Here are some simple and creative approaches to consider when refinishing oak cabinets with style.
Oak, by nature, is a highly grained wood. This grain pattern will always be a dominate factor in the final look of your finished project. The grain can be highlighted (made more dominate) by flooding the surface of the wood with a oil base stain and wiping away the stain residue. Although the stain will tint the overall wood surface, it will deepen in the pockets of the grain, creating a rich accent to the surface of the wood. I recommend oil base stain; it is easy absorbed, and excess stain is easily removed with a soft, clean rag, dampened with mineral spirits. Water base stains, although environmentally friendly, are not as forgiving, and they tend to deeply penetrate the wood, creating lap marks which are not easily removed.
When staining oak cabinets, consider colors such as golden oak, maple, colonial oak, and pecan. These are the most common, and they work well, bringing out the natural beauty of oak wood. Dark colors such as walnut, ebony, or cherry tend to rob the oak of its natural beauty, building too much color overall, and over-darkening both grain and the surface of the wood.
One creative approach is to Whitewash the wood, often called pickling. Using an opaque white oil stain, liberally wash down the cabinets, allowing the pigment to saturate the grain. Then wipe away the excess stain, leaving the desired tint of white on the overall surface of the wood. The grain will hold a deeper white opaque.
Another popular finish is the "natural" finish. Here you may want to close the grain of the wood, so when applying a clear coat, there won't be any accent color, or darkening, of the grain. This is accomplished by applying a grain filler prior to top coating the cabinets. Grain filler can be found along side top coat finishes and stains at your local paint or home supply store.
Whether you choose to have a natural or stained finish, allow the cabinets to completely dry over night before applying a clear top coat. Oil based urethane is a good choice for durability, but will tend to yellow in a few years, darkening the original color of the cabinets. This can be a disaster for the whitewash finish, turning the white into yellow. However oil-based urethane can create a nice warm feeling to cabinets stained with golden oak, or pecan colors. For easy clean up, with soap and water, consider using a water base top coat. Remember, water base stains and top coats are best applied with a sponge brush, which will provide a professional finished look.
Regardless of your stain, or top coat product selection, be sure to follow the manufacturers instructions, and your sure to achieve beautiful results.