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Did you see all the before-and-afters of the Burgevin Gardens kitchen renovation?! OK. Cool. Me too.
John the homeowner and I are both thrilled with how it came out, and especially happy with what we were able to accomplish without breaking the bank on new materials! Aside from sourcing everything from Lowe’s, one of the most impactful ways we kept the budget in check was by reusing the old cabinetry.
Yes. THAT old cabinetry. They said it couldn’t be done. They said I was crazy. I feel like I really showed them.*
*Not sure who “they” is. Don’t worry about it.
I never priced out replacing the cabinets, but I’d say MINIMUM that would have tacked on $2,000-3,000 to the overall cost. And dare I say, I’m not sure we would have been as happy with them as we are with these revamped garbage cabinets?! So I’m back to ‘splain myself and show you what I did to make these brown-town basic AF 1970s (80s?) cabinets work in this new kitchen! It was one part creativity, one part strategic hackery, and one part jigsaw puzzle. In other words, it was kinda fun! Let’s! Get! Into it!
Method 1: Rearrange, Strategically Alter, and Reuse.
Typically when we think of reusing tired kitchen cabinets, it’s because the layout of the kitchen is remaining the same, but what about when the layout is changing? Normally in that situation you’d (hopefully) donate the old cabinets (smashing with a sledgehammer is fun for TV I guess, but usually needlessly messy, low-key dangerous, and stupidly wasteful) and get new ones that suit your needs. But cabinets are really just wood boxes, so not a lot tends to actually go wrong with them over time. We had the advantage of reasonably well-built and fairly solid basic plywood cabinets, but they weren’t the right sizes to work with the new layout. Just a small obstacle!
For the base cabinets, I realized that if I kept the one to the left of the range (formerly, left of the refrigerator) as-is, I could simply retain about 2/3rds of the similar one from the other side of the room to fit between the new range and fridge locations.
So I used a combination of my circular saw (currently on sale!), jigsaw (also on sale!), and oscillating saw (you guessed it, ON SALE!) to cut the end of it off. Easy! Often these cabinets would already be divided into separate units, so you wouldn’t have to saw them apart. Everyone’s situation will be a little different but the point is that there’s usually some kind of solution!
See? Now this 60-something-inch bank of cabinets is a mere 37-inch bank of cabinets, and you really can’t tell at all that anything was done. Funsies.
Then to fill in the remaining space, I just subtracted the width of the fridge and built a little cabinet at the end to fill the gap between the fridge and the wall. Make sense? I’ve gone over my very basic cabinet construction method before so I won’t rehash it here, but it’s super easy and straightforward. We can all build a box! Do not fear a box. Unless someone is trying to put you inside one—in which case, run.
THEN, on the wall under the window, I had to get a little crazy. We decided to replace the sink with a larger one, centered, so the old sink base cabinet (which, honestly, might as well have been assembled with chewing gum and good intentions) was too small anyway. So using my same lazy cabinet-box-making-method, I whipped up a 36″ wide sink base and a smaller cabinet to fill the gap to the right.
So then I had to deal with the doors. Because the old doors were not the right size, and I didn’t have a bunch of spare lower doors to play with. But I DID have lots of spare old upper doors to play with, many of them the same size, so this presented an OPPORTUNITY. Check this out:
I realized. If I could take the bottom of one upper door, and combine it with the bottom of a different upper door (as long as they were the same width), I could make one franken-door that would match the profiles of the other lower doors, which by this time I realized were actually kinda fine because they didn’t have the weird arch that makes the upper doors such a bummer. By this point the scope of work had kept expanding, so I gladly took the option of not totally refacing the lowers but instead just figuring out these few missing doors if possible.
Is it worth it? Let me work it. I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it.
Let me tell you how nice it was to cut one of those upper doors in half. It was very nice.
Actually, it was made nicer by the addition of a new table saw into my life!! And GUESS WHAT?! It’s on sale!
