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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  1. susan winfield says

    I have been searching for drawer fronts. The wood has been peeling and splintering off for years. Looks SO awful. A picture of what I need is already posted here at the beginning. The three pull out drawers.

  2. cat says

    wow…same cabinets in my house..i painted them black, have regretted it for six years…now you have inspired me to strip them back to natural!

    • Susan Winfield says

      A few years ago, I almost painted my cabinets white. Glad I never got the energy to do it! I like my old cabinets but I’m still trying to figure out what to do about my three drawer fronts. The wood flakes & peels off in strips. These strips are paper thin and there’s no wood grain left on the drawer fronts. Maybe the are not solid wood?

      • Lizzy says

        Sounds like veneer. It’s paper thin sheets of higher end wood glued onto furniture. I don’t have any DIY info, but if you know of a furniture restoration guy they should be able to replace veneer easily. The glue probably gave way after decades of steam from the stove or wear along a drawer edge. Veneer falls off sometimes, but it’s quite repairable. If you google or search You Tube they’ll have more info and pics. (there’s video of EVERYTHING on You Tube! DIY paradise.

        Veneer is one layer – if this is multiple layers coming off it’s plywood that is delaminating. Means it’s old and the glue is failing. You may still be able to have a carpentry/ cabinet maker guy fix them by replacing the fronts, but you’ll need to look into that. Without a picture I can’t tell you exactly what’s involved.

  3. Heather says

    Long time lurker, first time commenter. :)

    I love this blog! Just bought a one owner 1959 mid-century modest. We love the cabinets, same brand, and they need sone loving. My boyfriend and I refinish and build furniture but we weren’t sure about how to refinish and keep that great original color. Thanks so much for this article! Can’t wait to tackle that project! :)

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Heather, Welcome. I will point out: At least one commenter has said they would not use Amber Shellac for cabinets. I am not sure why, but another commenter said that water on amber shellac will cloud the finish. Do some more research before you nail down a final decision.

  4. Pat says

    Your cabinets are lovely. I saw a stove last week at an estate sale that would have gone perfectly in your stove area, it was mint! Had a little side door that held cookies sheets, making it a bit wider than some stoves, but not really wide like the really big stoves. I wanted to buy it, but couldn’t see buying something without having a place to use it.

  5. sarah says

    I just did this. I found this gorgeous behr paint color called evening hush. I had seen it on many diy sites. It is a gorgeous color but i turned it into diy chalk paint and in my kitchen it was just SO dark. It also scratched off so easy and i issue with finding a sealer i liked. After many attempts the best sealer was polycrylic but STILL wasnt happy with how i could see the brush strokes of shiny sealer. Now im going to scrape it off and actually go with krylon white spray paint, i cant remember the name. Its the specialty spray paint krylon makes and ive used it on my dining table. It doesnt come up or scratch off. its the most durable thin paint ever and you need no sealer.

  6. Diane says

    I am so glad to see that this can be done. My husband and I have just started the removal of paint from our 1953 ranch home’s kitchen cabinets. Our kitchen cabinets were built-in on site so we have 43 doors and 11 drawers that need to be stripped as well as the backsplash, soffits and walls (yes, at some point someone decided it would be a good idea to cover the entire kitchen in off white paint), I’m so glad to see others have done this successfully! Hopefully I will join the ranks without losing my mind!

  7. says

    We have these same cabinets and pulls. We are only the second owner of the house and they are still in great shape. We tried to redo the pulls, but we cannot get the paint to stick. We still have the original copper range hood and fan, so we want the pulls to be the same. Any suggestions?

    • pam kueber says

      The old finished were likely baked on. If this is the issue, for coppertone, I guess I’d recommend: Buy replacements. See our category Kitchen Help / Cabinet Hardware category — this finish is still available in some styles today. You could also start Saved Searches on ebay – they do come up, but it might take some time and also, be difficult to find enough in the same design in the quantity you need. Send us photos of your project when it’s done – maybe we will feature it on the blog!

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