Question: Our eight-year old kitchen cabinets need refinishing, and I would like to use a water-based finish. Is that a good choice? If so, can I apply it over the existing finish? (I’m not sure if that’s water- or oil-based.) Or must I strip or sand down to the bare wood first?
-- Jack Henz , Temecul , California ,


Water-based wood finishes are being used increasingly to refinish kitchen cabinets. These products form clear, durable coatings, but proper surface preparation is vital.

Most water-based finishes won’t adhere properly to a surface contaminated by grease or cooking oil. These must be neutralized and removed. Severe buildup requires the use of mild-pH degreasers such as Fantastik or 409.

Refinishing Cabinets

If you use naphtha or mineral spirits to remove the grease, follow it by wiping with denatured alcohol to remove the oily residue.

If the existing finish is damaged, peeling, or the wrong color, strip or sand it off completely. Otherwise, just give the surface a light sanding and remove the dust.

Refinishing Cabinets

Now, apply a coat of dewaxed shellac as a barrier and bonding agent between the substrate and the topcoat(s).

Refinishing Cabinets

From Fine Woodworking #189 May 1, 2008