Cabinet Facelift

Six simple, attractive kitchen upgrades you can do yourself—without replacing your cabinets

What we did—the six upgrades

If you’re pleased with the basic layout and function of your kitchen but want to update the look—and add a few new features—read on. We’ll show you how paint, new cabinet doors and drawer fronts, moldings and a few accessories can transform your kitchen. Photo 1 lists the six upgrades.

Most of the projects require only a drill, basic hand tools and intermediate DIY savvy, although a power miter saw and pneumatic finish nailer allow you to cut and install the crown molding faster. All the products used in this project are readily available through catalogs, the Internet and specialty woodworking stores.

Bear in mind, these upgrades won’t fix cabinets that are falling apart, create more storage space or make your kitchen easier to navigate. But if you want to give your kitchen an inexpensive yet dramatic facelift, here’s how.

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Project 1: Raise an upper cabinet

To break up the monotony of a row of cabinets, change the height of one or more upper cabinets. This provides more “headroom” for working and more space for lighting and appliances, as well as creates a more interesting and varied look (Photo 2).

In order to raise a cabinet, your cabinets must be the modular kind such that each cabinet is an independent “box” screwed to adjacent ones. Earlier “builder cabinets,” with the entire row of cabinets built and installed as one unit, aren’t easily separated. We elevated our corner cabinet 3 in., temporarily propped it up with scrap lumber, drilled pilot holes for new screws, then reattached it (Photo 1). A cabinet that’s been in place a long time may need a sharp rap with a hammer to free it from paint and grime that have “glued” it in place.

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Project 2: Paint the cabinet frames

Proper preparation and sanding between coats are the keys to a smooth, durable paint job on your cabinet face frames.

Oil paints arguably create the smoothest surface, since they dry slowly and “self-level” as brush stroke marks fill in. However, this slow drying time means they’re more vulnerable to dust. Cleanup is also more of a hassle. Latex paints dry quickly and may show brush strokes more, but additives like Floetrol (The Flood Co.) improve “brushability.”

After priming, paint the cabinets with a gloss or semigloss paint. Apply a thin first coat, let it dry, then lightly sand with 120- or 180-grit sandpaper. Wipe the surface, then apply a second coat. Two or three thin coats are better than one or two thick ones.

If you have a gas stove, turn off the gas for safety while using mineral spirits, shellac or oil paints, and provide plenty of ventilation.

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Project 3: Install new door and drawer fronts

We had a local cabinet shop make our new doors and drawer fronts the exact same dimensions as the old ones. We used the same hinges and mounting holes in the face frames to ensure the right fit. You can have your components made locally or by nationwide dealers. (Find them on the internet.)

Existing drawer fronts can be attached in a number of different ways. We were able to simply pry off the old and screw on the new. If yours can’t be removed, you’ll need to use a circular saw to cut all four edges of the drawer front even with the edges of the drawer box, then apply the new drawer front directly over the old. This will make your drawers 3/4 in. longer; make certain your drawer hardware and cabinets can accommodate the extra length. If not, you may need to install new drawer hardware or new drawer “boxes.”

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Project 4: Add an open shelf, wine glass rack and plate rack

If you have a short cabinet flanked by two taller cabinets, you can add this combination shelf/wine rack.

We cut the shelf to length, then added mounting strips on each end. We cut four 9-in. sections of wine glass molding from a 3-ft. length (available through woodworking stores and catalogs), then glued and nailed them to the bottom of the pine shelf. We also cut curved brackets from each end of a 1x6 maple board and cut the center 1 in. wide to serve as shelf edging. Finally, we installed the unit by driving screws through the mounting strips and into the cabinets on each side.

To display your plates and keep them accessible and chip-free, build and install this plate rack. The total cost of materials? Under $10.

To create the two plate rack “ladders,” measure the cabinet, then build each ladder so the finished height equals the height of the inside of the cabinet. The finished width should be equal to the width of the face frame opening. Drill 3/8-in. holes, 3/8 in. deep in 3/4-in. x 3/4-in. square dowels and space them every 1-1/2 in. Cut the dowels to length, add a drop of glue in each hole, insert the dowels, then use elastic cords or clamps to hold things together until the glue dries.

A drill press comes in handy, but you can get excellent results using the same tools we did: a cordless drill, a steady hand and a 3/8-in. drill bit with masking tape wrapped around it as a depth guide for the holes in the rails.

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Project 5: Install crown molding

Crown molding comes in many profiles and sizes. If your face frames aren't wide enough on top to nail the molding to, nail strips of wood to the top edge to provide a nailing surface. Raising the corner cabinet created a challenge where the moldings on each side butted into it. We held the upper part of the crown molding back a few inches, but extended the thin rope molding portion so it butted into the corner cabinet.

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Project 6: Install open basket units

The “Base 18” baskets we installed (from a woodworking catalog) came with two side tracks that could be cut narrower to accommodate cabinets ranging in width from 15-7/8 in. to 17-7/8 in.“ Base 15” baskets fit cabinets with an inside width of 12-7/8 in. to 15-7/8 in. Measure carefully, cut the basket tracks to width, then install them as shown.

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