Refinishing and Refacing
Make Old Cabinets Look Like New
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Question: I’m afraid that getting a new counter, sink and faucet would make the cabinets in our 1950s kitchen look worse, but we can’t afford new ones. The existing cabinets are white. Can we refinish them even if some of the doors have water damage? What is the difference between refinishing and refacing?
—Sarah F., Oklahoma
A kitchen with white laminate cabinets before refacing and remodeling.
Answer: In short, refinishing means that you keep all components of your existing cabinetry and simply change the color or finish. This is done through hand sanding or chemically stripping the existing finish from the wood, then applying a new paint or stain. (Note: refinishing only works on wood cabinets.)
Refacing means that you keep your cabinet boxes but replace all your cabinet doors and drawer fronts with new ones, which allows you to change the door style as well as the color. You can also replace cabinet side panels, face frames and moldings so that everything matches.
The above kitchen after remodeling. In addition to refacing the existing cabinets, Kitchen Tune-Up of Eden Prairie, MN, added a matching island, granite countertops and a tile backsplash.
Some homeowners have a third option, wood restoration, but that works only on stained wood cabinets. White cabinets, however, are either painted wood or else MDF or particleboard with a laminate or resilient vinyl surface (the latter is typically called thermofoil) – so restoration is out for you.
Refinishing also is out if your cabinets are laminate or thermofoil. These materials can't be sanded or stripped, and it's "nearly impossibly for paint to stick," says John Williams of Sears Home Improvement Products. In addition, water damage to a laminate door cannot be repaired as it can with a wood door.
“If the door is laminate, door damage usually manifests itself as peeling surfaces as the underlying particle board ‘blows up,’” explains Allen Cohen, owner of Kitchen Tune-Up in Newton, MA. “These cannot be repaired and must be replaced with refacing.”
If you have wood cabinets, and you're still torn between refacing and refinishing, consider door style, kitchen layout and budget. If you hate your door style, why refinish them? Likewise, if you don't like your kitchen's configuration and want to add an island or other cabinetry, don't refinish – it will be very difficult to match to new cabinetry, unless you paint instead of stain.
However, if budget is your top priority, refinishing is the cheaper option. Cohen estimates that refinishing your cabinets costs about 2/3 the cost of refacing, while refacing costs about 70 to 80 percent of the cost of installing good quality replacement cabinets. Exact numbers depend on job size, door style and finish, regional labor costs and taxes, and many other factors.
These estimates assume that you hire a professional contractor to do the work. If you prefer to save money by doing the work yourself, notes Williams, don't forget to add in the cost of buying the required tools for the job. Refinishing, adds Cohen, is more demanding than refacing, although neither are easy jobs for do-it-yourself novices. "To try to properly remove the old stain and varnish requies using harsh, dangerous chemicals," he says. "Homeowners should try a test in an obscure area before attempting to do the entire kitchen."