Refinishing kitchen cabinets may seem like a big project, but the process is actually surprisingly simple. Here’s what you can expect.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated January 15, 2019
Refinishing kitchen cabinets - white cupboards in a contemporary kitchen
Credit: contrastaddict/Getty Images

Picking between refinishing and replacing kitchen cabinets should be pretty straightforward, but being unfamiliar with the wood refinishing process can muddle the decision. Refinishing wood kitchen cabinets can feel like a daunting, unfamiliar project, whereas replacing them seems more simple: Someone is hired to rip the current kitchen cabinets out, and new cabinets are installed.

The refinishing process is just as clear-cut, though, even if it isn’t understood quite as well. Like changing out the kitchen tile backsplash, adopting a new kitchen color scheme, or trying new kitchen cabinet paint colors, refinishing kitchen cabinets can completely change the look and feel of the cookspace—and for a more affordable price than it would cost to replace the cabinets. To demystify cabinet refinishing, Real Simple spoke with Dave Murphy, the national technical director at N-Hance Wood Refinishing, which specializes in refinishing cabinets and floors, plus other residential services.

“It’s not like Grandpa’s way of refinishing, where you take all the cabinets down and sand them all down to bare wood,” Murphy says. “You don’t have to go through all that.”

In fact, refinishing kitchen cabinets can take just a few days—Murphy says it depends on the size of the crew, but most refinishing projects can be completed within a week, often within three to five days. Plus, the kitchen doesn’t need to be torn apart, and the space doesn’t need to be completely cleared out. Murphy says there’s no need to leave the house while work is being done, and while most crews prefer that residents don’t cook, residents will still have access to the refrigerator and snacks. And, after a few days, the place will look completely different.

“It’s not brand new, but when you walk in, it looks brand new,” Murphy says.

And the process is surprisingly simple.

“We’re going to remove contaminants, grease, and grime from your cabinets, then lightly sand the surface,” Murphy says. “Then [we] give you new color on the cabinets and protect it with a UV [ultraviolet] finish that’ll last years and years.”

Murphy estimates refinishing kitchen cabinets costs about a third as much as replacing cabinets might. (And there are major time-saving pros, too.) In fact, the savings can be enough to purchase new appliances and even new countertops, in addition to the cost to refinish the cabinets.

Refinishing is less costly and quicker than replacing cabinets, but there are some issues refinishing cabinets can’t fix. Bad water damage, split doors, and other structural issues should be fixed with new cabinets; cabinets with an excess of grease build-up may also be better off being replaced because leftover contaminants from that grease can affect the cabinet material.