How To Pickle Oak Cabinets: The Complete Guide

Do you want to give your kitchen a makeover but can’t afford to buy new cabinets? You can change your kitchen’s aspect without any major investments by pickling your existing furniture. This inexpensive DIY project suits all homeowners regardless of their skill level. So, are you wondering how to pickle oak cabinets?

Pickled oak cabinets are easy to make. You can use a leftover wood primer or a commercial pickling solution to achieve a flawless aspect. Sand the wood, brush on the paint product, and wipe off with a rag; this will give your cabinets a weathered, shabby chic look.

Pickling Oak Kitchen Cabinets (10 Easy Steps DIY)

Pickling oak kitchen cabinets is easier than you think. This project is perfect for beginners and gives everyone the possibility to give a new lease of life to their kitchen.

Things You Will Need

  • Water-based pickling stain
  • Water-based clear top coat or tung oil
  • Wood bleach (optional)
  • Hydrogen peroxide (optional)
  • Turpentine
  • Linseed oil
  • Hot water
  • 150-grit sandpaper or sanding sponge
  • 220-grit sandpaper or sanding sponge
  • Sander (optional)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Plastic bucket
  • Screwdriver
  • Staining brush
  • Clean rags
  • Drop cloths
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Personal protective equipment

1. Remove the cabinet draws and drawers

While this step is optional, you can achieve better results by taking off the cabinet doors and drawers and pickling each of them separately. To do that, use a screwdriver or electric drill/driver to remove the doors from the hinges, then pull out the drawers.

Place them on sawhorses and lay drop cloths under them. Prepare the rest of your work area, too, by placing drop cloths on your floors and countertop. Use a plastic sheet fixed with painter’s tape to protect the backsplash.

2. Clean the cabinets 

Cleaning the kitchen cabinets before painting them is essential, even if they look clean. Remember that vapors and grease can soak into wooden cabinets, preventing new stains or paints from adhering to the surface.

To clean the cabinets, mix three tablespoons of turpentine with three tablespoons of linseed oil and one quart of boiling water in a bucket.

Let it cool while removing the cabinet hardware, such as hinges, knobs, and handles. When the water solution is warm, soak a rag or soft sponge in it and clean the cabinets thoroughly (don’t forget to wear rubber gloves).

Scrub each surface paying attention to remove any grime as well as food and grease splashes. Rinse with clean water when done and let it dry completely before proceeding.

3. Sand the surface to remove blemishes 

When the surface is dry, grab the 150-grit sandpaper and sand the cabinets to remove any blemishes. Keep in mind that a lighter color will highlight any imperfections, so you should fix the issue before applying the paint product.

The easiest way to sand kitchen cabinets is with a palm sander. Alternatively, use a sanding sponge to speed up the process, and always sand in the direction of the grain.

Blemishes aside, you should also remove any existing coat at this stage. If the original coat is clear, use a damp cloth to wipe the surface every now and then – you’ve removed the coat when the surface soaks in the water.

When you’re done, use a vacuum cleaner to remove as much dust as possible, then wipe off any existing dust with a dry microfiber cloth.

4. Treat the wood (optional)

You can skip this step if your cabinets are in good condition. However, if the oak cabinets were stained with a dark varnish or lacquer, you might want to bleach the surface before applying the pickling stain.

To do that, use a wood bleach containing ammonia or caustic soda. Apply the product with a brush in the direction of the grain. Let it sit for 20 minutes (or the time instructed on the package), then apply the hydrogen peroxide using the same technique.

Let the hydrogen peroxide sit for 30 to 60 minutes, then wash with water and tap dry with a clean rug. Repeat the process and let it dry for 24 hours.

5. Stain the oak cabinets 

Once your wood is cleaned and prepped, apply the pickling stain. Start with a patch test in an inconspicuous area. If you like the result, use a brush to apply the stain on the whole surface, painting in the direction of the grain.

Paint one door or drawer at a time; when painting the interior of the cabinets, work on smaller sections at a time.

6. Wipe the excess stain

Let the stain dry for about 10 minutes after applying it, then wipe away the excess with a soft, dry cloth. When wiping, use long strokes and press gently to facilitate the product’s penetration into the wood.

The amount of pressure you apply will determine the finish – the stronger you press the cloth, the lighter the look. Let dry for at least four hours.

7. Sand the surface again

Like every painting project, pickling oak cabinets requires two coats for a flawless result. Sanding the surface between one coat and the other improves grip and smoothens the finish.

Use 220-grit sandpaper and a sander to prepare the surface, then clean the dust with a vacuum cleaner and dry cloth.

8. Apply the second coat and let dry

Using the same technique explained in steps 5 and 6, apply a second coat of pickling stain and wipe away the excess after 10 minutes. Then, let dry for at least 24 hours to make sure the stain is completely dry before applying the top coat.

9. Apply the top coat 

A transparent, non-yellowing top coat will maintain your cabinets like new for longer. Use a soft brush and apply a thin coat of water-based varnish, then let it dry for 24 hours.

10. Reassemble the cabinets

Once the top coat is dry, mount the hardware back on the doors, then install the draws and drawers back in their original place. You can number each door and drawer or place them in a certain order on the sawhorses to remember the correct position.

Refinishing Pickled Oak Cabinets in 5 Easy Steps

If you have pickled oak cabinets already, but their look is too weathered, or if you want to learn how to refinish to maintain your freshly pickled cabinets, here’s how to do it.

1. Prepare the cabinets for refinishing 

As explained above, remove the cabinet doors and drawers, then protect the surfaces that you don’t want to paint with drop cloths and plastic sheets.

2. Strip away the existing finish

Refinishing pickled oak cabinets is different than resurfacing them, which only involves applying a fresh coat of pickling stain. To refinish, you’ll have to strip off the existing stain. Even if this procedure is more laborious, the result is worth the effort.

