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How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets in Your Home

By Mary McCoy

cabinetsWhether you’re in the market to sell your home or simply to beautify it, don’t underestimate the value of an updated kitchen. The qualities most likely to catch the eyes of potential buyers include matching appliances, pristine counter tops, fresh paint, and, most importantly, updated cabinetry. Outdated, dingy, or lackluster cabinets can make any kitchen look stale and unfinished, but beautifully finished cabinets can make all the difference in the world to its overall look.

Renovation is never easy, but thankfully there are several options available to help you along the way. Refinishing, replacing, or refacing your cabinets each represent different price points and require different levels of exertion, but all of them can bring a drab, sleepy kitchen back to life.

Cabinet Replacement

Cabinetry replacement is the most expensive option, and though generally it is not necessary, there are several situations in which you might need to consider it:

  • Broken Cabinet Boxes. Sometimes kitchen cabinetry is just too old or too damaged to warrant any kind of salvaging. If your kitchen cabinet boxes are broken, cracked, or falling apart, it’s time to replace them.
  • Worn-Down Cabinetry. Even if your cabinets aren’t broken, worn-down pieces may need to be replaced. The cabinetry that’s most likely to simply wear down over time are stock pieces made from low-quality plywood. It doesn’t make sense to pour much money into anything besides replacing these pieces, especially when they start to show their age – cracked woodwork, broken frames, warping, or water damage are signs that it’s time for a new set.
  • Poor Kitchen Layout. Unfortunately, homebuilders don’t always make the best design choices. If your kitchen’s layout doesn’t make sense for the way you want to use the space, you may need to remove all the cabinetry and replace it with a different layout.

A cabinet replacement project can set you back anywhere between $5,000 and $30,000, depending on the quality and customization of the pieces you select. The results are often stunning, but this is one remodeling project that is messy, expensive, and time-consuming.

Cabinet Refacing

Refacing your cabinetry can deliver the same “wow” factor as replacement, and for just a fraction of the cost. When refacing, you keep the cabinet boxes in place, but replace the doors, drawers, and facing in an updated style.

Consider taking on a refacing project if your kitchen has any of the following characteristics:

  • High-Quality Cabinetry. If your cabinet boxes are in good condition, you don’t need to replace them. Just swap out the doors and keep the cabinetry in place.
  • Good Kitchen Layout. Refacing is a good option if you’re happy with the layout of your kitchen and want to make only cosmetic changes.
  • Outdated Style. Consider doing a refacing project rather than a refinishing project if the doors and drawers are hopelessly out of date. Sometimes, even a good coat of paint or stain can’t transform the look of a cabinet with a 1980s’ style, so you may want to consider refacing rather than just refinishing.

When it comes to cost, cabinet refacing is a mid-range project. Replacing the doors and drawers usually costs between $2,500 and $15,000 for the entire project, which is less costly than a total replacement, but still quite a bit more expensive than cabinet refinishing.

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Cabinet Refinishing

Refinishing your cabinets is the simplest and least expensive option, and can work wonders for the look of most kitchens. Like refacing, it’s a solid choice if your cabinets are in good shape and you’re happy with the layout of your kitchen.

Consider refinishing if you have any of the following:

  • Reasonably Stylish Cabinets. A refinishing job won’t magically change an unattractive style, so make sure you feel comfortable with the overall look of the woodwork prior to starting your project.
  • Chipped or Dirty Finishing. Cabinets can become dirty or faded over time. A refinishing project can make them look new again.
  • Unattractive Colors. If your previous homeowners thought that forest green cabinets were a good idea, a refinishing project can take care of an outdated color scheme.

Refinishing your cabinetry is likely to cost you less than $300 for the whole job, so it’s a great option as long as you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Set aside a weekend for the project and you can enjoy an updated kitchen in no time. If you feel comfortable with your current layout, the quality of the cabinets, and the style of the woodwork, don’t hesitate to dive into your refinishing project.

Safety Concerns

Cabinet refinishing is a safe project, as far as home updates go. However, you are going to be exposed to harsh cleaners, primers, and paint, which can overwhelm you with fumes if you’re not careful.

Start your project on a day when you can keep your windows open and run fans for ample ventilation. Take a break if you feel light-headed, and don’t return to the project until you’re able to improve air flow. You can further reduce your risk of exposure to harmful chemicals by wearing a face mask and rubber gloves while working with the supplies.

