By Steve Willson
The National Association of Home Builders reports that improving a kitchen is the second most popular home remodeling project, after the bathroom. Certainly, kitchens are so high on the list because most families spend so much time in this room, especially if it opens directly into the family room and the laundry room is right next door. Probably the only reason this room isn’t the most popular project is because the job is usually expensive and puts the room out of commission for so long. Having pizza every night for the first week can be fun, but it does grow old. Most families don’t want more take-out options as much as they want their kitchen back.
There are two popular ways to breathe new life into your kitchen without costing a small fortune or making the contractors full-fledged members of the family. Both focus on updating the cabinets by refinishing them or refacing them. This focus on the cabinets makes sense because they occupy so much space. If you don’t like how they make the whole room look, remember that what you really don’t like is the way the cabinet doors and drawer fronts look. The cabinets themselves (the boxes that store things) are rarely visible. Refacing services take advantage of this insight by keeping the existing cabinets and improving what’s actually seen: the doors, drawers and face frames.
Big piles of money and time are saved by keeping the existing cabinet boxes. If you also plan to hold on to your existing appliances as well, then the job becomes cheaper still and can be reduced to a week or less.
This approach starts with removing all the doors and drawer fronts and taking them to a refinisher to remove the existing finish. Then the cabinet interiors and shelves are thoroughly cleaned with a strong cleaning agent like tri-sodium phosphate (TSP). Afterward, the face frames and any exposed cabinet ends have the finish cleaned off and the surface sanded smooth with fine sandpaper.
If the existing face frames and cabinet sides are plastic laminate, the refinishers will have to glue wood veneer over the laminate because it’s too hard and too time-consuming to remove. The cabinet interiors can be approached in several different ways. If the cabinet surfaces are wood, they can be painted with semi-gloss or gloss paint.
If the interior surfaces are laminate, it makes the most sense to just thoroughly clean the shelves and cabinet boxes with TSP. The interiors can be covered with wood veneer to match the look of the doors and drawer fronts. This is a nice, though expensive, option for surfaces that will soon be covered with boxes of cereal and crackers. When the doors and drawer fronts are refinished, they are reinstalled on the cabinets, and the face frames and exposed cabinet sides are finished to match the doors. Usually, new hardware is installed as well.
This approach features more options without increasing the time the job takes. As before, the doors and drawer fronts are removed and the cabinet interiors are given new life. But instead of refinishing the face frames and exposed cabinet ends, these parts are covered with wood veneer to match the doors and drawer fronts that are selected for the job. Instead of stripping and refinishing the doors and drawer fronts, they are entirely replaced with new units.
Typically, the new doors and drawer fronts come prefinished and the face frames are finished on-site to match. Cabinet sizes and openings are relatively standard. Because of this, a customer can pick a design that may be entirely different than what was there before. Glass doors, arched top door panels, and even wire mesh panels can be added, all of which can dramatically change the look of any kitchen. New hardware usually finishes up a refacing project.
Once the cabinets are done, it’s easier to see if the existing countertops, backsplashes, and flooring look okay. If not, just prioritize these extras and see if you can afford to have more done. New countertops, backsplashes, a new sink and updated flooring are often high on preference lists. Painting the whole room with a color that works well with the refinished cabinets can make a big difference without costing very much. Keep in mind that anything you do now will be much easier than it will be after a year or two goes by. Refacing jobs vary greatly depending on the work being done, but a typical cabinet update can be wrapped up in less than a week.
Steve Willson began his career as a carpentry contractor in Rochester, New York, where he owned and operated his own business. After that, he served as Popular Mechanics' Home Improvement Editor for 22 years and has authored several DIY home improvement books. Willson's hands-on experience informs his writing, whether writing about cabinet refacing or tool selection.