Stripping paint from kitchen cabinets and returning to the original 1950s wood — “some therapy” but great results

1950s wood kitchen, “Before”:

… Cabinets painted black, “After”:

black kitchen cabinets

… But then: 50 hours of stripping later, “After” returns to “Before”… back to the natural wood:

scheirich kitchen cabinets

Yes, haven’t we all done it — made a *big* decorating *mistake* that then takes hours to unwind. After he bought his 1950s house, Uncle Atom tried to dial up the retro in his original kitchen by painting the cabinets black, to coordinate with the black-and-white floor he also installed. But, it was just too dark, he said. So, some 50 hours of paint stripping later — he has returned his 1950s Scheirich kitchen cabinets to their original natural wood glory. A lesson here, maybe: Wood is good — especially much of the stuff used for kitchen cabinets back in the 1950s and 1960s…. So think long and hard before painting over it. As an alternative: Maybe a good cleanup and a fresh coat of shellac (or another product — I know readers have different favored methods) and the cabinets will be like new again for another few decades?

Continue on to learn about Uncle Atom’s process for removing the paint and then restoring an original finish to the cabinets… Dental picks, anyone? –>

scheirich kitchen cabinets I asked Uncle Atom to tell me what it took to remove all that black paint. He said:

Hi Pam,
Our kitchen cabinets have a total of 18 doors, 7 drawers, and a lazy susan.  I chose to tackle the job in sections so we could continue to use the kitchen throughout.  I used pieces from a large roll of construction paper to protect countertops and floors while I stripped the cabinet faces.

wood kitchen cabinetsOn average it took a few minutes to remove a door and seal the hardware in a ziplock bag to keep from losing any screws or other pieces. It also took a few minutes to apply the stripper.  Then I would wait about an hour on average for the stripper to do its work.

paint stripperI used a standard razor blade holder for scraping off the loosened paint and it usually peeled off easily.  Since there was white primer under the black paint, if I started scraping away the black too soon, the primer would not easily come off. A few times I had to apply more stripper to break up the primer,  wait another hour and then scrape again. Then I used steel wool to remove any remaining paint or primer. I pulled the razor blade scraper through the routed channel on the door edges to get the paint out of the corners and crevices, then I followed with coarse steel wool and sandpaper. For tiny stubborn areas on doors and cabinet faces, I used dental picks I keep in my workshop.

scheirich kitchen cabinets woodI probably spent a total of about 1-2 hours on each door panel (applying stripper, scraping, rubbing with steel wool and/or sandpaper, wiping everything down with mineral spirits, and finish sanding.)  in a couple of cases the razor peeled back a piece of the wood, and then I had to glue and clamp the wood down.  Once the glue dried I sanded the glued section to smooth that area out.  Drawer fronts took about one third of the time that went into a door panel.
Before I shellacked a piece I wiped over it again with mineral spirits to remove and sawdust or specks of dirt.  I didn’t think I needed to condition the wood, and after I shellacked one door as a test, I chose to skip a conditioning step.
corner cubby in 1950s kitchen cabinets refinishing under way
I gave each drawer front and door panel two to three coats of amber shellac on all surfaces and edges.  The shellac dries very fast (less than five minutes).  If the dried shellac had some rough areas I used very fine steel wool to smooth things out. I used the time I had while waiting for the stripper to work to clean, prime and spray the door and drawer handles with metallic copper paint.
Once each door panel was done, I reattached the hinges and handles and reattached the door to the cabinet face.  I  chose to wait on  reattaching the door catches and did those at the end of the job all at one time.   (It takes a little adjusting to get each door catch to line up so it will correctly function to keep the door closed.)
I used about four large containers of the Citrus Strip and a couple of quarts of Bullseye Amber shellac.
1950s wood kitchen
It took me about six weekends and some evenings of work to get everything done.  We’re very happy with the results, and now I’m motivated to tackle the countertops next although I haven’t decided what kind of Formica to use.  I wish I could find something close to the mint green with gold specks Formica we have now.  It’s in pretty rou shape with some burn marks.   Soon I hope to get our vintage Frigidaire Flair double oven installed in the 40-inch wide space where we have a smaller oven right now.

I forgot that you asked for a photo of me.  Here’s one of me in the wayback of my old station wagon, a 1969 Mercury Colony Park I restored a few years ago.  I sold it to make room for another project.