My old one suffered a sad death as a result of neglect and mistreatment (whoopsie), so I had to emergency-buy a new one. After some hemming and hawing, I went with the Kobalt 10-in 15-Amp Portable Table Saw and used it throughout this whole project—no complaints! It folds up fairly compact and rolls around on wheels, and has a nice extendable fence for cuts up to 30″. It’s a great price point for what you get, and I’ve used a lot of different saws.
IT. ACTUALLY. WORKED. I had my doubts, but a little patch, sand, and paint? You really can’t tell unless you’re reallllllly looking for it. I’m OK with that!
When you’ve got it, you’ve got it! What can I say!
NOW. THE UPPERS. SAME GAME BUT DIFFERENT.
The cabinets shaded in pink are the old cabinets, sans doors, left as-is. But they were about a foot too short to span the width of the wall between the window wall and the range hood. SO, to give them a truly built-in look, I just added a slim filler cabinet to one end by building a box (shaded in green) and then attaching it to the old cabinets with drywall screws. Then I attached a new piece of 3/4″ maple plywood along the entire underside, creating one uniform surface. For class!
On the other side of the hood, I matched the size of my new filler cabinet (for symmetry!) and then used most of an old existing cabinet to fill the remaining space, cut down with just a new side panel added on. Make sense? I have color-coded the new in green and old in pink for visual excitement! I also added the same 3/4″ ply panel on the underside but it’s not installed yet in this picture.
NOW. The bigger problem with the uppers was the height! The plan quickly spiraled from reusing a few of the old cabinets into using the entire wall for cabinetry—from about 20″ above the countertop until just shy of the 10′ ceiling, meaning about 5 vertical feet of cabinet space. But the old cabinets were only 3′ high, so we had a large gap at the top (or the bottom—we could have mounted those cabinets higher and ran a shelf or two below them, but that was way more open storage than John wanted to get into. Understandable—it’s not for everyone.). Much like cutting down the width of the old lowers, I could cut down the height of the old uppers to make them fill the space. Then it was just a matter of attaching a new piece of plywood to the top and re-attaching the top rail on the face-frame. This sounds much more complicated than it was.
The point here is not to freak you out. The point is that if this dummy can figure out piecing all this stuff together, you can also figure it out. Grab a measuring tape and see what you can come up with!
Method 2: Reface them!
I’ve covered this topic before, but real quick: these cabinets are a partial-overlay style. That means there is the cabinet itself (carcase)—think just a simple box that you don’t see—with a face-frame attached to the front that the door hinges are affixed to. Doors and drawer fronts partially overlay this face-frame. Typically the back edges of the doors are routed so that one part fits within the opening created by the face-frame, and maybe 1/4″-1/2″ sits in front of the face frame.
In terms of stock cabinetry, these partial-overlay types are generally considered the least expensive. The combination of the face-frame and the partial-overlay doors doesn’t require the same precision as frameless cabinets (which are sometimes called “European style” or “full-overlay” and have become increasingly common in the U.S. in the past couple of decades) or inset-style ones. Inset is generally the most expensive option (if it’s an option at all!) and mostly what you see with cabinetry that pre-dates WWII.
Very often you’ll see a hybrid on vintage or antique pieces, where drawer fronts are partial-overlay and the doors are inset, like above! I snapped this picture out in the wild. So pretty, right? Take note of that bead detail on the face-frame surrounding the doors—with the right router bit, this would be easy to replicate and apply to a plain face-frame for even more old-school authenticity and charm!
ANYWAY. All of this to say that the hidden beauty of an old bland partial-overlay cabinet is that the carcase and face-frames are already present, meaning that you can easily convert them to an inset style simply by replacing the doors!!
Refacing cabinets can happen in a number of ways. Sometimes, you can work with your old doors—either by adding wood, cutting away detail, or just turning them around so the intended interior surface of the door becomes the exterior. Other times, it may make sense to buy new doors—local cabinet shops might offer this, or a skilled carpenter, or there are a number of online sources that can take custom measurements and turn them into a wide variety of door styles. You have options!
