How to Stain Red Oak Cabinet Doors

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There are as many ways to apply a finish to cabinet doors as there are custom cabinet shops. However, this post will focus on a method of finishing that can be applied by an amateur woodworker with limited staining or finishing skills. If you’re new to applying stain, staining oak cabinets is actually a great place to start. Red oak takes stain well, resulting in an even finish without blotching, regardless of the red oak stain colors you choose. 

When it comes to red oak stain, airless spray guns and pricey dustless spray booths aren’t required. With a little guidance and a few tips, you can get a beautiful and lasting finish with one $50 visit to your local home improvement store. Here’s how to get started.

Red Oak Stain: Steps to Stain Properly

Learning how to stain red oak isn’t difficult, but this step-by-step process will help ensure you get the best possible results from your red oak stain. You’ll need:

  • Dropcloth

  • Sponge brush or stain bristle brush

  • Clean rag’s

  • Sandpaper 180 and 220 grit

  • Stain

  • Polyurethane

  • Scrap wood

Next, follow these steps for a professional looking finish.

1. Start with a smooth, even surface.

Whether you’re starting with brand new cabinet doors, or refinishing existing cabinet doors, you’ll want a smooth and even surface first. If you’re refinishing your cabinet doors, sand the face and backs with 180-grit sandpaper to get a smooth surface that will help the stain absorb evenly. From there, sand all the edges and end grain with 220-grit sandpaper, this will help stain absorb evenly without blotches around the edges.  Wipe away all the wood dust with a dry, then damp cloth. If you’ve received brand new replacement cabinet doors from Cabinetdoors.com, simply remove any dust or lint with a clean cloth.

2. Get prepared.

Place your cabinet door on a dropcloth, and make sure you have your red oak stain, clean rags, polyurethane, and brushes ready. Read the directions on your products to ensure that you mix and prep the products correctly, know the proper drying times, and understand wait times for applying additional coats.

3. Test your stain first.

It’s a good idea to test your stain on a piece of scrap wood in the same wood as your cabinet doors. Cabinetdoors.com is happy to provide pieces of scrap wood with your order, at your request, so you can test your stains properly. If you don’t have scrap wood, start staining on the backside of the door (or the backside of a drawer front)  in case you’re unhappy with the color. Remember different woods take stain differently, so if you're basing your color choice off the sample at a store, make sure the wood type at the store is the same wood type that you will be staining.  If not, then definitely get a few colors to test before landing on your perfect color.

4. Apply your first coat.

With the cabinet door flat on your dropcloth, dip about 1” of the brush into the well-mixed stain. Then, brush the panel of the cabinet door in the direction of the wood grain. Lightly apply the stain with overlapping strokes to the doors panel and frame, ensuring your stain covers the panel cut and details of the frame. The longer the stain sits on the wood, the more it will soak in and the darker the result.

5. Wipe the excess stain off.

After about a minute, or up to 15 minutes if you’re staining red oak dark, wipe the excess stain off the surface of the cabinet door with a clean white cotton cloth.  The longer the stain has been allowed to soak in, the more careful you’ll have to be about wiping the excess off, paying particular attention to any details or grooves in the wood. Because this type of wood is so porous, red oak wood stain soaks in nicely, but excess stain will also continue to seep out of the wood’s pores over the next few hours. Wipe this excess stain off, which will look like shiny spots on the wood, to ensure an even finish.

6. Allow the stain to dry.

Follow the dry-time instructions on the stain, ensuring you allow more drying time in lower temperatures or when humidity is higher. When in doubt, wait a full 24 hours before applying the polyurethane on top.

7. Finish with a topcoat.

Once the stain is completely dry, you can apply polyurethane, or another protective finishing coat, to the wood. Use a water-based finish if you’ve used a water-based stain, or an oil-based finish if you’ve used an oil-based stain. You do not need to sand before applying the protective coat, doing so can result in fogging on the clear coat.  Follow the instructions on the topcoat to ensure you mix and apply the product correctly. Apply two coats of the protective finish, or more if directed, lightly sanding between coats with a 400 grit if needed.. Allow the topcoat to dry completely before installing your cabinet doors.

Best Stain for Red Oak

Choosing the best stain for red oak depends on several factors. From water-based stains to oil-based stains to wood dyes, each type of red oak stain offers different benefits, and has different requirements during application. Before making your final decision, consider the following.

  • Ease of application: Water-based stains and finishing coats apply more easily and are easy to clean up with soap and water.  Oil-based stains and finishing coats can be trickier to apply and require special solvents that must be disposed of properly. Oil-based products also have toxic fumes, so you’ll need proper ventilation while things dry.

