Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

If you’re not quite confident enough to just build a set of cabinets just yet, then you might want to consider going with a simple refinish job to improve the look, and possibly the function, in your kitchen.

We’ll cover the necessary steps to turn those old cabinets into something new and beautiful at a minimal cost, all you’ll need is a little bit of patience and precision.

Victoria, Homethods Author

Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

1.) Determine What You Want to Do

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Kitchen cabinets tend to suffer from quite a few defects as time goes on. Let’s face it, they’re moving objects in a room where things tend to be hurried and messy. Before you go about refinishing your cabinets cosmetically, you should take into account exactly what you want to do.

  • Cosmetic improvements are the most common reason to refinish the cabinets. This can include simply repainting or staining your cabinets, or you might want to go ahead and add paneling or trim to plain doors, texture them, or anything else you can imagine.
  • Functional improvements will consist of repairing or replacing hingest, door closers, knobs, and anything else that might not be functioning as well as you like anymore. These are deceptively simple to do, and will improve the overall usefulness of loose, old cabinets which are getting hard to use.
  • Repairing surfaces is also an integral part of the refinishing process, and any holes or scratches that your cabinets have taken during their service can be done at the same time.
  • Drastic alterations can also be done, this includes adding shelves or permanent interior hardware fixtures, lighting, or really anything you can think of.

For the most part, we’re going to focus on the first three as larger alterations are in their own category and each will be surprisingly different.

So grab a pen and paper and note down what you want to change about your kitchen cabinets, and we’ll walk you through the most common alterations you might want to make.

2.) Repair Any Damage

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Repairing damage to wooden cabinets can be a somewhat daunting task, but you’re likely to be able to do it a lot more easily than you’d think.

Scratches are generally minor. If you’re planning on refinishing the face of your cabinets and doors, however, you should definitely fix them.

The easiest way to do this is to go over them with some wood putty carefully. Since you’ll be re-staining or painting at the end of this process anyways, don’t worry too much about the color. You’ll be sanding as well, just scrape it on as flat as you can and let it dry before you proceed.

Holes are much harder to deal with. Each case will be something a little bit different, and large holes in the face of the cabinets might require you to reskin that part of the cabinet. For smaller holes, do your best to putty it over while using something the putty won’t stick to for a backing,.

Large holes will require a patch made with the same material as the front of the cabinet. Honestly, if you’ve knocked a large hole in a hardwood face, as opposed to a paneling face, you’re pretty much looking at building a new set.

Use wood glue for your patch, then with a rasp or rough file carefully match it off and don’t worry about it until you get ready to re-do the whole skin. A bit of wood putty along the seams is a good idea as well, since you’ll be able to sand it down and blend it when you refinish the face.

If yours aren’t damaged in any real way, then you’re ready to move on.

How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinets

3.) Cosmetic Refinishing

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At this point, take all of the doors off of the cabinet and lay down a drop cloth.

Painting is a pretty simple process but it’ll get messy quick and you’re best off the lay down the cloth before you get to the sanding process.

Take special care of any scratches or holes you repaired. Wood putty is great stuff, but if you hit it too hard with a sander you’re not going to have a good time.

The basics are the same as painting here, until you get to the really fun stuff.

To replace trim, carefully break it back with a pry bar. Try to determine whether it’s glued or nailed in and be as careful as you can. In extreme cases, you may need to break it off but try to apply the force directly perpendicular to the face in order to avoid tearing holes as the nails or glue come free.

Try getting at glue with a razor blade before you pry too hard, a good wood glue can do some serious damage while you’re removing the piece. Discard then old trim, and use a table saw or hand saw and miter box to cut the new stuff to size.

If your cabinets run longer than the piece you’re looking at, you have two basic options to run the piece. The easy way, and the hard way. We strongly recommend you take the hard way in order to get the best final result but it’s up to you.

The easy way is to just butt the pieces together. Use a bit of wood putty and sand it down by hand with a small piece of sandpaper after it dries. It’s not too noticeable unless someone takes a close look, and a lot of people prefer to do it that way.

The hard way is to angle the pieces into each other. Cut the end at 45° then do the opposite cut on the other end. The pieces should slide together seamlessly afterwards, then proceed as normal until you hit the wall or corner.

Sand them down if they don’t fit just right, and a table saw will make this whole thing much easier but if you work precisely you’ll easily enough be able to do it as long as you have a miter box. If you do it properly you’ll have an amazingly professional look to the trim.

Baseboards are easier, just attach them with finishing nails every four to six inches and you’ll be good to go.

How to Refinish Kitchen Cabinet

4.) Functional Refinishing

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Since you already have the cabinet doors off, you might want to make sure everything slots together properly.

Frequently, cabinets will be as old as the house itself. Over time, hinges will rust, squeak, loosen, and do all manner of interesting things that make your life just a little bit more difficult.

Even if they don’t, take the opportunity to add a few drops of oil to each hinge before you reattach them to sort out any squeaks before they happen. The smoother action is a bonus, and will allow you to sneak into the kitchen for midnight snacks without worrying about anyone waking up.

You might also want to take this opportunity to either change or polish your hinges and knobs. Brasso works great for stainless steel and brass, but don’t use it for copper, iron, or any metal you’re not sure of.

Metal polish will sort out quite a bit, but if you’re going to oil the hinges do it afterwards.

The mechanism that holds your doors shut will vary from cabinet to cabinet, but make sure they’re in good working order. Sometimes they’ll loosen up and have to be replaced entirely, but more often the failure to close is just caused by slight repositioning caused by the wood “migrating” due to temperature changes and can be undone with a screwdriver.

For the most part, cabinet mechanisms are amazingly simple and you’ll be able to figure out any flaws with a couple of hand tools and taking a close look at how they’re working.

Honestly, it can be kind of embarrassing to have a brand new looking set of cabinets with doors squeaking and flying open so just set aside a couple of hours to troubleshoot and fix anything that needs to be taken care of.

The main things to look at here:

  • Knobs can get loose over time. If they’re not tightening up with a couple twists of the screwdriver, try pushing a small bit of wood putty into the hole with a toothpick and then putting the screw in again once it’s dry. This should let the screw bite again. If you have wooden knobs where the screw comes through the back of the cabinet you can do the same thing but put the putty in the hole in the knob itself.
  • Hinges are the usual suspect. If they squeak, oil them, and if the door seems off balance or isn’t sitting properly in the hole then reattach them to compensate. If the hole is stripped out, either on the face of the cabinet or the door itself, then try the wood putty trick.
  • Closure mechanisms vary widely and a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t really possible to describe. For the most part, you can fix them by repositioning. If they’re the metal “clasp” type, try moving the clasp inwards with a pair of needle-nose pliers before you commit to replacing it.

Once you’ve got all that finished, and you’ve set the cabinets back up, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the results of your handiwork.


Refinishing cabinets is a lot simpler than it seems, and if you’re careful through the whole process even a complete amateur is sure to end up with some pretty fantastic results at the end of the day. Give it a shot if you’re not ready to dedicate yourself to actually building your own, the cosmetic end result might be the same.