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When you buy your unfinished cabinets, you will most likely buy either birch, or oak. Birch cabinets have a fine grain. Often times, these are painted...but stain looks great on them. If you put a cherry stain on, the birch will look like cherry.
Regardless of birch or oak, make sure you prepare the wood properly. Begin by lightly sanding the wood with a 120-grit sand paper. Work in the same direction as the grain or you’ll get scratches.
Do a second sanding using a 220-grit sandpaper. This is finer and designed to remove any scratches from the 120. It will also give the wood a smooth finish. Your final finish is only as smooth as the top of the wood.
Remove any dust and apply a coat of conditioner (Image 1). This acts as a sealer that helps the stain go on evenly. Let this dry.
Begin applying the stain. Go in a circular motion to let the stain go deep in the wood. Make a final pass going with the grain of the wood for a final even finish.
Remember, stain is for the color of the cabinets. It does not protect the wood. You need to put on a finish. If you use an oil-based stain, use an oil-based polyurethane for a finish. Apply two coats — this will ensure your wood’s protection.