How To Fix Worn Spots on Kitchen Cabinets: Complete Guide

Normal wear and tear on cabinets is a sign of use and love. But, what do you do when it gets to be too much? 

Fixing worn spots on kitchen cabinets is often easy and might take just a few minutes. But, methods depend on what material you have. However, new paint, wood filler, and stain markers are all a great help when making your cabinets look new again.  

Here’s Why There are Spots on Your Kitchen Cabinets 

There are plenty of reasons your cabinets might have wear and tear in visible spots. Those reasons also impact how you can fix the problem long-term. 


Friction is one of the most common causes of worn spots on cabinets. This builds up around handles, countertop edges, knobs, and highly frequented locations in the kitchen. Friction can be from hands. It might also be from pots or pans sliding across the counter. Or, somewhere you frequently set a knife or spoon while cooking. The thing is, this damage is caused by gentle touches, built up over time. 

Here, the surface is also likely very smooth. The damage is more likely to be discoloration than indentation. However, in some countertops, you can literally wear a groove or a hole in the countertop. 


Laminate, paint, stone, wood, and varnish cabinets all chip. And, once you chip them in one place, the chip is more likely to get bigger and more noticeable over time. Chips happen when something falls, when accidents happen, or because of heat or cold damage. This type of worn spot on your countertop is likely to be in one location and relatively deep – which means filler, or another material is necessary to fix it. 

Heat Damage

Heat damage can cause bubbling, blistering, and peeling on paint, varnish, and laminate cabinets. It can also occur for reasons as small as sun coming in through a window. More often, it’s because of a hot pan or even a hot mug of coffee placed on a delicate countertop surface. Repairing this kind of damage isn’t always possible without stripping and re-finishing the cabinet. 

Age Damage

Age damage means that the paint, varnish, or other finish is starting to break down for no other reason than that it is old. In this case, the only real solution is to remove the old top layer and put a new one down to protect your kitchen cabinets.

Moisture Damage

Moisture causes wood and composite to swell, to contract, and to do so at speed. Significant moisture and temperature changes can cause wood to crack. It can flake off varnish. It can also cause loose handles and knobs – all of which decrease the quality of your kitchen. 

6 Tested Methods to Revive Kitchen Cabinets 

No matter what caused the worn spots on your kitchen cabinets, chances are, you can fix them. These tested methods will help you quickly fix worn spots and restore your kitchen cabinets to their former beauty. 

Touch up Stained Wood Cabinets

Touch ups are a great way to fill unsightly holes in your wood finish – without investing a lot of time or energy in doing so. For example, if your cabinets are cheap, if you’re planning to replace them in a few years, or if they really aren’t worth the effort to fully repair. However, touchups slightly mask cosmetic damage. They do not prevent future damage. Nor do they preserve and protect the wood or composite underneath. 

Here, your best option is to choose a touchup pen. These are sold in a range of colors, and you can easily get a sample kit to find the best match. If you have a thin and matte varnish, you want a “wood marker”. On the other hand, if you have a thick and glossy varnish, you want “wood wax repair”. The idea is that you simply fill the hole with color, effectively camouflaging it from view. This repair will never be perfect. But, it will be a lot harder to see than a scratch in the varnish. 

If you have a larger scratch or hole, a marker might not be your best option. In this case, you might want to look for a can of wood stain to replace what’s missing. However, this can be risky, because new varnish is almost always a different color than aged varnish. If you have a very large or noticeable hole, your best option is always to sand everything off and start over. 

Stain Coming Off: Restore Cabinets without Sanding and Varnishing 

If you want to restore some shine to your cabinets without sanding and varnishing, you have plenty of options. Most of them take about ¼ or less of the time of sanding and re-applying varnish. However, you should still set aside a day or more for restoring most cabinets. 

Apply Furniture Polish – Furniture polish is an easy way to cover stains, add shine, and restore color to most wood and varnished colors. Here, you can choose wax or silicone-based polish. Choose silicone if your cabinet is in good condition and relatively uncracked. If you have a lot of grooves in your cabinet or it is “crazed”, you might want wax. Crazed means wood varnish or polish that is cracked with erratic lines through the coating. A wax polish helps to fill the creases and cracks without building up on the edges. 

Clean and Apply Finish – Thoroughly cleaning your wood cabinets can already do a lot for them. But, once they’re dry, adding a new coat of finish can do a lot more. We recommend using a three-step process of dish soap and water, then ammonia and water, and then mineral spirits or naphtha and water for completely clean cabinets. Why? These chemicals can be toxic if dissolved together. But, in layers, each works to strip away different types of dirt, grime, sugar, and fat. The result, sparkling clean cabinets. Once clean, apply a new coat of varnish. Here, you can normally apply either shellac and then varnish or a wiping varnish. And, if you’re afraid the new finish will have more shine than the old, use oil or soap and water to lubricate a #0000 steel wool and use this to go over the surface of the new finish. 

Rub it Out – Taking a #400-#600 grit sandpaper and #0000 steel wool to a cabinet can do a lot to smooth out the finish. Try rubbing it out with a lubricant such as soapy water or oil. Once you finish, rub it out with the finest grain steel wool (normally #0000) and finish up with a furniture polish or new finish. 

Restor-A-Finish – Restor-a-Finish and Feed-N-Wax are two products that are available in most of the United States. You can also apply them to damaged varnish and stain to improve color, without sanding first. Here, choose a Restor-a-Finish or competing product in a color that matches your cabinets. Thoroughly clean the cabinets. Then, apply the Restor-a-Finish with a cloth pad or #0000 steel wool. Here, it’s important to always apply the Restor-a-Finish to the cloth or steel wool, not directly to the finish. Then, apply it according to the instructions, with appropriate protection in place for your hands and floor. And, once it’s dry, a layer of wax on top will finish your restoration. 