Supply List

You can complete your project with a refinishing system like Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations, or you can do it yourself with the following supplies. These cost estimates are for mid-range products at a national hardware chain:

  • Drill. You need an electric drill to remove cabinet doors and replace the hardware. High-end models can be pricey, but there are serviceable drills out there available for much less. If you don’t intend to use your drill frequently after this project is completed, opt for the more cost-friendly option. If you really want to cut costs and you’ve got some serious strength and stamina, you may be able to accomplish these tasks with a screwdriver. Estimated cost: $25 to $100 for an electric drill, or $10 for a screwdriver with multiple bits.
  • Rubber Gloves. To protect your hands, use rubber gloves when stripping the cabinets’ old finish. Estimated cost: $2.
  • Trisodium Phosphate Mixture. Kitchen cabinets need to be deep-cleaned prior to refinishing in order to remove years of built-up kitchen grime. Trisodium phosphate does the job. Estimated cost: $10 per can.
  • Paint and Varnish Stripping Gel. You need to remove the cabinets’ previous finish with a stripping gel. Estimated cost: $25 for a gallon.
  • Putty Knife. Use this knife to scrape off the old finish from the cabinets. Estimated cost: Less than $5.
  • Sponge. Clean the cabinets with a sponge before and after the trisodium phosphate and stripping steps. Estimated cost: $2.
  • 100-Grit and 220-Grit Sandpaper. Once you’re done cleaning and stripping the cabinets, they need to be sanded. Purchase both types of sandpaper for different steps. Estimated cost: Less than $10 total for a package of each.
  • Sawhorses (Optional). While not necessary, sawhorses can make your project much easier. Set them up in the backyard so you can paint or stain the cabinets off the ground. Estimated cost: $25 for a pair.
  • Drop Cloths. Whether you’re doing your refinishing inside or outside, use plastic drop cloths to help with fast cleanup. Estimated cost: Less than $5 for a package.
  • Paint Pan, Brushes, and Rollers. You want to work efficiently once it’s time to repaint or re-stain your cabinetry, so make sure you have a mix of both rollers and brushes, as well as a paint pan, on hand. Estimated cost: $15 total.
  • Primer, Paint, and Stain. If you’re painting your cabinets, buy a one-gallon combination primer and sealer, as well as a gallon of your desired paint color. If you’re staining your cabinets, buy one gallon of interior stain and sealer in a color of your choice. Estimated cost: $20 for one gallon of primer and sealer, $25 for a gallon of paint, and $30 for a gallon of interior stain and sealer.
  • New Drawer Pulls and Hinges (Optional). Many homeowners take the opportunity to replace their drawer pulls and hinges when refinishing cabinets. If you want to change out your hardware, purchase matching drawer pulls and matching hinges. Estimated cost: $2 to $8 apiece for matching drawer pulls, $1 apiece for matching hinges, $50 for a package of 25 drawer pulls, and $20 for a package of 20 hinges.
  • Drawer Pull Jig (Optional). If you decide to replace your drawer pulls, buy a jig as a template for drilling. Estimated cost: $8.
  • Tape Measure (Optional). You need a tape measure to drill for the drawer pulls, if you decide to update your hardware. Estimated cost: $5 to $10.
  • Vacuum Cleaner. The job of refinishing cabinets is messy, and a vacuum can help you easily clean up sawdust and grime. Estimated cost: $200 for a mid-range vacuum cleaner.

Even if you decide to replace all of your drawer pulls, you can still complete the cabinet refinishing with all of the above-mentioned supplies for less than $300, excluding the vacuum.

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Step-By-Step Guide to Refinishing Cabinets

Even though you won’t spend your entire weekend working hands-on, make sure you set aside two to three full days to account for drying time between steps.

1. Prepare Your Kitchen
Empty all of your cabinet boxes and drawers. Remove appliances from counter tops. Place drop cloths on the floor underneath your cabinet boxes, and use painter’s tape to protect the walls that meet them. Open windows to make sure the kitchen is well ventilated.

2. Prepare a Staging Area
Create a staging area to complete the bulk of your work. If possible, use an outdoor location, which can help with ventilation and drying times. Place drop cloths on the floor or ground to protect your staging area from chemicals and paint, as well as any footpaths connecting it to the work area. If you have sawhorses, set them up over the drop cloths so you can work on your cabinet doors and drawers off the ground.

3. Remove Hardware, Doors, and Drawers
Use your drill to remove the screws and take down all existing drawer pulls and hinges. Next, remove the cabinet doors from their boxes. Slide the drawers out according to their design and take them, along with the doors, to your staging area for cleaning and painting.

