Canadian Woodworking

Kitchen Cabinet Facelift

Author: Marty Schlosser
Photos: Marty Schlosser; Lead photo by Brian Hargreaves
Published: April May 2010

Breathing new life into a tired, outdated kitchen on a tight budget can best be described in two words: Sweat equity.


  • Akfix

You know the drill. Your sig­nificant other drags you out to the home show and swoons over the new kitchen models on display. Oops! A quick cal­culation tells her it’s too expensive to even consider. The astute salesperson then proposes a less expensive alterna­tive: replacing your tired kitchen cabinet doors and drawer fronts with new ones that feature the latest design and upscale door and drawer pulls. After talking it over, you both come to the conclusion that you really like the style and qual­ity of your existing cabinet doors and drawer fronts. They’re stained in a colour and tone you both like but the finish has become, well, a bit drab and tired-looking after 20-plus years of use. The existing handles? You know they’ve got to go. Despite your significant other’s promise of help you are a bit reluctant to tackle your first kitchen cabinet facelift. Well, I’m here to tell you that with a little imagination and, yep, you guessed it, a reasonable investment in sweat equity, you can do it. Let’s roll up our sleeves and I’ll show you how it’s done.

Thorough cleaning
 Using TSP, give all the cabinetry a good scrubbing to remove all the dirt and grime.

Don't forget the hardware
 If you are reusing the hinges, give them a good cleaning so that they will look good with your refinished wood.

Sand away
 Pay attention to detail when you are sanding your doors and drawer fronts. You don’t want to leave any original finish behind.

Fresh color
 Apply a fresh coat of stain to breathe new life into the look of the wood.

The right finish
 Make sure that you choose a finish that will stand up to the wear and tear of a kitchen.

Simple jig
 Drill the first hole then using a screw, attach a simple drilling jig to locate and drill the second hole.

Removing Doors and Drawer Fronts

The first step is to remove the doors and drawer fronts, one at a time. Label them as you go to save a lot of time and frus­tration when it comes time to re-mount them. Use a logical labelling method; the upper, left-most door is U1, beside it is U2, etc. Lower doors are labelled L1, etc. If your doors feature euro-style hinges, label them in the upper-most hinge cup hole, using a felt tip pen. If butt hinges were used, you can mark the identifier in the hinge rabbet or beneath the hinge if it has none. The idea is to enable you to quickly identify the door or drawer front, without having such labelling show once they’re back in place. Remove all hard­ware, noting the location of the various styles of hinges. If your doors have Euro-style hinges it’s likely there will be more than one type. If that’s the case you may wish to also label the hinges with their corresponding door identifier.


No matter how careful you have been in cleaning kitchen grime and grease off the door and drawer fronts over the years, before you attempt to apply any finish you need to do a thorough clean­ing with TSP or a similar grease-busting cleanser. Protect yourself by wearing protective gloves, safety glasses and an apron (your shop apron will do just fine and will keep you out of hot water with your significant other if you use one of those nice, clean ones from ‘their’ kitchen). Place the doors, one at a time, in the laundry tub or a plastic tub and sparingly apply the cleanser with a bristle scrub brush. Using a circular motion, go over the entire area, working from the top to the bottom. Dip the brush into fresh cleanser. Once both sides and all edges have been done, rinse them off with fresh water – again, sparingly. Remember, the objective is to remove all grease and grime while not causing any delaminating or swelling of wood with excess water or cleanser. Stand the doors against the wall of your shop to thoroughly dry before proceeding with sanding. While you’re waiting for the doors to dry, clean the hinges, handles or knobs in the same solution, and then set them aside to dry.


With everything clean it’s easy to assess the condition of the doors and drawer fronts. Deal with any delaminated veneers (if it’s a panel door or drawer front) or failing joints. If you are planning to replace the handles or pulls, double-check the hole locations and spacing and fill any that won’t work with the new hardware. If filling is nec­essary, use tinted wood filler that will match the final finish as closely as pos­sible. Now turn your attention to the hinges and check for any excessive loose­ness or stiffness in their mechanism. Hinges that have a considerable amount of looseness should be replaced with new ones of the same type.


