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Refinishing and Upgrading Kitchen Cabinets

For the homeowner who is happy with the condition and layout of the existing kitchen cabinets, refinishing kitchen cabinets (or removing the old varnish) is a cost-effective way to refresh and upgrade wood cabinets without the expense and hassle of a full kitchen remodel. This is also a good time to change out existing cabinet doors for new ones in a different style: add kitchen cabinet inserts and organizers; replace old drawer boxes; and buy new handles and knobs. 

Refinishing kitchen cabinets is a process that includes identifying the cabinets' current varnish and then removing and reapplying it. To refinish properly requires technical knowledge of wood properties, sanding methods, top coat removal, and an understanding of stains. Cabinet refinishing, because of the expertise involved, is typically done by a professional. Some points to consider when refinishing wood cabinets are:

What types of Cabinets can be Refinished?

The first step is to identify the cabinet box structure. Cabinets are manufactured in two basic box constructions: frameless or face frame. In face frame cabinets, supporting frames attach to the front of the cabinet box. This frame is typically
1 1/2-inches wide and made from solid wood. Mounted on this face frame is the door. Frameless cabinets, on the other hand, have no supporting front frame. The door is attached directly to the side panel of the cabinet box.

Face frame cabinets that are finished in a natural or stained wood, can be stripped and refinished. However, for face frame cabinets that are painted, it may be difficult or cost prohibitive to change to a varnished finish. Wood is a porous material, and once painted, it is very difficult to sand it down far enough to remove all the paint that has been caught by the grain. If you currently have painted cabinets and want to change them to a clear coat or stained wood, cabinet refacing may be the only option short of a full kitchen remodel.

With frameless cabinets the exterior of the cabinet boxes are covered with either a very thin wood veneer or a plastic laminate material. These materials cannot be readily sanded and refinished. Redoing the exterior finish of the frameless cabinet boxes is often best achieved through cabinet refacing.

Removal of the current Finish

Varnish is the transparent topcoat applied to both stained and unstained woods, to protect the wood and achieve the desired level of shine. There are several types of varnish, including urethane, polyurethane, shellac, lacquer, and acrylic. Completely removing the old topcoat requires a chemical stripper, followed by sanding.

There are excellent varnish removers available. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, ask your local retailer for advice in identifying the old finish and selecting the proper product for your cabinet finish. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Some of the chemicals used to remove old cabinet finishes are so strong they can break down the adhesives that hold the door together. For this reason, it’s a good idea to test the product on one or two doors before proceeding with the rest of the project.

Cabinet Stain

Cabinets with natural or light stains can be darkened, but if your cabinets are already dark, you’ll probably have to either stay with that color or go darker. Once a dark stain penetrates the wood's surface, it is very difficult to sand down far enough to remove all of it. The only way to know for sure is to actually sand and strip a couple of cabinet doors. If the pigment is deeply ingrained in the wood, you can either keep the stain as is or go darker, or you can reface, paint, or replace the cabinets.

Wood and the Stain's Pigments

Before choosing a stain, it is important to identify the exterior wood on your cabinets. Different woods absorb stain pigment differently. Most stains allow the wood's grain and color to show through, so the finished product is a combination of the wood's properties and the stain color. For example, maple has a tendency to take medium-to-dark stains unevenly, resulting in a flat, blotchy effect. Cherry, on the other hand, has a nice “visual depth” and absorbs deep stains evenly. That’s what gives cherry its reputation for color richness and beauty. Hardware and paint store employees and professional refinishers are often very knowledgeable about wood properties. Ask them for advice when selecting your stain.


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New Cabinets: Buying Kitchen Cabinets | Factory vs Custom Shops | Types of Kitchen Cabinets | Kitchen Cabinet Quality |
Remodel Your Cabinets: Adding a Kitchen Island | Kitchen Cabinet Organizers and Inserts | Adding to Existing Kitchen Cabinets |
Refacing Kitchen Cabinets | Painting Kitchen Cabinets | Refinishing Kitchen Cabinets |
Kitchen Cabinet Design: Cabinet Design Styles | Finishes for Wood Cabinets | Kitchen Cabinet Door Styles | Faceframe vs Frameless Kitchen Cabinets |
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