Bathroom or kitchen cabinets with thermofoil facing are a mixed blessing. The good part of that blessing happens when you are standing at the cash register in the home improvement store or ordering them online at an RTA store since thermofoil cabinets are among the least expensive cabinets you can buy. The dark side is that the cabinets' thermofoil is prone to delamination from the medium-density fiberboard (MDF) base.
Instead of living with the problem or going the costlier route and buying new cabinets, you can fix the peeling thermofoil facing relatively easily by gluing it back in place.
Where and Why Thermofoil Will Peel Off
Whenever you have a laminated or veneered material, you run the risk of delamination. It is common for wood veneer to begin peeling off of furniture after a few years. Traffic, contact, and humidity will only speed up the process.
But thermofoil cabinets are especially prone to delamination. Unlike the furniture example (wood veneer atop wood furniture), thermofoil is a sandwich of two dissimilar materials. Thermofoil is a thin vinyl material that is applied to MDF both under vacuum pressure and with heat. While the bond between the thermofoil and MDF has short-term integrity, over the longer term this bond can fail.
Heat, moisture, and a combination of the two loosen the bond between the thermofoil and the MDF. Woodworkers and cabinet installers report the same pattern: thermofoil delamination above coffee makers, toasters, toaster ovens, and convection ovens. In bathrooms, the equivalents are curling irons and blow dryers. Because bathrooms are high-moisture environments, humidity and direct contact with water will only exacerbate the delamination process.
Should You Repair or Replace?
If this is a spot repair that is focused only on a cabinet corner or two, then you may want to proceed with the repair. But if this is a kitchen-wide problem, you should consider replacing your cabinets entirely or installing new doors. Unless you have a pressing financial reason for repairing an entire kitchen's worth of thermofoil, you may want to save yourself the aggravation and start fresh with new cabinets. If the cabinet boxes are in good shape but cabinet doors are peeling, your best bet is to purchase new cabinet doors.
If your base MDF itself is bulging or is in any condition other than completely flat and smooth, you should not try to repair the MDF. Warped MDF cannot be sanded down, planed, or otherwise made smooth.
How to Fix Peeling Thermofoil Cabinets
With only a few simple tools and materials, you can repair thermofoil. As long the MDF core is in good condition, you have a proper surface to glue the thermofoil back onto.
Tools and Materials
- Contact cement: Purchase a contact cement intended for home repair use, such as DAP's Weldwood Contact Cement. You can find this at your local home improvement or hardware store. You may even find it at a hobby and crafts store, but make sure that you are not buying a craft adhesive. Not much is needed since a little contact cement goes a long way. For small repairs, the 3-ounce bottle should be sufficient.
- Wood clamps
- Scrap wood such as short pieces of a one-by-four
- Scrap soft materials such as rags, carpeting, etc.
1. Pull the Thermofoil Back
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.
With the thermofoil pulled back, use this opportunity to scrape away any excess cement from previous repairs.
2. Apply the Contact Cement
While the helper is holding the thermofoil separate from the MDF, coat both the back of the thermofoil and the top of the MDF with contact cement. Take care to apply contact cement near the edges.
Do not immediately press together. The cement instructions will specify how long you must wait until pressing the two materials together.
3. Press Together and Secure
Press the two materials together. Hold firmly in place for about one hour. Using the 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.
You can remove excess contact cement from the edges by gently rubbing it with your fingers to "pill" it up, then discarding those pills.