How to Remove Grease and Restore Vintage Wood Cabinets

My 1960s kitchen cabinets are a time capsule. They have tons of vintage charm…along with decades of grease and grime. This compounded during the pandemic, when I polished off several Costco-sized bottles of olive oil in my nonstop preparation of comfort food.

I wanted to remove the years of cooking residue from my wood cabinets while protecting their original finish, so I turned to this safe and effective trick.

Note: This article contains affiliate links. See my disclosures for details.


Removing Grease From Wood Cabinets

After researching the options, I used Murphy Oil Soap diluted in hot water to clean and restore my cabinets. Watch the transformation in this video and keep reading below for details.

Materials

  • Murphy Oil Soap
  • Hot water
  • Bucket
  • Gentle, nonabrasive sponges
  • Clean, soft cloths
  • Rubber gloves

Protecting Your Vintage Cabinets: Dial back the oomph when cleaning older cabinets. Choose a gentle cleaner like Murphy Oil Soap, which is safe for wood, and consider testing it in an inconspicuous spot first. Use a soft sponge and let the cleaner do the work. A larger sponge is best, so you can avoid applying too much pressure in one spot.

1. Clean Cabinets With Diluted Murphy Oil Soap

Start by mixing 1/4 cup of Murphy Oil Soap with a gallon of hot water in your bucket. Use a nonabrasive sponge to gently apply the cleaning mixture to your cabinets until the crud clears away.

Murphy Oil Soap, a bucket and two soft sponges for cleaning wood kitchen cabinets

For seriously sticky situations, you might want to remove your cabinet handles to reach the nooks and crannies. Wipe all around the cabinet doors and frames.

The best practice is to start with the upper cabinets and work your way down, so you don’t end up dripping dirty water onto the clean cabinets below. Also, remove any food, dishes or other items from your countertops to protect them from drips.

Let the cleaner sit on the cabinets for a few minutes to fight the filth.

Eco-Friendly Cleaning Options: I like that Murphy Oil Soap is made with biodegradable cleaning ingredients and less than 1% synthetic ingredients, packaged in 35% post-consumer recycled plastic. If you’re looking for more sustainable options, you might want to try one of these eco-friendly dish soaps.

2. Rinse Your Cabinets

Use a clean, wet cloth to remove the cleaner from the cabinets. The directions on my Murphy Oil Soap say that rinsing is not required, but their website says it’s best to rinse the cabinets to remove any remaining cleaner and grime.

3. Dry Your Cabinets

Finally, dry the cabinets with a clean cloth to complete the transformation.

The toughest grease might require a few passes. Repeat the whole process as needed to finish cleaning any tricky spots.


Dish Soap vs. Murphy Oil Soap

When I was researching the best way to clean my wood cabinets, most of the articles, reviews and Reddit forums mentioned two popular methods:

  • Use dish soap to make hot, soapy water and cut through grease.
  • Or use diluted Murphy Oil Soap to clean and restore cabinets.

I tried both options, and Murphy was the winner for me.

Mid-century modern kitchen with newly cleaned vintage wood cabinets

Dish soap works well for removing stubborn grease, which might be helpful if you have an extra greasy cabinet that needs special attention. I also used dish soap to clean my stovetop and microwave with ease.

But, while dish soap tackles grease, it’s not as good at cleaning the rest of the grime that builds up in the kitchen. So after trying dish soap on a couple of cabinets, I switched to Murphy Oil Soap.

Murphy can clean it all and bring out the wood’s natural shine.


Restoring Your Vintage Wood Cabinets (While Keeping the Charm)

You probably don’t have to sand or stain your old cabinets to restore their original look. In most cases, just cleaning them with Murphy Oil Soap will work wonders.

My cabinets have lots of character, i.e. dings and scratches they’ve earned over the years. Murphy removed the grime to reveal the wood’s vintage beauty, with all the character still intact.

Mid-century modern kitchen with a Cathrineholm omelet pan hanging on the side of a cabinet

For more damaged and distressed cabinets, wood polish can go a little further to restore the wood and add a protective finish. I have used Feed-N-Wax Wood Polish & Conditioner to touch up a damaged spot on a wood cabinet and completely refinish this desk.

In extreme cases some people recommend Restor-A-Finish to actually refinish cabinets, repair blemishes and bring back the original color, again without sanding.

With any product, you’ll want to test it in an inconspicuous area first to make sure you like the results.


Before and After Reviving My Cabinets

Here are some photos of my cabinets before and after using Murphy Oil Soap. The cabinet next to my dishwasher was covered in residue.

Grimy cabinet covered in dishwater spots before getting cleaned

Comparing the before and after photos, you can see both have those charming old scratches and dings, but the grime is all gone in the after photo.

Click and zoom to get a closer look.

Before cleaning these cabinets, they had grime, grease and dishwater splatter seen here
Before
After cleaning my vintage cabinets with Murphy Oil Soap - you can still see some scratches, dings and "character," but the grime and grease are gone
After

The cabinet next to my microwave had been hit with a lot of grease splatter from the stove below. In the after photo the grease is gone.

Grease splatter on the cabinet by the microwave before it got cleaned
Before
Clean vintage wood cabinet with a natural shine
After

At nearly six decades old, my cabinets look practically new again!


Protecting Kitchen Cabinets From Grease

After you freshen up your cabinets, the best cleaning method is to keep them that way. To prevent the return of grease and grime, you might want to use a splatter guard while cooking. Clean your vents and make sure you have good ventilation for your range. And give your cabinets a regular wipe-down before they get sticky.

Find more inspiration for your mid-century kitchen:


Before and after cleaning vintage wood cabinets with Murphy Oil Soap - the cabinet was covered in grime, grease and dishwater splatter before, and it is clean with a beautiful shine after
Upper and lower mid-century modern kitchen cabinets that have been cleaned and restored with Murphy Oil Soap

2 thoughts on “How to Remove Grease and Restore Vintage Wood Cabinets”

  1. Oh wow! This brings back old memories. Prenty’s Great Aunt Clara lived in a very old house and when she passed his parents inherited it. (We lived in the upstairs of it for a while in 1969/70) (we lived there when Andy was born.) (they had the upstairs made into an apt.) Anyway his folks were big believers of Murphy oil soap. They brought back all that old woodwork, doors etc. to looking great in the exact method you described. I’ve used it too on older wood pieces. Your cupboards look great!! (that was alot of work but I’m sure you are pleased with the results!) It’s awesome that an old cleaning method is still a popular method that really does work!!

    Reply
    • Wow, so cool! You know it must be a great cleaning hack if it has stood the test of time! I bet that house was beautiful with so much history.

      Murphy Oil Soap is impressive. I love seeing the results. My kitchen is sparkling clean now!

      Reply

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