Gary Ellis with Rob
I've been a designer and a quality-oriented remodeler for 28
years. Seven years ago, if any of my customers had suggested
refacing rather than replacing their tired-looking kitchen
cabinets, I would have discouraged them in no uncertain terms.
Visions of cheesy, delaminating edge-banding and flush
high-pressurelaminate overlay doors and drawers didn't
fit my idea of a professional service or solution.
But I've changed my mind. The refinishing options —
doors, drawers, hardware, and finishes — have
undergone something of a revolution. There's virtually no look
or style that can't be accomplished with today's refacing
products. Perhaps the greatest benefit to my customers is that
they not only enjoy considerable savings over the cost of
replacement, but they don't even have to live without their
kitchen during the typical weeklong process. We clean up every
evening and my customers' lives go on with little
Our franchise company, Kitchen Tune-Up, does between 50 and
100 kitchen jobs per year, either basic tune-ups or full
refacing. While it would be possible to track down all the
necessary products, tools, and materials needed to do a
refacing job, as many refacers do, I decided from the outset
that it was too much effort. The hassle of coordinating
suppliers and deliveries, as well as recovering from supplier
errors, damaged goods, and anything else that can screw up a
job, convinced me to go the franchise route (Kitchen Tune-Up,
I work with a formalized ordering system that follows every
job by number from start to finish. All of the specifications
for the job are already in the supplier's hands. If a door
arrives damaged, or the customer decides to change something,
or if we just plain forgot an item, we can quickly recover with
a phone call and a firm delivery date. Buying into the
franchise cost me around $35,000, but I was able to earn the
fee back within two years.
Assessing Existing Cabinets
Refacing can make a dramatic difference in the look of a
kitchen, but not every cabinet is a good candidate. First, the
original cabinets must be of good quality — which in
my book means built of wood or plywood, not particleboard.
Particleboard doesn't hold screws well, swells when it gets
wet, has fragile edges, and sags when it's loaded, whether it's
used for cabinet bottoms or shelving. So if I find face frames
stapled to a particleboard carcass, I'm most likely to advise
the prospective customer to consider replacement. Other
refacing companies might proceed with refacing under these
conditions, so I don't always get the job.
Fortunately, though, there are plenty of older homes with
solidly built cabinets that were either built in place or off
site in the builder's shop (see Figure 1). Although ruggedly
constructed, these cabinets tend to look utilitarian and dated,
with flush plywood doors, flat-panel drawer fronts, and obvious
depressions where finish nail holes were filled.
Despite showing their age, many older
cabinets are well made, with solid plywood boxes and wood
shelving well worth preserving. These are the ideal candidates
To bring them up to date, we veneer the face frames in real
wood, RTF (rigid thermofoil), or laminate, creating the look of
professional joinery and covering the nail holes along the way.
The pressure-sensitive adhesives we use provide remarkable
holding power; I've never had a callback for
Replacement door and drawer-front options are almost
unlimited, including all common wood species and many stain,
paint, and glazing choices. It's difficult to distinguish an
RTF door from a solid wood door (Figure 2).
Figure 2.If you've seen it in a showroom, you can
find it in refacing products. There are hundreds of options,
ranging from real wood fronts and panels in stained or painted
finishes to laminate and thermofoil doors and drawer
Limits to change. Obviously,
the decision to reface also depends on whether the customer is
still happy with the current kitchen layout and feels no need
for bigger changes. We can accommodate small layout
modifications by dividing a large cabinet into smaller ones, or
combining two or more individual units into a larger one. But
if the customer wants to change more than a fourth of the
cabinets, I usually recommend shopping for new cabinets. The
extra cost of making major changes to the cabinet layout will
quickly cancel the savings of refacing.
If the cabinets look beat, the laminate countertop probably
does, too. It isn't cost-effective to relaminate an existing
top, so we recommend full replacement. Also, customers often
elect to upgrade from laminate to solid surfacing or
Replacing a top usually takes only a day. We get this done
first, in case there's any damage done to the cabinets during
the counter removal process. We sub this part of the job out to
local companies that specialize in countertop fabrication and
installation, and schedule our work around their delivery date.
