How to Clean Kitchen Cabinets – Do's and Don'ts

When it comes to when to clean your kitchen cabinets, the answer is as simple - any time is the right time to begin. When it comes to how to clean your kitchen cabinets, the answer is a more complex composition. The techniques and products you’ll want to use will depend on what your cabinets are made from.

How to Clean Wood Cabinets - Alkaline or Acidic Cleaning Products?

The difference between alkaline and acidic is the difference in a material’s (or a chemical’s) pH balance. Any material or chemical with a pH lower than 7 is considered acidic, while a material or chemical higher than 7 is considered alkaline. Dish soap is considered neutral with a pH ranging between 7 and 8. Wood has a natural pH that ranges between 4 and 6, making it slightly acidic. However, wood also consists of many organic compounds. And those compounds differ from species to species, from tree to tree, and even from heartwood (the outer part of a log) to sapwood (the inner part). Any alkaline or acidic cleaner you use on wood will create a chemical reaction. And because of the wood’s natural variation in pH, that reaction will likely be unpredictable (but rarely positive). High alkaline cleaners such as ammonia, baking powder, or sodium hydroxide tend to leave dark stains on the wood (iron tannate discoloration). While acidic cleaners such as vinegar, lemon juice or tub and tile cleaners are corrosive and will damage wood cabinets, whether finished or not.

Use pH Neutral Cleaners

You want to ensure that any cleaning product you use on wood has a pH balance between 6 and 8. Water (with a pH of 7) and dish soap (with a pH between 7 and 8) are always good options. The best cleaner, the one that is less likely to do damage to the wood is good old-fashioned elbow grease. Applied with a damp cloth, elbow grease should be effective at removing dirt and dust and even oil and grease build-up.

The Do’s and Don’ts on Cabinet Cleaners

Do:

  • Use a pH neutral cleaner (such as mild dish soap and water)
  • Remember to wipe dry any excess moisture from cleaning

Don’t:

  • Use vinegar, lemon juice, or other acidic cleaning products
  • Soak the cabinets or use excessive amounts of water
  • Use hot air, such as a hairdryer, to dry the wood

Home Remedies You Should Avoid

Unfortunately, the internet is laden with articles espousing the benefits of one home remedy or the other to use when cleaning kitchen cabinets as an alternative to cleaning products. These remedies, for the most part, have been debunked and proven to not only be ineffective but can actually damage your cabinets. Nevertheless, these home remedy tips persist.

Don’t Use Vinegar and Water

Vinegar is acidic and will damage your wood cabinets. While it is true that if heavily diluted, vinegar will lose much of its acidity, but when diluted it will also lose much of its properties that make it an effective cleaner. Diluted vinegar is no more effective than dish soap. And if not diluted enough, you will risk causing permanent damage to your wood cabinets. Diluted vinegar can be an effective cleaning agent when used on metal surfaces such as ovens, microwaves, tea kettles, and pots and pans. However, it should not be used on wood.

Don’t Use Baking Soda

Baking soda is an alkaline compound with a pH level between 8 and 9. It is corrosive to wood and should only be used on surfaces such as ceramic and porcelain, e.g., bathroom tiles, bathtubs, and toilet bowls. Like vinegar, when diluted, baking soda loses much of its corrosive characteristics. But it will still be too corrosive for wood and not more effective than elbow grease and dish soap.

Don’t Use Olive Oil

When it comes to made-up home remedies, olive oil always seems to make the list. As a cleaning agent, olive oil is not at all effective. It is a non-drying oil, meaning that it will leave behind a film that is likely to attract dust and dirt, making your cabinets even more difficult to clean down the road. Some purport that olive oil will replenish wood and give it a nice shine. There is no evidence to suggest that olive oil has any replenishing characteristics. And the shine is the result of oil residue, which will invariably spoil over time and emit an unpleasant odor.

The Importance of Rinsing and Drying

If you use any kind of cleaning agent (even dish soap), you will need to wipe the surface clean with a damp cloth. Any residue left behind could potentially create an unsightly film or could create a chemical reaction with the wood that could potentially result in a loss or change in color. Once the wood has been rinsed clean of any cleaning agent, you will want to make sure that the surface is thoroughly dried. The presence of water on an organic surface such as wood can quickly become an attractive breeding ground for mold and bacteria. Furthermore, water can cause the wood to expand, leading to deformation, splintering and cracking. Make sure that once you’ve finished cleaning, you wipe the surface with a dry cloth. Do not use hot air to dry your wood kitchen cabinets. This will dry the wood far more than needed and will potentially lead to the wood fibers shrinking, resulting in cracks and splinters.

How to Clean Laminate Cabinets

Laminate cabinets are easier to clean than wood cabinets. However, it is also easier for grease and food deposits to dirty a laminate cabinet, too. Therefore, while laminate cabinets may be easier to clean than their wood counterparts, they may be in need of more frequent, albeit quick, attention.

Frequent Dusting

Dust tends to stick to all surfaces - especially laminate cabinets. To remove dust build-up, use a lint-free cloth or duster and work from the top down. Don’t forget the corners, which are especially good at collecting dust.