  • Drying time: Oil-based stains and finishes take longer to dry than the water-based finishes and dyes. For oil-based products, you’ll need to wait until the next day for additional coats.

  • Depth of color: Gel stains and dyes often provide more pigment for staining red oak dark, while oil-based stains are better at providing a light stain for red oak. Make sure the stain you’re interested in offers red oak stain colors that match your desired hue. Depending on the desired look you may want to apply a glaze over the stain.  This will help darken any details that the door may have.

  • Durability: Oil-based stains naturally repel water to a certain extent, so they can be a good choice in a kitchen or bathroom where the wood is likely to come into contact with water. Also consider your topcoat, which will be essential for protecting your wood.

Ultimately, deciding on the best finish for red oak will depend on the factors that are most important to you, as well as your comfort with application and cleanup. 

Other Considerations for Red Oak Wood Stain

When it comes time to choose your red oak stain colors, it’s also helpful to consider the region where the red oak used in your cabinet doors was grown. Red oak from different regions has different color qualities, so you may want to treat each type differently. For example, southern red oak will have the widest color variations, while northern red oak will be the most uniform in color. This is important because wide variations in color, which are common in southern oaks, will be more obvious if finished with light stains of lacquer only. If attempting to make wide color variations seem less pronounced, a darker stain will help.

Less pronounced color variations are found in the growing regions of northern red oak, with the wheat color of glacial northern red oak being the most uniform in color. Because of this, cabinet doors made with high quality glacial northern red oak can be given a light stain—or even no stain and simply finished with polyurethane for a red oak clear finish—with excellent and even color results.

Achieving Different Red Oak Stain Colors with One Stain

Glacial northern red oak is used exclusively by Cabinetdoors.com in all our Select Red Oak Cabinet Doors, allowing you to get a beautiful uniform color, regardless of the finish you choose. Below are a few examples of cabinet door styles made from glacial northern red oak (with the exception of the Maverick Cabinet Door built in knotty northern red oak) showing how different depths of color from the same stain can provide a different look. Each of these red oak stained cabinets has been stained with differing amounts of Minwax Golden Oak.

Minwax Golden Oak Stain is an oil-based stain that is easy to use and produces exceptional results. It will provide a rich and even finish when used on cabinet doors manufactured with color-matched oak components. The top row of cabinet doors are stained with two coats of Minwax Golden Oak. Each coat was allowed to soak in for 15 minutes, then wiped dry with a clean rag. The first coat was allowed to dry for an additional 6 hours before the second coat was applied. The bottom row of cabinet doors were finished exactly like the top row, except that each coat of red oak wood stain was wiped off after being allowed to soak in for only 5 minutes.

As you can see, the doors on the top row that had the longer stain soaking time have a deeper hue, and the grain of the wood is enhanced beautifully. The doors with the shorter soaking time have a more subtle color, yet the grain of the wood is still clear and beautiful. This Golden Oak stain, like most wood stains, provides a darker finish if the stain is allowed to soak longer before wiping. It will also provide a darker finish when more coats are applied. This gives you the option to start with more subtle red oak stain colors if you prefer, and keep building until you reach the hue you want. 

Buy Red Oak Cabinet Doors at Cabinetdoors.com

If you are considering staining oak cabinets, we invite you to order your cabinet doors from Cabinetdoors.com. Our custom oak cabinet doors are unmatched when it comes to color matching, quality, and pricing. After over 40 years of manufacturing our quality cabinet doors, we’re one of the most experienced manufacturers in the country. Additionally, we have been offering our products online longer than any other cabinet door manufacturer, so we know how to meet our customer needs.

When you order from Cabinetdoors.com, you’re ordering factory direct, which means you save 30-50% on big box prices by skipping the middleman. You won’t have to go to a retail storefront, and you won’t have to bother with trying to track down a sales associate with the right information. Instead, you’ll be able to research, choose, and order your cabinet doors to your exact specifications all through our website. To get doors that are ready for you to stain, just order any unfinished cabinet door style, and they’ll be custom-sized, shipped from our factory, and arrive at your door ready for staining.

Ready to get started? Visit our website at www.cabinetdoors.com to explore our selection and your options. You’ll also find pricing, including shipping costs, so you can see exactly how much you’ll save on any of the hundreds of door styles we make. If you have any questions along the way, check out our blog and resources, or contact us online or by phone at 800-342-1010 for support. When it comes to red oak cabinet doors, Cabinetdoors.com always delivers. 

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