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Bring your kitchen back to life

  • Story Highlights
  • When kitchen cabinets get old, you can replace, reface or paint them
  • Painting is cheapest option, especially if you do it
  • Prep work is very important: Strip or clean and putty
  • Wide range of hardware to add pizzazz to kitchen
  • Next Article in Living »
By Scott Gibson
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This Old House

(This Old House) -- Assaulted by everything from grimy hands to cooking grease, kitchen cabinets take a beating. And although cabinet replacement might be inevitable, you can buy some time by painting your cabinets.


These site-built cabinets from the 1960s still had years of service ahead of them, but their look was outdated.

Painting cabinets, especially if you do the job yourself, costs far less than outright replacement.

Bargain-basement cabinets for a 10x12-foot kitchen can easily top $5,000, not including the cost of installation or new counters, and your new cabinets may be of lower quality than the ones you're getting rid of.

Refacing cabinets, a process of veneering existing cabinet boxes and replacing doors and drawer fronts, is another option, but a top-notch refacing job starts at $3,500. This Old House: Refacing cabinets

The materials for painting (brushes, primer, paint) will cost about $200. Having a pro do the work will run at least $1,000, more if the painter insists on stripping all cabinets.

Be aware that even the highest-quality paint job can't cure the evils of poor kitchen design or hide fundamental structural flaws in cabinets.

Cheap cabinets grow especially frail with old age. Thin sides and backs, which are often veneered with vinyl paper, can peel or delaminate. Undersize particleboard cabinet bottoms or shelves sag or even break. Hanging rails, particularly on upper cabinets, might begin to pull loose.

Although you can replace doors and drawers, widespread structural problems such as these would render cabinets a bad bet for refinishing, or much of anything else. You would be better off replacing them. But if damage seems limited to worn surfaces, nicks and dings, paint can work miracles, especially when coupled with new cabinet hardware.

The first question homeowners ask is whether to use oil or latex paint.

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In general, latex paints have been improving steadily, leading some pros to give up oil-based paints entirely. Because they dry quickly and clean up with water, latex paints are more user-friendly than oil-based paints.

But many pros still favor oil-based topcoats, arguing that they form a harder, more durable paint film and level out to a smoother finished surface. Latex paints also take longer than alkyd-based paints to cure fully (up to two or three weeks), and in the meantime are susceptible to damage.

Bottom line? Either type will provide a good finish. If you do use a latex paint, make sure it is a 100 percent acrylic formulation, which offers greater durability and adhesion than vinyl acrylic paints.

A sprayed-on finish will be the smoothest, but there are some drawbacks. If a pro does the job, masking off areas in the kitchen that will not get paint --countertops, cabinet interiors, appliances -- is time-consuming (read expensive.) Some pros spray all parts of the cabinets in the kitchen. Others spray doors and drawer fronts after they have been removed from the kitchen, and use a brush on the less visible cabinet frames. This Old House: Countertops

If you want to paint yourself, you can probably rent spray equipment from a local paint store. Lots of homeowners do this successfully, even with little previous experience. Yet it's worth pondering whether the most heavily used room in your house is a good place to learn. You should be able to get excellent results by using a high-quality brush. Stay away from foam applicators. And don't use rollers, which leave telltale stipple marks.

Prep work is everything

Before starting, remove doors, drawers and all hardware. Doors and drawers should be identified in an inconspicuous spot (mark the bottom edge of a door, for instance) to avoid mixing them up later.

"Surface prep," says sales representative Brett Shinn, of Harrison Paint Corp., "is at least 75 percent, maybe as much as 90 percent, of the success of a repaint."

When the existing finish is a clearcoat, according to Benjamin Moore do-it-yourself product coordinator Bob Bonadies, the best route is to strip the finish to bare wood before painting. Some painting contractors agree. Stripping cabinets to bare wood eliminates a potential adhesion problem between the old finish and the new paint. Finishes typically used on manufactured wood cabinets include catalyzed lacquer and conversion varnish, both extremely hard when cured.

If stripping is the option you choose, Bonadies suggests a light sanding with 150- or 180-grit sandpaper after the old finish has been removed. Sanding dust should be removed with a tack cloth or a soft cloth dampened with odorless mineral spirits.

Stripping may be ideal, but it is not always practical and, according to some painting contractors and manufacturers, is not absolutely necessary (particularly if your cabinets have already been painted). If the job is intended as a short-term improvement, a thorough cleaning, followed by a light sanding, is all you need to prepare the surface for new paint.

Ordinary household cleaners should remove most grime, but if that doesn't do the trick you might want a stronger cleaner, such as trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is sold at hardware and paint stores. Just make sure you follow safety precautions on the container and use rubber gloves and eye protection. Some home centers also offer a TSP substitute, but this product does not etch the surface as well.

