A step-by-step tutorial on how to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them, a budget-friendly solution to makeover your kitchen.
Who loves the look of the classic shaker style cabinet doors? I do, it is my favorite style of door right now. It’s classic and fits almost any style of home!! A year ago we were talking about what to do with our kitchen cabinets because they were dated. But I could not bring myself to rip out these solid wood cabinets, plus I did not want to spend the money on new ones. In the end, we decided to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them by adding some trim and new paint.
Yes, that is the same old kitchen cabinets!! Want to see how to make kitchen cabinets look new too, here are the supplies you will need.
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How to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them
You have probably seen tutorials on how to DIY a shaker style cabinet door because I have and I used their tutorial to start my updates, like this one or this one. But something that worried me about their tutorials was using 1/4″ plywood.
If you have ever used cheap plywood before you would know that it splinters easy and there can be gaps in the sides of the wood (you could use a more expensive cabinet grade plywood and not have the gaps). Meaning there would be some prep work to the plywood before it would be ready to add to the cabinet doors.
Because of this, I have been putting off buying the plywood for a month, looking at my options… But finally, I decided it was time to get it because I had to start on the doors.
I went to Home Depot (love my local store) and asked a worker to help me. I explained to him what I was doing and asked what his thoughts were. And guess what, he had the same concerns I did about using plywood. He told me it would take a LOT of prep work to get the type of finish I wanted and that we should look for a different/better product, maybe MDF.
Time to be honest MDF scares me… because of what water does to it plus I have never used it before. But he calmed my fears and told me it would work. He also told me he had another person in the store just the other day looking at doing a plank wall out of plywood and he voiced the same concern about using a better product to get a better finish without all the extra work.
He had me SOLD, so I had him cut the 4’x8′ sheet of 1/4″ MDF, called white vinyl panel, into strips of 3″ (I got 12 strips for the cabinet doors) and 2″ (I got 4 strips for the cabinet drawers). Just so you know one side has a white vinyl finish on it.
Before I could add the trim to the doors I needed to prep the doors so they were ready for paint. I decided to strip all the old paint off my cabinet doors because they were not painted very well before (paint drips…). But if that is not your case here are some great tutorials on prepping cabinets to paint, from Young House Love and from Cherished Bliss.
Now that I had my MDF cut and doors sanded I was ready to add the trim to the cabinets. I found this process to be simple and fun!!
The first step was prepping the MDF strips, to do this I sanded the edges with #220 grit sandpaper to give them a smooth finish after cutting, this took no time at all. I did find the white vinyl side to sand funny (it took it all off) so I decided to place that side against the door. TIP: Be careful when handling the 1/4″ strips because the corners can dent easily if you are not careful.
Next, I placed the MDF strip flat on a sheet on the ground. Then I placed the cabinet door right side down on top of the strip. I moved the strip to be flush with one of the longer sides of the cabinet door, took my pencil and marked where the end of the door would be on the MDF strip. I did this for both long sides of the door. I also placed an “H” on the MDF strip that would be on the side with a handle, this helped me remember what strip went where.
Then I took the boards to the miter saw and cut right next to the line. TIP: I cut next to the line to make sure there would always be enough, the extra will be sanded down. After cutting both boards, I placed them on the top of the cabinet door (right side up this time) to check the fit.
Now we are ready to attach the trim to the door. Take the MDF strips off the cabinet door and place them right next to the side they will be installed to, placing them right side down. Then take a dry cloth and wipe both MDF strips and cabinet door, this will remove dust to help the liquid nails adhere. With the liquid nails, apply a small bead in a zig-zag pattern along the MDF strip, making sure to stay 1/2″ away from all sides. TIP: Only apply to one strip at a time.
Place MDF strip onto the cabinet door, making sure everything is flush like before. Take the nail gun (I would suggest using an 18-gauge brad nailer) and place a nail in one corner of the MDF strip. TIP: Keep in mind that some cabinets are inset by 3/8″, so make sure you miss the groove with the nail or you will have a nail sticking through both sides. Move along the same side and place more nails, making sure everything is flush as you go. Place nails on both sides of the strip. I liked to have at least 5 nails on one side. Complete this process for the other MDF strip.
Move along the same side and place more nails, making sure everything is flush as you go. Place nails on both sides of the strip. I liked to have at least 5 nails on one side. Complete this process for the other MDF strip.
Once both sides pieces are attached now we could add the inside trim pieces. To do this, I took the MDF strip and placed the edge against the newly added trim piece. Then take a pencil, I marked the strip right about the other trim piece (make sure it is marked right above). Also, mark which side is top or bottom to know where they will go after cutting. See picture for example.
Back at the miter saw, I cut the MDF strip right next to the markings. TIP: It is better to have this cut bigger than smaller, you can always trim the strip down later. Which I normally did with every piece. After cutting the strips, take them back to the cabinet door and see how they fit. If the piece is too big
After cutting the strips, take them back to the cabinet door and see how they fit. If the piece is too big, cut a little bit more from the piece. Your goal is to have this piece fit perfectly with a very little gap. The example below was the piece I cut that had the biggest gap.
Once the pieces fit perfectly, wipe everything with a dry cloth and attach the pieces the same way as the side pieces (liquid nails & finishing nails).
Now complete all other cabinets doors and drawer fronts the same way. TIP: Do one door at a time and do not assume the sides will be the same length because almost all of mine were not. Please follow the method of using the cabinet door as the guide to get the same look as the doors shown.
After adding the trim pieces to all the cabinet doors, sand the edges of the trim to make everything even. See picture below for the before and after sanding.
Now it’s time to fill in all the holes and gaps with wood filler. Side Note: You do NOT need a stainable wood filler, plus the stainable one cost more money and is a little harder to apply. Taking a putty knife (or finger, yes it works), we filled in all the nail holes and the sides of the cabinet doors where the trim meets against the door, plus where the trim pieces meet on the front of the door. If you want a better finish on the front of your doors, you will want to add filler to the door.
Once the filler had dried, we then sanded every door with #220 grit sandpaper. After sanding reapply wood filler where it needs to be added again. Then sand the doors again. TIP: Make sure all your trim edges and sides are level with the cabinet door to make sure you have no trouble with your doors closing when they are reassembled to the cabinets.
When everything was sanded smooth again, I took a vacuum to all the doors and then wiped with a dry cloth. Next was applying caulk to the inside of the door where the new trim hits the door. See the white around the inside panel on this door this is where the caulk will be placed.
SIDE NOTE: This cabinet door was made using the same method, see how to make your own cabinet doors from scratch, here.
At this point, our cabinets doors are all ready for some paint and primer, this post to come! But let’s show you the difference.
Let me give you the cost breakdown of this project without the paint.
– 1/4″ MDF sheet = $26
– liquid nails = $3
– 5/8″ finishing nails = $3
– wood filler = $6
– caulk = $4
TOTAL = $42
If you add paint & primer = about $120 (that’s 2 gallons of paint & 1-gallon primer)
What do you think of our cheap shaker style cabinet doors? Anyone else doing a kitchen makeover? Are you looking for a way to update your kitchen cabinets on a budget? I hope this helps you to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them. Make sure you stay tuned for all our other future kitchen updates, which I will be sharing soon!!