Use a strong solvent such as lacquer thinner to wash the cabinets, then clean with water, let dry, and apply a paint stripper.

Let the stripper sit for the time instructed on the package, then clean with water and let dry. Before proceeding, wash the cabinets with solvent one more time to remove any excess stain.

3. Sand the surface

Use 220-grit sandpaper to smooth away blemishes and remove any imperfections. You could either use a sander or a sanding sponge to fasten up the process. Clean the surface with a vacuum cleaner and a dry cloth to get rid of the dust.

4. Apply the stain 

Use the same method described above to stain the wood. Let dry and repeat the sanding and staining. Let dry for at least 24 hours.

5. Apply the top coat 

After the stain is dry, use a brush to apply the top coat. You should use a water-based, non-yellowing varnish to maintain your cabinets looking good for longer. Once the top coat is dry, you can mount the doors and drawers back into their places and enjoy the refinished look of your kitchen cabinets.

Are Pickled Oak Cabinets Coming Back?

Pickled cabinets aren’t coming back from anywhere – they’ve always been in style. In fact, pickled oak cabinets are one of the biggest trends in today’s interior design. Sure, they may run out of fashion in the future, but if you want to achieve that highly acclaimed shabby chic or country chic design, then pickled cabinets will look wonderful in your kitchen. 

The main advantage of pickled oak cabinets is the ease of achieving impressive results even with minimal painting skills. 

This solution is also cost-effective; in fact, pickling is one of the cheapest ways to refresh outdated cabinets. Considering that you only have to use one product, pickling is often cheaper than painting or staining the wood.

What is Pickled Wood?

If you’re not familiar with woodworking and cabinet finishes, pickling and pickled may make you think about the variety of tasty food preserves. However, pickled wood has nothing to do with cucumbers, onions, and other vegetables – although you could use vinegar to pickle it, hence the name.

That said, pickled wood is a furniture finish that stems from 16th-century Europe. Then and there, woodworkers used to infuse wooden cabinets with a paste of caustic lime. The substance served to keep pests, such as wood borers, ants, beetles, and termites, away from the cabinets. 

In addition to its functional role, wood pickling has quickly gained an appreciation for its decorative value. 

Pickled wood is similar to whitewashed wood in that it has a whiter, brighter look compared to traditionally stained wood. However, the two finishes are obtained through different methods.

As far as pickling is concerned, the method refers to staining the wood to whiten its color and accentuate the grain. You can stain the cabinets with a commercial pickling product or use household products, such as vinegar. 

Alternatively, you could use leftover white wood primer, then seal the finish with a coat or two of transparent varnish.

Pickling works on most types of open-pore woods, including oak, ash, and pine. However, most people prefer the whitewash method for pine and pickling for oak. In addition to rural-inspired interiors, pickled oak cabinets also integrate with success in modern designs or designs inspired by a coastal style. 

Whitewash vs. Pickling: Which One Is The Better Option?

What is Whitewashing?

Whitewashing and pickling are two different methods, even if the terms are often used interchangeably. Thus, which one is better depends on the type of wood your cabinets are made of. 

Whitewashing refers to painting a surface with watered-down white (or light color) paint. The method was originally used for painting dairy barns with slaked lime or calcium carbonate. Like the caustic lime in pickling, these substances were used for their sanitary value rather than the high-quality finish.

Today, you can whitewash all types of wood with diluted latex or acrylic paint. All you have to do is mix the paint with water in a 1:1 ratio. It goes without saying that you can adjust the ratio if you want to achieve a punchier or subtler effect by adding more water or more paint.

To preserve the aesthetical aspect of whitewashing, you should treat the cabinets with a coat of clear varnish or lacquer. 

Whitewashing whitens the wood and highlights the grain in a subtle way. This method is best for pine wood.

Pickling Explained 

Unlike whitewashing, pickling doesn’t refer to painting the wood but to staining it. You can use a wood pickling stain, vinegar, or bleach to brighten the color and accentuate the grain. 

The application method is also different. While whitewashing involves traditional painting with a thinned paint product, pickling requires you to apply a coat of stain, then wipe it off with a rag. The product will work its way into the grain, resulting in a beautiful weathered aspect. 

Although pickling works on all types of porous wood, the method is generally used for brightening oak cabinets.

You can pickle all types of oak cabinets, even the stained ones, as long as you don’t mind sanding away the original finish before applying the pickling stain. Likewise, you can whitewash all types of wood, although whitewashing is preferred for pine cabinets.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still, have questions? Find out our answers to the most frequent questions below.

Which Kitchen Paint Colors Go With Pickled Cabinets?

Pickled oak cabinets are incredibly versatile and pair with a rainbow of shades. If you aim for an elegant or shabby chic look, paint your walls in light or pastel hues. Cream, light yellow, beige, sand, and baby blue or blush pink are just some examples.

Light green or lime are elegant and contemporary at the same time – a perfect choice for a rustic cottage or suburban home. A combination of white and navy or pale blue and navy will give your kitchen a sophisticated, coastal feel.

For a bolder statement, pair your pickled oak cabinets with woody tones, such as moss green, khaki, gray-blue, rusty brown, or soft burnt orange.  

How to Clean Pickled Oak Cabinets?

Refreshing pickled oak cabinets is easy, with a homemade solution of one-part white vinegar to four parts lukewarm water. Wipe the surface with a soft rag soaked in the solution, then rinse with clean water. Dry excess water with a microfiber rag.


Pickling oak cabinets is easy, fun, and affordable – an excellent choice for homeowners on a budget who want to revamp a kitchen.

Have you ever pickled oak cabinets or used a whitewashing technique? Share your tips or questions in a comment.

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