Breathe new life into tired, outdated cabinets with this step-by-step, affordable tutorial for updating cabinets with gel stain. Keep the wood-grain look of stained cabinetry without the work of heavy sanding or stripping!
Y’all. I’m SO excited today to introduce one of my oldest friends. Vanessa and I met on the first day of college when we were both just 17. Like me, she has three beautiful children (all incredibly close in age to mine!), and she has been one of my greatest companions through this blog. She has encouraged me, supported me, and talked “design” with me for hours and hours… When I saw how she transformed the look of her bathroom recently, I asked if she would be so kind as to share the project with you.
And she said yes!
So without further ado…
Hello! Thanks so much for the introduction, Rachel! Our family leads a busy and rich life, and, like most of you, time and finances are tight. My goal is to take on small projects on a tight budget with a big impact! My home was built in the 60s—a good era for hardy construction, but also dingy, orange palettes.
I don’t have a lot of before pictures of my bathroom—but imagine orangey oak, yellow-orange speckled countertops, yellow tile, and dated bathroom lighting. This bathroom is attached to our guest room and embarrassed me as I tried to ‘hide’ its jaundiced glow with pretty flowers and soaps. 😉
Slowly, over a six-month period and during many nap and after-bed times, I updated the bathroom with wall paint, a new marble backsplash, mirror framing and new lighting. Later, I added a new sink, faucet, and painted the countertops. See my source-list at the end of the post for ‘where to shop.’
The last piece to this thrifty update was the cabinets. The orange oak had to go.
I considered painting my cabinets like my kitchen and upper bath, but stained cabinets bring warmth and rich design to a room. I also believe that staining surfaces is more durable than paint, but the prep and cleanup can be messy. Most stains require removing the original finish and a lot of sanding/dust.
Gel stain provides the durability ֹof stain, but the application of paint.
Staining cabinets isn’t difficult, but I did choose to wait until I could safely use oil products after the pregnancy of my last baby. You want to be cautious—use eyewear, wear a respirator mask, use gloves and open the windows for ventilation. The result, though, is totally worth it.
I decided to use General Finishes Java Gel stain for this project. I used this product on my dining table and three years later, with heavy use, it has held up almost perfectly. The can of stain is still easily one-thirds full after 2 projects, so it is an economical option for multiple projects (#budget!). It also meant I didn’t have to strip the original finish off my cabinets. If you take the appropriate steps to prep your cabinets, you will have a durable, beautiful finish.
How to Use Gel Stain to Update Bathroom Cabinets:
This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. Click here to read my full disclosure policy.
- General Finishes Java Gel Stain (strongly recommend this particular brand)
- General Finishes high performance satin coat
- 3M Sanding sponge in fine
- Foam brushes or clean, lint-free cloths
- General purpose cleaner or dish soap diluted in water
- Deglosser (this is a chemical sander—it creates an etched surface in the wood to allow stain or paint to grab. I’ve used it for so many projects.)
- Frogtape or other painter’s tape
- Drop cloths
- Wood blocks or painters triangles
- Nitrile gloves
- Remove cabinets and hinges with screwdriver and clean hinges with dish soap diluted in water. Set hinges aside.
- Scrub/clean all cabinet surfaces and allow to dry. Be sure to remove all residue (old toothpaste is persistent). I noticed a few spots where the stain didn’t adhere and had to re-clean and stain again.
- Sand all surfaces with the sanding block. Use the beveled edge to get inside cabinet lips and facets. Your goal is to lightly scuff the surface, NOT remove the finish.
- Wipe dust away with a damp cloth.
- Wipe cabinets with deglosser.
- Allow cabinets to dry in dust-free environment.
- Using painter’s tape (I prefer Frogtape), tape off wall and floor surfaces where you do not want stain. Drape drop cloths to prevent drips from staining your floors.
Note: This is the same process for prepping cabinets to paint. You would then follow with 2 coats of primer prior to paint.
- Wearing the gloves, gently stir the gel stain.
- Beginning with the backside of the cabinet, coat each cabinet lightly with the gel stain using an old cloth or foam brush. It will appear streaky; that’s ok. Don’t apply too thickly. Do not remove the stain (treat it like a paint).
- Repeat with cabinet frame.
- Wait 24 hours to recoat (tip: store your cloth or brush in a storage bag so you can use it again).
- After 24 hours, gently flip the cabinets over to the front side.
- After 24 hours, repeat with second coat on the front of cabinets (note: you might want to apply three, but two was perfect for me). Allow to dry.
- Wait 48 hours to apply the top coat. Gently stir the top coat and be careful not to introduce bubbles to the solution. Using a clean cloth, wipe light coats in quick strokes on the cabinets, waiting eight hours in between coats. Two coats should be sufficient.
- After 24 hours, check to make sure the topcoat is dry. If it is still tacky, wait another day.
- Reassemble the cabinets when thoroughly dry (tip: If you have a lot of cabinets and drawers, it doesn’t hurt to label which ones go where with some masking tape or a light pencil mark).
- Step back and enjoy the results!
With this tutorial, I believe you can achieve a great finish and breathe new life into old cabinets. With patience and planning, you can take small steps towards transforming your space with a modest budget.
- Wall Paint: BM Breath of Fresh Air
- Cabinet Stain: General Finishes Gel Stain in Java
- Countertop Paint: BEHR Premium Plus Paint in Ultra Pure White Satin
- Mirrored Accessory Tray: vintage/thrifted
- Backsplash: Carrara Marble Basketweave Tile
- Vanity Lighting: allen + roth Hainsbrook 2-Light Antique Pewter Cone Vanity Light
- Faucet: AquaSource Chrome 2-Handle Faucet