3 options to restore oak cabinets

Need-to-knows about painting, refinishing, refacing

Q: We have white-washed oak cabinets (not very good ones at that). I want to change the color — can they be painted successfully? And what about refacing — is that a good option? I do not want to go through the expense of new cabinets! Also, do you recommend knobs on the doors and drawers? We don’t have them now and I notice that in places we have actually made little marks with our fingernails, so I guess I may have answered by own question on that! –Virginia B.

A: Let’s take your questions one at a time. First of all, oak is difficult to paint effectively without a lot of preparation work. If you look closely at the wood, you’ll see light areas that are relatively smooth and darker areas that are very porous. The paint gets absorbed differently into these two areas, so it’s difficult to get a smooth paint job without the grain showing through.

To paint oak, the old finish should be sanded off, then a specific paste sealer applied that fills in and seals the open pores. Then the wood is sanded again, primed and painted. It’s kind of a time-consuming process to do correctly, so be sure your painter has specific experience with oak (he or she may also know some tricks I’m not aware of).

Refacing is also an option. This involves removing all the doors, drawer fronts and hardware, sanding and cleaning the cabinets, and then gluing on wood veneer. The veneer is then painted or stained and lacquered, and new matching doors and drawer fronts are fabricated and installed. If you are having any problems with older hardware — hinges and drawer slides — the refacing won’t fix any of that, so you may have the expense of some additional repairs as well.

If you like the look of the oak, except for the color, another option would be to have the cabinets sanded and refinished. This is less expensive than a full paint job, and since you’re back to raw wood, you can stain them any color you like, or leave them natural with just a lacquer finish.

Yes, I do recommend pulls. They keep the cabinets from getting dirty and scratched, as you mention, and they also add a nice look. And in the future, you have the option of doing a little kitchen redecorating by just changing the color and style of the pulls. For a great selection of quality pulls in all kinds of styles and price ranges, try www.leevalley.com or www.vandykes.com.

Finally, don’t completely give up on the idea of new cabinets. There are some excellent modular cabinets on the market that are reasonably priced, and it gives you the opportunity to change the layout of the kitchen if you want, as well as making changes in wiring. You can reuse all the existing appliances and fixtures, although you will have the expense of new counters. Before you decide on a refacing, I would also get an estimate on new cabinets, just to compare.

Q: As a Realtor new at assessing foreclosure homes for damages and repair work needed, and presenting this information to the banks [and] lenders, where do I start? –Ilene R.

A: That’s a great question, and I applaud you for wanting to take the proper steps.

In my experience, the damage that’s done to a home that has been foreclosed on can range from minor cosmetic repairs to some really serious structural problems. A lot of it depends on how long the home has been unoccupied, how bad the financial problems were for the previous owners (lack of money can translate into lack of maintenance), and how adversarial the relationship was between the prior owner and the lending institution.

I’ve seen homes left unheated through freezing winters, leading to numerous frozen and broken pipes, as well as homes with leaky roofs resulting in severe mold. Worse yet is the damage that an irate former owner can inflict, which has included stuffing months of garbage into a crawlspace, urinating and even defecating down heating ducts, and two cases I’ve seen where a person literally took a chainsaw to the walls.

All that to say that there is no single answer to your question. My best advice would be to hook up with an experienced and reliable home inspector. Home inspectors — the good ones — are very thorough in their inspections and recommendations, and that will give you a solid and unbiased opinion of what is wrong with the house. From there, talk with a licensed general contractor with specific remodeling and repair experience to get the necessary repair-cost estimates.

If you can establish a solid, long-term relationship with a qualified home inspector and an honest, reliable general contractor, all three of you will benefit considerably — especially in this particular real estate market.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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