How to Refresh Kitchen Cabinets

Updated: May 31, 2023
FH00FEB_KITCAB_01-2Family Handyman
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.

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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?

Photo 1: Clean the wood

Clean the dirty doors, drawer faces and cabinets by lightly rubbing them with mineral spirits and No. 0000 steel wool or synthetic steel wool. Work in a well-ventilated area. Too much rubbing will create lightened areas. If you have stubborn black stains left by hardware, apply oxalic acid (available at hardware stores) with a cotton swab (follow manufacturer’s directions). Rinse off the acid as soon as the stain disappears. If you accidentally lighten an area too much, apply a matching gel stain to the spot and let it dry before proceeding.

Photo 2: Add routed accents

Rout the grooves in the door and drawer faces with a router and router table equipped with a 3/16-in. straight bit set to cut 1/8 to 3/16 in. deep. Firmly set the router fence to cut the center of the groove 1-1/4 in. from the door’s edge. Make a trial run on scrap plywood, then make the cuts slowly and carefully. Brush the sawdust out of the grooves with a toothbrush.

Photo 3: Apply finish

Apply two coats of shellac to the routed door face. Use the wax-free type, or make sure the final topcoat that you use is compatible with regular shellac. Use a tack cloth to clean the doors before the first and between subsequent coats. The shellac acts as a primer because it will bond to any finish on your old doors. Clean the brushes with denatured alcohol. After the shellac dries, apply two coats of water-based polyurethane. Sand lightly between coats.

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

Photo 4: Fill holes

Fill the old hardware holes in the doors with oil- or water-based wood filler, drawers and cabinet frames after the final coat of finish is dry. To match the color exactly, mix two or more shades of oil-based wood putty. After filling the holes, spot-finish the putty with shellac (water-based polyurethane won’t stick to the putty). For blackened holes like the one shown, use a rotary tool with a pointed cutter bit to dig out the black areas before filling.

Tip: If you need to sand the grooves, wrap a piece of sandpaper around a paint stirrer stick and run it down the grooves a few times.

Photo 5: Paint accent lines

Paint your door grooves with a complementary color in latex enamel paint. Match color from hardware, countertops or appliances. Keep a damp rag at hand to wipe away mistakes. It will take two coats for complete coverage.

Photo 6: Attach new hinges

Attach the self-closing hinges to the doors. Because these doors originally had face-mounted hinges on 3/8-in. inset doors, we used a sharp chisel to make a notch (equal to the hinge thickness) on the inside of the cabinet door so that inset doors would fit into the cabinet opening just as they did before. Install door bumpers inside the lip on the opposite side of the hinges so the door will rest evenly on the cabinet frame.

Hinge screws break easily. Use a small self-centering hinge bit to predrill the screw holes for the hinges. The bit should be set to keep you from drilling through the door face. Also, lubricate the screws by dipping them in wax before driving them.

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

Photo 7: Mount the doors

Mount the self-closing hinge to the face frame. To find where to predrill holes, first flip the hinge back as it would be if the door were open. Second, position the door and, if possible, have a helper hold it down firmly—the self-closing feature of the hinge will try to kick the door out of position. Finally, flip the mounting lip down and locate your holes. To align a pair of doors, use spring clamps to secure a thin, straight board to the bottom of the cabinet’s face frame.

Photo 8: Drill holes for handles

Use a homemade jig to accurately and uniformly place the knobs or handles on the doors and drawers. Make it from a 6 x 6 x 3/4-in. block of wood and two thin straight boards (one short and one long) about 1-1/8 in. wide (paint stirrer sticks work well) screwed to the sides of the block. On the long lip (12 in.), mark a rule, starting at the center line for drawer knobs. To use the rule, you’ll have to divide the width of a particular drawer in half. To use the jig on a drawer face, remove the short lip from the block. Use two heavy-duty spring clamps to hold the jig in place.

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.

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
  • Paintbrush
  • Router
  • Router table
  • 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.

  • 0000 steel wool
  • Acrylic urethane
  • Extra-fine sandpaper
  • Mineral spirits
  • Oxalic acid
  • Paint for grooves
  • Shellac (wax-free)
  • Tack cloth
  • Wood filler