Friday, March 14, 2014

Refinishing kitchen cabinets with time, effort and savings
How I stayed busy, got a new kitchen and read 5 books over 26 weekends
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 21, 2014

A recent article in Popular Mechanics says that the national average cost for a minor kitchen remodel is about $18,500, while a major overhaul comes in at almost $54,000. Better Homes and Gardens reports that the average price of an upscale kitchen is a staggering $107,973. These numbers might encourage us to do something we shouldn’t with our 401(k) or kid’s college fund. But when I told my contractor that I wanted to spend less than $10,000 (including new appliances), he told me it was possible if I kept my 1980s cabinets and refinished them myself.

Cabinets typically make up one-third to one-half of the average total kitchen-remodeling budget, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. But there are ways to trim cabinet costs such as:
  • Using standard-sized stock or RTA (ready-to-assemble) cabinetry. RTA cabinets are finished, pre-drilled and delivered in a flat pack along with all the hardware needed for assembly.
  • Replacing cabinet doors, drawer fronts and cabinet moldings, but keeping and refacing the existing cabinet boxes and framework with veneers.
  • Opting for doorless upper cabinets.
  • Adding new hardware, a few glass inserts, and paint or stain to update the existing cabinets.
Throughout this months-long process, I “read” several
books, so earbuds are an essential component of cabinet
 refinishing. Of course you’ve got to crank up the volume
 when sanding the cabinet doors after stripping.
Another option is illustrated on the cover of the hipster guidebook, “It’s Lonely in the Modern World”: forgoing upper kitchen cabinets altogether, and just stacking your dishes on simple shelves.

I decided to strip and re-stain rather than prime and paint because I preferred the look and warmth of wood. I refinished some cabinets long ago, and hoped there was new technology to make the process safer, easier and faster. Like any home-improvement project, there are multiple ways to go about it, so it took some time to research and compare methods and materials. Basically, refinishing involves these seven steps:

1)      Remove hardware and wood trim:  Use a drill or screwdriver to remove all the hinges and pulls, and a taping knife and pry bar to remove the wood trim. I decided to replace the hardware, but if you are going to reuse it, store pieces in labeled Ziploc bags until you have time to soak and scrub them clean. Also label the location and orientation of each drawer and front with painter’s tape. Mask the surfaces around the cabinet boxes with painter’s tape and cover the floors and counters where you are working with plastic garbage bags.

Liquid strippers work best, but for vertical surfaces use
gel, which won’t drip as much. I used Citrustrip,
 a bright orange gel that smells decent enough,
worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive,
 non-toxic and biodegradable. Paint on with a cheap brush,
 allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper.
WORK WISELY: Stripping is a nasty business. Whether you are stripping oil-based paint or varnish and stain, spare no expense on protecting your health. Buy thick rubber gloves, a big box or two of disposable nitrile gloves, eye protection, a sanding respirator, and a vapor respirator (the serious, $50 kind). Work outside or with windows and doors wide-open (drought years are optimal in this case), read all labels and use the appropriate protection whenever you are using chemicals or sanding, even when working outdoors or with so-called safe products. Also be conscientious about how you are disposing of all work materials—many of which don’t belong in your garbage can. For every step of this process there are products that claim to be safer to use than traditional solvent-based products, so I suggest reading some online MSDSs (material safety data sheet) to know all the risks before you choose.

2)      Clean:  Remove grease and dirt from the cabinet and drawer front surfaces with a trisodium phosphate solution (TSP), and wipe off with a wrung-out sponge. Allow the surfaces to dry completely. If you’re going to install new hardware that won’t use the same screw holes, fill in the old holes with wood putty. (If you are going to paint your cabinets, you don’t need to strip them—a HUGE time-saver. Roll on primer tinted to match your top coat, allow to dry, then roll on the paint.)

3)      Strip: I used Citrustrip, a bright orange gel that smells decent enough, worked pretty well, and claims to be non-corrosive, non-toxic and biodegradable (but still use gloves and a vapor respirator). Paint on with a cheap brush, allow it to work awhile, then remove with a plastic scraper. Apply a second time if necessary. Remove any remaining residue with fine steel wool (.00001) and odorless mineral spirits or pre-stain.

