How to clean greasy kitchen cabinets without damaging the finish

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Q: How to clean greasy kitchen cabinets without damaging them? Mine are wood veneer and unpainted. I always wipe them down with Murphy’s Oil Soap, but that doesn’t seem to cut the grease.

A: Greasy residue is unavoidable in any kitchen used for cooking rather than reheating ready meals. But removing dirt without damaging cabinetry can be tricky, in part because you’re not usually trying to clean the wood itself. Unless the finish is worn, which sometimes happens around door handles or drawer pulls, the grease is on the finish. But what type of finish do you have? Some natural wood-look cabinets have a traditional oil finish, such as tungsten or flaxseed. Most, however, have a clear coating, often over a stain. It can be alkyd varnish, polyurethane, lacquer, acrylic, conversion varnish or other.

If your cabinets were made by a company that is a member of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, you should be able to find a company code, usually on the inside of a door or drawer. You can then use a manufacturer finder on the organization’s website (kcma.org) for company contact details and advice on how best to clean the finish.

Failing that, there are tests that can help you avoid damaging your cabinets.

Margaret Novak, who, with her family, runs a Furniture Medic business in Virginia (restorationmeubles.net) who occasionally does kitchen cabinet cleaning jobs, says the first step is to make sure the finish is intact. Pick a dirty spot and scrape it off with a fingernail, she says. “If you scratch and the finish comes off down to the bare wood, you know the cleaning will strip the finish.” Ditch the deep cleaning unless you’re ready to refinish the cabinets.

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But if everything looks fine, prepare a cleaning solution. Murphy Oil Soap is one option, but Christopher Brazie, technical services specialist for Sherwin-Williams Co.’s industrial wood coatings division, says it’s “one of the worst” options. Because it’s difficult to properly rinse a cabinet door or drawer after cleaning, an oil-based soap will likely leave an oily residue on the wood. “It works like a magnet for dirt,” he said, and you’ll have to clean much more frequently.

Instead, he recommends using a clear detergent designed for hand washing dishes, such as Dawn. Novak said she’s had great results with Totally Awesome Los Angeles All-Purpose Concentrated Cleaner, which she gets at Dollar Tree ($1.25 for 20 ounces). Other stores, including Home Depot, also carry it.

Dilute the cleanser you use; for LA, use ¼ cup cleanser to 2½ cups water. Dawn recommends adding a few drops of detergent to a bowl of warm water for general cabinet cleaning. For stubborn areas, it is advisable to squirt the detergent directly onto a sponge or cloth while holding it under warm running water. Test the cleaner on a small, inconspicuous area before committing to cleaning everything. Let the area dry and inspect it under a bright light to make sure you haven’t changed the sheen or color of the cabinet.

Using warm water with the cleanser helps because the heat softens the grease. But don’t overheat the water and be careful if you’re cleaning wood veneer. Heat and water can soften the adhesive used to attach veneer, and moisture can permanently warp particleboard, which is often used as a base for veneer.

Use a clean cloth or sponge to spread the cleaning solution. An old toothbrush can help get into corners. Avoid soaking the surface. Instead, clean only a small area at a time and wring out the sponge or cloth before wiping it down. Immediately rinse off the cleaner and any grime it has loosened from the area with a cool cloth or sponge dampened with water. Dry the area with a clean, soft cloth before tackling the next area. Microfiber cloths or old terry cloth towels work well because they can pick up and trap a lot of moisture.

If these steps still leave dirty areas, you may want to repeat the cleaning. Novak, however, recommends waiting for the area to dry completely between cleanings, as insurance against the introduction of such an amount of water that it penetrates through the surface.

Be sure to clean high-touch areas of cabinets frequently, Brazie said. In most kitchens, this means the front of the silverware drawer and the cabinet doors that store glasses and plates. The beauty of only using a mild, pH-balanced soap – as hand dishwashing detergents usually are to protect the skin – is that it is “multi-generational”, meaning it should work and not damage whether you have cabinets that are 50 years old and coated with shellac or just a few years old and finished with the latest high tech coating.

Some people recommend cleaning cabinets with mineral spirits to remove remaining grease. It’s fine with most cabinet finishes, but mineral spirits can leave an oily residue, creating the same problems as oil soap, Brazie said. He does not recommend it.

Even after this two-step cleaning, areas around knobs and handles may still look dull or different from the surrounding wood. Cleaning cannot solve these problems, but careful touch-ups can. Unless you’re fairly handy, you might want to hire a pro. Furniture Medic affiliates who offer the service typically charge between $600 and $800 for deep cleaning kitchen cabinets, Novak said, and restoring color and finish to bare areas could add $30 per door. or drawer. “It may seem expensive,” she said, but it’s actually the cheapest option for bringing a tired kitchen back to life, and the process usually only takes a day or two.

If you think you might be handy enough to do the touch-ups yourself, watch the “How to Touch Up Cabinet Doors” YouTube video, finishing from A-to-Zieg. It features color-matching products from Mohawk Finishing Products, including Finishing Toner Spray ($10.08 for 13 ounces). the Mohawk website, finish-mohawk.com, includes a color chart and a directory of stores that sell the products. Mohawk caters primarily to professionals, but offers consumers some of its easier-to-use products, such as touch-up markers in different wood colors and filler sticks for repairing scratches. These can also help restore cabinets to their best appearance.

A problem at home? Send your questions to [email protected]. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live, and try to include a photo.

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