Keep kitchen costs down with the right cabinet choice

Tom Kraeutler
Smartest kitchen island on the block

A V-shaped island with arm's-reach appliances for entertaining all ages. Photo: Showcase Kitchens

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When it comes to kitchen remodeling projects, new appliances may be pricey and flooring costs may floor you, but kitchen cabinets can be the single biggest expense of all. That's why it literally pays to take a close look at what you've already got and consider the options carefully.

Depending on the configuration and construction of your cabinets, you can replace, reface or refinish them on the way to your kitchen redo. Following is a rundown of each approach to strengthening the bones of your kitchen.


If your kitchen remodel involves a new footprint and additional storage needs, then partial or complete replacement of kitchen cabinets is the way to go. Just remember that this approach involves major demolition and consideration of such critical elements as plumbing and appliance placement.

There are three levels of cabinet customization:

Stock cabinets. The least expensive, stock cabinetry is produced en masse and available through your local home improvement center and cabinet dealers. What you see is what you get, with few chances for modifications or specialized specs. Manufacturers offer such wide variety, however, that stock cabinets can be a perfect solution that saves considerably on costs.

Semi-custom cabinets. The middle ground between stock and custom, this variety allows for slight modifications (usually height, width, and depth) at the time of production. There is a wider array of associated moldings, trims and finishes available, and of course, the price goes up accordingly.

Custom cabinets. Created especially for you and your kitchen, with pricing determined by complexity of design and materials used. Aficionados of fine wood craftsmanship find it hard to consider any other option.


Kitchen cabinet refacing involves replacing the doors and veneers on existing laminate or wood boxes. It's not a job for the novice, but also understand that if you hire a pro to do the job, your satisfaction with the results will be directly proportional to their skill and level of craftsmanship. Quality of existing cabinetry and the new materials applied also impact the end product.

[Need help refacing your cabinets? Click to find the right contractor now.]


If you like the style and configuration of the kitchen cabinets you have, and they happen to be made of wood or laminate, refinishing them is the clearest route to remodeling cost control. Most older cabinetry is well built, so preserving it is usually worthwhile just be sure to examine the construction carefully before pulling out the sander, because if paper-thin veneers cover every surface but the solid fronts, you'll need to rethink your refinishing plans. Veneers can't be sanded or stained, so painting will be the only option if they're involved. Whether painting or staining, choose an oil-based finish, which is far more durable and forgiving of everyday kitchen grime than latex finish.

Checked your kitchen cabinets and they're clear for approach? Great! Here are the steps to a fabulous new finish:

• Working in a well-ventilated area, begin with a thorough cleaning, removing all dirt and grime from cabinets; allow surfaces to dry.

• Apply a paint/finish remover, and scrape away finish with a putty knife, followed by a wire brush. Continue this cycle until a clean wood surface is revealed.

• Sand cabinets with fine-grit sandpaper, and remove resulting dust and debris with a tack cloth. You may also consider using a liquid sanding agent, which can be very effective in application to fine woodworking details and other hard-to-sand areas (it also helps with the grime-removal step of refinishing).

• Apply the new finish according to the manufacturer's instructions (preceded by the appropriate primer if you're painting the cabinets), allowing surfaces to dry thoroughly between coats.

• When finish applications are complete, apply a protective top coat to protect cabinets from moisture, grease, and surface oil.

Finally, before completing your kitchen cabinet refacing or refinishing makeover, don't forget to update all those cabinet handles. New hardware is the bling that brings personality and freshness to a kitchen!