If you’re thinking about remodeling your kitchen but are daunted by the cost of new cabinets, all is not lost. Cabinet re-facing may offer an alternative worth exploring. Keep in mind, however, re-facing is not for everyone, and there are some definite advantages and disadvantages to the process that you need to consider.

Re-facing is simply the process of covering the old exteriors of the cabinets with new wood to give them a fresh, clean look, and it can make a good do-it-yourself project for the patient carpenter. Your existing cabinets need to be in good condition structurally and you need to be happy with their size and layout. If so, then re-facing them may offer a faster, lower-cost option to complete replacement, which also allows you to save the countertops.

The re-facing process is fairly straightforward, although it sounds a little easier than it is. First, all of the drawers are removed from the cabinets and set aside. Then the doors are removed and discarded. Any crown or scribe molding is also removed and discarded. All of this can theoretically be done with the contents still in the cabinets, but it’s definitely easier and cleaner to box up the contents and store them temporarily. Prior to starting on the re-facing, the door openings are measured and new doors are ordered.

Next, the faces of the old cabinets have to be cleaned and prepared for the new wood veneer. Washing the cabinets with a degreasing cleaner, such as TSP, removes built-up dirt and grease layers that will clog the sandpaper. The wood is then checked for areas that are chipped, gouged or otherwise damaged, and those spots are repaired with wood putty.

Next, the cabinets are lightly sanded with 120- or 150-grit sandpaper to rough up the surfaces. This sanding is fairly light, and it’s important not to use a power sander that would remove too much material or round over square edges. Finally, the surfaces are lightly cleaned again with soap and water and allowed to dry thoroughly.

With all the prep work done, the cabinets are ready for re-facing. The end panels of the cabinets are done first, typically with sheets of 1/8-inch plywood, or with plastic laminate. The panels are cut to the proper size, and then adhered to the cabinets with wood glue or contact cement. All of the end panels need to be completed prior to working on the face frames.

The face frames are typically covered with a paper-thin self-adhesive wood or laminate veneer. The fastest method is to cover the entire cabinet face with a sheet of veneer, and then use a trim router to cut out the door openings. However, this method results in a lot of wasted material, and even more importantly, it leaves the grain of the wood all running in the same direction, which can look odd.

The preferable method is to install narrow strips of veneer similar to the individual pieces of wood that were used to make up the cabinet face frames originally. Using a straightedge, the veneer is cut into strips of the proper width and length, then adhered to the cabinet faces one piece at a time. For the best look, the interior edges of the face frame should also be faced, or at least completely sanded and refinished. After all the face frames are done, new moldings are added as needed, and the cabinets are stained and lacquered.

The doors and drawers are the final step in the process. If the drawers are in good shape, the faces are removed and new solid wood faces are installed. If the operation of the drawers was a problem, the drawer hardware may also be replaced at this time so that they roll more smoothly. The new doors ordered earlier are then installed, typically with new hinges.


An important distinction to remember with cabinet re-facing is that the changes are cosmetic, not structural. For example, have you ever wished that the refrigerator was on a different wall, or that you had a big bank of drawers next to the range? When re-facing cabinets, instead of replacing them, you can’t rearrange their layout, and for many that’s the primary disadvantage of this method of remodeling. It also will not take care of other structural problems, such as loose joints or broken wood.

Another disadvantage is the cabinet interiors. While re-facing definitely cleans up the exterior of the cabinets, it doesn’t do anything for the interiors. You can replace the shelves, but every time you open the brand new doors, you’ll still be facing the old interior. You do have the option of re-facing the interiors as well, but all that extra labor and material quickly eat up the money you saved by re-facing rather than replacing your cabinets.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paul2887@direcway.com.


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