to strip the existing varnish off first.

      You will have to start by taking all of the cabinet doors off. Make sure you discreetly label each door and store the hinges and screws safely so that you don’t struggle putting them back on.

      Stripping existing varnish: Applying a stripper is almost the exact same process as applying the varnish itself (Apply → sand → reapply → sand), except that you need to remove the stripper after you apply it and before sanding: So it’s (Apply → remove→ sand → reapply → remove → sand.)

      Apply the stripper with a brush, then let it sit for 3-5 minutes before removing it with a lint-free cloth. The stripper CANNOT dry, so if it starts to get dry you need to apply more stripper. Once you’ve removed the gunk, sand the wood down with light grit sandpaper, and then do the whole process again. After two times, your varnish should be removed and you should be ready to go. Make sure you wear gloves and a protective mask.

      Hint: remember how you labeled your cabinets earlier so that you know where to put them when it’s time to reassemble? Make sure you don’t strip/sand the labels off before recording them!

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  • 3. Apply the varnish.
    • Actually applying the varnish is probably the easiest step of the whole process! Open the can of varnish and dip in a dry brush or foam applicator. Lay the cabinet doors on a tarp or large towel and apply a thin and even coating to each door and cabinet frame. Try to make sure it is thick enough to not have dry patches but thin enough to dry evenly. If you are using an oil varnish, you’ll need to let this coat dry for 24 hours. If you are using a water based varnish, it needs to dry for four hours. Limit any exposure to dust during this time because it can get trapped in the drying varnish–not a good look.

      When you’re done, put the varnish brush in a plastic bag and seal it tightly. This will keep the varnish brush from drying out and will allow you to use the same varnish brush/applicator later.

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  • 4. Sand away any bubbles.
    • Once the varnish has dried it will need to be lightly sanded with fine grit sandpaper. The goal is to sand off any irregularities or bubbles in the varnish, so you want to keep it light and make sure you don’t sand all of the varnish off that you just applied.

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  • 5. Apply a second coat.
    • Same thickness, with the same applicator. Same dry time as well.

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  • 6. Sand again.
    • Same thing– just make sure the bubbles are sanded away and that it looks the way you want it. Wipe away the sand residue with a cloth.

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  • 7. Put cabinets back on.
    • Time to reinstall the doors, hinges, and handles. That’s it! Your cabinets are protected and the varnish should last for 3-5 years.

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