Q: Our kitchen cabinets, approaching 20 years old, are solid maple with a natural finish that has yellowed over the years. We love the look of natural wood and do not want to paint them. The cabinets cleaned up beautifully with Parker and Bailey Kitchen Cabinet Cream, and they look great except for where the finish has worn around a few knobs. Is there a way to blend the worn areas to match the cabinets' aged color or perhaps to strip the original finish to bring the cabinets back to the natural maple color?
A: Stripping the old finish would be a huge, messy job — or an expensive one if you hired someone to do it for you. Before you resort to that, try a more focused fix.
Paint stores and home centers sell stain markers and small containers of the same stains. A marker works well for blending in scratches, but for bigger areas, rubbing on a little stain with a soft cloth is less likely to result in a splotchy look.
Take a door with you to the store so you can select a stain that has the best color match. If the color you need is between two stain colors, buy small cans of each. Back home, test the effect by sanding down a small area to bare wood on the inside of a door or drawer front. Dab stain onto a cloth and rub the color into the bare wood, in the direction of the wood grain. If necessary, apply a second coat to get a darker color, or combine stain colors for a custom mix.
Once you determine the best color match, test whether you can get good results by touching up just the worn areas or whether you need to refinish bigger areas. Choose a door that needs attention but is not prominent. Take down the door, remove the knob and wash the surface with detergent in warm water to remove the greasy smears common on kitchen surfaces. Wipe off the residue, go over the surface with a clean cloth and clean water, and let it dry. Then, lightly sand the worn area, going only with the grain. Round off any sharp edges of the finish. Wipe off the sanding dust and apply the stain, as you did for the color-matching test.
Once the stain dries, apply clear finish over the area you sanded. Clear, dewaxed shellac is the safest option because it sticks to almost all finishes and most finishes stick to it, so using that gives you the option of refinishing the whole door later. Plus, shellac dries and can be recoated quickly, often in less than half an hour. Or, because you're just applying finish to the area you sanded and stained, you could probably use another clear finish that you already have on hand without worrying about its compatibility with the old finish. If the patch looks good, repeat the process on the other doors.
If the effect is too splotchy, don't give up. Sand and refinish the entire vertical piece that was behind the knob on that same test door, or both the vertical and the horizontal piece by the knob if the finish is damaged in a wider area. Individual pieces of wood, even from the same species, vary in color, so if the match isn't perfect, people probably won't notice.
Although it's faster to sand off old finish with a power sander, it's safer to do it by hand, using sandpaper attached to a sanding block. If you use a power sander, the best type for this task is a finishing sander, also known as a palm sander. It uses rectangular sandpaper and has a back-and-forth motion similar to hand sanding. This helps keep you from sanding the horizontal pieces of the door, which would necessitate refinishing those, too. A random-orbital sander, which uses round sandpaper and moves in a more irregular fashion, could also work if you make only light passes and switch to hand-sanding where the vertical and horizontal pieces meet. Do not use a belt sander, which is too aggressive. Also avoid liquid paint stripper, which is likely to ooze onto adjoining areas.
Start with medium-grit sandpaper, then go on to finer grits, ending around 200 grit. Wipe off the sanding dust, then stain. When that's dry, brush on water-based polyurethane or another clear finish. Let that dry, and then add a second coat. When that is dry, check whether the finish is a lot shinier or duller than the finish on the rest of the door. To equalize the sheen, lightly rub the new section or the entire door, as needed, with superfine steel wool (labeled 0000) or a synthetic scrub pad.
It's worth noting that the product you used to spruce up the cabinets, Parker & Bailey Kitchen Cabinet Cream, was a relatively safe choice in terms of preserving your options for touching up worn areas. It does not contain silicone oil, which is found in many dusting sprays. Silicone oil is great for making scratches seem to disappear, but once it gets onto a surface, it is difficult to remove. If even a trace remains, new finish probably won't form a flat coating. Instead, it's likely to wind up with small, craterlike openings, often called fish eyes. Ironically, the solution then is to sand off the craters and coat with new finish to which you have added a few drops of silicone oil, which is sold as fish-eye eliminator. An example is Mohawk Finishing Products' Fish Eye Flowout, $16.95 for a one-ounce bottle at woodworkingshop.com.