How to Degrease and Clean Wood Cabinets

Sep 21, 2021

How to Degrease and Clean Wood Cabinets

Sep 21, 2021

This post contains affiliate links. This means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you. Read my disclosure here.

behr white paint colors
behr white paint printable free guide

Welcome to my first post from our new house – full of tips to degrease and clean wood cabinets. Woohoo! Years of baked-on grease can really do a number on wood cabinets. If you’ve ever tried to clean sticky old wood, you know exactly how challenging this project can be. I dove deep into research on the best and easiest ways to clean wood cabinets, tried a few methods, and finally found a winner. Read on for advice and ideas.

clean wood cabinets in kitchen

Topics in This Post:

When to Clean Wood Cabinets
Tips Before You Begin
Crowd-Sourced Ideas to Clean Wood Cabinets
Good Products That Might Work
What Actually Worked for Us
How to Clean Cabinets With Baking Soda + Dawn
Dawn Powerwash Comparison Test
Tips for Cleaning Metal Hardware
How Our Kitchen Looks Today

Free Guide to DIY

Read More About Our DIY House Updates

Favorite Behr White Paint Colors
Closet Door Ideas to Update Any Room
How to Apply Gold Leaf to Glass Decor
Trends in Cabinet Hardware

When to Clean Wood Cabinets

Honestly, you should wipe down your cabinets regularly. Once food is stuck on cabinets for too long, it can damage the finish when you try to clean it off. It’s better to avoid this type of deep cleaning in the first place unless you plan to paint.

Read More: The Best Paint for Kitchen Cabinets

our new old kitchen

When we moved into our new home, it had been decently cleaned out by the previous owners. The walls still needed a good scrubbing, but everything else was at least surface-wiped. However, as I started to unpack our dishes, I realized that the old wood cabinets were coated in years of grease. Most of the brass handles were sticky to the touch, and the surface of the wood doors and drawers were very tacky. Time for a major deep cleaning. Here’s what worked best for me.

Read More: We Bought a New House!

how to clean wood cabinets

Tips Before You Begin

  1. FYI, old cabinets will not look brand new when you’re done. Once grime has built up on wood cabinets, it tends to ruin the finish on the wood. No matter which method you choose, you will likely have areas where the finish has worn away after you clean off the grease. As far as I know, there is no good way to avoid this – that’s why it’s important to clean wood cabinets regularly, so grease doesn’t have a chance to build up. It’s also critical to run your exhaust fan while cooking, so grease in the air is pulled out of your kitchen.
  2. If you’re concerned about damaging your wood cabinets, test out your methods on the backs of doors first. When the fronts are sticky, the backs probably are, too.
  3. If you plan to paint your cabinets anyway, go to town on the degreasing and scrubbing. Wear that finish right off!
  4. Remove hardware before you begin cleaning, if possible. This makes your wood surface smoother and easier to clean, and I have a few recommendations to clean up the metal pulls or knobs. See below.
remove hardware

Free Guide to DIY

Read More About Our DIY House Updates

Favorite Behr White Paint Colors
Closet Door Ideas to Update Any Room
How to Apply Gold Leaf to Glass Decor
Trends in Cabinet Hardware


Crowd-Sourced Ideas to Clean Wood Cabinets

I looked for cleaning suggestions in a few of my favorite places: various Facebook groups and a general Google search. Laundry Love & Cleaning Science is my go-to resource for any tough cleaning questions. I also looked for suggestions in the Kitchen Cabinet Painting Experts group, since they know all about how to prep grimy old cabinets for painting. Between the two sources, these products and methods were mentioned the most:

You’ll also need:

*Side note: if you are concerned about safe/clean ingredients, more power to you. I didn’t set that filter on my project because I wanted a product that would cut the grime quickly and easily, although I did avoid TSP. For day-to-day cleaning, I use milder cleaning products. Do what works for you!


Good Products That Might Work . . .

For my first attempt, I bought Method Heavy Duty Degreaser and Murphy Oil Soap, just to try a couple of options. These were both highly reviewed by random people on the internet who cleaned old cabinets. So there you go.

method and murphy oil to clean wood cabinets
Method Heavy Duty Degreaser | Murphy Oil Soap

After some trial and error, I realized that Method degreaser works great on fresher spills, but it couldn’t cut through the thick tackiness on our cabinets. Murphy Oil Soap smells like a citronella candle, which is pleasant, but it also didn’t work to dissolve the old grease. I even followed internet advice to use “screaming hot water” and it still didn’t work. (Isn’t that phrase great, though?)

