Cleaning Wood Kitchen Cabinets

Cleaning wood kitchen cabinets is not as difficult as some lead you to believe, it just takes some time and a little elbow grease.  You rarely need “special” cleaners or “secret” solutions for the task.  It also rarely depends on the type of finish that is on your cabinets.


Cleaning wood kitchen cabinets becomes difficult when your finish is actually cracked and damaged to the point water can easily seep through the finish. If your finish is bad, you’re looking at refinishing, not just cleaning.

Light, oxidation (simply being exposed to oxygen), and physical use and abuse damage wood finishes.  You can’t do anything about oxidation, and very little about light (except for keeping lights off and not having many windows, but who wants that?), but you can limit the abuse and clean your cabinets when they get dirty.  This helps keep your finish in good shape.

Common finishes found on kitchen cabinets include:

  • Conversion Finishes:  Catalyzed lacquer, pre-catalyzed lacquer, conversion varnish, epoxy finish, moisture-curing polyurethane, two-part polyurethane, polyester finish, and ultraviolet-curing finish
  • Lacquer or Moisture Resistant Lacquer
  • Polyurethane
  • Varnish
  • Shellac

Today, most often your cabinet finishes will be a conversion finish or lacquer.  Conversion finishes are what the cabinet industry uses, both factory built and custom built.  They are fast drying, durable, very moisture resistant, and somewhat heat resistant (although candles close to the cabinets – within even 18 inches for prolonged periods of time – have been known to scorch the finish).  They have been around since the 1930’s.  When it comes to cleaning wood kitchen cabinets, these are easy to keep clean.

Cleaning Wood Kitchen Cabinets

Actually, you can clean all of the above finishes that may be on wood kitchen cabinets by just using a soft cloth, and mild soap and water.  Gently wash your cabinets, being sure not to leave any water standing on any wood surface.

It’s that simple.  If your cabinets are getting a bit “dull” looking to you, you can put a lemon oil on them if you wish, however, keep in mind that if you do put a lemon oil on the finish and your cabinets ever need to be refinished, that might cause a problem in the refinishing because oil will be on the surface of the wood (and cause “fish-eye” as you try to put new finish on).

Other things to keep in mind

  • Lacquer and conversion finishes dry fast, but they don’t cure for almost six months.  Never put lemon oil on your finish before its six months old. Cleaning wood kitchen cabinets at this stage means to only wipe down with soap and water.
  • It’s a good idea to clean your cabinets with a good furniture polish in between times you actually wash with soap and water.  Too much water can, over time, damage your finish, especially if it’s not wiped up quickly.
  • Use a mild soap, like Dawn dishwashing liquid (it cuts grease well) or Ivory or a similar dish soap.
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap is also a good cleaner for your kitchen cabinets.  It is gentle enough to use on wood.  It is made with oil and lye, which, when mixed, result in a chemical reaction to make the soap.  No oil or lye is left in the finished product, so you don’t have to worry about getting any oil on your cabinet finish (making any future refinishing easier).

True “oil” finishes, such as linseed oil, tung oil, or walnut oil, are rarely found on kitchen cabinets.

You keep these types of finishes looking nice by reapplying the oil(actually you can use any oil, it does not necessarily have to be the same oil that was originally used)

These types of cabinets may be found in antique furniture, or made by someone who was trying to get back to an “original” way of manufacturing furniture or cabinetry.

In today’s cabinets, the only piece of wood that will have an actual oil finish is the bread board.  Make sure you wash your bread board as needed, let it dry thoroughly, then reapply a non-toxic vegetable oil to the surface.  You need to let the oil soak in, and may need to reapply and rub it in 2 or 3 times.



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