Kitchen Cabinets: Reface or New

I usually like to compare alternatives of a process objectively when talking about products.  However, in this case I’m willing to take a stand on the side of replacing cabinets over re-facing (or even just painting).  Reasons for considering re-facing cabinets are usually aesthetically motivated.  Perhaps the style is outdated or the finishes beginning to look a bit worn.  Often the backbone of this choice is cost related and some homeowners believe themselves handy enough to take on the job themselves (especially where painting is concerned).  In a down economy when ANY remodeling project (even a kitchen) is not likely to promise you a return on your investment, it’s easy to get sucked into low-balling the project to get at least a semblance of your dream kitchen.  This is where investing a little in design assistance and comparing prices between new and refaced cabinetry will save you big headaches and pay off for you in the long run. 

Do not assume that just because you are keeping the bones of your old cabinets that re-facing will save you money.  Once you add in the labor, re-facing can easily send the price tag up to close to (sometimes even more than) what new cabinets will cost, and you’ll still have the same insides, construction and functionality of your old kitchen.  Of course, it’s unlikely that you will be able to change the footprint in any way. 

Consider also if you purchased a home that is part of a builder’s subdivision or is a spec house, that you have inherited ‘builder’s grade’ cabinets that are not usually very good quality to begin with.  Check the drawer box joinery.  They are probably just stapled together and do not have dovetail joinery which means they will come apart easily.  The drawer bottoms are likely to be thinner so can easily be broken down when heavy items are stored in them or if they are overloaded.  The guides on the drawers (and roll-out shelves if you have them) are not designed to carry much weight and can break down over time.  Are the cabinet boxes themselves particle board?  This is considered termite candy in some locations.  Worse case scenario are particle board sink bases.  Over time nearly all kitchens have leaks around the faucet and sink or the plumbing below that can go unnoticed for years before the damage caused is detected.  Exposed particle board acts like a sponge, forms mold problems and crumbles.  Yes, you can find replacement particle board cabinets that are an inexpensive alternative that will allow you to change the footprint, but you will end up with the same problems in just a few years making the remodel pointless and unprofitable.  I strongly recommend plywood cabinet boxes instead of particle board –it lasts longer, is stronger, less heavy (so cheaper to install) and holds the connecting screws better. 

If your cabinet doors and drawer fronts are not ‘full-overlay design’ (meaning they cover most of the face frame) then you can probably see big areas of the face frames.  When you paint or re-face, it’s difficult to get the door and drawer front finishes to match exactly to the face frames.  You might even be able to see the edge of the overlay that is applied to the face frames when they are refaced.  Partial overlay design has a dated look and screams “cheap.”  On the other hand, if you have inset doors (doors and drawer fronts sit inside the face frame), these would be very difficult to reface because changing out the doors and drawer fronts mean they have to be custom sized and getting them installed so they are spaced correctly and evenly takes the skill of an experienced installer.

About painting:  You should plan to remove the finish of your existing cabinets before repainting.  Simply applying a primer will usually not do the trick because even cheap cabinets nowadays come finished with a conversion varnish that is baked on and designed to keep anything from sticking to it.  It will not be easy to remove and the solvent needed to do the job will have an adverse effect on the air quality (and smell) of your environment.  Keep in mind also that if the wood has a lot of grain to it (like oak) that it will show through the paint which will give away the fact that they have been re-painted.  Another type of cabinet material that doesn’t accommodate painting is “Thermofoil” which is usually white.  This finish is a heat bonded plastic over a particle board core.  Paint won’t stick to it.  In most states it is not legal for cabinet professionals to apply a solvent-based finish in a residence –and you wouldn’t want them to anyway because it will be unhealthy and smelly.  (Wouldn’t you want the aroma of your kitchen to smell of freshly baked cookies rather than turpentine?)

Some will argue that re-facing instead of replacing will allow you to keep your existing countertops and flooring.  In some cases this is true.  You can never re-use a tile countertop or a tiled-in sink when you replace your cabinets.  You will have flooring issues if you change the layout of the kitchen and will have to pay for moving some facilities such as plumbing, ventilation or electrical services if you relocate appliances or sinks.  You many not be able to in some circumstances (like a second story above).  Replacing means you’ll be paying for somebody to draw up the plans (even if you don’t change the foot print).  Even if it’s not spelled out as a separate charge, it is a cost that is factored into the price of the cabinetry.  Do not kid yourself into thinking there are no planning costs in a reface job as well.

Keep in mind that if you are just re-facing your cabinets and are installing new flooring, you will have to rip out the old flooring even if the new is the type that can be floated over and existing flooring material.  This is because your cabinets remain the same height and you are losing space so the effect will be that the counter height will drop in height that is the thickness of the the new flooring (which may include additional subfloor material).  It may become impossible to take out the existing dishwasher or install a new one.  Cabinets are sized ‘as if’ they are installed over the flooring, but are usually not installed that way.  The cabinets are usually shimmed up so the bottoms are at the height of the flooring and the flooring is installed up to the cabinetry.

So there’s lots to consider if all you have in mind for your kitchen is a new facelift.  Generally speaking, you get what you pay for.  I personally like the idea that I have options and can have faith in the longevity of my investment –which is why I favor replacement.  I like to think of refaced cabinets like tattoos –they look great on a twenty something (even fashionable) but I wonder what it’ll look like when they’re sixty!

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