4. Strip and Sand Cabinetry
Use your paint and stain stripper to remove the old finish from the doors, drawers, and cabinet facing. Follow the directions on the stripper you purchase, since they vary by product. Typically, however, you need to apply the stripping solution, allow it to dry, and then scrape it off, along with the finish, using a putty knife. Once the finish is removed, sand the surfaces uniformly with 100-grit sandpaper to remove any excess finish.

5. Clean Cabinetry
Mix a half cup of trisodium phosphate with two gallons of water. Wear gloves and keep the mixture away from your skin and eyes as you use a sponge to apply this diluted cleaning solution to the cabinet doors, drawers, and facing. Once you’ve scrubbed the surfaces, use your other sponge, to rinse the solution off with warm water. The solution should quickly remove years of oil, mildew, smoke, and any other grime that’s masking the beauty of the wood. It should also remove any remaining paint stripper, leaving you with a pristine surface.

6. Sand Cabinetry Again
Now that you’ve stripped, sanded, and cleaned the cabinets, you need to sand all of the doors, drawers, and facing one more time. This time, use 220-grit sandpaper for an ultra-smooth result prior to refinishing the wood.

7. Vacuum Cabinetry
Make sure that all flecks of dust and grit are removed from the surface of the wood so your finish doesn’t look lumpy. You don’t need a handheld vacuum, but you are going to need a handheld extension for your vacuum cleaner.

8. Prime Cabinets, if Necessary, and Sand
If you’re painting your cabinets rather than staining them, you need to consider a coat of primer prior to applying the paint. Primer helps paint adhere to wood, cure more evenly, and reduce the number of coats of paint you need. Use your rollers and brushes to apply a coat of primer to all the surfaces you plan to paint. Once you’re done priming, let it dry for a day prior to painting. Use your 220-grit sandpaper to smooth out any visible brush strokes in the primer after it’s dried, and vacuum again to make sure that all dust is removed from the cabinetry.

9. Paint or Stain Cabinets
If you’re painting, brush a coat on the front of the doors, drawers, and cabinet box facing. Make sure you brush in line with the wood grain. Allow the doors and drawers to dry on a flat surface so the paint doesn’t drip. Flip the doors over once they’re dried and paint the other side. You can protect the dried coat by using your sawhorses, but if you don’t have any just make sure the surface you use is clean. If you’re staining, you’re going to want to follow the same pattern. Carefully brush on a coat of stain with the grain of the wood, but rather than allowing it to dry, use a rag to blot off the excess as you go. For both paint and stain, an additional coat is necessary if the finish appears blotchy after drying. Wait a minimum of four hours before applying a final coat.

Additional Steps

Once all the doors, drawers, and cabinet box faces have dried completely  (which usually takes 24 hours), you’re ready to slide the drawers back into the boxes and screw the doors back onto the hinges. However, if you’re replacing old hardware, you have several more steps before the project is complete:

1. Replace Hinges
Replace your old brass hardware with brushed nickel for an updated look. Select hinges to match the new drawer pulls you’ve purchased then simply remove the old ones and screw in the new ones.

2. Create Your Drilling Template
Use the drawer pulls you’ve selected to mark the exact location of the holes on your store-bought jig. Then, use the jig to create a template for all the drilling you need to complete on the doors and drawers.

3. Drill Pilot Holes
When you’re installing new hardware, there’s a danger that the cabinet wood may splinter when you drill into it. You can prevent this problem by drilling pilot holes. Use your jig to mark the exact locations of the holes you’re going to need and use a small bit in your electric drill to create pilot holes. These prepare the wood for screws, and help prevent splintering by guiding the screws properly into the wood.

4. Replace Drawer Pulls
Once you’ve drilled pilot holes, use them as a guide for the screws that hold the new hardware in place. Use a screwdriver to install the hardware in the drawers and doors.

If you haven’t done so already, slide the drawers back into your cabinet boxes, and reinstall the cabinet doors by attaching them to the new hinges.

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Final Word

If you love a challenging but straightforward DIY project, a kitchen cabinet refinishing is right for you. Consider enlisting a few friends or family members for additional help with stripping, sanding, and painting, since all of these steps can prove to be time-consuming.

If you’re feeling energized by all of the money you’ve saved, consider updating other rooms in your home by replacing light fixtures, removing popcorn ceiling, or repainting the interior walls. All of these updates can refresh your home and increase its value in the long run.

How has your home improved since refinishing your cabinetry?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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