Refinishing Your Old Kitchen Cabinets

To strip or not to strip that would be the question! And no I am not talking about cheap nightclubs!! I am of course talking about your kitchen cabinets. Right now your kitchen looks so embarrassing that you cannot and will not allow anyone over for dinner, not even your children!! You are probably seeing dollar signs and imagining dust filling your home as your new kitchen is installed. Fact is it may not be as bad as you think. You may be able to reface those ugly cabinets saving thousands of dollars and a houseful of dust and debris. Read on and you will discover when and how to reface.

First, let’s examine the question of when to reface your cabinets. You should reface your cabinets obviously when they look so despicable you feel ill looking at them but there is more to the when question then just looks. Some cabinets should never be refaced no matter how meager your budget is. These would be the cabinets with structural integrity issues and quality issues. You want your kitchen and home to last for generations to come as well as look good so cabinets that are structurally bad or of cheap manufacture quality should be tossed away. Let’s face it, do you really want to be in your 90s and have to replace your cabinets? Also, if you don’t have a working triangle, which is the imaginary triangle that your fridge, stove and sink make, then you will want to either gut or modify your kitchen not reface it. You will know if your triangle is right by how well you can work in the kitchen. Is it easy to get a meal prepared quickly and efficiently is the question you will want to ask yourself.

So how do you know if you have quality or not? Some high quality manufacturers like KraftMaid actually burn their company logo into drawers and the such. These manufacturers also tend to dovetail their drawer boxes rather then butt joint them. Butt jointing is where two pieces of wood are nailed and glued together in a simple L shape. This tends to create a weaker joint but doesn’t necessarily mean lack of quality so don’t base your judgment of the cabinets solely on butt joints. Dovetails are where tooth like cuts are made in each piece of wood and then the pieces are glued and nailed in a simple L shape. This method interlocks the pieces much like a puzzle would interlock. Lastly, you can tell if you have quality by looking at the actual wood itself. Unfortunately some manufacturers use particle board to create their cabinets. Particle board tends to warp and disfigure over time when moisture is introduced to it as will happen in a kitchen. A good quality cabinet will be made out of furniture grade plywood, solid wood or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, the only way to check this out is to remove your countertops. If you are going to remodel you will want to do this anyhow. I will show you how to remove the countertops in the next paragraph but for now let’s get back to the wood. The top of the cabinets will be an unfinished surface. If the surface is solid you have wood and if it looks like layers similar to a wafer cookie then it is plywood. Both of these are good and should be kept. If the wood looks spongy then you have particle board and you will need to start with new cabinets. You will also want to look for the obvious when judging your cabinets. Are there unrepairable holes? Warping? Unrepairable cracking? Then toss them away.

Now let’s get rid of that old worn counter top. Here too you will want to look at quality. Is it an old Formica counter top that is sagging and worn bald in spots? Then it needs to go. Is it cracking and missing tile on a wood or Hardi Backer backing? Then out it goes. If it is a like new stone, tile or stone tile then you will want to keep it in place unless of course it doesn’t match your style. To remove the counter you will need to get under the cabinets themselves to do some investigating as to how they are attached. Some people attach their counters using L brackets attached to the cabinets underneath. These would have been screwed from underneath upwards. Simply locate each screw and unscrew them to release the counter top. Other people attach their counter tops by screwing and/or gluing a sheet of plywood down to the top of the cabinets themselves and then attaching their countertop material to this. This is a bit more tricky to work with but can still be done relatively painlessly. Using a reciprocating saw carefully follow the seam where the cabinet meets the counter top. Make sure you use a metal blade so if there are screws you will not break your blades continuously. Just imagine you are back in school cutting out paper shapes. Whatever you do don’t go over the line or the teacher will yell or in this case, your wife will yell.

Now that your cabinets are completely free of their countertop and you are sure they are sound and worthy of keeping you will need to fill any divots and other tiny imperfections with a bit of wood putty. After the wood putty is dry you will need to sand everything down with a fine grit sandpaper. Use a tack cloth to remove any dust and then wash the cabinets thoroughly with mineral spirits. This will remove any remaining dirt and grease. Now find yourself a roll of painter’s tape. On the back of each cabinet door put a piece of tape with a number on it. Put the same number on a piece of tape inside of the cabinet. This will make it easier to put the doors back correctly when you are finished. Now remove the hinges and pulls from every one of your cabinets and drawers using the appropriate driver bit in your drill. Don’t attempt doing this by hand with a regular screwdriver. Your hands will be rendered useless before you are halfway through the job. Not to mention that it would be hard to explain what happened when you get to the emergency room if you get my drift!!

Using a sponge style paint brush of good quality paint all visible cabinet surfaces and doors with a high quality primer. The primer you use depends on where you buy it. Different stores will carry different brands. Tell your store associate what you need it for and they will get you the best one for your job. I would recommend the same primer used to prepare Formica or tile for paint. (Yes you can paint either of these!!) These are always durable and will create a solid washable surface. If you are painting colors on your cabinet ask the associate to tint the primer for you. This will save you gallons on paint as you will need to paint fewer coats. Allow the primer to dry for as long as the manufacturer suggests. Don’t skimp on this part of the process. If you don’t allow it to dry long enough your finish paint will not stick properly.

Now for the fun part!! Paint!! Once again, use a good quality sponge style paint brush to adhere your paint. The sponge brush will allow you to apply a smooth layer of paint that has a professional finish look. If you are uncertain of this method you can use a paint sprayer as well. Just be sure to use painter’s plastic to cover anything you don’t want covered in paint such as the windows, unless of course you like the painted window look!! Also watch for drips with a sprayer. Drips can be sanded out and repainted over but really now who wants to bother with that? Once the first layer is thoroughly dry step back and look at the finished product. Do you like what you see? If it looks splotchy or worn then you definitely need one more coat. Put that coat on and allow to dry thoroughly again. If you like what you see now then apply new hinges and hardware to your cabinet doors and reattach them where you originally found them. You don’t need to paint the insides of the cabinets unless you are going to leave some doors off. You can also purchase custom made glass cabinet doors to fit your upper cabinets. This will give them that brand new look for not a lot of cash. Just make sure you paint the insides in this scenario. If you like the style but not the color of your old hinges and pulls then you can also salvage these. Attach them to a scrap piece of plywood and lean the plywood up in a well ventilated area. Use stove paint to spray all of them at one time!! Stove paint is made to withstand extreme abuse so it does well for this application. It can be purchased at Mr. Fireplace of Laconia NH or any stove shop near you.

Well, good luck with your new kitchen. We did a combination of new and refinished on ours and used salvaged hardware. I cannot put into words how happy I am with my new kitchen. I haven’t taken pictures of it yet but when I do I will be sure to put it on Associated Content for all of you to see. Be sure to tell Doc how your project came out. I always love looking at interior design photos so send those along when you are done!

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