OR you can make them yourself. Again, there are a number of ways to approach this. With the right tools, you can teach yourself to make new doors with traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery and really impress all your friends. I’ve also seen them assembled with biscuit joints, which is a bit simpler. I’ve also seen them done with the Kreg pocket-hole system…lots of ways to make a door. A cabinet is just a box and a door is just a panel that covers one side of it. Relax already!!
Because we needed NINETEEN doors, ordering them was absolutely not an option budget-wise. I didn’t fully price it out, but I think minimum it would have cost around $1,000 before tax, shipping, hinges, or knobs—around $50 per door. So I wanted to do something VERY simple, VERY inexpensive, and VERY fast because that’s a lot of doors to make, and I was hoping John could mostly take on this job himself with a little guidance from me!
ENTER. THE FAKER SHAKER™. That is what I lovingly call my extremely hack-y solution to shaker doors. It is so simple it bears almost no explanation. Here’s all it is:
Step 1. Measure the door openings. Subtract 3/16″ from the length and width. That’s the size of your door.
Step 3. Rip 1/4″ thick lumber to the width of the stiles and rails you want. This width is personal preference—to me anything under 2″ tends to look a little dinky. We settled on 2.25″. You can buy 1/4″ x 4″ x 4′ stock at Lowe’s (I can’t find the link! but it’s there.) and rip it down, but in this case we happened to have a bunch of cedar off-cuts from a different project that could be run through the planer a few times to achieve perfectly uniform 1/4″ thickness—so that’s what we did!
Step 4. Cut your strips to size. The sides (stiles) should run the entire vertical length of the doors, and the top and the bottom (rails) fit between the stiles.
Step 5. Glue the back of the 1/4″ boards and face-nail them to the plywood with 1/2″ brad nails. I have an old little Craftsman brad nail gun that I love! I would highly recommend owning a compressor and a couple nail guns—I have nailers for brad nails (18 gauge), finish nails (16 gauge), siding, roofing, and framing, and they allllll get plenty of use depending on the job! Makes everything so much faster and more precise. They can all run off of this compressor that’s been a workhorse for several years now. ANYWAY if you’re in the market, this (currently on sale!) combo is a GREAT value to get ya started!
Step 6. Use your favorite patching compound (I LOVE 3M Patch Plus Primer—easy to work with, dries fast, sands super smooth with ease…it’s a great product!) to fill nail holes. You may also choose to use a patching compound around the edges to smooth out the laminated plywood edge. Bondo would work well for this, or you can use iron-on veneer edge banding if your edges are nice and even!
Step 7. Sand the doors smooth and paint! We painted using a little craft sprayer, and then back-brushed with a good-quality Purdy brush. I personally prefer a brushed finish for things like this, although a sprayer will give you more of that factory-finish look.
Step 8. Install the hinges! There are options for this, including concealed hinges, but I love exposed hinges on inset doors! We used these hinges from Amerock in a “wrought iron” finish, and they’re really very nice. For repetitive tasks like this where uniformity is important, I love this little Kreg multipurpose layout tool. It’s so simple but takes out the measuring and marking part of the process, allowing for faster work!
Step 9. Install the doors! This is definitely easiest with an extra set of hands. We numbered all the doors since many were similar in size but not exactly the same. Some didn’t quite close right away, so it was just a matter of removing them, running one side through the saw to shave off like 1/16″, and then putting them back. Plywood is a very stable material, so I don’t anticipate problems with them expanding and getting stuck.
NOTE: The nature of inset doors is that there will be small gaps around all sides of the door, and those gaps are difficult to make perfectly uniform so there might be some variation. You have to accept a little imperfection to get that old world look. Imperfection is OK, as long as it’s not egregious!
That’s the whole thing! I’m super happy with how they look, especially considering they came out to under $4/door rather than like $50/door. You can’t really beat that! Faker Shaker™ for the win!
Method 3. Paint and New Hardware!