Clean With Mild Dish Soap

Like with wood cabinets, you shouldn’t need to resort to abrasive cleaning products like vinegar or baking soda to remove dirt and grease from your laminate kitchen cabinets. A bit of dish soap in warm water applied with a good dose of elbow grease should be more than sufficient. Don’t forget to clean the handles and hinges.

Rinse and Dry

Once you’ve finished cleaning with detergent, rinse the surfaces with a clean cloth and warm water. Warm water evaporates far more quickly than cold or room-temperature water. And the less time your cabinets are exposed to water, the better. Immediately after you’ve rinsed any detergent or cleaning agent off your cabinets, you’ll want to wipe them down with a dry cloth. Laminate surfaces that are exposed to water over long periods of time tend to warp and crack.

Avoid Using Vinegar or Baking Soda

Contrary to many articles circulating on the web, white vinegar and baking soda are poor cleaning agents for kitchen cabinets, wood or laminate. White vinegar is effective at cleaning soap build-up and mineral deposits, which are highly unlikely to be a problem in kitchen cabinets. But white vinegar and baking soda are abrasive and are more likely to do more harm than good. Baking soda binds to the surface and, if not thoroughly rinsed and wiped clean, will leave a pale white film behind, dulling any shine your cabinets might otherwise have provided.

Avoid Abrasive Scouring Tools

Tools such as scouring pads, steel wool, or wire-bristled brushes are best used on metal surfaces like kitchenware - pots and pans. When used to clean a smooth surface - wood or laminate - they will invariably leave behind scratches. Laminate cabinets are best cleaned with a damp soft or microfiber cloth.

When Elbow Grease and Mild Dish Soap Aren’t Enough

For grease, oil, or food stains that have been left unattended for extended periods of time, simple elbow grease and mild dish soap may not be enough to get rid of them. You will have to move on to more aggressive cleaning products. Only use more aggressive cleaning products after you’ve exhausted the option of elbow grease and dish soap. Aggressive cleaning products are likely to cause some amount of damage to your cabinets. And the chances of causing damage only increase with repeated use. If you find you need to use a more aggressive cleaning product, start with a slightly more aggressive one at first and work your way up as needed. The ideal pH of the cleaning product you’ll want to use falls in the range of 6 to 8. Anything higher or lower should only be employed if all the other options have been exhausted. For stubborn grease stains, many homeowners recommend diluting white vinegar. While this can be effective, it can also be harmful to your laminate surface. If you’ve exhausted all other options and decide to go this route, start by heavily diluting the vinegar and only decrease the dilution if needed. When using aggressive cleaning agents, you’ll need to pay extra attention to rinsing them from your cabinet surfaces. And don’t forget to dry with a clean, lint-free cloth.

When Cleaning Isn't Enough

You’ve exhausted your supply of elbow grease. You’ve even experimented with more aggressive cleaners like white vinegar or powerful commercial cleaning products. And yet, your cabinets still appear dull, dirty or simply unsightly. All hope is not lost, there are still steps you can take to give your old kitchen a new, clean look. And the steps aren’t necessarily complicated or overly costly.

Cabinet Refacing

You can keep your existing cabinet boxes and maintain the familiar layout of your kitchen while making it look brand new. With cabinet refacing, you can create a “new kitchen” look without the “new kitchen” price tag. Cabinet refacing involves removing the existing doors and drawer fronts and replacing them with new ones. The existing cabinet boxes are prepped and a veneer, or new skin, is applied to the outward-facing portions of the boxes to match the new doors and drawer fronts.

Cabinet Refacing - DIY or Hire a Professional?

Cabinet refacing, when done right, requires a keen eye for detail and a comprehensive knowledge of the appropriate tools and materials. Additionally, many of the tools required can be expensive and, when not used correctly, can be damaging to both yourself and to your cabinets. Even those experienced with woodworking could benefit from hiring a professional - professional cabinet remodelers who have access to the best tools, knowledge of measurements and access to the best products. For those who are not experienced with woodworking, doing a cabinet refacing job yourself is definitely not recommended. The necessary tools require special skills and know-how to be used effectively and safely. Most cabinet refacing jobs can be done in as little as two days (up to four for a particularly large kitchen). You can request a free quote from Kitchen Tune-Up for your cabinet refacing project.

Our Exclusive 1 Day Tune-Up

Sometimes, even if your kitchen cabinets are clean, they still don’t have that fresh, vibrant look you want from them. Applying wax or polishing agents doesn’t seem to do the trick, either - if anything, it only serves to highlight the problem. For these cases, Kitchen Tune-Up has the perfect solution in our unique, comprehensive proprietary wood reconditioning process we call a Tune-Up. We separate then remove the build-up of grease, wax, smoke, and dust. We touch up and blend areas where the color may have dulled or faded, then apply a special colorant to revitalize. We finish by treating the cabinets with a special penetrating oil that restores dried-out wood fibers and then apply a fresh coat of finish. The Tune-Up generally takes one day to complete. Request a free quote online today to see how we can revitalize your kitchen cabinets and give them a new lease of life!

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