Refinishing your kitchen cabinets can completely transform the look of your kitchen without the high cost of full cabinet replacement. With some effort and the right materials, you can change the color, finish, and style of your existing cabinets. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know to refinish kitchen cabinets yourself and achieve beautiful, professional-looking results.
Assessing Your Existing Cabinets
Before deciding on a refinishing project, take some time to assess the current state of your cabinets. This will help determine the scope of work required.
Examine the cabinets for any structural damage, rot, splitting, warping or other issues that may need repair prior to refinishing. Also look for grease buildup, heavy grime, or peeling existing paint/finish that will need extra prep work to address.
Door and Drawer Fit
Open and close all doors and drawers to check for any that are crooked, out of alignment or not functioning properly. These may need adjustments or repairs.
Determine if you will keep the existing hardware (hinges, pulls, knobs) or replace it. Saving and reusing hardware can reduce costs.
Identify whether your cabinets are made of wood, laminate, thermofoil, metal or another material. This will impact the types of paint/finish that can be used.
Choosing a Refinishing Method
There are several approaches to refinishing cabinets, each with their own pros and cons. Assess the options to select the best method for your specific cabinets and project goals.
- Pros: Wide range of colors, durable finish, complements many cabinet styles.
- Cons: Shows imperfections, requires thorough prep and priming.
- Pros: Highlights wood grain, allows for color change while preserving some natural wood look.
- Cons: Limited color options, extensive prep, works best with high-quality wood.
- Pros: Updated cabinet front/drawer surfaces without full refinishing job.
- Cons: Partial update only, costs vary widely based on materials.
- Pros: Quick DIY upgrade by applying new laminate over existing cabinet boxes.
- Cons: Limited to laminate options, doesn’t address structural issues.
- Pros: Similar ease as laminate resurfacing but with wider variety of patterned finishes.
- Cons: Existing cabinets must be in good shape to support new finish.
Preparing Cabinets for Refinishing
Proper prep work is crucial for getting great results from any refinishing project. Allow plenty of time for the following essential steps:
1. Empty the Cabinets
Remove everything from the cabinets so all interior and exterior surfaces can be accessed. Be sure to label items for easy reorganization later.
2. Clean Surfaces
Use a degreaser or all-purpose cleaner to remove dirt, grime and grease from all cabinet surfaces, including inside drawers and on shelf edges.
3. Lightly Sand
Lightly sand cabinet boxes, doors and frames to rough up the surface and help new paint or finish adhere better.
4. Repair Damage
Fill any holes, gouges or cracks with wood filler. Replace broken hinges, tracks and hardware as needed.
5. Remove Doors and Hardware
Detach all doors, drawers and hardware to make finishing easier. Number pieces to ensure proper reinstallation.
6. Address Problem Areas
Use solvents, deglossers or sandpaper to thoroughly prep and prime any peeled, cracked or glossy existing finishes that won’t allow new paint to properly bond.
7. Clean and Dry
Wipe down all surfaces to remove dust and debris before finishing. Allow cabinets to fully dry.
How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets
Painting offers the widest range of color options for refinishing cabinets. Follow these steps for best results:
Choose Cabinet Paint
Look for quality, kitchen-specific paints like acrylic or alkyd enamel that offer durability and hide imperfections well. Semi-gloss is ideal for cabinets.
Use primer specifically formulated for painting cabinets, even if paint claims to act as its own primer. This helps paint adhere and prevents bleed-through.
Apply in Thin Coats
Use high-quality applicators like mini paint rollers or fine-bristle brushes. Apply paint in several thin, smooth coats for a flawless finish. Allow proper dry time between coats.
Pay Attention to Details
Don’t forget hard-to-reach interior corners, edges and lip/rail areas. Use small trim brushes for best coverage in detailed spots.
Check Coverage and Evenness
Inspect each coat closely as you work to catch any thin spots or drips. Apply additional coats in any sparse areas to achieve full, uniform coverage.
Finish with Protective Topcoat
Once paint has fully cured per manufacturer’s directions, apply 1-2 coats of clear polyurethane for added protection and sheen.
