How to Remove Years of Kitchen Cabinet Grit and Grime

When did you last look at your kitchen cabinets? Not a passing glance, but an up-close visual study—paying particular attention to the areas around the knobs and handles that get touched thousands of times throughout the weeks and months? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about and what I’m pretty sure Reader Sandy is talking about, too.


Dear Mary: We’re moving into a new house and would like to know what kind of cleaner to use on the wood kitchen cabinets? Thank you. Sandy

Dear Sandy: If you are looking for a commercial product to clean those cabinets, you’ll never beat the effectiveness of real orange oil polish to melt away grease, grime, polish and wax buildup and leaving a fresh scent and beauty in its place. At about $12 for 16 ounces, it’s going to cost a bit to do your entire kitchen, should you decide to go the commercial route.

Or you can make your own cleaner that will be equally effective, for just pennies. That’s what I prefer and I’ll bet you do too.

I have two recipes for your wood cabinets, whether they have a natural finish or they’re painted.  The first is great if those cabinets just need some sprucing up to bring back the beauty and shine; the second is more powerful if you’re looking at years of built-up gunk and grime.

Recipe #1: In a spray bottle  (I use these 16-oz. bottles for homemade cleaners) mix 2 tablespoons olive oil, 4 tablespoons white vinegar and enough warm water to fill the bottle (about 2 cups). Shake to mix then spray on one door or drawer front at a time. Scrub with a soft cloth to remove any dirt, then buff to a beautiful shine. Before each spray, give the bottle a shake to keep the oil mixed in.

Recipe #2: In a small bowl, measure out 1 part vegetable oil and 2 parts baking soda (for example 2 tablespoons oil and 4 tablespoons baking soda—or 1 cup oil to 2 cups baking soda depending on the size of your job).

Using your fingers, mix this into a thick paste. Smoosh this a little bit at a time into the surface of that grimy cabinet, being particularly mindful of the areas close to the handles that receive so much handling and human contact.

Scrub with a soft cloth, sponge or your fingertips to get this paste into the grain. Use an old toothbrush to get it into all of the nooks and crannies. This paste is very thick, and as you begin to scrub and brush, it will fall off, along with a lot of grime. Save yourself a mess by placing an old towel beneath the areas you are cleaning to catch it as it falls off. It could get disgusting and that’s what you want because that signals that you are getting rid of it. Buff well with a soft cloth then step back to admire your beautiful work.

You can always add a few drops of essential oil to your homemade cleaners—orange or lemon would be a great choice—and that will leave a wonderful clean scent.

NOTE: While I have cautioned readers in the past to avoid using white vinegar on hardwood floors—or any wood application—because over time the acid in the vinegar is going to permanently dull the finish, using vinegar in the recipe above is not going to create a problem. First, because you are using oil along with the vinegar to protect and retain the finish and secondly, because this is a cleaner you would use only occasionally, not routinely in the way you would clean hardwood floors.

In an upcoming column I’ll share the best homemade recipe for cleaning and maintaining hardwood floors. While you wait, go clean those cabinets!


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  • ABC

    Murphy Oil Soap

    • Mary Hunt

      Murphy’s Oil Soap works well, but it has a pungent odor. And like Orange Oil, it’s more $$ than homemade versions.

    • Gehugh

      MOS is fine for occasional cleaning, but fails on badly built up grime and congealed grease.

  • Vicki McMahon

    Can these be used on painted wood cabinets? Thank you

    • Mary Hunt

      Yes! I amended the post to include natural finish or painted.

  • Virginia

    Hi Mary,
    Thanks for this article. Am wondering if recipe #2 would work on kitchen chairs. I recently brought home my deceased parents’ ladderback chairs that must be well over 50 years old. There is built-up grime mainly on the top rungs where the chairs are easily grasped. Having spent much of their years in the country, the farm-life dirt and grime is obvious and stubborn. I grew up with these chair, and am thrilled that they now belong to me. I sure would like to see these chairs regain their former beauty. Your article was very timely. I’m hoping it will be the answer I’ve been looking for.

  • Sue Copeland Murphy

    Will this work on shellac-coated wood cabinets?

  • Marilee Abenoja

    Can I use the cleaner on wooden floors?

  • Dorothian Meyer

    Do you have a recipe for dishwasher detergent?

  • Rachel

    Well i have to say i’ve tried a bunch of different cleaners and homemade stuff and I have to go back to my old stand by. The Victorian House Wood Rejuvenator. Its magic in a blue bottle that I started using 20 or more years ago for antiques and now its on the web. If you want something for wood that works every time this is it. GO check it out for yourself

  • warren

    in one of your columns you mention a Jubilee product for cleaning cabinets. can you find the full name of it again ?

  • Susan

    I used this on my cabinets that had gotten sticky mainly because our stove vents inside and we have a ceiling fan. I added some essential oil in addition to the olive oil and they look great, especially on the corners where everyone opens the doors without using the handles. It even took off other stains on the lower cabinets that had dripped from the counter tops that I was never able to get off even with all the regular on-the-shelf cleaners. One recipe of #1 in a spray bottle cleaned all my cabinets, plus around the door knobs around the house. I did not leave it on long as I didn’t want the water to ruin my cabinets, but they cleaned quickly without having to set.

  • Timothy

    Holy cow! I didn’t believe it when I read it, but I tried it (Method #2) and it worked like a charm! I’ve been using all kinds of retail products trying to clean a 1937 mahogany grand piano back to it’s factory finish with mixed results. I even got an estimate to have it stripped and refinished, something I really didn’t want to do as it would lose the character of age.

    Lo and behold I stumbled across this and thought, “What have I to lose?” AMAZING!

    Sure, it’s going to take time and elbow grease, but this method worked and will save me over $1,000 in the process.

    Thank you!

  • Ophelia

    I mix about 1/4-1/2 cup dishwasher detergent in a gallon of hot water to use as a degreaser when cleaning the kitchen walls and my wood cabinets; I tried recipe #2 thinking maybe it would work even better, but it worked only just as well while requiring about 3 times the effort.

  • Cathy Long

    Thank you so much, I used method #2 with added lavender oil and had amazing results. I have tried so many things and this had by far the best results!!

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  • Jongi Jadraque

    Good looking cabinets. Me I have it from National Wood Products and I really love the quality of the wood.