The condition of the existing finish dictates to a certain extent exactly how much sanding is needed. If the existing finish is relatively smooth and the clean­ing didn’t cause any problems with the finish or swelling of the frame or panel, all that is needed is a light sanding by hand with 220 grit sandpaper. Use a sanding block or sanding foam pad and make sure you get into all corners. Be especially careful to sand consistently; taking too much from any one area will show up as a much lighter tone when the finish is reapplied. You will notice that my doors required a more complete sanding, as the frames were quite badly worn and in need of more aggressive sanding.


If your doors and drawer fronts are stained and you are satisfied with their colour or tone, you can move right along to the next step. If, however, the stain appears to be inconsistent in tone, either as a result of years of wear and tear or the cleaning or sanding you just finished, you may wish to apply a light coat of stain to even things out. Before going ahead with this staining, perform a test on the inside of one of your less conspicuous doors. The technique is to apply a light coat of stain by brush, then wait approximately one minute before wiping it down with a dry, lint-free rag. If you find the tone is too light after this, completely wipe off the fresh stain using whatever solvent is appropriate for the stain and allow the area to dry before trying a second time. If you’re in a hurry, do your test on another incon­spicuous door, this time allowing more time for the stain to set before wiping it down. Once you are satisfied with the colour and tone, tackle all doors and drawer fronts before moving on to the next step.

Applying the Protective Topcoat

Give yourself plenty of time – four days is about right – if you are applying the topcoats by hand. The process is the same as for any single piece of furni­ture or woodworking project: apply coats thinly and allow each coat to dry fully before lightly sanding between coats. You will likely require three coats to do the job properly. Alternatively, depend­ing on the amount of space you have in your shop, your enthusiasm and time available to apply the protective topcoats, you may wish to consider having this last finishing step done by a professional finisher. In my case I sprayed waterborne lacquer on the doors and drawer fronts, which took slightly more than half a day with the help of an associate.

Re-mount Hardware

The hardware is the next item for you to focus upon. If you have to drill new holes for handles or knobs, do so now. Carefully measure where you need to drill, as it’s not much fun to have to fill and refinish an incorrectly drilled hole. Incidentally, if you look carefully you’ll see the filled hole from the old handles. Fortunately, the new handles were lon­ger, which made the old filled holes very inconspicuous when the job was done. If you are applying handles, after drill­ing the first hole, use a simple shop-made jig to locate the second hole. Once your handle or pull holes are out of the way, mount the hinges to the doors.

Re-hang Doors and Install Drawer Fronts

If you used the same hinges as before, re-hanging the doors is relatively sim­ple: line the hinges up with the holes in the cabinets and screw them into posi­tion. If you have Euro hinges and the mounted doors need to be adjusted, this is a simple job. Is the door too low or too high? Lightly loosen the screws that mount each of the door’s two hinges and raise or lower the door until it’s properly located, then tighten down the screws. If the door is canted to the left or right, locate the screw inside the hinge requiring adjustment, then turn the screw (usually a Phillips screw­driver is needed) clockwise one full turn and see if this did the trick. If it made it worse, turn the screw counter-clockwise one and a half turns and see where things stand. Continue adjust­ments until everything lines up square and true, then tighten the other screw you will notice in the hinge, to lock your adjustments into place. One final note: you may find you need to adjust the adjacent door as well to have every­thing align properly. Re-mounting drawer fronts can actually be a bit more challenging than the doors, unless you use double-sided sticky tape to hold drawer fronts into proper alignment before screwing them into place from the inside. Make sure you use the origi­nal screws or ones of the proper length; you don’t want to have any go through. With the drawer fronts screwed into place, now mount the drawer handles or knobs, much as you did for the doors. If you need to drill new holes for this hardware, again, carefully measure for both holes then drill them. Many draw­ers will have different heights, so the jig I use to mount door handles won’t work for them. Unless your kitchen has more than a handful of drawers, it’ll be much faster to measure and drill each hole rather than make a separate jig for each unique drawer.

With the freshly refinished doors and drawers mounted, stand back and admire your handiwork. Why, with the money you saved there just may be enough to pay for that new table­saw you’ve had your eye on for quite some time.

Efficient Option

There is a sanding tool out there that can make short work of sand­ing your old cabinet doors. The ‘V’ Drum Sander from Stockroom Supply is an innovative drum sander that works extremely well for most sanding tasks. With one pass over this drum sander, you will remove all finish and stain so you can proceed with refinishing. For detailed information and vid­eos on the ‘V’ Drum Sander, visit

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