Top Tips for Refinishing Your Kitchen Cabinets

dark kitchen cabinets

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With the high cost of new kitchen cabinets, it makes sense to consider refinishing your current cabinets. Besides the cost savings, there are other positives with refurbishing your cabinets, including preventing even more waste from ending up in your local landfill. But refinishing kitchen cabinets it a bit more complicated than painting or staining the cabinets over the course of a few hours. Follow these tips for refinishing your kitchen cabinets with ease, efficiency, and panache.

Remove the Cabinets if Possible

Removing cabinets is not a clean process. Damage to your walls and flooring is to be expected when extricating wall and base cabinets. When refinishing, removal of the cabinets boxes is only an option—though a highly recommended option. Calculate the chances for clean removal by looking at any paint or caulking that connect the cabinets to the walls. Open the doors and look at the screws that secure the cabinets to the walls. Stripped screws only make removal more difficult. If you remove the screws (from wall cabinets, for example) and the cabinet remains stuck to the wall, with no connective paint or caulk, the installer may have glued the cabinet to the wall with construction adhesive. In this case, removing the cabinet box will remove part of the drywall.

Always Remove the Doors and Drawers

If you cannot remove cabinet boxes relatively easily, remove all cabinet doors and drawer fronts. Accomplish this by using a cordless drill fitted with a driver bit to turn out the screws on the hinges. With sandwich bags and an indelible marker, label each bag with the hinge's original location, and be sure to include the screws. Remove contents from the drawers, then remove the drawers.

Clean the Cabinets Thoroughly

After years and perhaps even decades of handling, cabinets and drawers can get dirty. Grease, handprints, and food all contribute to a poor surface for the paint to stick to. Mix trisodium phosphate (TSP) or a phosphate-free TSP substitute in warm water. Wipe down all surfaces that will be refinished with a sponge dipped in the TSP solution and squeezed out. Use latex gloves or latex-free alternatives. Avoid soaking the cabinets. Let the cabinets completely dry before refinishing.

Remove All Fixtures

All cabinet fixtures, including knobs, handles, and anything else that will not be painted should be removed. Do not try to tape over the fixtures and paint around them.

Sand Down All Surfaces to Be Painted

Sanding the cabinets may be one of the least favorite parts of this project for many do-it-yourselfers. But the job can be made easier with far better results with these tips:

  • Use a random orbital sander for all flat surfaces. If you do not already own this type of sander, it may be worthwhile to purchase one since it will considerably reduce your workload.
  • Begin with low-numbered sandpaper grits and work up to higher numbers. Begin at about the #100 to #150 range. Sandpaper at the #220 is usually the highest you will go. But for a glass-smooth surface, you can even use #320 sandpaper.
  • For uneven surfaces and grooves that the sander cannot reach, use a foam sanding pad.

Clean the Cabinets After Sanding

Using a brush attachment and vacuuming down the cabinets after sanding is a good way to begin the process of cleaning. But for perfectly clean surfaces, you need to go beyond this. Lightly rubbing down with beeswax-impregnated tack cloth is the preferred method of fine carpenters and cabinet makers. Avoid pressing too hard. When the tack cloth comes up clean, the cabinets, too, are clean.

Use the Right Type of Paint or Coating for Cabinets

When painting your cabinets, choose a type of paint formulated for cabinets. Enamel or acrylic paint or another type of paint advertised as cabinet paint will return the best results. Latex wall paint is a poor choice as it does not sand well. If you are staining and finishing the cabinets, oil-based finishes tend to provide a hard, long-lasting surface when compared to water-based products.

Sand After Each Layer of Paint or Coating

Building up multiple layers of paint or coatings gives the cabinets a rich appearance and a durable, shell-like surface. Sand smooth after each coating has cured. Multiple coat-sand-clean cycles give your cabinets a truly professional look and feel.

Keep the Work Area Ultra-Clean

While it can be tempting to finish the kitchen cabinets in the open, air-borne particulates—dust, pollen, leaves, fuzz—will cling to your cabinets' wet coatings like metal to a magnet. Work in a garage with the door open, and make sure that the garage is clean and dust-free before you lay down any coatings. Do not use the shop vacuum in bagless, wet mode as this will scatter dust. Instead, make sure that the vacuum is fitted with a bag and a HEPA filter.

Take It Slow and Be Patient

Cabinet refinishing is a painstaking process. Instead of plunging ahead and trying to finish it all in one or two days, segment your time in manageable blocks over the course of a couple of weeks. Set up small goals for yourself, such as finishing a single wall cabinet, before moving onto the rest. Accomplishing these milestones will energize you, helping you complete the project as a whole.