Sometimes cabinets just need a new face

Building a custom home is a complex and time-consuming project. With the mounting pressures as the process moves forward from drawing board to building phase and then on to furnishings, it's little wonder that clients try to avoid change orders, cost over-runs and now, more than ever, want and need to get the biggest bang for their buck. So I immediately understood, but with great misgivings, why my clients decided to opt for a carpenter whose bid for a large built-in and two custom desks was so much lower than mine.

It seemed like too good a deal to pass up, but one that cost them more aggravation and money in the long run than if they had opted to go with my original proposal. Ultimately the desks were disposed of due to their poor quality and design. The main question was what to do with the massive built-in unit that spanned more than 16 feet, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall?

By this point, my clients didn't know what to do - only that it was wrong for their home. And since designers often go where mere mortals fear to tread, I bravely suggested that there was a way to save the unit, and with far less expense than ripping it out and starting all over again. Happily, they trusted me enough to reface the unit with a walnut veneer . The results were stunning and I wish that more people were familiar with the choices for refacing or refinishing cabinetry, before they choose the more expensive option of replacement.

Refacing is a great way to go and can give you a custom look at an affordable price, as long as your existing cabinets are in good shape, they provide you with enough storage and counter space, and that you like their basic design and style. The process consists of covering the exterior surfaces of your cabinet(s) with a thin coat, generally about ¼ inch of wood veneer or laminate, which will give your room a new look while adding to the durability of your cabinets.

Often in the refacing process, the doors and drawer fronts are actually replaced and front and side panels are given fresh paint or a new veneer. With refacing, there's little to no mess, no damage to walls or floors and, in general, very little disruption when compared to total replacement or refinishing. And, maybe best of all, the process only takes a few days to complete.

A word of caution: Don't spend precious time and money on refacing your existing cabinets if they're starting to fall apart, weren't built right in the first place, or if your floors have caused your cabinets to be out of kilter. If this is the case, then it's absolutely best to replace your cabinets with new ones.

Personally, I'm a big fan of refinishing - when it makes the most sense. Refinishing almost anything (either with paint or stain) is still one of the best and most affordable ways of improving your home. Yes, of course, it involves a great deal of intense labor (hopefully done by a professional), but you can achieve fantastic results when furniture or cabinetry is in the hands of a specialist who knows how to create custom stains, glazes, paints and finishes. Seeing something transformed from tired and ordinary to dazzling and exciting still remains one of my great joys in design.

These "looks" are achieved by first removing the old finish and sanding down to the bare wood. Then stain is applied and wiped, before a sealer is put on; then it is restained and, finally, a clear coat is applied. The refinishing process allows homeowners to change the finish of their existing cabinetry (or furniture) to any desired color, lighter or darker, because the new finish is applied directly to bare wood, unlike refacing, which covers the existing finish.

I suppose I'm such a big fan of the refinishing option because it remains the most inexpensive way to give furniture or cabinetry a new lease on life, which will usually last for years, depending on the type of use that it gets. And even then, an advantage of refinishing is that most nicks or worn areas can usually be easily touched up. Truly, any custom finish you can imagine can be created, from restoration of an original finish to antique finishes, distressing, traditional European finishes or simply color matching. Pricing will have a lot to do with the type of paint and the look you want to achieve.

Finally, all wood and plywood cabinets can be repainted. Metal cabinets, laminate or melamine are more difficult to paint because they require special paints; they can eventually peel and chip if normal paint is used. It's always a good idea to use a sprayed-on finish for cabinets as it gives the most uniform coverage and leaves no marks from the application.

Oil-based primer works best because paint sticks to it and the paint to use is gloss or semigloss, which are also oil-based. If you opt for a water-based material, then be sure to get one that is 100 percent acrylic.

It's been said that replacing, refacing or refinishing cabinetry (especially in the kitchen) is a process you only want to go through once. And having experienced my own kitchen refinish, I'm here to say that's absolutely true. But, is the result worth the effort and inconvenience? You bet it is!

It's wonderful to know that when older cabinetry or furniture becomes outdated or damaged and no longer fits in with today's look, there's the option of refinishing or refacing over costly replacement. I say go for that instant transformation, get that custom look at an affordable price and save your money.

Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers and is a certified professional in green residential design. Questions can be sent to