A Guide to Refinishing Your Kitchen Cabinets

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Kitchen remodeling can be a financially taxing project, especially if you replace all your old base and wall cabinets with new ones. Actually, if the cabinets themselves are structurally sound, there is no reason to replace them. If the cabinets, doors, and drawers are in good condition, refinish them with self-sticking veneer. Depending on the door front and drawer front construction, you may opt to refinish them using a stain to match the wood veneer.

Working with self-sticking wood veneer is relatively easy because it’s a matter of peeling off the paper backing, carefully positioning it on the cabinet, and then pressing in place. Nevertheless, you will need some special tools for working with wood veneer. The tools that you will need are: 1. A veneer roller is a very important tool to acquire before starting this project. Veneer rollers come in two widths, 1 5/16” and 2”. The smaller one will work fine but the wider one is easier to handle. These rollers allow you to exert a great deal of pressure over a small area, which is extremely important when applying self-sticking veneer. Some people have used a rolling pin in place of one of these veneer rollers but you can’t really get close to the edge nearest the wall with a rolling pin. 2. A veneer-smoothing blade is an economical alternative to a veneer hammer and is less likely to damage an expensive piece of veneer. The veneer-smoothing blade allows you to position the self-sticking veneer in place before firmly affixing it in place with the veneer roller. The veneer-smoothing blade gives you a chance to reposition the veer before it becomes tightly bonded to the underlying wood. 3. A veneer saw is a very handy tool to use to cut the veneer sheets slightly larger then the finished size. A razor knife and a metal straight edge or even a pair of very sharp shop scissors could be used instead but the accuracy and ease of use makes investing in the special veneer saw worthwhile. 4. An edge band iron is an electrically heated iron especially designed for applying veneer edging. A regular electric clothes iron could be used but they are unwieldy because of their large size. 5. A double edge trimmer makes trimming the edges of the edging and cabinet veneered side a breeze. It allows you to trim both edges in a single stroke. 6. A corner and single edge trimmer allows you to trim just one edge at a time and round the corners, which makes for a professional looking finish. All of these special veneering tools are available from Rockler Woodworking Hardware either online or at one of their local retail outlets. The total cost of all these special tools is approximately $136 plus shipping and handling. You probably already have all the other hand tools that you will need to complete this project. This may seem like a daunting project to many beginner DIYers but it really isn’t all that complicated. The key to success in this project is in the preparation of the cabinets, door fronts, and drawer fronts to be refinished. First, remove all the cabinet doors and door hardware. You will need a Phillips head or straight blade screwdriver to remove the hinges and other hardware. Be sure to label each door as you remove it with a matching label on the inside of the cabinet where the door goes. Although all the doors may look alike each door may be slightly different in size and the hinges may be mounted at slightly different positions and marking them as you remove them will save you a great deal of frustration when it’s time to reinstall them. Next, remove all the drawer fronts and drawers pulls. In most cases, the drawer fronts will be held in place with screws but if yours our glued and/or nailed in place you will have to remove the complete drawer assemblies. In either case, be sure to label them just as you did the doors. Now it’s time to strip the cabinets, doors, and drawer fronts of their old finish. Stripping the old finish off using a chemical stripper isn’t difficult but it’s messy so be sure to wear rubber gloves and to have plenty of shop grade paper towels on hand. A heavy body stripper, like Citristrip Paint Stripper Gel, works best on vertical surfaces of the cabinets. Apply a thick coat of this stripper to the cabinets and let set and let it set for 24 hours. With the doors and drawer fronts laid out on a plastic drop cloth, coat them with stripper and let them set for 24 hours. After 24 hours has elapsed, scrape the softened finish from the surface using a plastic scraper. Repeat these steps until all the finish has been removed. After all the finish has been stripped off the wood was the stripper residue from the wood surfaces using Citristrip Paint Stripper Wash. Once again, let the surfaces dry for 24 hours before continuing with your project. At this point I’m assuming that you have flat panel door and drawer fronts, if you have raised panels or some other style other that flat you will need to refinish them using a matching stain and I will cover staining at the end of this article. Self-sticking veneer comes in two standard sizes, 24” X 24” sheets and a 24” X 96” roll and both are available from Rockler. With careful planning there will be minimal waste and waste is money when working with veneer. A good way to plan your cuts is to lay out all your pieces on graph paper with dimensions and direction of grain indicated. It is almost impossible to cut a piece of veneer so it will fit perfectly so cut your pieces slightly oversize and trim to fit using your edge trimmers after they are securely in place. A word of caution is in order here. Kitchen cabinet doors are seldom square and it’s very easy to end up with a piece of veneer that leaves a little of the bare wood showing. You can check a door for squareness using a carpenter’s framing square or by taking care diagonal measurements with a tape. If the two diagonal measurements are the same, the door is square. A quick way to cut veneer for doors and drawer fronts is to lay them face down on the paper side of the veneer and then trace around them. Remember to cut those sheets oversize as well so you can trim them down to a perfect fit. Start cutting and applying to the largest surfaces first. Cut each piece individually and position it carefully on the surface, then using your newly acquired veneer-smoothing blade and veneer roller, firmly affix each piece in place. Once all the large surfaces have been covered, it’s time to apply the edging using the electric banding iron to affix it in place. Once you have all the veneer in place, use the double edge veneer trimmer to trim the sheets and edge banding down to a perfect match. You may need to use some 220-grit sandpaper to smooth the trimmed edges out. As a rule, the veneer is thin, enough so finding the screw holes for hinges and other hardware isn’t any real problem. If your cabinets have raised panel or some other decorative style doors, you will have to refinish them using a matching stain rather then veneer. Applying stain isn’t difficult, it just takes patience. I recommend an all in one polyurethane stain that matches your veneer. Apply it in thin even coats, using even strokes parallel with the grain. Allow 24-hours drying time between coats. Sand lightly between coats and repeat until the color matches the veneer. Remember to use a tact cloth after each sanding to remove all the grit before applying the next coat of stain. You can use the same stain to finish the inside of the cabinets and drawers to preserve the wood. Now, with the cabinet doors and drawers back in place, step back and admire your handiwork.

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Posted on Feb 3, 2012