Reface kitchen cabinets for an economical update

Dreaming of redoing your kitchen but waking up with a budget that seems too small? Think Botox instead of a total face-lift. Kitchen cabinets can be spiffed up for one-third to one-half the cost of replacing them while still refreshing the room dramatically.

Cabinets can be repainted, refinished or refaced, then dressed up with new hardware -- all without having to change the floor plan or replace the counters (a relief if you put in that granite a few years ago).

Painting is the simplest and least expensive fix. Refinishing cabinets can update good quality wood, but it's a more costly option. Refacing offers the most significant change.

"Refacing is basically leaving the boxes, throwing out old doors, old hinges and old drawer fronts," says Lamar Ireland, manager at the Kitchen Store in Culver City, Calif. "So you can completely change the style with new doors and drawer fronts. And you have the option of changing the wood."

A refacer sands down the frames and sides of cabinets and then refaces them with a plastic laminate, rigid thermofoil or wood veneer. Doors and drawer fronts are made to match. If the drawer boxes are old or broken, they can be replaced and new slides added.

For a traditional style, select recessed panel or raised panel doors; for a contemporary look, go with flat-slab fronts.

Consider cost, maintenance and your needs in selecting the type of refacing. Plastic laminates are the least expensive; wood is the costliest.

Rigid thermofoil is a laminate that is pressure-molded onto medium-density fiberboard doors in a variety of styles.

"Let's say you want a white kitchen," Ireland says. "You live near the beach with high-salt air content, which is difficult on paint. You get thermofoil doors, which have a lasting finish that can be cleaned with soap and water."

Thermofoils are available in multiple colors and realistic-looking wood grain finishes in traditional or contemporary styles.

Plastic laminates come in colors and wood grains, too, but they are not as malleable as thermofoils, so Formica-type or high-pressure laminates are used only on flat slab or plain doors. As a result, the styles are all contemporary, Ireland says. They can be cleaned with soapy water.

Updating cabinets with real wood can be done with wood veneer or a combination of veneer and solid wood. If the refacing is to be all wood veneer, the doors and drawer fronts are limited to flat slab or other contemporary styles.

If you're using real wood doors, Ireland says, the frames and sides of the cabinets will have a matching veneer. "If you resurface with real wood veneer, you can go with oak, maple and cherry," he says. "Maple and cherry are the most popular today."

As for the hardware, hidden door hinges are used in all refacing jobs, he says. "You can't see them from the outside. They give the door a cleaner look." Drawer pulls, handles and knobs are a matter of personal preference.