Transform Your Kitchen with Cabinet Refacing
How to Get Today’s Hottest Designs, From Material Selection to Final Installation
More Bells and Whistles | Material Possibilities
Hiring a Cabinet Refacing Contractor (and Living Through the Process)
Cabinet refacing can dramatically change the appearance of kitchen cabinets for a modest price. If your kitchen cabinet backs, sides, and shelves are solid, and if you are happy with the basic sizes and arrangement but just don’t like the way they look, cabinet refacing may be for you.
According to Michael Chotiner, a former cabinet maker, “When a kitchen needs upgrading and there’s no compelling reason to alter the floorplan or cabinet layout, refacing can be the best value option. The money saved by refacing can be invested in storage accessories like lazy Susans, pullout-shelf hardware and pull-down racks that make the cabinet more useful and accessible.”
Though refacing can be a DIY project, the amount of money you save by doing it yourself may not be worth the effort, and there are many chances to make mistakes. Instead, many people prefer to hire professional refacing specialists, who ensure a quality job and finish in a timely manner.
In many cases, a professional refacing job will typically cost about 25% less than a full remodel. Depending on the materials you choose and the size of your kitchen, a refacing job may cost anywhere from $1000 to $6000 for just the materials. Working with a contractor, an average refacing project will run about $9000. (See the last section of this guide for tips on choosing a reliable contractor and ensuring a quality job).
Section One: Popular Cabinet Styles
Today’s trend is toward cabinetry with straightforward, sleek lines. According to Kerrie Kelly of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab in Sacramento, CA, “Simply styled cabinetry such as Shaker and flat paneled styles are more popular than ever. Simplified and sophisticated, these classic looks never go out of style and are easy to maintain in a high traffic area such as the kitchen.”
There’s no reason to limit yourself to a single style. Says Chotiner, “I am a big fan of furniture-style kitchen designs that incorporate a few mix-and-match elements. Every cabinet needn’t have the same finish color.”
Here are some of today’s most popular cabinet styles:
Plain and white is certainly the safest choice, particularly if you are thinking of selling your home in the near future. Says Steve Willson, a long-time DIY expert and former carpenter, “People who are having their kitchen remodeled should always keep in mind the resale value of their home when they pick their new cabinet look. These days, the standard style seems to be white cabinets and stone countertops.”
Pristine white cabinets make an appealing clean statement in a kitchen and let the spotlight fall on other more colorful features — for instance, a brightly colored backsplash (the wall area between the countertop and the underside of the wall cabinets), lively flooring, artwork on the walls, open shelving or eye-catching light fixtures.
As with most cabinetry these days, the hinges in this style are hidden, so visible hardware is limited to door and drawer pulls or handles. These are almost always silver in color — either brushed nickel or shiny chrome — and are free of curlicues or gingerbread-like designs. Still, there are plenty of design options, from barely visible knobs to pulls that are nearly as long as the width of the doors or drawers.
The Shakers were a religious group devoted to simplicity of lifestyle. Though almost no actual Shakers remain today, their furniture and cabinetry styles live on and have gained popularity even among people with elegant and sumptuous kitchens.
Shaker style has a minimal amount of design, making it just a bit more ornamental than the Nordic style. Doors most often feature a simple squared-off frame around the perimeter surrounding a flat panel. Drawer fronts sometimes include the same frame-and-panel design. There are no curved lines — only straight-cut edges. The doors themselves may be stained wood or wood, melamine, or thermofoil (see below) painted a solid color.
Hardware knobs or pulls are usually simple in design and often made of brushed nickel, but they may be brass or colored. Some Shaker cabinets are modestly embellished with the addition of simple crown molding on top of wall cabinets.
Sometimes called “classic,” this is an enduring style often seen in older homes, and it’s the most common type of cabinetry for design-minded buyers on a budget. The doors and drawer fronts feature frames with ornate, curvy routed edges, both on the outside and inside of the frames. The panels inside the frames may be simple flat plywood sheets, or may be raised for an even more ornate look.
Frame-and-panel doors may be stained or painted, or they may be formed out of man-made products that do not need finishing. While most of these doors have rectangular panels, some have “arched” frames and panels for an additional decorative effect.
