Save Money: Reface Old Cabinetry Instead of Buying New

Kitchen aerialDoes your kitchen need new cabinetry, but your budget is a bit slim?  Here’s an article from on how to reface cabinets yourself.


Even the nicest, most modern cabinets become outdated with time. With a little do-it-yourself knowledge and the proper tools and preparation, you can simply reface your cabinets rather than replacing them.

What is Refacing?

Often there’s nothing structurally wrong with the cabinetry itself. That is, the portion behind the cabinet doors is in good shape, strong and solid, without holes, missing pieces or rotting wood. To completely change the look and update the style, one option is to reface them. Rather than stripping and then painting or staining the cabinet surface, with refacing you literally put a “new face” on the cabinets. A new skin – called wood veneer – is laid on top of the old face under and surrounding the cabinet door and drawers. The result looks like new cabinets. The drawback to refacing cabinets is that typically you want to replace the cabinet doors and drawer fronts, which adds to the price tag. But it’s still less expensive than getting all new cabinets.

What is Wood Veneer?

Veneer is a product that allows you to transform the appearance of old, dingy cabinets or furniture. It’s nothing more than a very thin (almost paper-like) sheet of real wood that makes the veneered piece look like solid wood.

With veneer, you’re not locked into a particular wood look. Veneer can be made of common woods such as oak, maple and cherry as well as bamboo, but you can also obtain more uncommon woods such as mahogany. Some types of wood will cost more, but compared to the cost of new cabinets, even a more expensive veneer is still a bargain.

While you can purchase your own veneer separately, many DIYers find it easiest to purchase a cabinet refacing kit. A kit usually includes detailed instructions as well as any tools and accessories commonly needed, such as tack cloths, a scraper and a veneer cutter (although a utility knife will work as well). Before purchasing any kit, compare the variety of kits available. Note what is included in the kit and how much veneer it offers.

Also, if you opt to purchase items separately, make sure you get pressure-sensitive veneer. While any veneer sticks instantly to the surface it touches and therefore requires a steady hand and patience, pressure-sensitive veneer is easier to work with than traditional veneer.

Planning Your Refacing: Select Your Cabinet Style

The style of your cabinet doors will determine how you reface the surface. Each style exposes different portions of the front frame – the wood surrounding the front of the cabinet box:

  • Full Overlay: A full-overlay cabinet style is distinct. All you can see when you look at it is the cabinet doors. Since the doors cover up the face frame – the front framework of the cabinet – the only portion you need to reface or replace is the doors.
  • Partial Overlay: Another common cabinet style has partial-overlay doors. Here, the face frame is partially visible. The cabinet door covers only a portion of the framework. Since you can’t reface only a portion of the face frame, you must reface the entire surface along with the doors.
  • Flush Inset: Some cabinets feature doors that sit inside the face frame, flush with the cabinet front. Like a partial overlay, you must reface both the cabinet face and replace the doors.

Not to be forgotten, any visible cabinet sides must also be refaced. Otherwise, you are left with old cabinetry from the side and new from the front, which lends a jarring look to your kitchen or bathroom. If you find you don’t have enough veneer in your refacing kit, purchase additional veneer of the same type and style.

Doors and Drawers

Technically, you could probably put veneer over your cabinet doors and drawers instead of replacing them if they are flat panels without any design or trim. Even then, the edges may be problematic, and close inspection might reveal the veneer’s edge. A product called veneer edge banding helps, but it’s easier and probably better to simply replace them. Professionals will replace the cupboard doors and any drawer fronts (a board which attaches to the drawer box itself) or create a new drawer front by flipping the drawer around in the opening and attaching a new front to the old rear.

The same stores where you can purchase a refacing kit often provide matching drawers and doors. Before purchasing any replacements, be sure to measure the old drawer front or cupboard door first. Better yet, if you’re buying from a local store, take one with you. The new doors and drawers must be the same exact size as the old ones.

If you choose to keep your old drawer fronts and doors, mark them to help remember where each one goes. A small label on a piece of tape, attached to the rear of the piece, or even a light pencil mark, will help tremendously.

The Basic Cabinet Refacing Process

So you have elected to reface your cabinets and purchased a refacing kit or your own veneer. If you bought veneer outside of a kit, you have the tools you need to cut and smooth it. Now it’s time to get your hands busy. Expect to take an hour per cabinet, although your time may vary. Here’s the basic process:

  • Detach the current cabinet doors, unscrewing the hinges from the cabinet box first. If you plan to reuse the hinges, detach them from the door and set them aside to clean and reattach later.
  • Pull out any drawers. Detach the drawer fronts as applicable. (If you are refacing the drawers instead, leave them as they are.)
  • Remove knobs, handles and pulls from drawers and doors if you plan to either reface the doors and drawers or reuse the hardware.
  • Soak the hardware (hinges, knobs, handles and pulls) you wish to keep in a sink or bucket full of very hot water and a squirt of liquid dish washing detergent. If you notice built up grease and grime, try adding a dash of vinegar. Wait at least 30 minutes to an hour before scrubbing, drying and polishing as desired.
  • Sand over the cabinet face and the drawer fronts and outer door surface only if you plan to reuse your old ones. Aim at getting the surfaces smooth, flat, and clean. Don’t worry about sanding through the existing surface, but remove the shine and contaminants to ensure the veneer bonds well. Wipe away the sanding dust with a tack rag.
  • Cut a piece of thin plywood to the exact size of any exposed cabinet ends. Squeeze carpenter’s glue over the cabinet side or end and position the plywood to ensure the edges are flush with the cabinet. Drive 2d finish nails through the plywood into the cabinet frame along the edges. Sink the nail heads and fill with wood filler. Sand smooth. While you can omit this step and reface the cabinet side itself, this provides a perfect and professional-looking surface.
  • Apply the veneer, reading the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and following the steps closely. In general, measure each section and cut the veneer with a straightedge and a utility knife. Hold it close to position before carefully peeling back the wax paper backing. Immediately press the veneer to the cabinet surface. Smooth and stick in place with a wood block or other tool. Trim and treat edges as directed by the manufacturer.
  • Mount new doors and drawer fronts as applicable and attach hardware.

Now you can stand back and admire your “new” cabinets!

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