How to Clean Kitchen Cabinets

The kitchen that we are working on is in a home built in 1977. The house is a split level with very dark woodwork including the kitchen cabinets. The dilemma was that the house was to be sold and the kitchen needed to look good without buying new cabinets. The cabinets are scratched, stained with food and very greasy along the top over the stove area. We decided to deep clean the kitchen cabinets and see if we could save some money by restoring them and not replacing them.

Clean kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them
This is a picture of the kitchen after we restored the finish on the cabinets.

We like to clean with nontoxic chemicals so it was important for us to find a natural cleaner that was safe on wood, could cut the grease and grime and not have any harmful fumes or residues. Murphy’s oil soap worked extremely well and is made from vegetable oil and is biodegradable and phosphate free. The other items you will need to clean those greasy kitchen cabinets are in a project tool list at the end of this article.

The key to getting the grease and grime off the cabinets is to wear rubber gloves which allow you to use very hot water with the Murphy’s oil soap. Put on your gloves and use a bucket to make up a gallon of cleaner following the directions on the label. We used 1 gallon of very hot water and 1/2 cup of Murphy’s for the very tops of the cabinets that were extremely dirty and greasy. You’ll also need a sponge that has a scrubber side to scrub off the grease and a rag to dry areas that you’ll need to saturate to get clean.

Inspect the tops of your kitchen cabinets first and if you find large dust balls or bits of dirt you can use a small broom or brush and dust pan to remove the bulky dirt. The more you do prep work the easier the cleanup afterwards, and the better the quality of the job. Start at the very top of the cabinets on the cleanest side and bring your bucket with you because you will be rinsing often. I stood on the counter tops because it was more stable than a chair so you may want to protect your counter with some taped down packing paper or a barrier. In this case be especially careful about your footing! Note that newspaper and similar printed papers can leave ink stains on the counter tops!

Take the sponge and dip it into the hot cleaning mixture and wring it out half way; you’ll need to get the dust and grime pretty wet so it comes off the wood. I got the area wet and then used the scrubby side of the sponge to remove the grimy stuff. I also used a tooth brush to clean in the grooves of the kitchen cabinets.

Remember not to leave to much liquid on the wood because you don’t want to damage it by raising the grain. Work in small areas and dry each area that is clean with a rag or soft cloth. You’ll want to remember to change your cleaning solution often as you will notice the color of the solution darken and become full of dust, dirt and greasy residue. You don’t want to keep spreading dirt back on to your cabinets. You’ll also need a few of the scrubby sponges because once one gets filled with the dirty built-up grease you need to throw it away and use a new one.

greasy dusty grime from ontop kitchen cabinets
This is a picture of the wet greasy grime that has been scrubbed from the top of the kitchen cabinets.

If your kitchen cabinets are very greasy on top you’ll notice grease collecting on the scrubby and also leaving little wet rolls of matted grease and dust that are hard to pick up. Just use a small brush or dry rag to sweep them into a dust pan. You don’t want these to get dropped onto your counter top, stove or floor. You’ll want to be careful as they make a real mess if they get onto anything else.

throw away grimy sponges to prevent spreading grease residue
Change your sponge before it gets this dirty. If you don’t change your sponge you will only be spreading the grease to other areas.

When you are finished cleaning the dirtiest part of the kitchen cabinets, remember to change your sponge and the cleaning water. I cleaned 4 upper kitchen cabinets and changed the water 3 times. Again, use a cloth to dry any excess water as water may damage the wood if left on too long. Let the cabinets thoroughly dry. If you notice that they look a little milky then you need to clean them again. The milky residue comes from the dirt and cooking grease starting to dissolve. If you see gummy or milky residue; change your sponge and cleaning solution and redo the area. The kitchen cabinets that we were working on were pretty bad and had not been cleaned in about 10 years so we just kept changing the water when it got dirty and the Murphy’s oil soap cut through all that grime.

after scrubbing on the left
The left door has been cleaned and scrubbed. The door on the right was cleaned and then treated with Old English scratch cover.

After thorough overnight drying we put drop cloths under the area we were working because the next step gets a little messy and you would not want to stain your floor or counter tops. We used Old English scratch cover for dark woods since our cabinets are dark brown. This product helps cover nicks and scratches and helps restore damaged wood surfaces. You’ll want to use gloves to apply the scratch cover because it contains a dark runny pigment that you don’t want to stain your hands.

Generously pour some of the scratch cover on the cloth and wipe scratches and nicks making sure the liquid is penetrating the wood. After you fill all the nicks and scratches go over the whole cabinet spreading evenly. I’d let it soak in a few minutes and then if it needs a second coat you can wipe with the cloth again. Wipe dry with a clean cloth and buff to remove the extra polish and bring out the new finish.

left door untreated
The left door has been cleaned and scrubbed. The door on the right was cleaned and then treated with Old English scratch cover.

As a bonus the kitchen area smells better as we removed all the stinky grease that had collected on the cabinets. The kitchen cabinets look amazing and it only cost $21 in supplies to complete this project. We saved lots of money by not having to replace the kitchen cabinets. This whole project took us a few days to complete because of all of the scrubbing and drying times in between but it was definitely a smart decision.

To do this project you need these tools:

  • Rubber gloves
  • 3-6 sponges with scrubber sides
  • Bucket
  • Hot water
  • Dust pan
  • Brush , whisk broom or thick rag
  • Murphy’s Oil Soap
  • Old English Scratch Cover
  • Toothbrush
  • Clean rags
  • Newspapers