Here, the goal is to create a cozy, homey, slightly old-fashioned look. This is most often achieved by making panels out of beadboard, with a series of vertical lines, which may or may not be surrounded with a frame. Materials may be hardwood or even pine or other softwood that can be stained or painted. White is a very popular color, but it’s not unusual to find cottage-
style cabinets painted in blues, greens, or other bright colors.
Hardware for this style tends to be old-fashioned. Cup pulls are popular, but there are many other shape and color options.
White is the no-brainer option, since it’s certain not to clash with any other elements in the kitchen. However, many people choose to go with colors that complement backsplashes, walls, and other parts of the kitchen.
Particularly popular these days are gray painted or stained cabinets, along with gray or white countertops, tiles, and even wall paint.
Sarah Fishburne, Director Trend & Design & Industrial Design at The Home Depot, notes that “We are seeing warm gray finishes becoming popular.” She sees fewer “contrasted or two-tone kitchens,” and instead finds people choosing “more tonal kitchens where you layer materials in the same color family.”
Section Two: Understanding Kitchen Cabinets
There are three ways in which doors and drawer fronts orient in relation to the cabinet front.
- A full overlay door almost completely covers the front edge of the cabinet, so that when the doors and drawers are closed, you see only doors and drawers and catch but a glimpse of the cabinet front.
- With partial overlay, you see some of the cabinet fronts, but not all.
- Inset doors and drawer fronts do not lay over the cabinet fronts at all. They fit inside the cabinets so that you see all of the door frame, as well as a 1/8-inch gap between doors and frame.
Full overlay is the most popular option these days. However, if you are fond of the look of your cabinet frames, you may choose to go with partial overlay or inset.
Full overlay doors always have hidden (or Euro-style) hinges, because there is no room on their sides for the hinge pin. Partial overlay doors almost always have hidden hinges, though it is possible to use hinges with visible pins. With inset doors, the hinges are at least partially, and sometimes fully, on display.
Inset doors have an old-fashioned appeal, but the cabinetry must be perfect. While overlay and partial overlay doors minimize the visual effect of cabinets that are slightly out of square or that have less-than-straight lines, inset doors put all cabinet flaws on display. For that reason, most companies prefer full or partial overlay doors and drawer fronts.
Face Frame or Frameless
Open a door or pull out a drawer and look at the front edges of your cabinet’s body. If you see just the edge of a sheet of plywood, melamine or other product that is 3/4 in. thick, and if door hinges are attached to the side of the cabinet body, then you have a frameless cabinet. If there is a frame made of 1x2s attached to the edges of the cabinet body and the door hinges
attach to the frame, then you have a framed cabinet.
If you have a framed cabinet, you can install the doors with full overlay, partial overlay, or inset. If you have a frameless cabinet, then the doors must be installed with full overlay. As you can see, the two types of cabinets require different types of hidden hinges.
Consult with your refacing contractor to determine which parts of your cabinets need replacing. Most refacing jobs will include new doors, drawer faces, pulls and handles, end panels, and cabinet front edges. You also may want or need new hinges, glides, and drawer boxes.
Section Three: Door and Drawer Face Possibilities
Slab or Flat Panel
This is the simplest and usually the least expensive option, but with the right materials it’s definitely not cheap-looking. Once you add interesting pulls or knobs, flat panels make an elegant design statement. Plus, they are the easiest to wipe clean. Some people think that plywood slab doors will warp in time, but if high-quality materials are used, they will remain straight and true.
Recessed (Flat Panel with Frame)
These are probably the most popular type of face in recent years. They work with most any type of frame, from simple Shaker to the most ornate. The door’s inner portion — its panel — is a simple flat sheet usually made from 1/4-inch-thick plywood or melamine. In addition to their contemporary appearance, these doors are a good deal less expensive than raised-panel doors.
This type of door features a panel made of ¾ in.-thick material. Its outer edges are narrowed to a thickness of 1.4 in. to fit into the grooves in the frame, but the main part of the panel is “raised” so that its face is on the same plane as the frame. The narrowing on the edges can be accomplished with various types of curves or angles.
Some Shaker doors have raised panels, but it is far more common for them to be inset. A simple Shaker frame has 90-degree angles all around, but this creates a hard-to-clean joint between the frame and the panel at the bottom. For that reason, many Shaker frames have a beveled edge on the inside.
