Quick and Dirty Refinish of Old Cabinetry

Ideas for a simple cleanup and refinish of an old, cheap bath vanity. November 15, 2010

I'm off to put in a kitchen I built for a nice older home. She didn't want to spend the money to do new bath cabinetry also. They are 80's oak with a honey finish. Over the years they've gotten gunk and dirt built up in the oak grain. Other than stripping and sanding, have any of you come up with a way to clean that out? The only thing I can think of is some soap and water or mineral spirits with a soft wire brush, then if successful, sand with 320, and recoat.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
I suppose that might work for you and would be less work, but please consider that the longevity of a finish is only as good as what that finish is applied to. My guess from your description of the overall shape of the existing finish is that it's dirty (that's not really an issue), but that existing finish is 25 years old. Why put a $200.00 saddle on a horse bound for the glue factory? I'd strip it and start from scratch.

From the original questioner:
I agree wholeheartedly. My problem is the whole cabinet (actually two separate vanities) should head to the glue factory! They were cheap solid slab oak factory cabinets when installed 25 years ago, so I'm just trying to make a customer happy, and she was a very good customer on her kitchen. I suspect I will refinish these and get a call in a year or two to do these bath cabinets.

I guess I will try the wire brush deal and after 5 minutes make a decision.

From contributor B:
I use a cleaner, or reviver, made of equal parts of raw linseed oil, methylated spirits (denatured alcohol), vinegar and turps substitute (I don't know what this is called in America). Rub on and wipe off - it shifts a lot of dirt without affecting the finish.

From contributor W:
You can try steel wool with mineral spirits to clean up your dirt. Wet the surface with mineral spirits and rub lightly with steel wool until your dirt is cleaned off. After that you can apply your finish.

From contributor S:
Murphy's Oil Soap and a toothbrush will take care of all the gunk. Rinse very well with distilled water (don't cheat here). Let dry and with a small cloth pad, swipe on a coat of General Finishes Armour Satin (or something like that) urethane. If you need to, do some touch up work with stain and markers before you coat it. This is fast, easy, cheap and will look good enough to make the client happy until they are ready for you to build new cabinets. Complete refinishing of cheap cabinets can open a whole can of worms you weren't expecting, so tread carefully.

From contributor J:
DL blue label hand cleaner and 0000 steel wool will take most of the grime and dirt off without damaging the finish. Due to the age of the cabinets and finish, I would definitely test in an inconspicuous area and go gently.