This almost goes without saying, but the cheapest and highest-impact change you can make to existing cabinets is fresh paint and hardware. You know this already because you were, presumably, not born yesterday. Here’s how I did it:
I used 3M Patch Plus Primer to fill nail holes, holes left by the old partial-overlay hinges, and holes left by the old hardware. Check to make sure your new hardware isn’t the same spread as the old hardware (the distance between the screws)—there are a few standard spreads like 3″, so you may not actually have to patch and re-drill the holes.
I used my faithful little $30 Black and Decker mouse sander to smooth out the patching compound and knock off the shiny polyurethane finish. You don’t have to get down to bare wood, but as a general rule you don’t want to paint right over a glossy finish because the paint will have a difficult time adhering.
After sanding, you want to wipe everything clean and remove any dust or old oils or waxes. TSP substitute works well for this, as well as Krud Kutter (ONLY to be said in a thick southern drawl), or a liquid deglosser. In any case, I love microfiber cloths for this. They don’t leave lint, are reusable, and pick up dust exceptionally well.
Let that all dry out! It’ll look really bad at this stage. Everything is under control!
Then paint! Latex paints have really just gotten better and better in the past decade or so, so I didn’t use a special cabinet paint (although Valspar does make one!). I just used Valspar Signature paint in a satin finish (total preference, although I wouldn’t recommend going more matte. Semi-gloss would be nice too!). It’s GREAT paint! We used it for the walls (matte) and moldings (satin) as well. While it’s never a bad idea to prime first, Valspar Signature acts as a paint and primer in one, and is super scrubbable and hard-wearing over time. Kitchen cabinets can take a beating so a good paint is your friend! Two coats on everything, always.
For the face-frames, I used a good-quality 2″ angled brush by Purdy, which gave a nice hand-painted look that I think is most appropriate for this style.
Do yourself a favor and just paint the interior of cabinets as well. I didn’t when I did my first kitchen revamp in my house and always regretted it. It’s just not that hard and makes such a difference over time. To make this go quickly, I used a small foam roller to coat all the interior surfaces with a nice thick layer of paint.
Then I went back in with my brush to hit all the corners and back-brushed the surfaces I rolled. Painting the inside of cabinets sounds like such a drag, but I was actually surprised by how quickly it went. So. Very. Worth. It.
For the doors, I sanded them down a little but didn’t go too crazy. I then used this Liquid Sander Deglosser, which is made specifically to promote adhesion onto glossy surfaces like this. Just follow the instructions on the back! So much more painless than trying to get into all the nooks and crannies with sandpaper. Then it was just the same process of spraying and back-brushing, two coats per side, and reinstalling everything.
OH! And for drilling out for the new hardware, I can’t recommend this little Kreg cabinet hardware jig enough! It’s simple to use, speeds the process soooooooo much, and leads to very uniform and level placement. I use it anytime I have to install a bunch of hardware now and it’s really improved my life.
Method 4. Add shelving!
I’m not sure why, but very often older cabinets aren’t using the interior space very efficiently. It’s not uncommon to see shelves that are fixed in place (my old kitchen cabinets were like that), or adjustable but only within a couple inches. These upper cabinets were originally set up for two interior shelves, but they could easily fit three—thereby increasing storage capacity by 1/3rd! That’s a big deal!
Of course, there are a number of ways to go about this, too! If your shelves are fixed in place, you’ll want to remove them and the cleat that holds them up. It’s possible they’ll be fixed in place with a dado joint into the side of the cabinet itself—this is also surmountable! Just remove the shelf and affix a new piece of plywood or melamine to the interior of the cabinet’s sides to cover the old dado cut-outs.
I think the easiest (and cheapest) approach to adding adjustable shelving is to drill out holes for shelf pins, and luckily there’s a great tool for that! I LOVE the Kreg shelf pin jig—it’s just so SMART and I’m mad I didn’t think of it before Kreg did.
I like to start with the jig resting on the bottom of the cabinet and drill out just the top hole, since it’s unlikely you’d want to mount a shelf lower than that. The jig comes with its own bit, and the collar on the bit stops you from over-drilling through the cabinet. Perfect depth and spacing every time!
