Q: We have late-1980s oak cabinets in our kitchen that are stained dark walnut. They look dated but are in good shape. When we moved in four years ago, there were outdated appliances and ugly tile. At that time, we thought we could live with the cabinets (and the equally dated-looking hardwood floor), so we replaced the tile with granite and updated all of the appliances.

But now we’re looking at the cabinets and wondering if we were a bit shortsighted. We don’t want to paint all of the cabinets because we like a wood-grain look. We’ve thought of these three options:

1. Replace the existing cabinets without replacing granite. I suspect this would be very expensive given the amount of cabinetry we have. (We have 26-30 doors/drawers; about 22 linear feet and a large center island.)

2. Reface. About a year ago, we received an estimate for refacing: $26,000 to $30,000, which seemed really expensive.

3. Refinish the cabinets, replacing the doors and drawers with updated unfinished wood, sanding the existing cabinets, then staining the cabinets and the new doors/drawers with a new color.

As you can imagine, cost is a consideration, but I don’t have a good handle on what each option would cost — both in terms of dollars and headaches.

A. You’ve identified all the viable options we would consider. Let’s take each one in turn.

New custom cabinets would be very expensive, and the granite countertops would be removed and replaced. You risk the possibility of breakage during that process, potentially increasing the cost. On the plus side: You’ll get exactly what you want. But if cost is an object, this is priciest.

Refacing is a middle ground between refinishing and replacing. Refacing can probably be done without removing the granite. We presume the $26,000 to $30,000 price tag includes new doors and drawer fronts. But even at that, we agree, the price seems dear.

To give you an example, Bill just finished a complete kitchen remodel. While his kitchen is small, he thinks he got some pretty good bang for the buck.

He used the old cabinet carcasses, added a new cabinet for the oven, replaced the doors and drawer fronts, installed $8,000 worth of soapstone counters, and a new high-end cooktop, oven, dishwasher and vent hood. Completely painted and out the door, the project cost about $25,000.

Refinishing is not only realistic but also downright cheap compared with the first two options — especially if you undertake the heavy lifting yourself by at least stripping the carcasses. There are two suboptions: You can replace the drawer fronts and cabinet doors, or you can refinish them. …CONTINUED

Either way, the first step is to remove the old finish, which, for practical purposes, means chemical stripping. Remove the cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Decide if they are keepers or trash. If they’re keepers, take them to a furniture refinisher and pay him to strip the old finish. He can do in short order what will take you days or weeks.

As to the carcasses, they’re all yours. There are the old standard gel strippers containing caustic solvents such as methylene chloride and methyl ethyl ketone. There are also newer "safety strippers," which don’t contain these harsh chemicals. Try each variety to see what works best for you.

If you use strippers and solvents that contain toxic chemicals, follow the manufacturer’s directions, provide adequate ventilation and protect yourself with a suitable respirator and safety glasses.

Isolate your work to a portion of the kitchen cabinets so at least part of the kitchen is serviceable during the job. Cover the counters and the floor with painter’s paper or plastic to prevent damage from the stripper. Have on hand steel wool, rubber gloves and a bucket of water (most stripper is water-soluble). Also have an array of scrapers, including contour models if you are removing any decorative finish.

Once the carcasses are all stripped, you’ll have to do a little surface preparation to accept the new stain and finish. As you strip the old finish, you’ll find that they will lighten up and will probably take the new color pretty well. You won’t be able to go from walnut to ash, but walnut to a lighter warm cherry might be an option.

Clean the surfaces with solvent or furniture cleaner as directed by the stripper manufacturer. You also should sand the raw wood surfaces to knock down any grain that was raised during the stripping process.

The final step is finishing the wood. We think this step is one to consider leaving to a pro. Master painters and decorators are adept at matching colors and will be best equipped to get you the color and look you want. This is especially true if you opt for new doors and door fronts for your freshly stripped carcasses.

With all of the time and care you’ve invested in your cabinets, it would be a shame to reinstall their old, worn knobs, pulls and hinges. You can easily replace the old cabinet hardware with new items, giving the kitchen a fresh look.

We hope you go the refinishing route. It will cost a lot of time but it will save you a bunch of money, and you’ll be repaid many times the cost when you see your work and think about the job well done. Let us know how it turns out.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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