Your cabinets are looking like castoffs from a second-hand store, but you can't afford the time to strip and sand them, and you don't want all those nasty chemicals in your kitchen anyway. You're not alone, and you're not out of luck. As long as the wood is in good shape, you can make a significant improvement to the finish without stripping. You may even be able to get the cabinets looking like new.
Choose Your Style
It's good to have a particular style in mind before you begin refurbishing your cabinets, because of the myriad possibilities. You can opt for updating the current current finish with stain and a clear topcoat, or you can paint the cabinets with latex paint or even milk paint. You don't have to stop there. Use a wood stain or another paint color to add a glaze or antique effect, or apply a whitewash or pickled finish. While you're in the process of updating your cabinets, seize the opportunity to buy new hinges and knobs to complete the picture.
Etch the Existing Finish
While you don't have to strip the cabinets to refurbish them, you do have to clean them thoroughly; any grime you leave on the surface will interfere with finish adhesion. Start by taking the cabinets apart -- remove the doors; take out the shelves and remove all the hardware. Put any hardware you plan to reuse in a safe place. Wash down all surfaces with a solution of 1/2-cup trisodium phosphate per gallon of water, and if you're renovating your kitchen cabinets, wipe off all kitchen grease with mineral spirits. When the cabinets dry, scuff thoroughly with 220-grit sandpaper -- and bring on the new finish.
Updating the Finish
If you like the way your cabinets looked before they didn't look so good, find a can of stain or a touch-up stain pen with a matching color to repair spots from which the color has worn. If you want to deepen the color in general, go ahead and stain the entire cabinet by brushing the stain on and wiping off the excess with a clean rag. The stain won't penetrate, but it doesn't have to; a coat of clear polyurethane or lacquer will fix it. Apply the finish by brush or use an aerosol can. It's best to apply at least two coats; scuff the first coat with 320-grit sandpaper before applying the second.
Radical Reno Ideas
You can paint the cabinets as easily as updating the existing color, and the preparation process is the same. If it strikes your fancy to whitewash or pickle them, brush an appropriate light-colored stain over the existing finish instead of a dark-colored one. Some glazing effects look best if you apply them over a coat of paint or finish. For example, create layers of colors by brushing on successive coats of milk paint, then sanding through the layers at strategic points to age the finish. Finish off by coating the new finish with at least one coat of clear polyurethane to prevent wear.