/ / / How to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them | DIY Shaker Cabinet Doors

How to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them | DIY Shaker Cabinet Doors

A step-by-step tutorial on how to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them by adding MDF trim to the door to create a DIY shaker style cabinet. 

When you moved into your home, you had an ambitious list of all the renovations you would tackle in the first year. 

How could you have known that you would soon be sitting on cracked foundations and sweating with a faulty HVAC system?  

These unexpected emergency repairs drained your home improvement funds over the years.

Today, you’re still staring at the worn, neglected kitchen cabinets. Their sad, rusted knobs and badly-scratched surfaces beg for your attention. 

And your kitchen is the last place you want to hang out when family and friends come over.

Is your homeowner anxiety making you sweat or is it the cooling system again?

Our own kitchen cabinets were outdated, but I could not bring myself to rip out these solid wood cabinets. Neither did I want to spend the money or time to build new ones. 

In the end, we decided to update the kitchen cabinets, without replacing them, by adding MDF trim to create DIY shaker cabinet doors.

We have always loved the look of the classic shaker style furniture – it complements any design aesthetic with its simple elegance and clean lines.

kitchen cabinet makeover on a budget

Yes, these are the same ‘old’ kitchen cabinets! 

CAN I UPDATE CABINET DOORS WITH MDF?

Did you ever consider updating cabinet doors with MDF? 

You can use MDF on cabinet doors as long as you are painting the doors. If you want to avoid painting the cabinet doors, choose a different material.

MDF is easy to work with and you won’t need as much prep work to achieve a smooth surface. 

If you are still not sure if you should use MDF on your cabinet doors, see my post on how the kitchen cabinets are one year later, or better yet visit my post about would I paint my kitchen cabinets again, which was after four years. 

Want to see how to create DIY shaker cabinet doors? Here are the supplies you will need:

Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links or referral links for your convenience. It is a way for this site to earn advertising commissions by advertising or linking to certain products and/or services, click here to read my full disclosure policy.

DIY Shaker Cabinet Doors 


MATERIALS:

  • 1/4″ MDF sheet or Cabinet Grade Plywood (I used one cut to 3″ for the doors & 2″ for the drawers)
  • liquid nails or wood glue
  • 5/8″ brad nails
  •  wood filler
  • caulk
  • pencil

TOOLS:

You can print the material list and instructions below.

INFORMATION ABOUT MDF TRIM

Although I used other tutorials as my inspiration to start my project, something worried me – the other tutorials were working with 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 (unless you use a more expensive cabinet grade plywood). You would have to do some prep work to the plywood before you could use it to make cabinet doors.

Because of this, I put off buying the plywood for a month, while I considered my options. 

Finally, I went to Home Depot (love my local store) and found a helpful worker. I explained to him what I was doing and asked what his thoughts were. 

Not surprisingly, he had the same concerns I did about using plywood. 

He said it would take a LOT of prep work to get the type of finish I wanted and he recommended that we look for a different/better product, possibly MDF.

At first, the thought of using MDF instantly brought up a mental image of water-logged trim pieces, sagging and eventually disintegrating onto my kitchen floors. MDF, by itself, is not water-proof.  

Still, he calmed my fears and assured me it would work. 

All I would need to do to give it a water-proof coat is to paint it 

Intrigued, I had him cut the 4’x8′ sheet of 1/4″ MDF into strips of 3″ for the cabinet doors and 2″ for the cabinet drawers. (One side of the MDF I used has a white vinyl finish on it.)

update Cabinet doors for cheap

PREP CABINET DOORS FOR TRIM

Before adding the MDF trim to the cabinet doors and drawer fronts, you need to prep the doors so they are ready for paint. 

To begin, remove the doors and drawer fronts from the cabinet bases and clean them with TSP cleaner or regular Dawn dish soap. SIDE NOTE: I decided to strip all the old paint off my cabinet doors because they were not painted very well before (paint drip marks were still visible).

using paint stripper to remove paint from cabinets
paint removed from cabinet drawers

Also, make sure to fill in any imperfections with spackling paste (wood grain) or wood filler. 

Finally, sand the wood with #220 grit sandpaper, wiping clean with a cloth to remove any dust. 

DIY MDF SHAKER CABINET DOORS

At this point, the MDF is cut, and the doors and drawer fronts are removed, cleaned and sanded. Now it’s time to add trim to the cabinet doors. 

I found this process to be simple and fun!

STEP 1: PREP THE MDF

The first step is to prep the MDF strips. To do this, sand the edges with #220 grit sandpaper to give them a smooth finish after cutting (this takes no time at all)

SIDE NOTE: The white vinyl side was difficult to sand (it took it all off), so I decided to place that side against the door. 

TIP: Be gentle when handling the 1/4″ strips because the corners can dent if you are not careful.

STEP 2: CUT MDF TRIM FOR SIDES OF CABINET DOOR

Next, place the MDF strip flat on a sheet on the ground. Then, rest the cabinet door, front side down, on top of the strip. 

TIP: Remember to use the correct MDF strip (3″ for the doors or 2″ for the drawers).

Adjust the MDF to be flush with one of the longer sides of the cabinet door. Using a pencil, mark where the end of the door will be on the MDF strip.

Do this for both long sides of the door, placing an “H” on the MDF strip that will be on the handle side. This will help you remember what piece goes where.

add trim to cabinet doors

Then, take the boards to the miter saw and cut right next to the line. 

TIP: Cut next to the line to make sure there will always be enough trim on the door (the extra will be sanded down).