4)      Sand: Using an orbital or finish sander and 150 to 180 grit sandpaper, sand all surfaces until the bare wood looks uniformly clean and feels smooth. You may need a stiff brush or detail sander to get into corners or groves. (I used bamboo skewers.) After sanding, wipe the surfaces with a dry cloth to ensure all dust is removed.

TAKE A BREAK: Breathe a big sigh of relief (away from any dust and fumes) because the hardest, most tedious part is over.

I spent about $500 on everything I used to refinish my kitchen cabinets—including replacement hinges, pulls and knobs. Most of the tools can be used again for other home improvement projects.
5)      Stain: Find a paint store like South Bay Paints in San Jose, where a clerk spent about an hour with me, opening cans of stain and dabbing various shades onto the back of my stripped and sanded cabinet door until I was satisfied with the color. Gel stain is rubbed on and the excess removed with cut-up tee-shirt strips. Follow the directions on the can, and don’t let the stain sit for too long or it will start to gum-up and the excess with not wipe off. Let the stain dry for 72 hours before applying the finish coat.

One of my favorite aspects of Holly Scrimsher’s
 remodeled kitchen is her magnetic knife and scissor
 strips, hung above the sink on her wood laminate walls.
6)      Apply finish: I chose to brush on a polyurethane top-coat on with a 2-1/2 inch, white china bristle brush, but polyurethane can also be sprayed on. Following the grain, make about two passes with the brush, and then one very light final pass, before moving on to the next piece. If you apply too heavy a coat, you must continue to brush it out to avoid runs and drips, so strive for light coats. After a few hours you can sand very, very lightly with 220-grit sandpaper and apply a second light coat. No matter how careful you are, there will most likely be a few drips, but only you will notice them.

7)      Replace hardware: If you’re using existing holes and hardware that fits those holes, this will go fairly quickly. If you are making changes, use a plastic template to mark the screw holes, so that they are consistent from cabinet to cabinet. Use a tape measure to find the center of drawer faces and center the template on that mark. After reattaching the fronts to the drawers, drill pilot holes before screwing new drawer pulls into place.

REALITY CHECK: Lowe’s website has a helpful refinishing guide with a chart for determining the type of the existing finish on your cabinets (wax, shellac, lacquer, water-based, varnish, polyurethane, oil, or paint) in order to use the proper stripper. At the very end of the guide, in tiny print, they say, “Before undertaking refinishing, remind yourself that it takes a lot of time and effort.” In retrospect, I don’t think I read this warning in any of my other sources, and if I had, it was probably much too subtle to have discouraged me. Working 2-4 hours a weekend, it took me about 6 MONTHS to complete the cabinets (with hardware help from my family). But it was worth it, because I saved thousands of dollars by doing it myself, and my whole kitchen remodeling project would have been beyond our budget without it.

Tina Baine
For an archive of my columns go to

Lisa Jensen and James Aschbacher’s kitchen is all about those Bermuda Teal cabinets. “We didn’t want to spend a fortune on either fancy veneers or (ulp) entirely new cabinets,” says Lisa, so they decided to keep their 1960s plywood cabinets and power up the color. “We wanted something more fun,” she says. They scrubbed all the surfaces with a vinegar solution to remove the grime, and James (a professional artist) then painted all the cabinets “very meticulously” by hand. “Our friends and other visitors loved the new color instantly,” remembers Lisa. “During Open Studios, it’s hard to steer people out of the kitchen & back to the art! I was the only one who had reservations after James finished painting the first cabinet. An hour later I loved it!” (photo by Lisa Jensen)

With wood (or wood laminate) on every surface, Holly Scrimsher’s kitchen feels like a cozy mountain retreat. Holly, and her grown children Wendy and Jess, spent last summer remodeling the space from floor to ceiling, doing all the work themselves. She says she spent about $3,400 (not including appliances) for the entire project. Her maple-finish cabinets were purchased assembled at Home Depot, replacing old cabinets with about six coats of paint. A seasoned woodworker and all-around handy person, Holly was able to create, customize and improvise whenever necessary, like when she and Wendy used a car jack to hold the upper cabinets up while they fastened them to the wall. After trying vinyl floor tiles as a backsplash/wall covering, she finally decided to use laminate flooring instead for a much more practical and economical version of wood paneling.

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