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Ideas from Ed: Puttin' on a happy (re)face (Volume 6, Issue 3)

Trends in woodwork, especially in kitchens, seem to come and go. When we bought our built-in-1926 house (1981), the non-original kitchen cabinets were a creamy white, and the type that came straight from a big box store. Today it seems that bright white cabinetry is all the rage, but my wife and I really like actual wood instead of painted particle board, and I still find the look of wood grain preferable to paint. We wanted something more to our taste, but without emptying our pockets any more than we had to.

The solution presented itself a number of years ago when a local farmer advertised a quantity of air-dried, rough-cut cherry lumber. I took the opportunity to purchase it, and I had a planer, router, and some basic tools so that I felt comfortable making all new doors for each and every cabinet. Doors, I said. Just like the companies that advertise on TV that they can re-face your cabinets for a fraction of the cost of new. I did the same thing they do – I purchased some cherry veneer and covered the sides and front surfaces of the old cabinets, then attached all of my new doors. I’m very proud of how they all turned out. Here are a few pictures of the completed work.

What I didn’t do at the time was the underside of each cabinet. I reasoned that no one over 4’ tall would ever see the undersides, but my wife recently asked me to “finish the job” and do the bottoms. Here are a few pictures showing the off-white undersides. Remember that all the surfaces in the cabinet pictures other than the doors themselves are already veneer applied by me.

I had to purchase some new veneer because my stash of leftovers from the original work was only enough to begin the new project. Let’s get something straight, though. What I’m using is wood veneer, NOT the cheap wood-grained vinyl that was so prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s. I like to use veneer that has a peel-off backside, with adhesive already in place. You can also use veneer without that feature and use your own adhesive, if you so choose. There’s also veneer that has adhesive that is heat-activated, so you actually “iron it” into place.

Veneer is real wood, but very thinly sliced. It can be sanded, stained, and finished just like solid wood, and if done nicely on a job like this, is almost indistinguishable from thicker wood. Refacing can be done without removing the cabinets, but doing so would certainly make it easier than working upside down as I did on these bottoms.

For any intricate shapes, I’d suggest making a pattern and doing lots of test-fitting before cutting the veneer. In my case, things were pretty simple so I just measured and cut.

Here’s the veneer I used. Larger pieces come in a roll, which makes it a bit hard to work with. You might make it easier on yourself if you unroll it and keep it weighted down for a couple of days. Just be careful that you don’t break it as you work it.

Measurements of the space to be covered can be transferred to the face of the veneer if the area is uniform. If it’s oddly shaped, it may be easier to work from the back side. Just be sure of which way any angles are facing, because drawing on the face side as I did means the “front” would be the “back” or the left would be the right because the cut piece will be flipped over.

Veneer is easily cut with scissors for curves, or a razor knife for straight lines. For razor cuts, have the piece placed on a smooth, flat surface. I used a scrap of ¼” Luan plywood.

I don’t like using the messy contact cement, so my experience is only with the peel-off back type. I’d guess the contact cement works the same way, though, which means THIS STUFF STICKS INSTANTLY. That means your initial placement at an edge or corner is critical because once it’s pressed into place, there’s no removal and re-adjustment.

I started in corners for the main underside pieces, and pressed the veneer down (actually up!) with just my fingers, while peeling the backing away just ahead of the spot where the veneer was making contact. You can also use a wallpaper seam roller to press things a bit better. I pre-drilled the locations where cabinet attaching screws were located.

Here’s another cabinet bottom with just the main section completed, and a picture showing the narrow strips which I used to cover the edges:

All of the places where two pieces meet then get sanded and very slightly rounded over, just as would be done with solid wood. Thus, slight imperfections in placement are addressed with sandpaper. I didn’t stain things yet, because it’s winter here in western PA, and I don’t relish the smell of stain lingering in the house. Once spring comes and we can leave some windows open, I’ll complete this project with a coat of stain to match the upper sections of the cabinets.

The re-facing companies are likely more efficient and quicker than I was, but this is definitely something that most any do-it-yourselfer can tackle and save a bundle of money. If you can’t make your own doors, you can buy pre-made new ones or have them custom made, then finish the cabinetry with veneer yourself. Of course, applying veneer isn’t limited to kitchen cabinets, but can be used to re-surface many types of furniture. Veneer is available in lots of different varieties of wood, as well as different grain patterns (quarter-sawn versus flat-cut, for example.)

I hope all your projects go well. Thanks for reading, and happy restoring!


If you’d like to download a PDF of this “Ideas” column, click here:

Ideas from Ed 2023_March_Puttin_on_a_happy_re(face)
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I took advantage of a nice day and did some staining. Here’s how the underside of the corner cabinet looks now. Compare it with the nearly identical view above, prior to application of veneer and stain.



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