In fact, we don't start a job until we have all the components
for the entire project on hand in our warehouse. The more
unknowns we eliminate before starting work, the better we can
predict the end and schedule the next job out.
The Basic Tune-Up
Quite often, I find nothing wrong with the look of the old
cabinets other than superficial wear and tear. If it turns out
that my customer is actually happy with the original cabinets'
style, we'll do a tune-up, cleaning and restoring worn,
scratched finishes and servicing or replacing worn or outdated
hardware. Often we'll replace the counter as well. The average
tune-up cost, not including the counter, is around $650 for a
job that's completed in one day.
Figure 3Wax stripper, wood cleaner, and
scratch-filler products prepare worn cabinets for a renewed
finish of penetrating oils and color lacquer.
Rob Carter, who handles much of our field service, uses a
family of proprietary cleaning and restoration products to
remove or disguise scratches and worn areas in the finish and
restore the overall gloss (Figure 3). He cleans and adjusts or
replaces drawer slides, door hinges, catches, and decorative
pulls. When completed, the kitchen has close to its original
appearance, with re-aligned and smooth-working drawers and
doors (Figure 4). We leave the customer with maintenance tips
and bottles of proprietary cleaning and polishing products.
Tune-ups generate great word-of-mouth referrals and account for
approximately 20 percent of the jobs we do.
Figure 4.Wear and tear and water damage can all be
reversed in a one-day tune-up process.
The Complete Makeover
When the cabinet style has worn out its welcome, a tune-up
won't suffice. Instead, we replace the doors, drawers, and
hardware, and give the kitchen an entirely new look. The first
task is to accurately measure the existing cabinets, taking
careful note of face-frame and opening widths and the divisions
between cabinets. We ignore existing door and drawer
dimensions, but carefully calculate the overlays and reveals
between faces to create a new, uniform layout. We then order
the new door and drawer fronts accordingly. It's a painstaking
and time-consuming process, but it pays big dividends in the
What stays, what goes. I'll
often suggest minor changes, such as repartitioning a cabinet
or replacing particleboard shelves with edge-banded plywood or
solid lumber shelving. Solid lumber shelves cost more, so I
suggest using them only where they're open or visible. As an
option, we can also reline cabinet interiors with prefinished
1/4-inch plywood, glued and tacked in place, but we recommend
restricting this treatment to open and glass-front cabinets.
Otherwise, the cost can approach that of a new cabinet.
Part of the beauty of both the tune-up and the refacing
processes is that the cabinets don't have to be emptied, so
they're never taken out of service.
Like any job done well, 80 percent of the work lies in the
preparation. Demolition typically involves more than simply
removing the cabinet doors and front panels. Existing valences
and built-in soffits may no longer have a function in the
revised kitchen, so we often remove them. We also often replace
the old wall-mounted exhaust fan with a range hood, leaving a
hole to repair. Window and door trim may need to be replaced to
match the cabinets (Figure 5). A new wall oven may require a
slightly different-size cabinet opening, calling for face-frame
modifications. Sometimes, we can revise the layout slightly,
swapping a sink base for a cooktop or vice versa. This requires
the addition or removal of stiles and rails, new interior
bracing, and other modifications to the cabinetry. The
demolition and restructuring phase typically accounts for
two-thirds of the time spent on the job. By the time Rob
tackles the actual refacing, he's in the home
Figure 5.On this job, the original window valence
(top left) was removed, exposing an unfinished exterior wall
cavity (top right). Minor framing covered by a matching soffit
panel and solid wood trim components tie the window in
seamlessly with the new cabinet style.
Veneer. All original doors, drawer fronts, and pulls are
removed and scrapped. To keep things economical, we don't
resurface the inner edges of the face frame, since they don't
show with the doors closed. It's not unusual to find adjacent
face frames that don't quite align, but correcting this
condition isn't cost-effective or essential. Instead, Rob fairs
uneven joints with filler and then sands the face to a uniform
plane. Face veneer covers the joint and makes the two pieces
look like one (Figure 6).
Figure 6.Face-frame irregularities between
adjacent cabinets can be smoothed out by filling and sanding.
The wood or plastic veneer then covers the original seams and
creates the appearance of a single face frame.