How to Refinish Oak Cabinet Doors

By Todd Sharrard –  Today the re-finishing of oak cabinet doors to a solid pigmented finish is a common choice amongst homeowners.  If this is what you decide to do you will be dealing with finishing issues specific to sealing wood stains and the gain of the oak wood which can be is very porus.  Use these tips to get a great presentation when refinishing oak cabinet doors.


Close up view of oak wood – notice the open and porus nature of the wood.


Sherwin Williams Shellac Product – aslo BIN by Zinsser is a shellac based primer.

1) Shellac – this is the right primer to use.  The shellac tackles a couple of  the key issues surrounding the refinishing of Oak.  Firstly the shellac will seal the grain the nicely.  The consistency of pigmented shellac is that of stain, almost water like; this is good for penetrating the deep crevices of the grain that we see in oak wood.

2) Spraying the Shellac – since the shellac dries so fast the best way to apply it is to use a sprayer device.  I have sprayed shellac using a suction feed spray gun with a 1.8mm tip – i think you could get away using a finer tip considering the consistency of the shellac; compared to other primers it is quite thin.   Brushing & rolling pigmented shellac primer.  Work fast and one piece at a time; like any other door do the detail first, keep a wet edge, dab the corners, pull out from corners, then roll the flats, use a depleted roller on the sides.  Always keep your roller wet and ready for the next board ~ don’t let the roller dry out.   Shellac cleans up nicely using Methal Hydrate (available at the paint shop).

3) Tannins – one of the bigger issues to deal with when refinishing oak cabinet doors to a solid finish is yellow stains that can bleed through the lacquer,  we refer to these as Tannins. These are the natural dyes that come from woods like oak and will definitely be an issue if your finishing the doors using a white or off white colour.  Again this is where the shellac primer reigns supreme – nothing is better at dealing with oak tannins and stains than pigmented shellac base primers.

4) Sanding after primer coats and each finish coat.  You’ll need to sand down between the primer coats and the finish coats if you want the grain of the oak to fully absorb the lacquer.  You will find that the effort to finish oak doors in a darker colour is less than finishing in an off white or white.  With the lighter colours the grain must be fully absorbed or else black pit marks will appear in the deeper crevices of the grain; sanding between primer coats and finish coat will both level off the grain and fill the deeper crevices with sanding dust to be absorbed or burnt in with next coat of primer or lacquer.

FINE FINISH TIP:  don’t recoat primers before the recommend dry time and try to let the primer coats dry at least a day before sanding.  You will sand away less edges and primer and leave a better build if you let the primer coat cure really well.


The picture above shows how the grain presents itself when oak is done in solid pigmented finish.  Even though we sand between primer and finish coats we still see the grain.

5) Surfacer (Lacquer Primer) after Shellac Primer.  Before applying a coat of pigmented lacquer some finishers will apply a lacquer based primer product called surfacer.  Unlike the shellac, the surfacer sands to a soft powder like substance.  The surfacer can be used to build up the finish and seal in the grain.

Sharrard Painting & Fine Finishing
487 Speers Rd, Oakville,
Ontario, L6K 2G4
Phone: (905) 334-3242


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *