Is It Time For New Cabinets?

Good kitchen cabinets are a joy! I know, I am the cook at home and appreciate the many fine features of our cabinets. But kitchen cabinets are expensive and I see all too many homes where money, time and effort was wasted on new cabinets.

I have also seen many examples of lower cost cabinet rehabilitation and replacement project that resulted in a fine end product. So here are a few ways to to analyze a kitchen, its current cabinets and some possible opetions.


  • Your plans and use are the primary reason to remodel a kitchen and to do something about the cabinets. While it is indisputably true that a fine new kitchen will help sell a home, the real question is if the cost of a new kitchen will net you a better price for the house.

    In my opinion, a project as large as a kitchen remodel should be restricted to homes that you plan to occupy for 5 or more years. That way you will benefit from the remodel, and if you are lucky, the price of the home will also have increased by more than the cost of the remodel. If your plans to sell the house are shorter, then consider some minor repairs, paint and "elbow grease".

    So if the cabinets are not functional for you, ask yourself why? For example:

    • The counter-tops are too low (or high),
    • There is not enough storage space or the storage space doesn't work (all the stuff you are looking for is at the back of the drawers or in back of some other unreachable space).
    • You would like to have a dishwasher but these are old and narrow cabinets and dishwashers are made for deeper ones.
    • There are too few counter-top areas, they are full of microwave ovens and other appliances and there is not enough room for the cook(s) who use the kitchen.
    • The work area is spread too far apart and you have to run around too much, or the converse, there is no space next to the stove for your work.
    • You think that the cabinets are ugly.
  • Existing cabinet rehabilitation can be as simple as a new coat of paint to re-facing the exteriors. Such a project can make a lot of sense if:

    • The basic layout of the existing cabinets is functional for you.
    • The cabinet material is functional, e.g. wood and plywood cabinet can last for a long time but some cabinets made out of low grade particle board are very difficult to repair.
    • The cabinet material matches your plan to paint the cabinets, you will need to find out if the surfaces can hold the paint. A good way to do that is to take a door or drawer front to the paint store for analysis.
    • The insides of the existing cabinets work: the drawer slide and the shelves are functional.
    • The need of any new cabinet sections is limited, e.g. it might make sense to replace one section of cabinets in order to fit in dishwasher or a larger refrigerator. Making too many changes to an existing set of cabinets can result in a total cost greater than all new cabinets.
    • The existing hardware is in good condition or if it can be easily replaced.

    I love seeing well rehabilitated old cabinets. Some of my favorite methods include a good coat of paint or stain and some new hinges and pulls. The new look can be a restoration of the original style or some new accent colors. Another way to add functionality to existing cabinets is by adding new light sources. For example, lights under the upper units can light up "hidden" sections of the existing counters.

  • This is one of the best examples for the a need for good planing, good drawings and detailed specifications. In rehabilitating the existing cabinets or remodeling the whole kitchen, details are critical. And its easy to come up with a long list of very important "details" for a set of cabinets. For example, if you wanted to have a drawer cabinet next to the stove:

    • Who is going to design the kitchen and this cabinet? Spending some money on an independent and professional design is often a good idea. Kitchen cabinet contractors may offer free design services but those designs may be limited to their line of products. Are you good at color selection?
    • Will this drawer unit be on the right or left of the stove? How wide? Standard height counter-tops?
    • Full extension drawer glides? (If you ask me, yes! you want to have access to the entire drawer not just the front 2/3).

      Full extension glides get me to all of my tools!
    • How many drawers? How high each drawer?
    • Built-in bins for flour? spices?
    • Built in drawer dividers or a size of drawer that can accommodate store-bought dividers?
    • Pull-out bread-board? (There are some very good and stable ones but most never get used).
    • Flip-up mixer shelf? (Good for a heavy mixer but this maybe another fancy feature that doesn't get used very often).
    • What kind of wood, interior and exterior surfaces?
    • How will any existing cabinet interiors be rehabilitated?
    • Can the existing cabinet be adapted to the desired new counter-tops? (Tile, Granite, Concrete...)
    • Child proofing hardware?
    • Access and features for wheelchairs? arthritic hands?...

    The list goes on. The key to all of this is that the planing for a drawer unit and all the other parts of the project must be early and on paper. There needs to be a drawing and a set of notes (specifications) that provides the customer and the contractor a clear picture of the desired end product.

    And in the case of a do-it-yourself project, drawings and specifications maybe even more important. Contractors may not need some of these notes, the amateur needs many more. For example, the amateur may not think about the wiring for the stove and how it might interfere with that drawer cabinet.

    And the cost of the drawer unit can jump from affordable to outrageous. If you do the painting its a few dollars in prep. material, paint and a good brush. A high end lacquered application by a specialty contractor could cost hundreds of dollars for just one cabinet. And that's only one "detail". Multiply that by all the other details and the cost of the kitchen remodel can jump by many factors.

  • And so if you have decided to rehabilitate the existing cabinets, here are some ways to rehabilitate them:

    • Remove a door and/or a drawer front and take it to a furniture "bath". It maybe possible for them to strip all of the old paint and stain from the wood. It might turn out that the old wood is still in fine condition.
    • Removing the old paint and stain from the rest of the cabinets is much more difficult and most probably not worth the time and effort.
    • Now take the door and/or a drawer fronts to your local paint store for some refinishing advice. I recall one cabinet restoration project where the cabinets themselves were painted a solid color and the door and drawer fronts refinished in a contrasting stain - I loved it!
    • Take a sample of the existing hinges and drawer pulls to a hardware store and look for some new hardware that fits the existing cabinets. It would be best if the new hardware fits the existing screw holes etc.
    • Upgrade the electrical wiring for: good lighting, appliances and utility plugs.
    • See if you can gain some counter space by moving the microwave into one of the cabinets or combining it into the stove-hood. And, if possible, get a ducted stove hood.
    • A sturdy work table on good rollers may provide you with some added functionality and flexibility.
    • If most of the cabinets are functional, it may still be possible to save money by having a custom cabinet maker build or modify some cabinets.
    • Replacing existing plastic-laminate counter-tops with new material is relatively inexpensive. And the new material doesn't have to look like the 1950's.
    • Replacing older tile counter-tops can be more difficult. Some of that tile was installed into a concrete base.
  • This is much more than a matter of money. And while it is true that most custom made cabinets are more expensive than stock cabinets, the main issues here are: quality, design and many important details.

    This custom cabinet has a window on the back side and glass doors on the front.

    Quality cabinets are made out of various types of durable materials and employ superior production practices. For example, some of the best cabinets use high end particle board and other manufactured wood products. Particle board is also the standard material for low-end cabinets. The differences may not be visible and even if they are, they may require expert analysis.

    Quality cabinets are available from custom cabinet makers and from stock/"off the shelf" manufacturers. Figuring out if the cabinets are a quality product takes a lot of research.

    The design of a cabinet may dictate that it be built to measure or to unusual specifications. Some stock cabinet shops may also have the ability to build units that are not part of their normal line, in most cases special sizes and features are the preview of custom cabinet makers.

    I have had some success in combining the two options. I purchased a set of good stock units for our kitchen and then had a custom cabinet shop build some matching units with unique dimensions.

    The "details" you need and want may also be available in both types of cabinets: materials, quality drawer and door hardware, drawer configuration, "pull-out" units of various types... Its these details that require careful research and written specifications for all involved. Just one more reminder that kitchens are one of the most complicated spaces in any home.

    In the final analysis, both types of cabinets can be a good choice if they fit your needs and your budget.