Ask the Carpenter: Tips for getting the grime off your kitchen cabinets

Ask the Expert Home Improvement Concord Needham Heights
Cabinet knob.
Cabinet knob. Flickr Creative Commons / Twanda Baker

Q. We have cherry kitchen cabinets. Crud has accumulated around the high-use knobs. How do we remove it without damaging the finish?


A. It doesn’t take long for grime, grease, and grunge to accumulate on your cabinets. You can use a commercial cleaner or make your own from ingredients in your kitchen that are ecofriendly, effective, and affordable.

If your cabinets are plastic laminate, metal, painted metal, or glass, wash them with a strong alkaline cleaner and call it a day.

For wood cabinets like yours, you’ll need to take a gentler approach. You can remove the knobs or leave them in place. If you leave them in place, wash around them and any other grease zones first with hand dishwashing detergent. Then wash the entire cabinet, including the handle areas, with your cleaning solution.

TIP Avoid using highly acidic cleaners or powdered cleansers on cabinets.

Homemade Cleaner

Vinegar is my go-to natural cleaner for greasy cabinets. Mix a 50/50 solution of vinegar (a weak acid) and warm water and pour it into a spray bottle. Add a few drops of liquid dishwashing detergent to the solution. I find it helps the cleaning process, and it seems to keep the vinegar from running down the face of the cabinet. Spray the cabinets, let them sit for a minute or two, and then wipe them clean with a soft cloth.

Whatever cleaner you choose, the basic steps of how to clean wood kitchen cabinets are the same. You’ll want to use a soft cloth or sponge and perhaps elbow grease. I’ve cheated once or twice and used a nylon-bristle brush and green scrubbing pad. These tools can remove the finish if you’re too aggressive.


Q. We have an older home (built around 1925), and when we purchased it some 30 years ago it needed a good amount of work. Back then the Globe’s “Handyman on Call’’ was my best friend. Last summer I cleaned out an old file cabinet that had articles from him going back to the 1970s.

Some more background on our house: We had insulation blown into the walls (from the inside). Now we are tired of painting the exterior every seven or eight years, and we decided to get quotes on vinyl siding. In the past year we have seen a few houses go this route, and the newer siding looks great, like real shingles from the street.

Our questions:

1. We want the siding installer to put insulation under the vinyl, but we are very confused about vapor barriers. Will the new insulation have a negative impact on the blown-in insulation (which I am sure has settled quite a bit in 30 years) and or cause moisture problems? Is there a specific insulation that should be used? Should it have a vapor barrier?

2. Is there some basic precut “coil stock’’ covering that goes around the windows we had installed four years ago?

JIM, Needham

A. Using exterior rigid insulation boards is one method of increasing the thermal performance of the enclosure, as well as a means of reducing the condensation potential within exterior wall assemblies.

Building scientists argue that if the foam is thick enough for the climate, the back side of the sheathing never gets below the dew point. The result? No condensation. So it should not negatively affect your blown-in insulation.

One word of caution: Your contractor needs to control the intrusion of rain and snow. Because your walls were not insulated originally, I’m confident you do not have an interior vapor barrier. On homes that are not new, I feel it’s best to install a layer of house wrap, followed by a layer/s of rigid insulation, and then vertical furring strips to which you attach the siding. Some vinyl siding installers will want to apply siding directly to the insulation boards and skip the furring strips. Why? All of this adds thickness to your walls, giving you recessed windows. Your windows will need jamb extensions, trim, and special flashing details to keep the water out. Many installers will cover your window trim with aluminum cladding or replace it with PVC.

Rob Robillard is a general contractor, carpenter, editor of, and principal of a carpentry and renovation business. Send your questions to or tweet them to @robertrobillard. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at