Restoration Guide: Kitchen and Baths Cabinets Overview

Susanne Clemenz

Editor's Note: This is article 3 of 8 in Chapter 6: The Kitchen and Baths Guide of Old House Web Restoration Guide. This guide was developed and edited for old homes from original materials in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Rehab Guide.


Section 1--Refacing Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets can take a lot of abuse from moisture, repeated use, and abrasion. The finish on your cabinets protects the plywood or fiberboard surface, and damaged finish can lead to greater problems with your cabinets. Abrasion of cabinet surface creates wear. Worn areas absorb moisture, degrading cabinets functions and finish. Solutions include repairing, refacing, or replacing.

There are four main ways to spruce up cabinet exteriors:

  1. Touching up and patching:. Like face makeup, wood fillers hide surface gaps or cracks. For cabinets that were never sealed, apply several sealer coats to reduce the original finish's outgassing of VOC (volatile organic compounds). PROS: Moisture absorption is stopped or reduced. CONS: Repairs may be somewhat visible in wrapped, veneered, and laminate surfaces. VOC emissions reduction may be incomplete. Sealers and fillers may temporarily emit odors.
  2. Surface refinishing: This is the dermabrasion of cabinet repair. Strip solid wood cabinet parts. Clean with diluted trisodium phosphate and water. Lightly sand with the grain. In a vented area, apply new stain, paint, faux finish, and a sealer. PROS: Inexpensive visible improvement. CONS: Veneers, laminates or wrapped finishes aren't good candidates. Refinishing is labor-intensive. Manufactured finishes are tougher.
  3. Replacing doors and drawer fronts: Think of this as like neck and eyelids lifts. Keep the original cabinet cases and face frames, and purchase new doors and drawer fronts in a complementary tone. PROS: Very labor efficient. CONS: Damage to cases and face frames remains.
  4. Full facelift: For uniform, unornamented wood, fiberboard, veneered or vinyl-wrapped cabinets, refacing achieves preservation. New laminates or veneers are applied to visible areas. VOC-free cements are preferable. PROS: Budget-friendly. CONS: Not suitable for highly contoured doors or for frayed or gouged surfaces.

Section 2--Manicure Cabinets with New Hardware

Like a manicure, hardware can solve a multitude of problems, including function, convenience, access, and safety concerns.

  1. Safer, easier knobs and handles: Like rounded fingernails, curved D-ring handles and knobs provide protection from sharp corners. Coverplates between handle and door hide previous drill-holes. PROS: Creates an updated look and easier opening. CONS: Cabinets and cover plates may age at different rates.
  2. Hinge replacement: If adjusting existing hinges doesn't keep doors closed and aligned, choose new hinges based on cabinet case styles. Door styles are with or without face frames, and inset, standard offset, or full overlays. Hinge choices include knife, concealed, and barrel types. PROS: Improved operation and alignment, depending on hinge quality. CONS: Compatibility with existing hardware.
  3. Improve access with bi-fold hinges: Cutting a cabinet door in half vertically and installing bi-fold hinges reduces space needed for door swing. Each door can then move aside and is restricted from swinging wide. PROS: Improves access under cooktops, sinks and in corners by 50 percent. CONS: Bi-fold hinged doors next to projecting obstacles prevent full door swing.
  4. Retractable hinges: The same type of retractable hinge used in TV cabinets can be used to retract doors and make knee space available under kitchen counters. PROS: Permit seated use of counters and cooktops. CONS: Only the priciest keep alignment well.
  5. Swing doors up or down: Swing doors up above the cooktop or down to facilitate use of bins and hampers. PROS: Ease of access. CONS: Open up-swung doors may be hard to reach; down-swinging doors limit uses.
  6. Bottom-mount door glides: These permit wider drawers and operate smoothly. PROS: Adjustable as needed. CONS: Lack of full extension hides items stored at rear. Can't be replaced with side-mounted glides.
  7. Side-mount drawer glides: Lots of choices, from basic to ball bearings and self-closing. PROS: Easy installation. CONS: Inexpensive types may not be adjustable and quiet.
  8. Full-extension glides: Great for full access and heavier items. PROS: Maximum flexibility in storage layout. Choose by weight capacity. CONS: Hardware bulk robs drawer box size. May jam more easily.

