What Is the Difference Between Cabinet Refacing vs. Refinishing?

Leah Lopez Cardenas
Updated February 17, 2022
A modern kitchen with wooden cabinets
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If your cabinets need an upgrade, consider whether you should reface or refinish them based on the type you have in your home

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Have your cabinets seen better days? If so, it may be time to change them up. When you think about refacing or refinishing your cabinet doors, the first few things that come to mind are time, energy, and expense. Here are a few ways to decide which approach is best for your cabinet refresh and how to budget for the project.

What Is the Difference Between Cabinet Refacing vs. Refinishing?

Refacing a cabinet involves removing the cabinet doors entirely, purchasing new cabinet doors, and attaching them. Cabinet refinishing is a process where you sand down the existing cabinet doors and refresh them with new stain or paint and lacquer to get them looking like new again.

When Should I Consider Replacing or Repairing My Cabinets?

A professional installing new kitchen cabinets
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If your cabinets are damaged or have cosmetic imperfections like scratches, holes, fading stain, or chipping paint, you may want to consider upgrading. If the cabinet doors are truly damaged beyond repair, refacing them may be your only option. However, if you’d like to save on the cost of buying new cabinet doors, refinishing is a DIY project most homeowners can handle on their own for the most part.

The reality is that if refinishing is the right solution for you, it could be a money-saving endeavor compared to refacing. There are quite a few considerations.

Reasons to Refinish Cabinets

Close-up of man refinishing a kitchen cabinet door
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The look and style of your cabinets have a big impact on your home. Take a look at the reasons to refinish your cabinets instead of reface them to decide what’s best for you.

Cost

Refinishing cabinets is generally more affordable than refacing, however, refacing is about 30% to 50% of the cost to replace the cabinets entirely. Refinishing or staining cabinets costs $1,500 to $5,000 or around $4 to $10 per square foot on average (including labor and materials), while the cost to reface cabinets runs between $4,300 and $9,980 for the whole project or $90 to $450 per linear square foot depending on the material.

You Like Your Existing Cabinet Doors

Refinishing could also be the right option if you like the cabinet doors you have now. The finish you are looking for is an important consideration. If you want to go from stained wood to a darker stained wood or to a solid color, this could be the way to go. However, you typically can’t go from a solid color to a stain.

You Want a Custom Look

When you refinish your cabinet doors versus reface, you can fully customize the look you want with paint, patterns, and finishes.

Your Existing Cabinets Have Minimal Issues

Why replace them if your existing cabinets have minimal issues? Refinishing them instead can hide minor wear and tear and imperfections, while saving you money.

Reasons to Reface Cabinets

Updating your cabinets can be a major project, and a costly one too, no matter which way you decide to go. These are a few of the top reasons homeowners typically decide to reface their cabinets instead of refinish.

Long-Lasting

Brand new cabinet doors will likely last up to 50 years, meaning you’ll have them much longer than your old doors if you refinish them.

Existing Finish Is Coming Off

Finally, if your existing finish is starting to come off, such as splitting Rigid ThermoFoil (RTF), you are not a candidate for refinishing. You could have the doors or drawers that are splitting replaced and then refinished, but what if more of them start splitting after you spend a good bit of money on a refinishing job? 

The point is that if you don't have a good substrate to refinish, you are a much better candidate for refacing.

Your Cabinets Are the Wrong Material for Refinishing

The material under the solid color cabinets usually is not stainable. Cabinet makers don't buy expensive stain grade wood only to cover it up with an opaque color. Typically, white cabinet doors are milled out of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which cannot be stained to look like wood because it is not real wood. 

Even if the doors on solid color cabinets are real wood, they are likely paint grade, which means they still wouldn't look good with stain, even if it were feasible to strip them to bare wood.

Oak cabinets are very poor candidates for refinishing. If you refinish them in a solid color, the grain will show right through the paint (lacquer or any other type). If a refinisher tells you otherwise, give them one of your doors or make them get a sample oak door and finish half of it to show you they really can hide the grain.

You Want to Update Your Cabinet Door Hinges

If you have old visible butterfly hinges and want modern hidden hinges, you’ll want to reface. This leaves the screw holes and impressions left by the old hinges to contend with, so refinishing won’t look as nice. However, If you are going to a solid color, butterfly hinges aren’t so much of an issue, as you can fill the screw holes. You can either refinish or reface if this is the case.

Important Consideration for Refinishing Cabinets

Before you refinish your cabinets, you need to know what to put on them and what to expect, especially if you’re hiring a local cabinet contractor.

Lacquer

First off, the finish that will give the best service in the kitchen is lacquer. To do a good refinishing job, you have to be willing to have a crew come in and spray finish your cabinet boxes in your kitchen. 

This will take three to four days to accomplish, including a day to set up and mask everything off. It’s good to plan to go out of town while they are doing the work, because solvent-borne lacquer gives off a lot of volatile fumes during application, which can remain in the air for a day or more.

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