This is the old-fashioned-and-proud-of-it option. The top stile piece is curved for an arch effect. A row of these doors can look quite impressive, but they may be expensive.
Doors made with beadboard panels mimic the look of pine paneling. If there is a frame, it is usually Shaker or some other simple style.
Louvered cabinet doors may be open, so that you can peek through if you look at just the right angle, or closed, so you cannot. The frame is generally a simple Shaker style. You may be able to choose among a variety of slat widths.
Section Four: More Bells and Whistles
When refacing your cabinets, you may also choose to add elements that make your wall and base cabinets more useful and easier on the eyes. Some of these can be done by a refacing specialist. Others may require hiring another contractor, and still others you may choose to do yourself.
Whether your wall cabinets reach all the way up to the ceiling or soffit, or there is a space between the cabinet tops and the ceiling, you may choose to give your cabinets this crowning touch. Crown molding makes cabinets look taller, thereby making your kitchen feel more spacious.
Some crown trim boards are ornate, often with one large curve and a few curlicue details. Other crowns are simpler in design, perhaps angular or with fewer curved details, making them appropriate for topping Nordic or Shaker style cabinets. Crown can be a modest 2-1/2-inch-wide piece or an imposing 5-plus inches wide for a dramatic effect. Built-up crown molding is made by
adding two or more molding pieces to the ceiling, and perhaps to the bottom of the crown as well. This creates the look of a single, very wide molding.
One type of door that is increasingly popular is the door that does not exist. Of course, you want the great majority of your cabinets to have doors, but open shelves make it easy to find and reach things or to show off colorful, attractive kitchen items. Sometimes a small set of shelves can be attached to the side of a wall cabinet. Or, if your inside shelves are in good shape, ask your refacing contractor to simply remove a door and finish the cabinet’s front edge.
Older cabinets often have fluorescent under-cabinet lighting. This may or may not work reliably, may produce a humming noise, can rarely be dimmed and often produces uneven light, with some areas too bright and others not bright enough. Even if you installed new lighting, say, 10 years ago, they could be halogen puck lights, which produce a lot of heat and uneven illumination. Some older cabinets lack under-counter lighting altogether. Now is the time to change out or install new lighting.
Modern under-cabinet lighting uses LED technology, which lasts virtually forever, can be dimmed, has virtually no energy costs, and produces even light with no heat. Tape-style LED lights are very easy to install.
You also may want to install inside-the-cabinet lighting behind glass doors. With today’s LED options, you need only drill small holes and thread thin wires to the locations, and the lights themselves attach quickly, often without screws.
Section Five: Material Possibilities
Refacing companies offer a range of materials options. Spend a bit of time ascertaining which material will last well in your kitchen, which will have the look you like and which offers the best quality for the price you are willing to spend.
In general, natural hardwood is more expensive; you can save some bucks by opting for materials that get painted rather than stained. Says carpenter Steve Willson, “I see a lot of painted cabinets these days — white, primarily. I think this is driven mostly by design preferences, but it does allow the cabinetmaker to use paint-grade materials instead of more expensive ones that would be required if a traditional stain or clear finish was used.”
Solid hardwood boards are often used for door frames, drawer faces, and 1/4-inch-thick strips are sometimes used to reface the front edges of cabinet. In general, hardwood is an excellent material, though often expensive.
The pieces should be free of warping, cracks, and visible knots. Wood with straight, narrow grain will be more stable than wood that has wide, curvy grain. There are many species (and subspecies) of hardwoods, but here are some of the most common:
- Poplar is the least expensive, and is rarely stained; it is generally painted.
- Birch is a light-colored hardwood that is nearly as inexpensive as poplar, but is harder. Though it is often painted, it also looks great with a clear finish, and perhaps a light stain.
- Oak, whether red or white, has a coarse, pronounced grain and rich, familiar appearance. It is medium-hard and durable.
- Walnut, maple, and cherry are among the hardest of woods, and are smoother than oak. They each have their own beautiful characteristics, and can be expected to resist denting under most normal use.
“Softwoods” usually means pine, though sometimes fir or even cedar is used. Softwood doors and drawer faces often feature a knotty appearance. True to its name, softwood can be scratched and dented under even normal use, so don’t choose it unless you don’t mind the resulting rustic appearance.