Staining Kitchen Cabinets
Staining can enhance and change the color of wood cabinets while preserving some of their natural look. Here are tips for success:
Select the Stain Color
Test different semi-transparent stain shades on inconspicuous cabinet areas to choose the right tone for your tastes.
Remove Existing Finish
Use chemical strippers or sand thoroughly to remove any prior stain, paint or topcoat that could create uneven staining results.
Condition the Wood
Applying a wood conditioner helps regulate absorption for more even staining on cabinets. Follow conditioner directions.
Stain a Small Section First
Apply the chosen stain to a hidden area to confirm you like the color before proceeding. Adjust if needed.
Stain with a Foam Brush
Use a foam or other high-quality brush to apply stain liberally with the wood grain. Avoid blotchy stain buildup in corners.
Seal with Polyurethane
Allow stain to fully dry then protect it by applying 2-3 coats of clear poly, lightly sanding between each coat.
Refacing Kitchen Cabinets
Refacing involves replacing cabinet doors, drawers and exterior surfaces while keeping the cabinet boxes intact. It offers a faster, more affordable option than full refinishing.
Choose New Facing Materials
Popular options include new wood veneers, thermofoil or laminates. Research materials to match your budget and desired look.
Add Molding for a Built-In Look
Consider adding decorative trim pieces along the top, bottom and sides of cabinets to completely change their style.
Replace Doors and Drawers
Detach existing doors/drawers and replace with new facing material using specialty adhesive and/or fasteners based on the materials used.
Swapping out old hinges, handles and knobs is an easy upgrade that pairs nicely with new door and drawer surfaces.
Add New Exposed Surfaces
Cut chosen facing material to size and adhere directly over exposed cabinet side/face surfaces for a seamless, built-in look.
Laminate Resurfacing for Cabinets
Laminate offers an affordable, DIY-friendly option for upgrading your cabinets with new color and pattern options.
Choose a Laminate Design
Browse the wide selection of laminate colors and patterns to find one to match your refinishing goals and kitchen décor. Consider finishes that mimic wood, stone and other high-end surfaces.
Thoroughly Clean Surfaces
Use TSP or other degreaser to remove all dirt, oils and debris so new laminate bonds tightly. Lightly sand glossy areas.
Measure and Cut Laminate
Measure cabinet face frames, doors, sides, etc and cut laminate sheets to size using a sharp blade. Leave 1/8” extra to trim later. Use contact cement or adhesive specifically made for laminate application.
Apply Laminate Carefully
Follow adhesive directions closely. from the center outward, using a J-roller or rubber mallet to smooth out any air bubbles or wrinkles as you work to create a tight bond. Trim excess.
Finish Cabinet Edges
Use edge banding cut to size to cover any exposed side edges and create an integrated look. Apply with edge banding iron.
Seal and Protect Finish
Once laminate is fully adhered, wipe down the cabinets and apply 1-2 coats of clear polyurethane to protect the finish.
Thermofoil for Refinishing Cabinets
Thermofoil wraps existing cabinets in durable, decorative vinyl that looks like real wood, metal, stone and other finishes.
Select Your Thermofoil Finish
Browse the many wood, paint, stone and abstract pattern options to find the perfect match for your refinishing goals and kitchen. Get samples if needed.
Ensure Cabinets are Smooth
Thermofoils show any surface imperfections underneath, so fill any dents, gaps or cracks for best results. Lightly sand glossy areas.
Precisely Measure and Cut Thermofoil
Use sharp sheers and a metal straight edge to cut thermofoil to exact cabinet dimensions. Pay close attention to get perfect seams where sheets join.
Attach Thermofoil Carefully
Thoroughly clean surface areas then apply permanent adhesive. Smooth thermofoil onto cabinet from top to bottom, pressing out any bubbles or wrinkles with a squeegee. Trim excess edges.
Apply Edge Banding
For a finished look, apply edge banding to any exposed sides and edges using an edge banding iron to fully adhere the trim.
