Canadian Woodworking

HomeInOn – kitchen cabinet makeovers on a budget

Author: Carl Duguay
Published: February March 2018
kitchen cabinet makeover
kitchen cabinet makeover

When it comes to giving your kitchen a bright new look, you don’t necessarily need to rip out and replace everything. Repainting or replacing just the cabinet doors, drawer fronts and shelves, along with installing new hardware, can make for an amazing facelift.

Most of the wear and tear on kitchen cabinets, along with the outdated look, is on the outside of the cabinets, on the doors and drawer fronts. If the structure of your cabinets (the cabinet boxes) is in fairly good shape then there really is no need to replace them. The only reason you might want to do so is if you’re planning a complete kitchen remodel, or if the boxes are in really poor condition.

Kitchen cabinets can be either frameless (Euro-style) or faceframed. If you have framed cabinets, you’ll probably want to refinish or replace the face frames as well.

Cabinet doors, drawer fronts and the shelves can be made of plastic – MDF with a polymer covering (aka Thermofoil), melamine or laminate – plywood, or solid wood. If your plastic doors and drawers are in good shape, they can be repainted successfully. However, if they’re damaged, consider replacing them. Thermofoil can be removed, but it’s an arduous and time-consuming process. Melamine and laminate can’t be removed; small chipped pieces can be replaced, but it can be a difficult job to do. Most avid DIYers should be able to manage repairs to plywood and solid wood doors.

Repainting or replacing all the doors and drawer fronts is time consuming, especially if you want to do it correctly. Take your time, rather than rushing through, and you’ll end up with a great job.

Purchase a Kit
You can purchase a kit, like this Rustoleum product, to help prepare your old doors and cabinets for a fresh coat of paint.

rustoleum cabinet transformations

Keep it Simple
Slab doors are the simplest and fastest option for a do it-your-selfer. Adding iron-on edge banding to the edges of the doors is very easy, but solid wood edging will be more durable down the road. Creating end panels or gables to cover exposed exterior faces of existing cabinets will hide any hint of your previous set of kitchen cabinets. (Photo by Thomasville Cabinetry)

kitchen cabinet base

Get Fancy
Purchasing doors from a door manufacturing company will give you lots of door design options, and will be easier and quicker for you to complete your kitchen renovation project.

kitchen makeover

Lay the groundwork for your kitchen cabinet makeover

Proper preparation is the key to getting good paint adhesion and a smooth look – this is especially important if you have plastic doors and drawers. Remove the doors and drawer fronts (and shelves if these will be painted) and all the hardware. Make sure you label where they go, to make reinstallation easier – hinges are often adjusted for the box they’re installed on. If you plan to install new hardware it’s best to fill the old holes.

The very first step is to clean everything with a heavy-duty cleaner such as Rustoleum’s Krud Kutter rather than using a mild cleaner like dishwashing soap, which won’t do as good a job at removing grease and oil. Needless to say, now’s the time to clean the inside of the cabinets as well. If you plan to install any under-the-cabinet lighting, now is also the time to do so. You can get really easy-to-install LED strip and channel lighting from Lee Valley.

Next, fill small holes, cracks, or gouges with a paintable filler, sand when dry, and spot prime.

You’ll then want to sand all surfaces – 180- to 220-grit on wood and 320-grit on plastic – just enough to dull the surface so the primer will better adhere. Use a vacuum, tack cloth, or lightly damp cloth to remove any residual dust.

kitchen cabinet makeover

Painting is the economical option

Your options for painting include brush, pad, rollers, or spray. If you don’t have experience using a sprayer, then this might not be the time to begin using one. You can do just as good a job, although it will take longer, using a brush. In fact, most professional painters I spoke to prefer using brushes. Their overwhelming preference is for oil-based primer and paint, as it adheres and covers better than water-based products. They also recommend using premium nylon-polyester brushes. You can also use a filler/sealer, such as Aquacoat, in place of the primer on wood doors with prominent open grain. For plastic doors, two good primers are Kilz Complete and Insl-X Cabinet Coat. After the primer has dried, sand it lightly, wipe up the dust, and then apply your topcoat.

An alternative is to use a cabinet coating kit, such as Rustoleum’s Cabinet Transformations. Each kit covers about 100 sq.ft., so you’ll need to calculate how many kits to purchase. Kits come with everything you need, except a paint brush. One advantage of this kit is that rather than having to sand your cabinets, this kit includes a deglosser and scrub pads that you use to abrade the surfaces.


Make and replace for a custom look

For woodworkers, this is where the fun begins. This option gives you the greatest control over how your kitchen will look – you can design and build the doors and drawer fronts exactly as you want – and you’ll get a tremendous sense of satisfaction (plus bragging rights). And of course, if the boxes are in poor shape, you can build these, too.

Choose a design style – Shaker, mission, contemporary – that not only blends into the general decor of your kitchen but is one that you’ll be comfortable making many of. Building the doors and drawer fronts is pretty straightforward. I find it quicker and more efficient to make all the components of the same dimensions in batches. I also make a template for each different door size that I use, to locate hinges on the new doors. Remember, you’ll need to replace (or veneer over) the face frames to match the new doors. I often use clear or coloured glass in place of wood panels for cabinet doors that house china – it’s a great way to show off the contents.

If you haven’t made doors before, consider a simple slab door (also called a contemporary or Euro-style door). They’re easily made from solid wood or, better yet, cabinet grade plywood. Either will require a solid wood edge banding but not any specialized joinery.

A final option is to purchase and install ready-made doors and drawer fronts, which you can order from home improvement retailers such as Home Hardware. They generally offer a variety of styles, colours and price points in either MDF, wood, unfinished, or pre-finished. A more expensive alternative, but one that might offer greater design options and possibly a higher quality end product, is to contract a local cabinet shop to build custom components for you.

Considering the time, money and effort you’ll end up putting into your kitchen cabinet upgrade, it makes sense to replace the old doorknobs and drawer pulls. You might also think about installing new soft-close door hinges and drawer sliders.


Carl Duguay - [email protected]

Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

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