Thank you, Uncle Atom. What a tenacious DIY-er you are — very impressive. Readers, remember, if you are stripping old paint be sure you know what’s in it… consult with a professional. Barry is the one who painted his cabinets black — so he knew there was no lead in the paint.

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Comments

  1. says

    The cabinets look great! Nice work Uncle Atom. Along with the amounts of stripper and shellac , it looks like you opened quite a few few cans of “Elbow Grease”. P.S. I really enjoy your blog too.

  2. ChrisH says

    The cabs look nice. When I do clear finishes, my last step is to go over the piece with a spray wax (Pledge, the like) and rub with #0000 steel wool. Or sometimes 600 grit sand paper. It makes the surface very smooth.

    Growing up, we had a ’69 Colony Park, it was white, just like yours.

  3. Annie B. says

    So beautiful, and so worth all your hard work.

    I’ll have to admit that, even though your black and white flooring works wonderfully in your kitchen, I like the original ’70’s vinyl quite a bit, too.

    I wonder if the “Countertop Magic” product that Pam uses would help restore your Formica?

    As for burn marks on Formica or laminate, I once used a matching color nail polish to hide a burn in our almond colored kitchen laminate. Might not have been the “perfect” fix, but it surely made the mark much less noticeable.

    • says

      That 70’s flooring was about the third layer, definitely not original and not in good shape as I recall. I’ll have to try that counter top restorer, thanks.

  4. Tami says

    Folks might want to rethink using shellac, particularly in the kitchen if cocktails are made there. Shellac dissolves readily in alcohol. I once used shellac flakes to make a custom finish (turned out gorgeous) and I used denatured alcohol to dissolve them. The finish does, I understand, harden over time to resist alcohol splashes. But I don’t know how long it takes to do so.

    So as not to put a damper on your authentic tiki-drink nights, non-water based poly will darken/mellow over time to mimic that classic shellac finish. Cheers!

    • ChrisH says

      Another method is to use the amber shellac for that vintage look, then a traditional oil based varnish over it.

  5. Tami says

    BTW, great work on this project! There’s a set of these same cabinets in the Muncie Habitat ReStore right now. It’s nice to see how they SHOULD look!

  6. Andrea says

    Beautiful job on the cabinets! I had to laugh at the “before” photo because that was what was under the carpet in about 2/3 of the rec room in our 1959 raised ranch. Had it been in the whole room I might have made a good faith effort to design the whole room around it. We put new flooring over it, but I still have it in the closet under the stairs. It is so cheerful it makes me smile when ever I see it.

    • says

      I applaud anyone who can preserve original flooring like that, but I know mine was not original. I’m still considering what we might do with the kitchen flooring. I like composite tiles but if I do mine over I’ll choose different colors.

  7. Ethan says

    I am very sad that the vinyl flooring in the first picture was replaced. If I could find vinyl like that today, I would put it in in a heartbeat.

    • Stewart says

      I did a double-take when I looked back at the picture, and then looked to the right at our kitchen floor. Same pattern and colour as the first photo above. I know we had it installed when we moved in 19 years ago; I will ask my wife if she remembers where we bought it, and will post her answer here if she remembers.

    • says

      Sorry I can’t answer that, but I’ll bet if you take a cabinet door or drawer to a furniture refinished they could probably help you figure it out. I guessed that ours were shellacked, and tried the shellack one one door as a test before I did the rest. I figured if the shellac didn’t work out I could try a stain next.

  8. Merlene says

    Your cabinets look great. We also have Scheirich cabinets in our 1941 colonial. This is the first time that I am seeing anyone else with them. I tried to find some info on the brand but came up with very little. Does anyone have any info on the company/cabinets? Ours were in very bad shape externally so we sanded them and painted them white. We decided to keep them because the interiors were in great condition and appeared very well made. We also kept our original copper pulls but spray painted them silver which went better with the white.

    • says

      I wish I had info on that cabinet maker but my efforts have come up empty too. I can tell you they’re original to our house and it was built in 1958.

  9. nina462 says

    Doesn’t it look like the cabinets are now taking a big, deep, sigh of relief that the black paint is gone!

  10. says

    Thanks for sharing Uncle Atom! I love it. I think the Frigidaire Flair will look wonderful in there!
    My 1951 wood kitchen cabinets have been painted black also (by previous owners). We just can’t convince ourselves that it would be worth it to strip them. They are too small (most food boxes and bottles have to be laid on their side) and they were built “on sight” so they are not very nice. We have made do with vintage hardware until the budget will allow us to get different ones :-(

    • says

      Thanks – planning to spread the work out and keep the kitchen functional took a lot of pressure off. We went without cabinet doors for a while but that wasn’t a big deal.