How to Refinish Cabinet Hardware
Replacing old hinges, handles and knobs is a quick way to update cabinet style and finish. Here’s how to do it right:
Remove Original Hardware
Carefully detach old hardware from doors and cabinets using a screwdriver. Take notes or label pieces to ensure proper reinstallation.
Fill Old Screw Holes
Fill any holes or divots left behind by old hardware with wood filler. Allow to dry fully before sanding smooth.
Choose Complementary Hardware
Look for new hardware in finishes and styles that tie in with your refinishing color scheme and kitchen décor.
Drill New Holes
Mark and drill new screw holes for updated hardware using care to get the placement exactly right. Use guides included with new hardware.
Attach New Hardware
Carefully screw in new hinges, pulls, handles and knobs straight and evenly into pre-drilled holes. Take care not to overtighten screws.
Test that doors and drawers open, close and align properly with new hardware installed. Make any needed tweaks.
Tips for a Flawless Finish
Follow these best practices throughout your kitchen cabinet refinishing project to achieve truly professional-looking results:
- Use high-quality primers, paints, stains and finishes recommended for cabinet use. Follow all manufacturer instructions closely.
- Prepare properly and address any cabinet damage, flaws or problem areas before attempting to apply new finish.
- Apply finishes in several thin, even coats for best coverage. Allow proper dry time between coats.
- Work slowly and methodically, using good lighting and inspecting closely for drips or missed spots with each coat.
- Use small, fine-bristle brushes and mini paint rollers to get into corners, edges and details thoroughly.
- When using dark paint colors, prime first with a grey tinted primer to prevent uneven color results.
- Practice patience! Rushing the process can lead to mistakes. Taking your time leads to stellar results.
Maintaining Your Refinished Cabinets
Once your kitchen cabinet refinishing project is complete, proper ongoing care is essential to keep them looking like new over time. Here are some key maintenance tips:
- Allow freshly painted cabinets 2-3 weeks to fully cure before cleaning or placing heavy items inside.
- Use microfiber cloths and mild cleaners like dish soap and water to gently clean cabinets as needed without damaging the finish.
- Immediately wipe up any water, oils, chemicals or food spills to prevent stains.
- Reseal stained or painted cabinets every 2-3 years by lightly sanding and applying 1-2 new coats of polyurethane for added protection.
- Limit direct hot sunlight exposure which can cause finishes to fade over time. Use window treatments to block harsh light.
- Avoid using abrasive cleaners, pads or bleach products which can wear down cabinet finishes.
- Consider having cabinets professionally cleaned 1-2 times per year to keep all surfaces free of grease and grime buildup.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to refinish kitchen cabinets?
The total time to refinish cabinets varies widely based on size of the project, methods used, number of coats applied, etc. It could take 1-3 weeks working on small sections each day for a DIYer to complete an average sized kitchen.
Does refinishing cabinets add value to a home?
Yes, refinished kitchen cabinets are an affordable upgrade that can make your space look fresh and modern. This can recoup 65-75% of your project costs if refinishing later when selling your home.
What mistakes should be avoided when refinishing cabinets?
Rushing the job, inadequate prep work, applying finish incorrectly, using low-quality products, or skipping steps like priming and sanding between coats can all lead to a poor outcome. Take your time and follow proper techniques.
Should you paint or stain kitchen cabinets?
Painting allows for endless color options but requires more intensive prep and finishing for a smooth look. Staining highlights the wood grain but has more limited color range. Assess your cabinets, budget and style goals to choose the best method.
Is it cheaper to refinish or replace kitchen cabinets?
Refinishing existing kitchen cabinets is significantly less expensive than full cabinet replacement. Refinishing allows you to upgrade the look for a fraction of the cost.
Refinishing your outdated or damaged kitchen cabinets is an affordable, high-impact way to give your kitchen a beautiful makeover without the expense of installing brand new cabinetry. With proper planning and preparation and attention to detail during the finishing process, you can achieve stunning professionally finished cabinets. Take your time, use quality products and apply the techniques in this guide to ensure your refinishing project results in cabinets you will love enjoying for years to come. The transformation will be well worth the effort!