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How to Refresh Kitchen Cabinets

Bring tired kitchen cabinets back to life with a good cleaning, new hardware, a fresh finish and a few simple, creative accents. This article explains basic techniques that will help you get the look of a new kitchen without the expense of new cabinets.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

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    Basic cleaning and finishing is simple. The project can become more complex if you decide to change the appearance of the door with a router.


Short of a major addition, remodeling a kitchen is the most expensive home improvement project you'll ever undertake. And by far the most expensive part of this project is replacing or refacing the cabinets—so what's the solution? There are millions of kitchens that could be brought out of the Dark Ages if the cabinets received new hardware, a good cleaning, a fresh finish and perhaps some creative accents.

This article will tell you how to perform this cosmetic kitchen surgery in 30 minutes per door or drawer. For this average kitchen, the whole project took 20 hours. Another benefit is that your kitchen won't be out of commission while you work.

For this makeover, I removed and replaced all the hinges and handles, cleaned and refinished the doors, and cut and painted grooves in the faces. The plain-looking kitchen was reborn with a more stylish Craftsman appearance.

How far should you go?

One of the nicest features of this project is that you can take it as far as you want. For instance, you can stop after simply cleaning and refinishing the doors. On these doors, I noticed a dramatic difference simply after cleaning off 35 years of kitchen grease, grime and broken-down finish—this cleaning made the wood grain reappear after years in hiding. The wood grain stood out even more after the finish coats were applied. However, the birch plywood doors on these cabinets have a very subtle grain pattern, unlike oak or ash, so I decided they needed more drama and added the painted grooves for contrast. Your doors may not need that extra help. Or maybe you can develop your own groove pattern.

I replaced the old hinges on these cabinets with new self-closing ones. Self-closing hinges are convenient and less obtrusive. They also let you toss all those old door catches that get in the way when you use your cabinets.

Before you remove the doors and drawers, mark their location with a tape label and place it on the back.


Set all solvent-saturated rags outside to dry. To avoid the danger of spontaneous combustion, don't put them in a pile. After they have completely dried, dispose of them in an outdoor trash container.

Choosing new hardware

The kind of doors you have will dictate your hinge choice. The doors you see here, very common on older standard cabinets, have a 3/8-in. rabbeted inset with a 3/8-in. overlay (see Photo 2). This type of door makes using a completely concealed hinge problematic, if not impossible. So, I chose face-mounted hinges made for an inset door. To make the face-mounted hinges less obtrusive, I used black lines and black knobs, plus a hinge color that blends with the wood. This method works because the black details draw attention away from the hinges. Face-mounted hinges are available at home centers and lumberyards.

If your doors don't have the routed inset, but instead have a partial or full overlay, you'll use a different type of hinge. You may want to use a concealed, cup-style hinge that mounts to the cabinet's interior. These hinges are available at lumberyards and woodworking stores. They require some special tools and are harder to install than face-mounted hinges, but they're a good option if you want a higher-quality, adjustable hinge.

Now is a good time to look at the quality of your other hardware such as drawer slides, and replace them if necessary.

Use a jig for fast, accurate knob placement

I chose 1-1/4-in. black steel knobs instead of pulls or handles for this project. Center the doorknobs so they fall on the diagonal line formed by the corner of the door and the intersection of the bottom and side grooves in the door face (see the jig in Photo 8). Put drawer knobs in the exact center of the drawer. If your drawer faces are all the same height, you'll need only one hole for drawer knobs in your jig.

The bolts that come with your knobs usually work fine on the doors, but drawer construction varies and you often need a longer screw for the drawer. Ideally, the screw should be 3/8 to 1/2 in. longer than the material is thick. So, measure your drawer thickness, then pick up some 1-1/4 or 1-1/2 in. x 8/32-in. bolts if needed.

Watch for trouble spots

We found three potential trouble spots in this project:

  • Valances over the sink
  • False sink fronts
  • Doors without a center stile

If you have an ornate valance over the sink, you may want to remove it. The style may not work well with the project shown here. Most sink cabinets have a false front drawer above the doors. You'll have to remove this piece to rout the grooves. Sometimes it will be held in place with wooden cleats that are easily turned. But other times it will be held with glued cleats, and you'll have to use a chisel and a hammer to knock these cleats off, but the front will come out. It's also possible that you'll have a pair of doors without a center stile. They usually have a pair of drawers above them that do have a gap between the drawer faces. This creates a problem with the groove alignment. To solve it, don't cut vertical grooves on the sides of the drawer faces above the spot where the doors meet. This way, the drawer faces won't have grooves that don't line up; instead they'll look more like the wide false front by the sink.

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Clamps
    • Cordless drill
    • Router
    • Router table
    • Paintbrush
    • Wood chisel

You'll also need a center punch.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Mineral spirits
    • 0000 steel wool
    • Oxalic acid
    • Shellac (wax-free)
    • Acrylic urethane
    • Paint for grooves
    • Tack cloth
    • Wipe-in wood filler (oil- or water-based)
    • Extra-fine sandpaper

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 8 of 8 comments
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July 08, 9:21 PM [GMT -5]

I have 10 year old 3/4 " birch kitchen cabinets with 3/8 " offset hinges. I would like to fill in the the recessed 3/8" on the top and sides of the cupboards and then tape on 3/4 " strips. ( I would be moving the doors out another 3/8" farther from the stiles) I would replace the offset hinges with hidden ones at the back. I would take off the varathene finish on the doors and paint them white and add 2" thin facing of a different color on the borders around the doors. Any ideas on filling in the recessed 3/8" ( maybe glue in wood strips). I would so the same with the drawers. Any ideas, thoughts or potential problems would be appreciated.

Thank you

July 23, 1:44 PM [GMT -5]

Can you paint laminate cabinets from the 1960's? If so, how. Thanks

March 07, 11:17 AM [GMT -5]

Metal cabinets replaced in 1996 with birch wood cabinets stained natural. We have a gas range and the cabinets surrounding the range are so "gunky". My attempts at cleaning them with "Goo Gone" and other household cleaners has failed. Will your suggestion of taking the doors off and cleaning with steel wool plus ?? work on these cabinets?

February 28, 3:02 PM [GMT -5]

So many homes today have white cabinets. Mine happen to be melamine. Is there a way to refurbish or change the color melamine cabinets?

February 27, 8:44 PM [GMT -5]

I used Rustoleum's Kitchen cabinet refinishing kit.
The first step after removing the cabinet doors and all hardware is to use the "deglosser" to prepare the cabinets without the fuss of stripping or sanding.
Then the bonding agent (paint) is applied in 2 coats with 2 hours drying time between each coat. I used "linen", a lovely creamy color. I did not use the stain coat as I preferred the creamy color that resulted. I finished with the finish coat to preserve my perfect job. This is not a weekend job, however. The actual time depends on how much work space you have. After deglossing, each side requires 3 ( or 4 if you use the stain) coats with 2 hours drying time between each. The end result is perfect and costs only $75 for the average kitchen. Light and dark finishes are available. Very professional outcome!

February 27, 4:51 PM [GMT -5]

Does this method work on those wood composite cabinets? Thank you!

February 27, 4:21 PM [GMT -5]

Are there every any tips on how to update stupid cabinet doors that have the fake wood lamination? The previous owners of our house painted the cabinets but didn't treat them properly so now the paint is chipping...not too happy about that. Anyway, I want to 'spruce them up' but I'm not too sure what to do, where to begin, etc.


April 27, 11:07 AM [GMT -5]

Just finished this project. Did an antique white and then went back and "distressed" them. Thanks for all the helpful tips - especially numbering or marking the cabinet doors so you know where they go!

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