See the haze on the wood? That’s stubborn grease that didn’t come off after my first attempts.

grease doors

Dawn to the Rescue – no Surprise Here!

I don’t know what magic is in the original blue Dawn, but it is such a powerful degreaser. My third attempt to clean these guys with a Dawn and baking soda paste was finally the winner. I even tried two kinds of Dawn, the original gold standard and the new Dawn Powerwash spray. The original worked best, but the Powerwash was great for a second pass at tough spots.

Read More: DIY and Natural Cleaners That Really Work

dawn to clean wood cabinets
Dawn | Dawn Powerwash

Here’s what I Suggest:

Buy a large bottle of original blue Dawn. No need to get fancy with 30x cleaning power or whatever is advertised. Home Depot and Target usually sell large bottles of the original Dawn, if you don’t see it at your grocery store.

The best deal on baking soda is at Costco. I use this all the time for cleaning bathtubs, but if you won’t use a 13.5 lb bag, Target sells 3.5 lb bags for under $3.

You’ll also need a bowl or other container, cleaning rags, and gloves.

dawn and baking soda
bar mops | baking soda | Dawn

I also used this scrubbing tile brush and scrub sponge to get into the grooves and corners. Anything similar would work.

scrub brushes to clean wood cabinets
brush | sponge

Free Guide to DIY

Read More About Our DIY House Updates

Favorite Behr White Paint Colors
Closet Door Ideas to Update Any Room
How to Apply Gold Leaf to Glass Decor
Trends in Cabinet Hardware


How to Clean Wood Cabinets with Baking Soda + Dawn

Basics:

  1. Make a paste with Dawn and baking soda
  2. Lay old towels underneath your project
  3. Smear paste onto all sticky wood surfaces
  4. Wait 20 minutes
  5. Scrub well with rags and very hot water
  6. Wipe clean with water

Here’s the Nitty-Gritty:

1. Mix up a paste of Dawn and baking soda. I just eyeballed the quantities, but it’s roughly 1/3 Dawn to 2/3 baking soda. Pull on your cleaning gloves and just mix the paste by hand. I used a resealable take-out container because I worked on this project over a few days and saved the paste.

mix dawn and baking soda
paste

2. Lay old towels on the floor, or on the counter underneath upper cabinets. This is a little messy.

3. Smear the paste onto the wood – try to cover all tacky parts of your cabinets. If it’s hard to spread, add a few drops of water to smooth it out. Give the baking soda time to soak up grease; later it will act as a mild abrasive to scrub off the grime.

clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda
paste on doors

(You’ll see the hardware is still on the cabinets in some of these photos. That was just because I was lazy. It’s better to remove it before starting this project. Once I realized I could pop off the decorative piece behind the knobs, I redid a bunch of these doors without any hardware in the way. MUCH better decision.)

4. Wait at least 20 minutes. I just moved on to covering other doors and drawers. By the time I returned to wash off the paste where I started, it had been at least 20 minutes.

clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda paste

5. Use old rags or microfiber and very hot water to scrub off grease. Start by placing a hot, wet rag over the paste to let everything soften a bit more. Then start scrubbing. This is where elbow grease kicks in – you may need to scrub really well in some areas. I scrubbed mainly with rags and hit the corners and crevices with the brush.

place hot rags on paste
bar mops
clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda paste
clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda paste then scrub

6. Wipe down surfaces with clean, wet rags until the soapy paste has been cleaned off.

wipe clean with hot water

I hate to say it, but you might have to repeat these steps for really stubborn spots. (Annoying, I know!)

Here’s a good shot to show you a cleaned drawer front, where the finish has worn away with the grease. There is also one small spot circled, where I didn’t manage to scrub grease off on the first pass.

stubborn grease spots

Will Dawn Powerwash Work as Well?

Here’s an interesting plot twist. I also tried using Dawn Powerwash and hot water to remove the grease. After reading a few reviews about build-up just “melting” off with Dawn Powerwash, which sounds disgusting, but also easy, I tried it. I sprayed the cleaner on these doors above the oven, and it’s true – after a few minutes, the grease DID start to run off! It’s hard to see in the photo, but the drips are actually brown. (And you’re welcome for this visual! Ha!)

dawn powerwash spray on doors

However, this detergent alone did not fully dissolve the years of caked-on goodness, even with plenty of scrubbing. Here’s my second attempt to use Dawn Powerwash, this time on a set of drawers.

