Try this: walk into your kitchen and gaze, just for a minute, at your cabinets. We often take them for granted, and tend not to give them much thought, but kitchen cabinets do much more than just hold your plates and your pasta—they make your kitchen fresh or funky. Along with your appliances and your countertops, your cabinets really determine the appeal of your entire kitchen.
Well, how do they look?
Let’s face reality: many kitchens have cabinets that have seen better days. Sagging doors, scratched, soiled and worn wood, peeling paint or varnish, tarnished or missing hardware—they definitely look like they need a makeover, or maybe even a complete facelift.
In the past, if your cabinets needed some facial rehab, you had one option—tear out the entire cabinet and start over. That process tended to be extensive, expensive and interruptive.
But today, you have another option: cabinet re-facing.
So let’s look at the pros and cons of re-facing your cabinets, and see what might work for you:
Cabinet re-facing works like this: professionals come into your home, remove and replace the front-facing parts of your cabinet door and drawer fronts, and cover the exposed face frames of the cabinets with a matching wood or plastic veneer. Most companies use new panels and molding to trim and cover the old stuff, and many replace or re-cover the toe-kick, the recessed area under your floor-mounted base cabinets. They then replace the drawer and cabinet door fronts with new ones that have new hardware, and the process is finished—voila, new kitchen! This generally costs much less than an entirely new set of cabinetry, and leaves your kitchen walls intact, without the need for serious refinishing or rebuilding.
Expect to spend, depending on where you live, the materials used and the size of your kitchen, somewhere in the mid-five figures ($3000-$8000) for a full re-facing job. That can compare very favorably to a $10-$20K full cabinet replacement cost.
2. Old Cabinets Are Sometimes Better Than New Ones
Several decades ago, many kitchen cabinets were custom-made, constructed in place, with high-quality, solid wood materials and excellent construction. The actual bodies of the cabinets—shelves, sides and surfaces—have more durability and strength than many of the newer prebuilt assembly-line made cabinets. Those modular units, often made overseas from lower-quality pressed-wood products, tend to look good in the store, but don’t always hold up well in daily use. This could mean that your cabinets have better materials and better all-around structural integrity than what you can buy today. In that case, it definitely makes more sense to re-face than replace.
If you have kitchen cabinets that were painted before 1978, the paint on them likely has lead in it. Sanding or disturbing that paint, if it isn’t done carefully and by professionals with the right training and equipment, can result in toxic lead permeating your kitchen. For this reason alone, it’s smart and healthy to use a re-facing contractor who understands lead abatement.
Like many things in life, pros can often be cons when you look at them from another angle. You can make a good argument for replacing your entire cabinetry in your kitchen if it was painted with leaded paint before 1978, rather than re-facing, just to make sure that your contractor doesn’t contaminate your cooking and eating area with lead. Caveat: most cabinet re-facing pros know what they’re doing, and will not disturb lead-based pre-1978 paint at all, which means it poses no danger.
Most cabinet re-facing contractors utilize one of three different potential kinds of materials on your cabinets: plastic laminates that look like wood, a product called a rigid thermofoil or RTF (similar to laminate flooring that looks like wood but isn’t); or actual wood veneer, which is a very thin slice of the real wood your cabinet and drawer fronts are actually made from. The first two products will fool you from the dining room, but get up close and that shiny, plasticky finish won’t fool anyone. I recommend real wood veneers to everyone who re-faces their cabinets, but they are more expensive. You get what you pay for, or so I’ve heard.
3. No Right Angles
In older houses, or houses that weren’t built that well in the first place, or with kitchen cabinets that sag or bow because they weren’t built that well in the first place, either, you’re going to have what my grandfather the master builder called the NRA Problem—no right angles. Floors sag and settle, walls lean out of plumb, and the cabinets that are attached to them do the same. Want to find out if that’s why your cabinets look bad, or why the doors don’t close so well anymore? Just buy a rigid 90-degree metal angle in the tool section of the hardware store, and hold it up against two edges of your cabinetry. See any gaps? If you do, the re-facing option won’t really help you, because the bodies of the cabinets themselves no longer function well, and need to be replaced. A good contractor can tell you this information just by examining your cabinetry, which is another reason to ask for a few estimates before tackling a cabinet remodel. NRA-related structural issues like these will call for complete cabinet replacement; and may even indicate the need for much more extensive work on the home in question. Sorry.
4. Your Kitchen Has Bad Bones
The “bones” of a house—its inner architectural framework, along with its basic footprint, walls and room sizes—all determine how well it functions as living space. If your kitchen’s bones don’t work very well now, cabinet re-facing won’t help you, because it’s basically a cosmetic process rather than a structural one. If you have a poorly laid-out floor plan; if your counter space is lacking; if you want better functionality in your kitchen; then you’re probably better off considering a full kitchen remodel rather than just re-facing your cabinets and drawers.
Re-face or replace? Now that you know the pros and cons, you can make an informed decision and start work on your dream kitchen.