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 my dear reader Sandy is talking about, too.

before and after proper cleaning of filthy kitchen cabinet

Dear Mary: We’re moving into a new (to us) house and would like to know what kind of cleaner to use on the wood kitchen cabinets? They’re pretty skanky and feel sticky to the touch!

I hate to think how many years of dirt have built up on them. But I don’t want to remove any finish that is on them. How can we clean the years of dirt without damanging the finish?  Sandy

Natural Orange Oil

Dear Sandy: If sounds to me as if your challenge is greater than simple maintenance of kitchen cabinets to keep ahead of sticky build-up, the result of cooking. Anyone who has a kitchen and actually cooks in it knows this just happens!

Your situation may call for a good commercial product for the simple reason that you don’t know how old this dirt is, or what kind of finish is hiding beneath it. It’s quite possible the cabinets are in great shape and can be restored to their original beauty. You really can remove years of grit and grime from any wood surface. And you have options—use a commercial product or make your own wood cleaner.

Should you prefer a commercial product, you won’t find anything more effective than Howard Real Orange Oil products. You can depend on the effectiveness of real orange oil polish to melt away grease, grime, polish, and wax buildup, leaving a fresh scent and beauty in its place. It’s going to cost a bit to do your entire kitchen, should you decide to go the commercial route.

Your other option is to make your own highly effective cleaner, for just pennies.

I have two recipes for you and any readers with wood cabinets, regardless if those cabinets have a natural finish or they’re painted.

The first is for cabinets that 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.

General Wood Cabinet Cleaner

In a spray bottle (these 16-oz. bottles are perfect for homemade cleaners) mix:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 8 drops Blue Dawn, 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. 

Heavy-Duty Wood Cabinet Cleaner

In a small bowl, measure out:

  • 1 part* vegetable oil
  • 2 parts baking soda

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 the gunk and grime. 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.

Measuring in “parts” 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.

Pro-tip

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.

First published in Everyday Cheapskate: 9-07-15; Revised & Updated 5-29-20

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12 replies
  1. Mac says:

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  3. Mary Riethmiller says:

    Mary after I bought the home I’m in, I wanted to update the kitchen but could not afford wood cabinets so I put in wooden bases but they are finished in a laminate. Over the years of cooking in my kitchen with a gas stove, a build up has stayed on the cabinets. I have tried everything imaginable to clean the fronts of the cabinets, but nothing seems to work even Krud Kutter. Do you think this formula you give for all wood cabinets would work on a laminate?

    Reply
  4. Patti T says:

    I LOVE our Bissell steamer for all of our floors, laminate, ceramic tile and hardwood. No chemicals just water. My daughter and soon to be son-in-law turned me onto it. Bought ours on Amazon.

    Reply
  5. Terry says:

    I moved into my parents home after both had passed and after a brief time found that the beautiful wooden kitchen cabinets near the stove had a fine layer of oil and grease from years of cooking. The top of the cabinets were extremely bad. I was shocked and a little ashamed that I had never noticed previously. I tried various homemade solutions and they helped somewhat but it wasn’t until I tried a solution of Pine-Sol and water. With some elbow grease I soon had them grease free and looking beautiful. I found that it did not damage the finish at all.

    Reply
  6. Kay Ward Snow says:

    I received the same message that I am already subscribed. How can I get the “Make Your Own Mixes” eBook if I am already subscribed?

    Reply
  7. Linda says:

    Once those cabinets are clean, there is a wonderful product called Watco Danish Oil Finish that will make them look new again. It comes in several wood tones, covers scratches and blemishes and slowly dries to a gleaming wax finish. It should be used with ventilation. It has kept my 37 year old cabinets and woodwork looking great.

    Reply
    • This is a wonderful article which I really needed to clean my cabinets. What can I do about my beautiful hardwood floors that I have used vinegar to mop!!! says:

      Thanks for this great information on cleaning kitchen cabinets.
      Also, I have been using Vinegar to clean my hardwood floors!
      Have I ruined them forever? They definitely look dull. I thought
      all this time that Vinegar was good to use. NOW I find out that is
      a bad thing!

      Reply
  8. Deena says:

    I’m saving this. Today is my last day of working (outside the home anyway) and this job is on my to-do list at home. On another note, I see the ‘Make your own Mixes’ e-book on the side of your newsletter and I’d like to have it. I’m already enjoying your emails every day. When I type in my email address to get this book, it tells me I’m already registered.

    Reply

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