  11. DeAnna says

    I still have the exact floor he had in his before picture! At first I hated it but after 14 years it has grown on me. Now I only grumble when I’m scrubbing it.

  12. bargain basement barbie says

    Gosh! I want a vintage station wagon SO badly! I’d love to get a look at that countertop, too Too bad about the burns, it looks pretty.

  13. gsciencechick says

    Wow, these look fabulous! Standing ovation for your hard work and perseverence!. I’ve used the orange stripper before when I wanted to get the rest of the paint off my old deck so it could be stained, and it is very user-friendly.

  14. Mary Ann says

    Merlene and Uncle Atom,

    I, too, have Scheirich cabinets in my 1962 kitchen! There is very little information out there on the company, but I love them. I even have the same handles as you, Uncle Atom, which I guess confirms that they are the originals. My whole neighborhood was built in the early 1960s, the first “planned” neighborhood in what was a farm town in New Hampshire. All of the houses had these cabinets, but only a few of us still have them. Ours are in really good shape, except for the wear and tear on the bottom doors. It was sooooooo good to see someone else with our kitchen! Mine is U-shaped. We just got rid of one of the cabinets adjacent to the sink so that we could have a dishwasher installed. It was worth the sacrifice of that one cabinet, but I don’t want to do anything but polish up the rest..it’s the perfect imprint.

    • says

      Thanks Mary Ann, maybe someone will eventually find some old company literature. They seem like quality cabinets. Ours were modified above the stove – at some point those two cabinets were cut down to accommodate the taller harvest gold oven – microwave combo seen in the first pictures.

  15. Christa says

    Wow, I just love how these turned out. Thanks so much for posting this story – people rarely give you a look at the mistakes made on the road to success.

    • says

      It was embarrassing to ‘fess up to my black paint fiasco, but hey, we all make mistakes, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to be able to correct them.

  16. says

    Thanks everyone for the feedback on this project. Sorry I’ve been slow with some replies, but I was on work-related travel this week and I’m just noww starting to catch up.

  17. ellie may says

    Wow, fun to see the same cabinets that we have and to read about others who have them too. We have kept the cabinets the same amber finish with the same hardware as yours and love the lightness it brings to our ’58 rancher in Bozeman, MT so I applaud your choice to bring it back. Funny note about our neighborhood – lots of ranchers were built with the same innards and as people have renovated, many have kept the Scheireich cabinets or traded them among neighbors after a wall was opened here or a fridge was moved there. BTW, I love the blog, Pam – it just took a picture of my identical cabinets to coax a post out of me…

    • says

      I was wondering if Scheireich was a regional manufacturer – seeing that they were used in Montana, I guess this must have been a nationally-known maker. Thanks for posting!

  18. Kathie says

    Your cabinets turned out beautifully! This post is perfect timing for me as I have the *exact* cabinets, which are in dire need of improvement. Most folks tell me to just slap on a coat of paint, but I’ve always thought that cleaning & protecting the wood would be the best choice. This post – and your cabinets – have confirmed my decision! Thanks again.

  19. says

    Love this! I have similar Scheinrich cabinets and many people are urging me to replace them, but this shows that they’ll be perfect with some repair and a new coat of finish!

  20. Angela says

    I just TODAY bought an early 60s house with these cabinets and pulls in Missouri. I love the copper logo below the sink, and the wavy drawer fronts.

    PS, Pam- it comes complete with a wallpaper mural, wood panelling in the basement, and the seafoam and pink prink sofa! I can’t wait to get in there and clean it up and make it my very own!

  21. Mary Price says

    I love the cabinets restored back to their original state – I grew up with these very cabinets and they looks just as good now as they did in 1964 when they were in my folk’s brand new house.

  22. says

    I made that mistake several time at our old house. I did 3 or 4 paint jobs I was never happy with. Then I stripped and stained, but the wood just wasn’t the same. THEN I painted them lavendar, which was actually pretty awesome until we decided to move and I painted them white for staging.

    I will never paint a set of stained cabinets again. But I am pretty awesome and stripping and refinishing my flea market finds now.

