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

Dear Sandy: It 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.

Natural Orange Oil

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 are 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 
  • 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: 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons baking soda. Or 2 tablespoons oil and 4 tablespoons baking soda—or 1 cup oil to 2 cups baking soda depending on the size of your job.


First published in Everyday Cheapskate: 5-29-20; Updated 1-29-22.

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9 replies
  1. lola says:

    Hi Mary,
    For the heavy duty wood cabinet cleaner recipe, should one use a drying oil like linseed instead of the vegetable oil (which can collect dust and go rancid as stated) in the amount of one part oil to two parts baking soda? Thanks so much!

  2. Marianne says:

    Which product will work on a really old wooden front door which was painted with oil about 30 years ago? The paint looks dried-out (it’s black, but almost looks gray). Would like to avoid stripping and re-painting. Thank you!

    • Mary Hunt says:

      A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air, at room temperature. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink (and hence, polymerize) by the action of oxygen (not through the evaporation of water or other solvents). Linseed is a drying oil and is the most widely-used oil in the paint and varnish industry.

  3. Brenda K Hilley says:

    My cabinets were bad, b REALLY bad. Don’t judge. I’m disabled and can only work on stuff as I feel up to it. Anyway, I went straight for the second option of oil and baking soda… which did NOTHING! I was SO disappointed, UNTIL I wiped everything down with seriously hot water, added a bit more baking soda and a few drops of Dawn liquid to the mix. It started working!!! So then I did two cabinet fronts, the WORST ones that open onto the garbage and recycle bins, using a bit (not much) water then the scrub, rinse and repeat. I’m SO THRILLED!! I only managed to get those two done today, but now I know the trick! I will be tackling more as I’m able!

    • Lori Leuthardt says:

      Brenda, I too am disabled ( not noticeable tho ) That mixture is also great for cleaning flat top stove tops!!! I never thought to use the paste on my nasty dark wood cupboard doors tho!!! My whole upper body / muscles, tendons etc. are mush so I definitely not up to scrubbing real hard. I’m wondering if after the paste is wiped off real good if it’s a good idea to treat the wood with a light coat of Old English?

  4. Alice says:

    You may want to use a drying oil [like linseed, the most common drying oil-mh] in place of olive or vegetable oil, which will collect dust and eventually go rancid.

  5. Landon says:

    Hi there Mary, thank you for your insightful guide on how to remove grit and grime. Keep it mind that this doesn’t just apply to your kitchen cabinet, but to all your old wooden furniture as well!


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