How to Fix Peeling Thermofoil Cabinets
Similar to common laminate cabinets, thermofoil cabinets are constructed with a plastic vinyl layer laminated to an MDF (medium-density fiberboard) core. Both standard laminate and thermofoil cabinets can effectively mimic the look of wood cabinets but generally cost considerably less.
This economy comes with its disadvantages, however, since any laminated wood product runs the risk of delamination, and the very thin layer of PVC material used in the thermofoil process is especially prone to peeling.
But the good news is that, if the MDF core and the thermofoil are still in good condition, they can be repaired easily and inexpensively.
Thermofoil vs. Wood Veneer and Laminate
Whenever you have a laminated or veneered material, you run the risk of delamination. For example, it is not uncommon for furniture made of hardwood veneer bonded to a solid wood core to begin peeling after a few years. Traffic, use, and water contact or humidity will only speed up the process.
The same holds true of laminated furniture, where the layers of laminate bonded to the MDF core can also delaminate and separate. When laminated or wood-veneered furniture begin to delaminate, the laminate or veneer comes off in thick, solid layers.
But thermofoil cabinets delaminate differently. Thermofoil is a thin PVC vinyl material that is applied to MDF under both vacuum pressure and heat. While the bond between the thermofoil and MDF has short-term integrity, this bond may fail over the long term. Thermofoil is a considerably thinner (and cheaper) material than either wood veneer or laminate veneer and thus is much more susceptible to peeling and more difficult to repair.
When working with contact cement, work only in a well-ventilated area. If the peeling thermofoil is on a cabinet door, it's usually safest and easiest to remove the door from the cabinet box and repair the door outdoors or in an open garage.
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What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Disposable brush
- Woodworker's clamps
- Scrap soft materials such as rags, carpeting, etc.
- Putty knife
- Contact cement
- Short pieces of scrap wood, such as 1x4
Pull Back the Thermofoil Layer
Have a helper hold the peeling thermofoil away from the MDF. Be careful not to pull too far or at an acute angle, since old thermofoil can snap off or crack. Thermofoil is thin and delicate, so pull it back only as far as it will comfortably go.
Scrape Any Old Cement
Scrape away dried cement from the MDF core. Use a putty knife or a five-in-one tool to scrape off residue from any previous fixes. Themofoil cabinets that have not previously been repaired should not have cement, but there might be some surface imperfections that need to be removed.
Apply the Contact Cement
While a helper holds the thermofoil separate from the MDF, coat both the back of the thermofoil and the top of the MDF core with the contact cement, using a disposable brush. Do not use a foam brush with contact cement.
Wait for the Contact Cement to Dry
Do not immediately press the thermofoil back onto the MDF core. The cement instructions will specify how long you must wait until pressing the two materials together. A drying period of about 15 minutes is common.
Press Materials Together and Secure
Press the two materials together. Hold them firmly in place for about one hour. Using soft materials as protection on the thermofoil face, sandwich the work between two flat pieces of scrap board held in place with woodworker's clamps.
Clean the Cabinet
You can remove excess contact cement from the edges of the repair area by gently rubbing it with your fingers to pill it up, then discard those rubbery bits of contact cement. A pencil eraser can also help with pilling off dried contact cement.
Tips for Preventing Thermofoil Peeling
Heat, moisture, or a combination of the two often are enough to loosen the bond between the thin thermofoil layer and the MDF core.
Woodworkers and cabinet installers report the same pattern: thermofoil delamination commonly occurs on cabinet surfaces located above coffee makers, toasters, toaster ovens, and convection ovens. Pull small heat-generating appliances away from the cabinets when using them.
In bathrooms, the equivalents are curling irons and blow dryers. Because bathrooms are high-moisture environments, humidity and direct contact with water will only speed up the delamination process.
Should You Replace or Repair Peeling Thermofoil Cabinets?
If your thermofoil cabinets are showing localized damage on only one or two cabinets, or in locations subject to constant heat and moisture, then you may want to proceed with the repair. Regluing the thermofoil layer is not difficult to do in small areas with contact cement and clamps.
Also, when large strips of thermofoil are peeling back, this is a far easier repair than when multiple narrow strips of the coating are peeling back. If the peeling section is still intact, it is a good candidate for a repair.
If this is a kitchen-wide problem, you should consider replacing your cabinets entirely or installing new door and drawer front panels. Unless you have a pressing financial reason to choose repair for the entire kitchen, you may want to save yourself the aggravation and start fresh with new cabinets. If the cabinet boxes are in good shape but the cabinet doors are peeling, your best bet is to purchase new cabinet doors.
If the MDF itself is bulging or is in any condition other than completely flat and smooth, there is no point in trying to repair the cabinets. Warped MDF cannot be sanded down, planed, or otherwise smoothed.
When to Call a Professional
If the door core is damaged due to water infiltration, making repairs to this type of cabinet door can be time-consuming and expensive. The core would need to be measured, cut, and laminated. To obtain a factory finish, you may want to hire a professional or company that specializes in such work. In this case, it's less expensive and easiest to replace the damaged thermofoil door with a new door.