How to Lighten Dark Wood Kitchen Cabinets? 3 Easy Ways

Dark kitchens might be in style, but not all dark colors translate into fashionable. If your kitchen sports a dull brown hue rather than a fancy black or slate gray, you might wonder how to lighten kitchen cabinets. You can achieve the purpose in various ways.

Stripping the dark stain and replacing it with a lighter shade is the only proper way to lighten dark wood. Alternatively, you can use bleach or steel wool and mineral spirit. All methods require some sanding, but the result is well worth the effort.

How to Lighten Stained Oak Cabinets the Proper Way?

Lightening stained oak cabinets require you to strip down the existing stain and apply a fresh coat of lighter-colored stain, lacquer, or varnish. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1 – Gather the necessary tools and materials

This method requires quite a few materials and some elbow grease, but the result is more than worth it. Before starting, gather all tools and materials that you’ll need: 

  • Electric screwdriver
  • Chemical stripper
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • Sander (optional)
  • Light-color wood stain or varnish 
  • Rubber gloves 
  • Face mask 
  • Goggles 
  • Paintbrushes
  • Scraper 
  • Drop cloths
  • Microfiber or cotton cloths 
  • Sawhorses
  • Plastic basin 

Step 2 – Take off the cabinet drawers and doors

While it isn’t imperative to take off the cabinetry doors and drawers, removing them and working on smaller surfaces can ease the process.

Use the electric screwdriver to remove the hinges and place the doors and drawers side by side on sawhorses. The doors should be facing up while the drawers must be positioned in such a way to have easy access to their front.

At this stage, it is also recommended to mark each door and drawer to remember their respective places, especially if your cabinets are handmade. 

Step 3 – Remove the topcoat with a chemical stripper 

While chemical stripper doesn’t remove the wood stain, it can help you eliminate the top lacquer layer for easier stain removal. 

Do strip the lacquer, lay drop cloths under the doors and drawers placed on the sawhorses, then put on your protective equipment.

Pour some stripper into a plastic basin and use a paintbrush to apply the product on all doors and drawers. By the time you’re finished with the last door or drawer, the stripper on the first item will start bubbling. You can now start to remove the softened lacquer with a scraper (or a putty knife if you don’t have a scraper). 

At this stage, you may still come across areas where the lacquer hasn’t softened yet; leave the stripper to do its job for the time instructed on the package, then try again. Once you’ve removed all lacquer, leave the wood to dry for at least four hours.

Traditional kitchens also have the counter made of oak wood stained in the same color as the doors and drawers. If you want to lighten the top, too, use the same steps to apply the chemical stripper and remove the topcoat. 

Step 4 – Sand the cabinets

Sanding the cabinets is necessary to improve grip for the new stain and because the stain bleeds into the wood grains and is almost impossible to remove without sanding.

You can sand the cabinets manually with 150-grit sandpaper, but you’ll finish the project faster if you use a sander. 

The only thing to keep in mind is that you should only sand parallel to the grains with consistent, even strokes. Otherwise, you could damage the wood, and the result will not be flattering. 

Step 5 – Apply the new stain

After you’ve sanded the cabinets, wipe the pieces with a dry microfiber or cotton cloth to remove any dust. Then, proceed to apply a new stain.

Wood stains don’t require priming. However, if you wish to paint the cabinets in a solid color, you may have to prime the surface before applying the varnish. If you have to prime the surface, leave the primer dry for at least four hours before applying the color coat.

Use a paintbrush or roller to apply the paint product. Start from a corner and work your way around the entire surface, painting in the direction of the wood grain. Let dry for at least four hours before applying a second coat.

When the second coat is dry, apply a layer of clear lacquer to protect the paint product from scratches and UV light, then let it dry. That’s it. You can now mount the doors and drawers back in their respective places. 

Alternative Methods to Lighten Stained Oak Cabinets

Bleach the Wood

Bleaching your kitchen cabinets comes as an alternative to staining. The method is cheaper, requiring fewer materials. However, the result is rather weathered. If you don’t mind a distressed look, here’s how to do it. 

Tools and Materials

  • Bleach with oxalic acid or 2-part wood bleach or household bleach
  • Cleaning rag
  • Drop cloth
  • Goggles 
  • Face mask 
  • Electric screwdriver 
  • Dish soap 
  • 150-grit sandpaper 
  • Sealant (optional)

How to Bleach Wood Stains

  1. Use the screwdriver to remove all cabinet doors, then remove the drawers and place them on sawhorses. Lay a drop cloth under them to prevent the bleach from staining your floors. 
  2. Put on protective equipment. If you’re using bleach with oxalic acid or household, soak a rag in the bleach product of your choice and wipe down the cabinets. Always work in the direction of the wood grain and apply even pressure to obtain an even look. Apply as much bleach as needed to obtain the desired effect. If you’re using 2-part wood bleach, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to apply it correctly. 
  3. After you’ve lightened the stain, use a clean, damp rag to wipe off any bleach residues and let dry. Use 150-grit sandpaper to smooth the finish, then apply a coat of sealant if you want to preserve the look for longer.