Hardwood Plywoods and Veneers
Plywoods are often used for panels on inset doors, but many of today’s plywoods have a top hardwood veneer that is little more than paper thin. Modern plywood resists dents well, but it can be scratched. Be sure the plywood is protected with a good coat of polyurethane or other finish.
Plywood usually has a good side that is graded by letter and a back side that is graded by number. So “A-1” plywood has the highest quality veneer on both sides. Often, cabinet parts are made with sheets rated “B-2,” which may have tiny knots on the good side and slightly larger knots on the other side. Note that low-quality sheets have filler pieces, often shaped like footballs,
to cover imperfections. Be sure that your cabinet plywood will not have these.
Thermofoil and melamine are two popular non-wood options for cabinets. Thermofoil is a plastic surface finish applied over doors made of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and other materials. This finish is strong enough to merit its own designation. Thermofoil is made with metallic additives and is heat-applied to produce an extremely solid surface that effectively resists
scratches, dents, and chipping. Its doors are molded, so what looks like a frame plus a panel is actually just one piece.
Melamine, a particleboard with a hard surface, is among the least expensive of materials. It is very resistant to moisture and strong enough to withstand most bumps and scratches. However, it can swell up if damage allows openings for water intrusion.
Section Six: Hiring a Cabinet Refacing Contractor (and Living Through the Process)
Choosing a Reliable Contractor
A good, reliable cabinet refacer should have plenty of experience in refacing and should be able to offer plenty of style and material options so you get exactly what you want. The best referral is someone you know who has hired the company for their own kitchen.
Otherwise, ask for written referrals and contact information, so you can talk to people who have hired the company in the past. Find out not only how the work went, but also how well the refacing job has stood the test of time.
If you get bids from two or more contractors, make sure you aren’t comparing apples to oranges. For instance, make sure the different contractors are using the same materials. This should be not only for the doors and drawer faces, but also for the side panels and the front edges of the cabinet bodies.
Likewise, look for a contractor who guarantees their work with a warranty, and that is backed by brand you can trust. Choose a company you are confident will exist several years down the road, in case you encounter warranty issues.
Writing and Negotiating a Contract
Take the time to be sure all the elements of the job are covered, including the exact materials used for all parts. Go back over this article to be sure all the details are covered and get everything in writing.
The contract should specify how long it will take to complete the job. There should be a financial penalty if the job takes a good deal longer than promised; you shouldn’t have to live with a mess for weeks. A clause should state that the contractor will pay for any damage done to the rest of the kitchen while the job is being performed.
A professional level of installation should be specified. For instance:
- All the door and drawer pulls or knobs should line up neatly with each other.
- There should be no gaps in veneers or facing materials.
- All materials should be firmly affixed.
- Colors should match accurately.
The Installation Process
The contractor will take measurements, then fabricate the doors and drawer faces back at their shop. There is no reason for them to remove anything during this time; your kitchen should be completely usable.
Before the workers return, you should clear away anything that inhibits them from doing their job. You may be able to leave things in the cabinets, but the installation will create some dust. The workers should take steps to protect your countertops and floor, perhaps covering them with construction paper, cardboard, or drop cloths.
Workers will remove doors and drawer faces, then install drawer glides, interior hardware, and crown molding. Next, they will finish wood or veneer to the exposed edges of the cabinets. The edges should all be sanded neatly and stained, if needed. Then, they will drill holes and install the hinges and the doors. The doors will be adjusted on the hinges so they all line up neatly with each other.
A modest- to medium-sized kitchen with the basics — doors, drawer faces, end panels, front cabinet edges, basic hardware — should take no more than several days to finish the installation process. A large kitchen with more features can take a week or more.
Perform a Final Inspection
Don’t just look at everything carefully; feel the edges and make sure all the veneer is firmly attached, with no bubbles or loose ends. Stand back and make sure all the doors, drawers, and hardware look neat and straight. Check your floor, countertop, and walls to be sure no damage was done to them during construction.
A cabinet refacing job will make a kitchen look and feel fresh and new, and impart a whole new style. Until you open the doors and drawers, the cabinets will look precisely like new. Once the job is completed, you may want to accessorize your cabinets a bit, perhaps with shelf paper or new dinnerware.