Deciding between refinishing and replacing kitchen cabinets is a big—and costly—decision, so we turned to a design expert to help make the choice a tiny bit easier.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated September 18, 2018
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Kitchen cabinets have a lot of requirements to meet. They need to be sturdy and large enough to hold dishes, utensils, pots and pans, and other kitchen supplies. They need to be able to withstand sauce splatters, water spills, dings, and scratches from heavy kitchen traffic, and hands dirty from cooking messes. And they need to be beautiful. Easy enough, right?

You wish. Finding kitchen cabinets that fulfill all these requirements and are relatively affordable—a 2017 study found that most people budget and spend between $25,001 and $50,000 on their kitchen renovations—can be daunting, doubly so when you consider how quickly kitchen design styles shift.

So when it’s time to update your kitchen, whether for functional or aesthetic purposes, you have to decide: Will you refinish or replace your kitchen cabinets? Brigitte Ballard, a design trend expert at N-Hance Wood Refinishing, weighs in on what homeowners need to consider when making that high-stakes choice.

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Ballard says you should refinish the cabinets already in your kitchen if the current design is functional. If you don’t want to change the set-up of your cabinets, refinishing them can give a dated color or stain a fresh new look without costing you a fortune or putting you and your family through a full-scale reno. Updating hardware can also help make old cabinetry look new again.

High-quality wood cabinets are also solid candidates for refinishing. “Replacing your cabinets is a huge cost that is not completely necessary if the cabinets are less than ten years old and made from a high-quality wood like cherry, maple, ash, hickory, or oak,” Ballard says. Refinishing these hardy cabinets, instead of replacing them, can both conserve wood and money.

Opting to refinish, rather than replace, kitchen cabinets is more cost-effective, too; Ballard says it can save you up to $5,000. Of course, if your cabinets aren’t wood, refinishing may not be an option. Lacquer cabinets are more contemporary and look a little more high-end, but they’re not candidates for refinishing or even repainting, often.

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Kitchen cabinets with significant damage must be replaced or repaired. Full stop. Covering up warping, water damage, mold, or other issues that impact the quality of the material is only a temporary solution. “Warping, ‘cabinet soft spots,’ and mold are all considered excessive damage and warrant immediate repair,” Ballard says.

And, of course, you should replace your kitchen cabinets if the layout of the space doesn’t work for you. If your biggest complaint with your kitchen is that the cabinets all seem to be in the wrong spots (or there aren’t enough of them), and not that they’re out-of-date or your least favorite color, the only solution is to replace them with a more thoughtful layout.

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