Once cabinets are clean, they should be rinsed thoroughly with clean water. Edward Cseh, a technical-services representative with Glidden, warns that if you plan on using an alkyd paint, it is best to avoid any cleaner containing ammonia. There is no effective way to neutralize the cleaner, Cseh says, and ammonia lingering on the surface will cause paint topcoats to yellow.

Nicks and dings should be filled with nonshrinking putty. Most types of putty are rock-hard once they dry, so removing as much excess as possible as you go along will save time later. Once the putty has dried, cabinets can be sanded. Many painters use 120-grit paper, although 150- or 180-grit leaves a slightly smoother surface. When the prep is complete, what you should have, according to Cseh, is a "clean, dry and dull" surface.

Ready for paint

After the tedium of cleaning, filling and sanding, picking up a paintbrush will seem like a reward: A new surface and a new color are about to emerge. If cabinets are heavily stained, use a stain-blocking primer such as B-I-N, a tinted shellac made by Wm. Zinsser & Co. It dries quickly and seals knots and other surface defects that might bleed through the topcoats.

But in most situations, according to Harrison Paint's Shinn, stain-blockers should not be necessary. He suggests either an alkyd or 100 percent acrylic latex primer.

If you have stripped cabinets to bare wood, Bonadies recommends using an underbody, a special type of primer that fills minor surface imperfections. This will produce a smoother finished surface.

After the primer or underbody has dried, a light sanding with 150- or 180-grit sandpaper will remove dust nibs and other imperfections before the topcoats are applied. The surface should be wiped down after sanding. One coat of primer is all that's needed.

And, finally, it's time for the payoff. Whether you've chosen oil or latex as the topcoat, don't skimp by buying cheap paint. This is one of those cases where you really do get what you pay for.

Latex paint should be applied with a synthetic-bristle brush, which does not absorb water; oil-based paint should be applied with a natural-bristle brush. Gloss paint offers greater protection and holds up to scrubbing better than a semigloss or eggshell sheen.

If you are repainting in roughly the same shade, a primer coat and two finish coats ought to do it. You might even get away with one coat over an underbody primer. But painting over a dark finish with a light color is tougher. It could take a primer and three finish coats. Even so, it's a small price to pay for a kitchen that will look almost new.

Hardware with pizzazz

Paint will transform shabby cabinets, but it won't do much for hardware that lost its charm about the time Hoover Dam was completed. Upgrading hardware is easy, and a tremendous range of styles is available. This Old House: Cabinet pull gallery

Where do you start in your thinking? Ron Fisher, a kitchen designer in North Haven, Connecticut, offers these tips:

• Don't set your budget too low. High-quality hardware is expensive but it will make a big difference in the overall look of the room.

• Replacing handles, which require two holes, isn't as easy as replacing knobs, which need a single hole, because hole spacing can vary a lot.

• Coordinating the finish of hardware with the sink faucet will help to unify a kitchen.

• Accent hardware, like a drawer pull in the shape of a chile pepper, can be funky, but use it sparingly.

• Polished chrome and brushed nickel are gaining favor, and brass is on the way out.

• Drawers more than 27 in. wide need two knobs, not one, or a handle 8 to 9 in. wide.

Economical brass, iron and chrome hardware is available at hardware stores and home centers. Mail order is another option. Two of many mail-order companies selling top-quality hardware are Whitechapel and Crown City Hardware. Both publish extensive catalogs. An even wider selection is available on the Web.

There also are companies specializing in the unusual and offbeat. For a Western flair, try Dimestore Cowboys. Or look at Amerock's selection of handles and knobs in the shape of knives, forks, spoons, carrots, red peppers and watermelon slices. Amerock hardware is available at some home centers, and by mail through Woodworker's Hardware.

Replacing doors and drawers

Doors and drawers are often the first parts of an aging kitchen to go. If veneer is chipped and joints are opening up, it might be easier to replace these components than to repair and paint them.

Drawer boxes, doors and other components all can be ordered by mail and used to update old cabinets. Available in many wood species and designs, doors are sold by the square foot and are relatively inexpensive. For example, an 18-inch-wide by 24-inch-tall paint-grade door in poplar -- an inexpensive species that holds paint well -- costs $39 at Scherr's Cabinet and Doors in East Minot, North Dakota, one of many companies in the cabinet component business (you'll find a list on the Web site of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association). Doors can be ordered predrilled for European-style cup hinges.

Solid-wood and Baltic-birch plywood dovetailed drawers come unassembled, assembled or assembled and finished. If you order new drawers, you might consider adding new drawer slides as well. They range from about $6 a pair for basic epoxy-coated steel to about $20 for full-extension slides that run smoothly and quietly on ball bearings. They are widely available from woodworking catalogs, building-supply yards and home centers. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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