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How to Clean and Maintain Wooden Cabinets

Cabinets are the backbone of your kitchen, bathroom, or office storage, and they work hard to keep you organized. They can look good doing it too, providing both functionality and aesthetic appeal. But they do need your help from time to time, to keep them looking their best and to bolster their strength against natural wear or any environmental hazards.

If you take proper care of your cabinets, they’ll last much longer and they can remain new-looking even if they’re decades old, and much of their care is surprisingly easy.

How Often Do Cabinets Need Cleaning or Maintenance?

Wooden cabinets are an investment for your home, and they should be treated as such. I’m not saying you should treat them like priceless artifacts and get upset if they get a scratch on them — they’re meant to be used, and normal usage is going to expose them to less-than-ideal conditions which you can mitigate with simple care tips. Going out of your way to handle them with kid gloves would defeat the purpose of cabinets altogether since storage is meant to be functional.

This is also where your choice of cabinets matters the most, in the sense that cheaply made cabinets are automatically less durable to go with their reduced price. Better-quality wooden cabinets are not only more valuable, they’re also a lot tougher (and their pricing doesn’t have to break the bank — “cheap” and “cheaply made” are not automatically the same thing!)

So how often do you really need to clean wooden cabinets? If you’re dreading a weekly scrubdown with reeking chemicals, you’ll be relieved to learn it’s not like that whatsoever (and that’s actually pretty close to the opposite of what you should do). Most of the time you’ll be using a soft cloth and maybe a bit of dish soap, or even just water, and that’s only if a simple dry dusting won’t handle it. Most cleaning tasks are small and quick, with the occasional more in-depth cleaning only necessary once in a while. Of course, the more often you clean, the less you’ll have to do each time.

Preventive Care for Wooden Cabinets

I’ve split all the best cleaning tips into categories based on how often they need to be done and how serious they are. We’ll start with preventive care, which means doing what you can to stop too much mess or damage from occurring in the first place. You may have trouble with a few of these guidelines — for example, you may not have any control over the layout of the room and how much sun it can get, and in some parts of the world the environment itself is going to fight you with excessive humidity — but you can still do something for your cabinets, and in many cases you can do more than you might think. Other guidelines are easy and mostly involve simply paying attention.

  • Avoid too much direct sunlight: While a sunny kitchen can be an ideal workspace thanks to plenty of natural light, too much sun can slowly damage your cabinets over time. The finish can fade, and worse, the wood can even dry out and crack. This is something to keep in mind if you’re building a home and still in the design stage, but even if everything is already built and installed you can take some control by installing blinds or curtains in your kitchen windows. You don’t have to leave them closed all the time, either! The point is to avoid prolonged sun exposure, not all sun exposure.

  • Understand finishes and protective coatings: Finishes can be beautiful and durable, but they have their limits. The Sherwin Williams finishes we use at Online Cabinets Direct are top quality, so while they’re not invincible to all damage, they’re tough enough to preserve the wood and look good doing it too. Additional protective coatings can further defend your cabinets against moisture and wear, and are available in both natural materials like wax and synthetic ones like polyurethane. They aren’t strictly necessary, but you may be interested in applying a protective coating, so make sure you find one that doesn’t unexpectedly alter the cabinets’ color too much and always follow the manufacturer’s application (and reapplication) instructions.

  • Keep humidity under control: While being too dry is bad for wood, being too moist is bad too — but what’s really the worst is moisture that fluctuates too much. Wood swells when it’s wet, and if your environment is going from very humid to very dry, quickly and often, the constant changes will strain the wood and eventually lead to warps and cracks. Now, the natural humidity will vary greatly depending on where you live, but cabinets in a kitchen are regularly exposed to steam. Even if you live in a dry climate and need to use humidifiers in other rooms, you might want a dehumidifier in the kitchen. In humid climates you’re even more likely to need one — the air conditioner can do a lot of work pulling moisture out of the air, but sometimes it’s not enough alone.

  • Ensure good ventilation: Ventilation helps prevent moisture buildup (which could lead to eventual mildew or mold), but it’s not all about the humidity — proper ventilation can also draw particulates out of the room before they can settle on your cabinets or other surfaces, keeping them cleaner to begin with. Kitchens without a good range hood suffer a slow, invisible buildup of grease on every surface, which will also attract dust.

  • Keep exposure to liquids to a minimum: Since wood is susceptible to water damage, avoid exposure as much as possible. Yes, the finish provides a great deal of protection, but you should view it as giving you the time to wipe up a spill rather than have it soak in immediately, not as an impenetrable shell on the surface. Spills should be wiped up as soon as possible using a dry cloth to soak them up. When you wipe down your cabinets with a damp cloth (as I describe shortly), never use a cloth that’s too wet and always wring it out first.

  • Be gentle with your investment: Yes, I did say that needing to handle your cabinets too gently is a waste of time, but just because you shouldn’t have to tiptoe around them like they’re made from spun glass doesn’t mean you should go too far in the other direction and start slamming the doors. Just don’t use excessive force. It can be tempting to shove a cabinet door closed with whatever you’re carrying if your hands are full, but if you’re carrying something hot or with a sharp corner, you can cause damage. Just be mindful.

  • Make regular inspections: It’s better to catch a potential problem early, so periodically inspect your cabinets for any water spots, stains, cracks, chips, or other signs of damage. You don’t need to put your entire kitchen under a microscope every day, but the point is to catch any issues and address them early before they have a chance to get worse.

Day-to-Day Cleaning for Wooden Cabinets

The key to preventing a mess from getting too big is to clean it up before it has a chance to grow.  

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