Reface cabinets for a new look

Save money, time, and the disruption of ripping out old cabinets by giving them a new skin instead.

If you like the layout of your kitchen or bathroom, refacing the built-in cabinets maintains that arrangement while making the room look like new. And because refacing costs less than new cabinets, you can use the savings to add new touches of luxury, such as self-closing drawers and soft-close doors. 

Evaluate the current cabinets


Not every set of cabinets is worthy of refacing, so don’t waste time and money trying to rejuvenate excessively out-of-square boxes, or ones that have moisture damage, split frame members, or broken joints that can’t be repaired. Dings, deep scratches, and chip-out on the face frame can be filled in before applying the new veneer. Ignore damaged doors and drawer fronts as you’ll build new ones to match the revitalized face frames. Broken drawer boxes can also be replaced. If your cabinet boxes pass muster, move on to evaluating your hardware.

Hardware: Upgrade? Reuse? 

Although it’s economical to stick with the existing hardware, upgrading hinges and drawer slides can make refaced cabinets feel as new as they look. Full-extension ball-bearing slides allow easy access to a drawer’s full depth. Bottom-mounted slides provide a clean, uncluttered look with the drawer open. With self-closing slides, you give the drawer a gentle push, then it slows the last inch or so of travel and softly closes on its own. Soft-close hinges do the same for doors, preventing slams. 

Side-mount slides require 12 " of clearance on each side between the face frame and drawer box, and bottom-mount slides typically require drawer sides that extend 58 " below the drawer bottoms. Either of these choices may require building new drawer boxes to accommodate them. Build the boxes before you begin refacing to minimize your kitchen or bath downtime.

Mounting doors with hidden 35mm hinges provides three-way adjustability for aligning door fronts. (See below for more about selecting 35mm hinges.) 

Reusing pulls and knobs can save you money, but choosing new (or no) hardware will update the look even further. You'll find a wide selection of pulls and knobs online and at home centers.

Finish before you start


To determine door and drawer-front sizes, measure each opening and add 1" to allow for a 12 " overlay all around. Measure the face-frame rails and stiles and add 14 " to their widths and 1" to their lengths to determine how much veneer you’ll need. Then measure the exposed end panels and toekick faces; purchase enough 14 " plywood to cover them. If you can’t find a good color match between your veneer and plywood, buy extra veneer and apply it to birch plywood. 

Using these measurements, build doors and drawer fronts to suit your desired style. For this job, we made doors with stub-tenon-and-groove joinery, and 14 " plywood panels. Lightly sand the sharp edges of the doors and drawer fronts. Drill 35mm holes for hinges, but drill holes for pulls only after installing the doors. This ensures the pulls align and eliminates drilling a hole in the wrong end.

Cut the end panels to length, and at least 14 " overwidth to allow for scribing to the wall if needed. Cut overlength pieces of cove molding to finish the tops of wall cabinets, and base shoe to fit along the floor. Then apply any stain and finish to the moldings, panels, doors, drawer fronts, and full sheets of veneer in your shop before taking them to the job site. We refaced our cabinets in cherry, and applied Minwax Cherry stain topped with precatalyzed lacquer.

Time for a breakdown


With all the components ready, remove the old doors and drawer fronts. If you’ll be reusing the pulls, bag them up and set them aside. Empty the cabinets so the contents don’t get dusty or damaged. If you are upgrading slides, remove and discard the old ones from the cabinets and drawers. Store the drawer boxes you’ll reuse inside the cabinets to reduce workspace clutter.  


Install the end panels first to allow covering their exposed edges with veneer later. To get started, hold an end panel in position, and scribe the back edge of the panel [Photo D, below]. With a belt sander, shape up to the line. For base cabinets, hold the scribed panel in place, trace the outline of the toekick, jigsaw it, and sand it smooth. 

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Insert a pencil through a router-bit bearing or a washer, then roll the bearing along the wall to transfer the wall contour onto the panel.

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Apply a thin bead of construction adhesive just inside the panel’s perimeter, then pin-nail around the edges with 1⁄2"-long nails.

Glue and pin-nail the side panel in place [Photo E, above]. Flush trim the front edge of the panel [Photo F, below], and square up the inside corners [Photo G, following].

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Set a flush-trim bit to expose only enough cutter to trim the plywood. Before routing, check for a smooth surface on the face frame for the bit bearing.

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Use a multitool or flush-cut saw to remove waste where the router can’t reach.


Using 100-grit sandpaper on a random-orbit sander, sand the face frames to remove contaminants, such as built-up grease, and any loose finish. (You do not need to remove all of the old finish.) Hand-sand with a sanding block next to walls and appliances, and under countertops. To prevent transmitting old imperfections through the new veneer, fill chips, holes, or dents [Photo H, below], and sand them smooth. Then, apply a lacquer finish to the faces of the rails and stiles only [Photo I, following]. 

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An auto-body filler, such as Bondo, works well for filling imperfections and leveling surfaces. It cures quickly and sands easily.

Applying lacquer
Brush on two coats of lacquer. This seals the surface and allows you to peel away the veneer in the next steps, should you need to reposition it.

Now, the facelift

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From the 96"-long strips, crosscut lengths for each stile.