Filling Cabinet Holes 

Small holes in cabinets are relatively easy to fill. On the other hand, large ones can be very difficult to fill “beautifully”. Here, the assumption is that no hole is large enough to structurally damage your cabinets or doors. 

You’ll need:

  • Wood putty or wood filler
  • A scraper 
  • A wood marker
  • Spray on varnish or a product such as Restor-A-Finish and wax 

Filling larger holes 

If you have a larger hole, it may be an idea to cut the hole out and patch it first. Here, you want to find a material that closely matches the rest of the cabinet. Then, choose a backing material such as thin wood or composite. 

  1. Cut a square hole in the cabinet to completely remove the damage and any splintering wood
  2. Measure and cut a hole in the replacement material to match the size. 
  3. Cut a backing board at least 30% larger than the hole. 
  4. Use wood glue to attach the hole filler to the backing board in such a way that the backing board fits into the cabinet and the filler can plug the hole. This is important if you have shelves or if the hole is in a corner. 
  5. Wait for the glue to dry 
  6. Apply wood glue to the inside of the cabinet and allow it to set
  7. Fit the stopper into the hole from the inside of the cabinet and clamp it in place or use a drill to screw it into place (likely, you will have to fill those holes later). 
  8. Wait for the patch to dry 
  9. Proceed to the next step

Filling smaller holes 

Filling small holes, such as the lines around the patch described above or small gouges, can easily be achieved with wood filler. Here, you want to choose a wood filler and apply it in thin, even coats. Allow them to thoroughly dry in between layers. In some cases, thoroughly drying can mean waiting at least 24 hours. This means that properly patching a wood countertop can take over a week. However, thin, even layers dry on hard and strong – meaning your cabinet won’t easily damage again. 

When the wood filler is level with the surface, sand it. In this case, use a fine grit sandpaper and work down to a #300-#640. Use a wood marker or matching stain to hide the damage. Then, add a layer of wax paste or furniture polish to the full thing to hide the repairs. 

Restoring Wood Finish Around the Knobs of Kitchen Cabinets

Areas around knobs and handles are the first to show signs of wear. Unfortunately, they’re also the hardest to repair. Why? Quick fixes will damage again just as quickly. For a long-lasting fix, you want to sand and re-varnish the full door. 

If that’s not an option or you don’t care about how long the fix lasts, you can also try using a wood marker or a spray on stain. 

  1. Use a finishing sander or a sanding block to remove the finish on the vertical strip behind the knob 
  2. Apply a new coat of finish
  3. Apply a new coat of varnish 

If you’d prefer the quicker fix, you can always sand the immediate area around the knob. From there, you can fill in the finish to match the wood. Then, apply a coat of varnish or wood polish to finish the look. 

Fix Cracks in Wood Cabinets

Wood panels expand and contract as humidity and temperature changes. This means that if you have solid wood cabinets and high humidity fluctuations, it’s impossible to avoid paint and varnish cracks. In fact, if you seal them up in the winter, the wood contractions in the summer might cause further damage and wrinkling to your paint job. 

If cracks appeared once after significant exposure to humidity, you can probably get away with using a matching paint to filling paint cracks up. Otherwise, if you hate the cracks, consider stripping the paint and going to simple, varnished wood. Wood varnish without lacquer will hold up to expanding and shrinking wood. 

On the other hand, if you have real cracks in wood paneling or doors, you might have a larger problem. If wood cracks are a structural issue, you might need significant reinforcement to prevent it from becoming a major problem. It’s always an option to take your cabinet down, apply wood glue to the crack, and to use clamps or a strap to tighten the wood together to seal the crack. But, this might not solve the issue long-term. That’s especially important because most wood cracks only occur because of humidity fluctuations, which are likely to keep happening. 

Repair Chipped Paint 

If you have a few chips in your paint, don’t worry. It’s a fast fix. You’ll need a #350 grit sandpaper, paint to match your cabinets, and a primer. To start, simply sand away the edges of the chip until everything is smooth. Keep in mind you will make the hole larger. 

Then, clean the area around the chip. Apply primer to the hole and allow it to dry. Then, apply paint in then, even coats. In most cases, you’ll need at least four coats to match the thickness of factory-applied paint. Take your time and keep the paint thin for the best outcome. 

If your paint doesn’t match the rest of the cabinet, it may be best to simply repaint the whole cabinet. Adding a very thin layer of a near-matching paint over an existing paintjob is fine – providing you thoroughly clean the existing paint with dish soap and then ammonia to strip fat, oil, and sugar. 

What is the Best Way to Protect Wood Cabinets

Wood cabinets are durable and relatively easy to maintain. In most cases, you can keep them beautiful for decades by simply protecting them from heat and humidity fluctuations. That might be difficult in a kitchen, especially in an old house.

You can also: 

  • Sand and re-stain and varnish about every 10 years
  • Keep your cabinets dry 
  • Use a dehumidifier if you live in a particularly humid area 
  • Avoid applying excessive heat to parts of the cabinet 
  • Apply cabinet stain or wax about once a year to protect your cabinets from humidity 


Restoring old cabinets can take as much or as little time as you want. While a lot of these suggestions are easy fixes, you might also want to put in the time to strip and refinish your cabinets. Doing so might help them last longer. And, it will certainly increase the time between now and your next fix.

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