Real Life Advice: Everything I Now Know About Refacing, Replacing, or Repainting Kitchen Cabinets

published Sep 21, 2016
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(Image credit: Sarah Sherman Samuel)

About a year ago, my partner and I purchased our very first home. It’s a darling 1920s house with tons of curb appeal, but it still needs a lot of renovation work on the inside. And, while much of the house retains its original charm, the kitchen leaves a lot to be desired. After a bit of sleuthing, we learned from past building permits that the previous owners did a complete kitchen overhaul in 1970. Needless to say, we could definitely do without the darkly stained cabinets and avocado green electric stove.

But with a toddler adjusting to a new home, and a new baby on the way, we knew we wouldn’t have the time or energy to jump right into a complete kitchen overhaul. So we decided to look into some options to help us revamp the space into something attractive and livable without the hassle of a full blown renovation.

Thankfully for us, while the kitchen may not be our style, it was built with quality materials and well-maintained over the years. It’s really just the 1970 style that needed a bit of an upgrade. And one of the quickest and easiest ways to give your kitchen new life is by “refacing.”

When it comes to giving your cabinets a facelift, you have a few different options: 1) repainting; 2) refacing; or 3) replacing.

Option #1: Repainting

You’d be amazed at what a few coats of paint can do. Whether you hire a professional painter for the job, or you do it yourself, this is a great opportunity to dramatically change the look of your kitchen. This entails sanding down and refinishing or painting the existing cabinets and doors.

If stained wood isn’t your thing, you can switch to a classic white for a more traditional look. Or if you can’t stand the idea of a white cabinet, then it’s the perfect opportunity to play around with color. You can paint all of the cabinets a single striking color, or even play around with a darker lower cabinet and a lighter shade for the uppers. If you don’t like it, a new look is only ever a few coats of paint away.

Cost: $100-200 for the paint and supplies if you do it yourself. Up to $1,000 if you hire someone to do it for you.

Option #2: Refacing

Refacing is changing the look of your cabinet exterior. The key here is to ensure the new door and drawer fronts match the old cabinet frames, so you’ll also have to update the bases with paint, stain or new veneer. You can either go with a professional refacing company, or do some cabinet hacks on your own.

Many cabinets built since around the ’80s are actually made with wood or laminate veneer that eventually begins to chip and wear away with use. If the cabinets are generally in good shape, you can simply reface them. The process is fairly simple, but it can get a bit tricky, so I wouldn’t recommend a DIY unless you have experience removing and installing veneers. You’ll most likely want to get some help from a professional. But if you do go this route, a nice wood veneer can completely transform tired old cabinets into a clean fresh start.

Cost: Obviously, prices will vary depending on size of the kitchen and location. An average size kitchen can cost about “$25,000, including labor, to replace all perimeter cabinet doors, drawers, end panels and toe kicks with new ones painted Benjamin Moore’s White Dove” according to Houzz. Chelsea of Two Twenty One paid about $7,000 to reface her smaller kitchen in Indianapolis and get rid of the oak finish in favor of a clean white laminate.

Option #3: Replacing

The last option is removing the old doors and drawer fronts and replacing them completely. This is a really great choice if you have quality cabinets in good condition, but can’t stand the style. This option also gives you the most flexibility if you really want to make a big change.

Interior stylist Anna Pirkola took this approach to her kitchen makeover and she and her husband made their own plywood doors. It’s a big upgrade from the brown and depressing ones that came before the remodel. You can get a glimpse of the before here.

Cost: The entire kitchen makeover was only about $3,400, including the new Smeg fridge, so the price of the doors themselves was negligible — just the cost of the materials themselves. It’s labor and time that are factors here.

It’s an especially economical option if you have standard-sized cabinetry and can buy doors from a hardware store. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring in a professional to evaluate the quality and condition of your cabinets, take measurements, and install the new doors and drawer fronts. Home Depot has a handy page to take you through the steps of choosing a style and material, and measuring your old cabinets. They’ll give you a quote and you install your new doors yourself when they are ready.

If you have IKEA cabinets, you can also check out companies like SemiHandmade, which makes semi-custom cabinet fronts in many styles. You can also get them unpainted so you can choose a custom color. The benefit here is that you can swap out everything without worrying about whether they will fit. According to Sarah Sherman Samuel (whose kitchen is pictured in our opener), they take about a day to install and adjust so everything is level.

Cost: According to Semihandmade, customers spend between “$4,000 and $10,000 on doors, panels, drawer faces and custom components like floating shelves, wine cabinets and appliance panels” to go with their cabinet bases.

After all this research, we’ve decided to replace our cabinet front entirely. We’d really like to restore it back to the original 1920s look and feel with a more traditional white shaker style to match some of the built-ins around the house.

Whatever route you choose to go, the options are endless for both color and style, and it’s a job that can totally transform the look of your kitchen in only a matter of days. Just be sure to evaluate all of your options beforehand to make sure that it’s the right decision for your home. We learned our lesson the hard way by running to the hardware store and slapping on several layers of bright white paint over very darkly stained wood. We didn’t take the time to remove the doors, sand down the wood, or prime it, so we ended up with a spotty job that only added more time and money to our project. Especially when we ultimately decided to completely replace the cabinet doors! But with a little bit of research, there may just be a cabinet refacing in your future.

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