Section 3--Accessorize Cabinets for Access and Utility

Bathroom and kitchen cabinets must be sized and shaped for residents' ages and capabilities. Concentrate storage between 15" to 48" from floor in task-oriented work centers, within the parameters of existing cabinetry.

  1. Handy step-stools: Pop-up and pull-out stools hidden in toe-kicks and base cabinets unfold to 15" high or more. PROS: Extends reach above normal zone. Available at point of use. An easy remodeling project. CONS: Robs cabinet space. Usable only where installed.
  2. Corner storage: Rotating and swing-out corner units enhance access and large item storage. Shelves with varying edge heights rotate together or separately. PROS: Easily utilizes wasted space. CONS: Shelves are smaller than overall space.
  3. Adjustables and roll-outs: Cabinets over 18" deep benefit from roll-out shelves. Adjustable shelves let you configure for item heights. PROS: Stored items are easily reached. CONS: Maximum load ratings must be followed for proper functioning.
  4. Special purpose storage: Cosmetics, spices, recycling and other specialized items benefit from special inserts or designs. PROS: Very efficient. CONS: Permanent installations limit uses.
  5. Backsplash storage: Remodeling backsplashes with appliance garages expedites tasks. Railings in many configurations maximize wasted vertical backsplash space. PROS:Increased storage space. CONS: Potentially expensive. May limit countertop space.
  6. Adjustable-height cabinets: Installing cabinets with mechanical or motorized mounting systems for height adjustment aids the handicapped. PROS: Makes high cabinet contents reachable. Popularity is reducing prices. CONS: Robs 3" from inside or outside of cabinets. Lowered cabinets leave shallow countertop space.

Section 4--A New Wardrobe of Cabinets

Sometimes refacing or replacing hardware just doesn't cut it. Cabinets need to be replaced for reasons similar to clothing--wear, appearance, function, and style. In addition, overall layout becomes more flexible.

  1. Assess condition: If case components are warped or out of square, new cabinet additions may not fit. PROS: Saving old cabinets aids cost effectiveness of home restoration. CONS: Mismatching old and new cabinets may create weakness.
  2. Mixed cabinet concerns: Heights and depths of toe-kicks, drawer faces, and counters should match up. Follow NKBA clearances for work spaces and the work triangle. Shorter bathroom vanities or kitchen desk areas add interest. PROS: Mixing cabinets can improve functionality. CONS: Adjoining new and old cabinets should complement rather than matching each other.
  3. Cabinetry types: Added cabinets should be framed or frameless, and with inset, offset, or full overlay doors. Inset doors recess flush with the face frame for a furniture-quality look, but precision work is pricey. Standard offset doors overlap frames to conceal door positioning inaccuracies. These doors are reasonably priced, but subject to edge damage. Full overlay doors cover entire face frames, permitting hidden hinges. Precision during installation is required to match existing cabinet construction.
  4. Environment-wise cabinets: Cabinets with non-formaldehyde fiberboard, natural finishes, and tree-saving metal construction are available. PROS: Eco-friendly and medium to high priced. CONS: Limited style choices, but growing.

Replacing your cabinets allows for more dramatic changes than refacing or updating hardware. If you're looking to take your kitchen design in a new direction, this may be the option for you.

About the Author
Suzanne Clemenz designed her passive solar home and interacted with the contractors every day of the 6-month project. She started drawing floor plans and making models in the early '70s after purchasing several building lots. Recently she expanded and remodelled her newly-purchased home, working with contractors on the floorplan, electrical changes, painting, installation of wood laminate flooring, flood prevention walls and stonework, major drainage issues, an irrigation system and a landscaping. Researching and keeping up on issues and products related to home design and maintenance is an ongoing avocation.

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