I'm helping a neighbor clean up their parents' house for sale. The kitchen custom cabinets with raised panel doors have a good bit of build-up from 20+ years of cooking. They are very good medium dark oak stained. Other than the build-up, they are in very good condition.

We are trying to do this quickly and at a low cost.

  • What kind of finish is on the doors? Are the doors oak or are they just stained to look like oak? This might be a good (better?) fit on the home improvement site, diy.se.
    – mmathis
    Nov 24 '18 at 4:24
  • Can you get sugar soap where you are? A hot sugar soap solution, hot enough that you need to wear stout gloves, is one of the standard ways this is dealt with over here if a commercial grease-cutting cleaner isn't being employed (and there are some very good ones even at the consumer level). Washing soda is available more widely and a strong solution of this will work similarly, but I think it's safest to use it not quite as hot as there's a slight risk of this damaging finishes.
    – Graphus
    Nov 24 '18 at 8:07
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    Really, is there a finish? You almost certainly do not want to use a cabinet scraper for this task which is what you are hinting at in your tag selection. If you use a scraper you will be totally refinishing the cabinets.
    – Ast Pace
    Nov 25 '18 at 1:49

Well, I've done this a few times when moving into cheap apartments back when folks smoked in their homes and exhaust fans were the work of the devil.

The pithy answer: mild degreaser, plastic scraper, lots and lots of elbow grease. The idea is you want the gunk to soften up and then help it peel off. Then deal with the stubborn parts that will just take more work.

Depending on the finish some might be pulled off. If the finish is cloudy or crazed in any way, it'll come off pretty much with any aggressive activity.

Per the comment, maybe try a mild degreaser in a hidden area to see how effective it is. If you need to step up to a strong alkali degreaser to really render that gunk, you can try the same area and make sure the finish can take it.

This way you do it in steps, from the minimum to "oh geez, gotta refinish it anyway". Which is always a possibility when refurbishing old stuff.

  • I agree with the gist of this but not sure about a mild degreaser being a requirement. Over here the better consumer-level kitchen cleaners specifically intended for tackling grease are actually pretty darn strong degreasers (e.g. some contain a certain amount of caustic soda).
    – Graphus
    Nov 27 '18 at 15:20
  • @Graphus, agreed. Maybe I would change things to say "try a mild degreaser until you see how that works vs. affecting the finish" and move onto something stronger if necessary. I have no idea how older finishes would stand up to the stronger degreasers out there. Though, most work by rendering the fat through that process I can't remember the name of, but strong alkalies are wonderful at.
    – jdv
    Nov 27 '18 at 15:23
  • Yes I think that working up through the options from weakest upwards is a good general practice if protecting the surface is of some importance. "I have no idea how older finishes would stand up to the stronger degreasers out there." Many do attack paints and clear coatings and have warnings accordingly, and a degraded older finish will always be weaker and more susceptible to damage than a newer finish in good condition. "most work by rendering the fat through that process I can't remember the name of, but strong alkalies are wonderful at" Saponification?
    – Graphus
    Nov 27 '18 at 15:33
  • Saponification is a specific process that is related, but my dim memory of high school chemistry is reminding me of another word. Oh well. During my brief search just now I saw that stronger alkalis are used to strip oil-based finishes. Which makes perfects sense when you think about it.
    – jdv
    Nov 27 '18 at 15:38
  • Yes you can strip almost all finishes using a strong enough alkali, including the bear of most stripping: milk paint. Shellac can be removed with a simple solution of washing soda! Only the best modern finishes, including some urethanes and epoxies, are strongly resistant to highly basic solutions (esp. when used hot).
    – Graphus
    Nov 27 '18 at 16:28

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