  23. says

    Hello we have recently moved into a old house and when we moved into it the previous owner an older lady had painted the cabinets and trim around them white only the fronts and the trim tho and it was god awful my hubby has been stripping and sanding the cabinets we recently just found out they were scheirich kitchen cabinets. And wow what a transformation they look amazing couldn’t be happier. And yes it is very tedious but worth it. They look great.

  24. Jennifer Waite says

    Since my previous comment we bought a house with original but poorly painted cabinets. I’m stripping, sanding and restaining them. It’s a messy, tedious job, but if you take your time and do it properly it’s worth it.

    We can’t afford to replace the cabinets, and if we did I know they wouldn’t be as good quality.

  25. trina says

    Sorry, but I don’t like the old wood either, still dark. I think white would be better, nicer with the vintage floor

  26. says

    I’m amazed at this Citrus Strip. If they ever need a spokesperson I volunteer. I’m currently stripping off about five layers of paint off a hand made bookcase I picked up off the side of the road. After picking it up six years ago I painted it an awful shade of taupe that I found in the bargain spot at the local hardware store. Turns out not only was it an ugly color it was the wrong kind of paint. Everything set on the shelves would stick to the surface.
    Now that I have learned a bit of patience the removal is going smoothly. Goodbye taupe, red (one of those DIY sponge paint jobs) pink, blue and green.

  27. Nmissi says

    I know this is an old post, but I tripped over it and thought I’d help out- SCHEIRICH was a cabinetry company out of Louisville, KY. It went out of business in the late 80s-early 90s. My grandfather worked for them in the fifties and sixties; the cabinets from that period were extremely well built, and the drawer design was patented until the 80s. (It was designed so that the drawers pulled out smoothly, and didn’t tip over with weight shifting.) I checked into adding to my own Scheirick cabinets some years ago and was told that building comparable ones today would exceed the cost of most modern custom cabinetry- apparently birchwood of that quality is expensive. I seem to recall my papau telling me they begun as a freestanding cabinetry/furniture company in the early 20th century; he always wanted one of their old “hoosier” cabinets, with the built-in flour sifter cabinet, but never got round to picking one up. Anyway- looks like you did a great job refinishing yours; Papau would be proud. (He loathed people who painted over good wood finishes! But he would, since he finished cabinets for a living!)

      • mindy Cook says

        Hello Uncle Atom! I just wanted to tell you that you have really inspired me with your kitchen. It is gorgeous by the way! We just moved into a 1955 ranch home and someone painted over everything!We are in the process of stripping paint off of wood paneling and then we will be moving into the kitchen. After reading your article I feel inspired to do it. Thank you so much for sharing your project!

  28. Pam says

    You mentioned Shallac, but did you use a stain? I have tha exact same cabinets in an 80+ year home. The cabinet doors need some help. Can you tell me what color this stain is? thanks

  29. Pamela says

    I have those same cabinets. I painted mine white. They looked ok but I’ve always wanted white cabinets. The original pulls had been removed. I didn’t like the ones that were on there so I found some I liked at a ReStore and replaced them … apparently with ones just like the originals!

    • Gabby says

      Pamela, Could you post a picture of your painted white cabinets? I too have these cabinets and wondered about painting them white, always wanted a light kitchen, but am starting to doubt myself. Maybe I should just clean and shellac them. The inside of all these cupboards are so dirty and dark looking. I thought of just painting them as well. I seem to have all the door pulls as well.Thanks.

  30. Mindy says

    Hi Uncle Atom! We are starting the kitchen after refinishing painted over paneling. I have a question about the shellac. I used it on the paneling, but how is it holding up on the kitchen cabinets? Do I need to put a protective coat on it?

  31. Lorraine says

    I have these cabinets in my kitchen and I love them, they have never been painted, they just desperately need to be restored. Now that I’ve seen your pictures it has given me inspiration! Can I ‘strip’ the shellac off or do I need to sand it? Also one of the earlier posts said her shelves were fixed, mine are not. There are two repositional shelves in each cupboard, some of my lesser used ones still have the original shelf paper in them! And Janet if you ever find the handles let me know, I have a broken one!
    Thanks

    • Janet says

      Lorraine, I found some on Craig’s list and now have more than I need. I would be glad to send you one, but I don’t know how to go about it. Janet

    • Janet says

      And, BTW, we refinished several doors. We found denatured alcohol takes off the grime esp on the top edges where its thick. Then we sanded with 100 grit followed by 220, and applied 3 coats of Zinsser amber shellac thinned down with the denatured alcohol. Use tack cloth before each coat. We’re very pleased.

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