Warning: When looking for methods to lighten dark wood kitchen cabinets, beware of those tips that recommend you to neutralize bleach with white vinegar instead of wiping it off with water. Bleach and vinegar can prove to be a lethal combination, as the reaction between the two creates toxic chlorine gas. 

Lighten with Steel Wool and Mineral Spirits

Another easy and inexpensive method to lighten kitchen cabinets is with mineral spirits and steel wool. In this method, steel wool replaces sandpaper, whereas mineral spirits help lift and remove the wood stain. 

Tools and Materials 

  • Steel wool
  • Mineral spirits
  • Rubber gloves
  • Face mask 
  • Goggles 
  • Lacquer (optional)
  • Electric screwdriver 
  • Rag 


  1. Use the electric screwdriver to remove the cabinet doors and drawers. Place them on sawhorses, then put on protective equipment and lay a drop cloth underneath them.
  2. Start stripping off the lacquer layer with the steel wool. Work in the direction of the wood grain, applying even pressure throughout the process.
  3. Once you’ve removed the top layer, soak a rag in mineral spirits and wipe each surface. Let sit for about 20 minutes; the mineral spirits will help lift the stain from the wood grains. 
  4. Proceed to scrub each surface with steel wool once again to remove any lifted stain. Repeat the steps until you’re happy with the result. 
  5. When the cabinets have achieved the desired shade, wipe with a rag soaked in water, let dry, and apply a thin layer of lacquer if you want the result to last longer.

How to Remove Dark Stains From Wood Cabinets Permanently?

The only way to permanently remove dark stains from wood cabinets is through the stripping, and sanding procedure explained above. Bleach or steel wool and mineral spirits can lighten the shade, but they can’t remove all stain traces from the wood grain.

Do You Need Paint to Lighten Dark Wood Cabinets?

No, you don’t need paint to lighten dark wood cabinets. However, you could use paint to change their look or style. 

For instance, you could use a pastel shade of chalk paint to give your traditional kitchen cabinets a shabby chic feel. Eggshell or glossy paint can help you achieve a modern look without investing in a costly kitchen overhaul. The best thing? Using solid color paint can help you skip the whole stain removal step. 

How to Paint Your Kitchen Cabinets 

You’ll need: 

  • Kitchen cabinet paint or enamel in your desired color and finish
  • Roller or paintbrush 
  • Drop cloth
  • Electric screwdriver 
  • Sandpaper 
  • Sander 
  • Primer 
  • Caulk 
  • Protective equipment


  1. Remove the cabinet doors and drawers and place them on sawhorses. Lay a drop cloth under them. 
  2. Sanding is optional, but it can increase grip and help you achieve a smoother finish. Use a sander and medium-coarse sandpaper to remove the lacquer layer. Wipe the dust off with a dry cloth when you’re done.
  3. Use a paint brush or roller to prime the surface. Let the primer dry as instructed on the package.
  4. After the primer is dry, sand the surface with a fine-grit sandpaper. Close any open seams with caulk and sand again to level the surface. Use a vacuum cleaner to remove residual dust. 
  5. Use a paintbrush to paint the cabinets. Apply the product following the direction of the wood grains, then let the first coat dry for about two-four hours. Apply the second coat. Depending on the type of paint you use, paint color, and the original shade of your cabinets, you may have to apply a third and fourth coat as well to achieve a flawless result. When you’re done, let dry and apply a coat of sealant to protect the finish.
  6. Let dry as instructed, then mount the doors and drawers back in their places. That’s it!

How to Brighten Up a Dark Kitchen?

Lightening dark wood kitchen cabinets isn’t hard, but the process could take some time. Alternatively, you can use these tips to brighten up your space.

Play with mirrors

Mirrors give you a versatile solution to brightening up a dark kitchen. They help you create the illusion of more light and space and can be placed virtually anywhere in the room. If you don’t have a spare wall, consider replacing glass cabinet doors with mirrors or adding a mirrored backsplash.

Add pendant lights 

Bringing the light closer than the ceiling is another trick you can use to give your dark kitchen the illusion of light and space. Place them over the dining table or kitchen island – or even over both if you feel like it.

Use brighter bulbs 

The easiest, cheapest way to brighten up your kitchen is with brighter light bulbs. There are dozens of options to choose from, but as a rule of thumb, use 80-100-watt bulbs. 

Install under-cabinet lights

In addition to brighter bulbs, you can also consider installing LED strips under your cabinets. Adhesive LED lights are another excellent option.

A pop of color

Colorful wall art or backsplash can soften the dark effect of your kitchen cabinets and brighten up the space. You can also add pops of color with countertop appliances, especially those with a vintage or pop art design. 


Lightening dark wood kitchen cabinets gives you the possibility to revamp your kitchen without breaking the bank. You can achieve this in various ways, but re-staining is the only method that allows you to achieve a flawless result. Alternatively, we recommend varnishing the cabinets in a lighter shade.

Which method do you plan to use? Tell us in a comment below, and let us know if you have other tips or tricks.

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