The jig also comes with a handy little pin that can be inserted into the first hole you drilled. From there, you just move the entire jig up, drill out all the holes, and repeat the process up the side walls of the cabinet. The smart thing about the jig is that it’s identical when you flip it over, so the spacing is always level and perfect. It gets a little tedious (one cabinet might take, like, 60 holes!) but fast and simple. The jig is sized for a standard 5mm shelf pin, which are readily and inexpensively available at Lowe’s! It’s such a good tool and the results look so pro!
We reused all of the original shelves, but still had to make a bunch of our own! The simplest and most cost-effective way I like to do this is with 3/4″ plywood and iron-on veneer edge-banding. Just take the interior measurement of the cabinet, subtract about 1/4″ from the length, and cut the shelf to that size. The iron-on veneer edge-banding is just a little strip of real wood veneer that comes pre-glued, and you just activate the glue with a regular clothing iron to adhere it to the cut plywood edge! That way, it looks like a solid piece of wood. You could do all four sides, but why bother? You only see the outward-facing edge, so just leave the sides and back alone and do that.
To trim the excess, there’s this handy little tool that shaves off the excess and makes the edge-banding flush with the wood. You can also give it a light sanding until it’s all nice and smooth. Boom, you’ve got a shelf!
Just like with the doors, we sprayed the shelves out in the garage and back-brushed by hand. That’s my paint sprayer, by the way! I got it years ago but it took me a while to actually try it out, and it’s AWESOME. A high-end professional paint sprayer will set you back about $500 minimum, whereas this little Wagner Home Decor sprayer is under $100, works great, is very easy to clean, and perfect for small-ish jobs like this. Inexpensive paint sprayers often need the paint thinned out to work effectively, but I’ve never had that experience with this one. Such a handy thing to have around!
YAYYYYYYY, shelves! This is one of the “unaltered” original cabinets, so I just added additional pin holes between the existing ones to allow for more storage possibilities. Getting that third shelf in there made a huge difference!
Here you can get a better sense of how the pin holes look, and how nice and uniform they are! I just love that the Kreg tool makes it so painless and fast. You could really add the pin holes at any point in the cabinet-making process, but I like to do it after the painting is done so that they don’t get clogged up or create opportunity for drips if paint collects in the holes.
Method 5. Add drawers!
I think lower cabinets should pretty much be drawers wherever possible. It’s just better that way? I hate when things get lost in the back of cabinetry and drawers help avoid that issue of major social and economic concern. I will not be told otherwise!
But even if your cabinets have doors with shelves inside, that doesn’t mean you can’t have drawers! Could you build and install drawers? Totally. You could. I, however, would rather not. So I really love these Rev-A-Shelf interior organizers, which can turn any base cabinet into more functional drawers with just a couple screws! They come in a bunch of different sizes to accommodate all the standard cabinet dimensions.
These actually came out of my own kitchen (which is why they weren’t included in the budget), which means they’ve been in use for about 6 years. Just as good as the day I bought them! They are on the somewhat expensive side, but certainly cheaper than new cabinets and such a quick and easy upgrade. I love them and I’m so glad John can put them to use as I wait for new kitchen cabinets to materialize for my own house, ha! I’ll get there someday. I’ve been a little busy!
Is that enough to chew on?! The point is this: whether you’re looking to make a few improvements to your existing space or even if you’re looking at a full kitchen overhaul, don’t completely discount your existing cabinets! Sometimes total replacement makes sense, but I feel like I often see people ripping out perfectly good cabinets to replace them with other perfectly good cabinets (maybe at the expense of a more impactful decision, like amazing backsplash tile or the dream countertops!), when really a little bit of thought could have saved a whole lot of money and hassle and waste. Sometimes little improvements like just adding another shelf can totally change your storage game!
I’m curious: anything you’d add to this list? Smart storage is kinda my main passion and under-exercised skill in life, so I’d love to know what strategies you’ve found or loved to get the most out of your kitchen storage! I’m also planning TWO more kitchen renovations AS WE SPEAK, so help a guy out and tell me your secrets!!