How to Remove Varnish on Kitchen Cabinets

Lead Image
  • 3-4 hours
  • Beginner
  • 50-120
What You'll Need
Roll of plastic
2 Cloths (keep one dry)
A bucket of soap and water
Varnish remover
Sand paper
Stripping brush
Rubber gloves
Protective goggles

Before you refinish your kitchen cabinets and make them look new again, you must complete the necessary steps to remove varnish. Leaving on the old varnish can keep the new varnish from adhering properly, shortening the lifespan of the finish. It's well worth the time and effort to remove varnish first.

1. Remove Doors and Drawers

Unscrew the hinges for all of the cabinet doors and pull out the drawers. Come up with a system and label on the back of each door and drawer where they came from. As an example, if the first door you took off was from one of the base cabinets write “B1” on it. Then you would label the next one “B2.”

2. Detach and Wash Hardware

Use your screwdriver to detach the drawer pulls and cabinet hardware. Take care not to scratch them accidentally. Wash all of the pieces with soap and warm water and dry them thoroughly. Then put them into labeled bags.

3. Prepare Doors and Drawers

Lay out a sheet of plastic over your work surface and place the doors and drawers on it. If possible, you should continue this project outdoors. At the very least make sure the area you are working in is well ventilated. The fumes from the chemicals used to remove varnish are toxic.

Using the bucket of soap and water, wash the fronts of the doors and the drawers. Then dry them completely. Sometimes soap and water isn't enough, so consider using trisodium phosphate (TSP) to be sure all of the grime and dirt is gone. All you have to do is wipe the TSP onto the front of the cabinets and allow them to dry.

4. Varnish Remover

For this next put on protective goggles and gloves and wear a long-sleeved t-shirt. Once you are protected, spread a generous amount of the varnish remover on the door and the drawer faces. Leave the remover on for 35 minutes.

5. Testing

Pick up your stripping brush and scrape a small section. If the varnish does not come off easily, reapply the remover to that section and check again in a different spot in 5 minutes.

6. Remove Varnish

If the test is successful, continue to remove the varnish remover with the stripping brush. Wipe the surface clean with a wet cloth and give it time to dry. Repeat steps 4 through 6 as many times as needed to remove varnish from all of the cabinet parts.

7. Sanding

Use a medium grit sandpaper to smooth the rough edges and remove any remaining varnish. Then sand the pieces with a fine sandpaper to create a surface that the new varnish or paint will stick to better.

WARNING: If you choose to use an electric sander or have a history of respiratory issues, wear safety glasses and a face mask while sanding.

8. Cleanup

Vacuum up the dust from the sanding process with a brush attachment, then wipe the cabinets with a dry cloth to get rid of any remaining debris. You are now ready to refinish your cabinets.