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Cabinet Facelift

Updated: Feb. 22, 2023

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

FH03OCT_CABFAC_01-4Family Handyman
Remodel your kitchen at a bargain cost with these cabinet upgrades, including new doors and drawer fronts, open shelving, improved storage and painted frames.

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What we did—the six upgrades

Photo 1: The six upgrades

We raised an upper cabinet, painted the frames, installed new door and drawer fronts, added open shelves, put up crown molding and installed open basket drawers.

Photo 2: The kitchen before remodeling

The old kitchen cabinets looked dated and shabby.

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.

Project 1: Raise an upper cabinet

Photo 1: Raise the cabinet

To raise a cabinet, remove the shelves and doors and then the screws securing it to the wall and cabinets on either side. Raise the cabinet, temporarily prop it in place, drill new pilot holes, then reinstall the screws.

Photo 2: The finished results

The raised cabinet breaks the monotonous line of wall cabinets.

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.

Project 2: Paint the cabinet frames

Photo 1: Prep before painting

Clean the cabinet face frames with mineral spirits, then scrub them with household ammonia and rinse. Fill holes with spackling compound, then sand with 120-grit sandpaper. Vacuum the cabinets, then prime them with a pigmented shellac. Lightly sand the dried primer.

Photo 2: Painting results

Pick colors that create a nice fresh kitchen décor.

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.

Project 3: Install new door and drawer fronts

Photo 1: Mount the new doors

Mount the hinges to the doors, then mount the doors to the face frames using the existing screw holes. Most hinges allow for some up-and-down movement and tilt so the doors can be adjusted evenly.

Photo 2: Install the new drawer fronts

Replace the old drawer fronts. We pried off the old front using a chisel and a flat bar, marked the position of the drawer box on the back of the new drawer front, then joined the two using carpenter’s glue and screws.

Photo 3: New door front results

New door and drawer fronts dramatically upgrade the kitchen.

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.”

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

Photo 1: Build a wine glass shelf

Build a shelf to fit snugly between the cabinets on each side. We used a jigsaw to create curved brackets, nailed wine glass brackets to the bottom of the shelf, then installed the entire unit as one piece.

Photo 2: Assemble the plate rack

Cut, assemble and install the two plate rack ‘ladders.’ Use short screws to secure the ladders in the cabinet opening. We set the rear ladder 4 in. away from the back of the cabinet and the front ladder snug against the back of the face frame.

Photo 3: Open shelf results

Open shelves break up and improve the appearance of a solid bank of wall cabinet doors.

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 1×6 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.

Project 5: Install crown molding

Photo 1: Position and mark the molding

Position and mark each piece of crown molding as you work your way around the kitchen. Make small notches in the top corners of the face frames so the moldings lie flat against the sides of the cabinets when installed.

Photo 2: Cut with a power miter saw

Cut the crown molding by placing it upside down and securing it at the correct angle with a clamp and wood scrap.

Photo 3: Crown molding results

Crown molding adds style and a finished look to the cabinets.

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.

Project 6: Install open basket units

Photo 1: Saw out horizontal rails

Remove cabinet hardware, then the rails where you want to create an open cabinet. A fine-tooth pull saw works well for removing the dividers, since it lies flat against the cabinet frame as it cuts. Sand the area to create a smooth surface.

Photo 2: Install the basket tracks

Cut the tracks to the proper width, then level them in both directions and screw them to the sides of the cabinet.

Photo 3: Open basket unit results

Open baskets break up the solid bank of base cabinet fronts and make the kitchen feel more spacious.

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.

Required Tools for this Project

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

  • Brad nail gun
  • Circular saw
  • Drill bit set
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Hammer
  • Jigsaw
  • Miter saw
  • One-handed bar clamps
  • Paintbrush
  • Tape measure
  • Wood chisel
Fine toothed handsaw

Required Materials for this Project

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

  • 120-grit sandpaper
  • Ammonia
  • Mineral spirits
  • Paint
  • Primer
  • Wood glue