First, I sprayed everything down. This product has a very forceful spray, and it foams upon contact.

clean wood cabinets with dawn powerwash

After a few minutes, the foam starts to dissolve and the soap runs. I tried scrubbing the drawers with hot water and rags at that point, but I didn’t get far.

Next, I added a little baking soda to the mix and tried scrubbing that combo together. I let it sit on the wood for a few minutes, draped hot rags over each drawer, and then went to town trying to scrub off the build-up. Then, I wiped everything clean with wet rags.

wipe doors clean
bar mops | Dawn Powerwash | baking soda

It partially worked, but there were still stubborn grime spots along the grooves and under the hardware.

dawn powerwash left some grime on doors

Free Guide to DIY

Read More About Our DIY House Updates

Favorite Behr White Paint Colors
Closet Door Ideas to Update Any Room
How to Apply Gold Leaf to Glass Decor
Trends in Cabinet Hardware


Verdict: Original Dawn + Baking Soda Works Best

For my project, the original Dawn and baking soda paste was the most powerful and effective degreaser. If you don’t have the intense build-up that we had, one of these other methods might work for you. That Dawn Powerwash is incredible stuff! Unfortunately, it was no match for our kitchen cabinet cleaning challenge.

clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda paste

Tips for Cleaning Metal Hardware

If you plan to keep your pulls, remove them and try shining them up with Bar Keepers Friend or Bon Ami. I have both the powder and liquid versions of Bar Keepers Friend because they are so darn effective. I’ve also used Bon Ami in the past and it is worth a try if you’re concerned about ingredients in Bar Keepers.

barkeepers friend for hardware
Bar Keepers Friend shaker can | liquid soft cleanser

It’s best to remove the hardware and clean it separately. Halfway through my project, I popped off the decorative pieces behind the original knobs, which made life much easier.

remove hardware

Another option to consider is to replace the hardware. In our kitchen, I scrubbed some of the knobs in my cleaning trials, but I couldn’t get them completely clean. Instead, I just ordered some cheap knobs on Amazon. I spent $40 for 60 knobs, to replace the old ones in the short term. This is just a stopgap measure, so we can stop touching sticky cabinet knobs.

new knobs
new knobs on door
new knobs on clean cabinets
knobs

Our Kitchen Today

Ta-da! Our kitchen is much more pleasant to use, now that the cabinets are degreased. I invested a number of hours into this project, but all that time and energy was well-spent.

Read More: The Easiest Way to Paint Cabinets

clean wood cabinets with dawn and baking soda paste

Plus, another surprise – we removed some of the upper cabinets over the peninsula. I know that I said we wouldn’t change a thing yet, but these uppers were driving us nuts, because we couldn’t see past them to chat with our kids during meals. They eat almost exclusively at the counter while we stand in the kitchen. Does anyone else do this?

We went from this arrangement:

old kitchen view

To this, a more open and light-filled kitchen. There’s a tiny bit of trim left to remove from the ceiling, but this is a much more functional space for us.

Now I’m off to make more applesauce from our abundant backyard harvest. It’s wonderful to cook in a clean kitchen!

new kitchen view

How Do *You* Clean Wood Cabinets?

Do you have any tricks or tips to add to this post? I would love to know if ammonia is really the magical solution I read about (but did not try). Or if I should have tried Krud Kutter after all! Share your thoughts!

Plus, stay tuned for a fall wreath DIY project next Tuesday…

More Kitchen Posts from List in Progress

list in progress projects

1 – 2021 Kitchen Trends to Consider
2 – Costs and Lessons Learned from Our DIY Kitchen Remodel
3 – The Best Paints for Kitchen Cabinets
4 – Choosing a Subway Tile Backsplash Layout

Erin

Hi! I’m Erin, a Colorado-based home improvement blogger and lover of all things DIY. I aim to inspire creative folks to tackle home improvement with confidence and style. Read more here

free guide to diy

Get the Inside Scoop!

P.S. If you liked this post, you might also like my List in Progress Newsletter.

Receive my new blog posts, bloopers, and behind-the-scenes content delivered straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll get instant access to my free resource library! Sign up right here!

list in progress site
list in progress site

Share Your Thoughts:

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
4 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Suzanne
Suzanne
11 months ago

Good tip on where to buy Blue Dawn. It’s a staple in my cleaning closet!

Charlie Snook
Charlie Snook
11 months ago

I’m getting ready to paint our kitchen cabinets so this was a very timely article. I bought TSP but would prefer to try something less harsh, so I might give the Dawn/Baking Soda combo a whirl! Thanks for always sharing such helpful info!

free guide to white behr paint

Grab Your Free Guide!

Success! Please check your email.