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Use your fingertips to gauge when the veneer is centered on the stile, then lightly press it in place, working from one end to the other.

Rip strips of veneer about 316 " wider than the width of the face-frame stiles. Then crosscut them about 1" longer than each stile [Photo J, above]. Where two stiles butt together, cut one piece of veneer wide enough to cover both. Apply the veneer to each stile [Photo K, above]. Where a short cabinet butts against a tall one (as in Photo H, above), cut and apply an L-shape veneer strip [Notching eliminates seams, below]. The PSA backing allows you to peel off and reposition a strip if it gets applied slightly off kilter, but aim to get it right the first time. On outside stiles adjacent to an end panel, leave as little overhang as possible along the panel to reduce sanding later, minimizing your chances of marring the panel. 

Notching eliminates seams

With a double-width stile at the top and a single-width stile to the bottom, you might consider butting two strips side by side, one for each stile. However, notching one piece to cover the full length of both stiles provides a seamless fit [Photos below].

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Notch a strip to fit the double stile above and the single stile below. First, slice the veneer along its length to match the length of the single stile plus 1⁄2".

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Next, complete the notch on the paper cutter for a perfectly square notch.

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Align the notch so it just overlaps the stiles and the rail of the cabinets, and press in place at the middle, then work toward each end.

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Square up one end of a length of veneer for the rail. Butt that end against the stile veneer, mark the opposite end for length, then sneak up on a perfect fit between the stiles.


Next, fit and apply the rail veneers [Photo L, above], and press all the veneers against the face frame [Photos M, N, below]. Using a laminate bevel-trim bit, rout the overhanging veneer flush with the face frame, except by the end panel, where you should hand-sand a chamfer [Photo O, following]. With a sharp utility knife, remove excess in any areas the bit couldn’t reach. 

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Roll the faces firmly with a J-roller to strengthen the bond. Tilt the roller slightly to press the edges tight, but work carefully to avoid breaking the veneer.

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Hold 150-grit sandpaper 45° to the end panel and carefully sand the veneer flush while creating a slight chamfer.

Touch up the exposed veneer edges with the same stain used on the veneer. Fill any small gaps between rail and stile veneers with colored putty [Photo P, below].

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You may need to mix two or more colors to match the veneer. After rubbing putty into gaps, clean the face frames with a paper towel and mineral spirits.

Install doors and drawers

Installing doors
Cut a spacer to position a door at the proper height. Hold it in place with double-faced tape, and press the hinge against it. Drill pilot holes in the face frame, and screw the hinges in place. Use the spacer to position the remaining doors.


Retrieve the doors and drawer fronts. Install the doors first [Photo Q, above], aligning their top edges. Apply double-faced tape to the front of each drawer box and install the false fronts next [Photo R, below]. Miter-cut and pin-nail cove molding to the top of the wall cabinets [Photo S, following]. Cut and pin-nail 14 " plywood to the toekicks, then complete the cabinet boxes with base shoe along the floor to hide gaps. Putty the nail holes, then step back and admire your “new” cabinets.  

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With the doors aligned, cut a spacer long enough to span two doors. Rest a false front on the spacer, press the drawer box against the false front, then pull the drawer out and secure the front with screws from the inside.

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Cove molding provides a finished look, and hides any unevenness at the tops of the cabinets. Cut a spacer to position the cove molding parallel to the doors.

Specialty tools ease the job

View a short video of cutting veneer with the laminate-slitter fixture.

The veneer used to reface cabinets comes in 24×96" sheets in a variety of species and with a pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA) backing [Sources, below]. To accurately cut sheets this long, use a laminate slitter [Photo A, below, Sources]. Slide the veneer along the fence and between two bearing-mounted cutters. Adjust the distance between the bearings to accommodate sheets of different thicknesses, and set the fence to cut strips of different widths. 

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Set cutting depth using the top knob. Adjust the fence-to-cutter distance with the knob on the rear.

You can use the trimmer handheld, or purchase a clamp that secures it to the edge of a bench or countertop. But for best control and accuracy, make a simple fixture like the one used by Hartman Construction [Photo B, below] that both secures the tool, and provides a larger worksurface and longer fences. 

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The slitter rests in a channel between two plywood tables with aligned fence extensions. A bolt through the back of the slitter (drill a hole) slides in a slot in the channel to set the veneer width. Lock the slitter in place by tightening a wing nut.

For crosscuts, a guillotine-style paper cutter creates clean, square cuts and makes it easy to trim off small slivers when fine-tuning the length of a strip. Find paper cutters at office supply stores. A small one suffices.

A laminate bevel-trim bit [Photo C, below, Sources] routs away overhanging edges and creates a slight chamfer on the installed veneer. Its small diameter allows it to reach almost fully into corners, minimizing the need to square them up after routing.

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A chamfered edge prevents snagging a veneer edge when moving items in and out of a cabinet. Touch up areas where bare wood shows if you like—they’ll be hidden behind doors and drawers.

Sources:
24×96" PSA-backed veneers, price varies by species, veneersupplies.com.
Tridon AT-109 laminate slitter,  tools4flooring.com.
Freud 66-100 bevel-trim router bit, no. 49466, J-roller $20, no. 43174, 800-279-4441, rockler.co

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