After cutting both long trim pieces, place them on the top of the cabinet door (front side up this time) to check the fit.

STEP 3: INSTALL THE MDF TRIM TO THE DOOR 

Now, you are ready to attach the trim to the door.

Take the MDF trim pieces off the cabinet door and place them right next to the side they will be installed on, putting them front side down. 

Then, take a dry cloth and wipe both MDF trim pieces and cabinet door. This will remove dust to help the liquid nails or wood glue adhere.

With the liquid nails (or wood glue), apply a small bead in a zig-zag pattern along the MDF strip, making sure to stay 1/2″ away from all sides.

glue trim to cabinet

TIP: Only apply to one trim piece at a time.

attach trim to cabinet doors

Place the MDF trim piece onto the cabinet door, making sure everything is flush. 

Take the nail gun (I would suggest using an 18-gauge brad nailer) and place a 5/8″ nail in one corner of the MDF trim. 

TIP: Keep in mind that some cabinets have an inset of 3/8″ (routered edge or groove around the door to inset into the cabinet). Make sure you avoid the groove when placing the nail by nailing 3/4” to an 1 ” away from the edge 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 trim piece – I like to have at least five nails on one side. 

Complete this process for the other MDF trim piece.

nailing trim to update cabinet door

STEP 4: CUT INSIDE MDF TRIM PIECES FOR CABINET DOOR

Once both side pieces are attached, you can add the inside trim pieces. 

To do this, take an MDF strip and place the edge against the newly added trim piece. Then, mark the strip directly above the other trim piece. Also, mark which side is top or bottom to know where they will go after cutting.

update kitchen cabinets

You can also use a square to give you a more exact fit.

use square to mark trim for cabinet doors

Back at the miter saw, cut the MDF strip right next to the markings. 

TIP: Remember, it’s better to have this cut bigger. You can always trim the strip down later, as I did with each piece. 

After cutting the trim pieces, take them back to the cabinet door and see how they fit. If the trim piece is too big, cut a little bit more from the MDF. 

Your goal is to have this piece fit perfectly with a minimal gap. The example below was the piece I cut that had the most significant gap.

kitchen cabinet door makeover

Once the pieces fit perfectly, wipe everything with a dry cloth, and attach the trim pieces the same way as the side pieces (liquid nails & finishing nails).

Now complete all other cabinets doors and drawer fronts in the same way.

TIP: Do one door at a time. Do not assume the sides will be the same length because almost all of mine were not.

SIDE NOTE: Please follow the method of using the cabinet door as the guide to get the same look as the doors shown.

updated kitchen cabinet door

STEP 5: SAND THE MDF SHAKER CABINET DOORS

After adding the trim pieces to all the cabinet doors, sand the edges of the trim to make everything even. See the picture below for the before and after sanding.

trim on cabinet door before sanding
trim on kitchen cabinet after sanding

Now, it’s time to fill in all the holes and gaps with wood filler (or spackling paste). 

SIDE NOTE: You do NOT need a stainable wood filler (the stainable one costs more money and is more difficult to apply. You can even use spackling paste. 

Using a putty knife (or finger, yes it works!), fill in all the nail holes and the sides of the cabinet doors where the trim meets against the door, and also where the trim pieces meet on the front of the door. 

Once the filler has dried, sand each door with #220 grit sandpaper to give you a smooth finish. Afterwards, check if you need to reapply any wood filler to even out the surface (you should not be able to see where nails were placed). Let that dry and 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.

filling in holes on cabinet trm
updated cabinet trim

When everything is sanded properly, vacuum all the doors and wipe with a dry cloth to remove any dust. 

Next, apply white caulk sealant to the inside of the door where the new trim hits the cabinet door. See the white around the inside panel on this door? This is where the caulk will be placed.

Easy way to build shaker style drawer fronts.

SIDE NOTE: This cabinet door was made using the same method, but I actually used only MDF to make cabinet drawers from scratch

STEP 6: PAINT THE CABINET DOORS 

At this point, the cabinet doors are all ready for paint and primer. 

This post is all about installing trim to cabinet doors so be sure to visit my post about how to paint kitchen cabinets with a paint sprayer or use Young House Love’s tutorial on how to paint kitchen cabinets

But let’s show you the difference:

update kitchen cabinets without replacing them

Let me give you the cost breakdown of this project without the paint.

COST:
– 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 of primer)

What do you think of our cheap DIY shaker style cabinet doors? 

Now you have transformed a part of your kitchen with a simple, updated design. You can finally cross another item off your home improvement list! I hope this helps you to update kitchen cabinets without replacing them.

FULL PROJECT VIDEO:

Are you someone that does better with visuals? Check out the full project video below and don’t forget to subscribe on YouTube so you don’t miss out on future projects!

woman adding trim to kitchen cabinets with play button

Interested in more Kitchen renovation projects? Here are some other posts you might enjoy:

Yield: kitchen cabinet door trim

Update kitchen cabinet doors without replacing | DIY Shaker Cabinet Doors

paint kitchen cabinets white and grey

Save money by updating your kitchen cabinets without replacing them by adding trim to the door to create a DIY shaker cabinet door.

Prep Time 30 minutes
Active Time 8 hours
Additional Time 10 days
Total Time 10 days 8 hours 30 minutes
Difficulty Moderate
Estimated Cost $100

Materials

  • 1/4″ MDF sheet or Cabinet Grade Plywood (I used one cut to 3″ for the doors & 2″ for the drawers)
  • liquid nails or wood glue
  • 5/8″ brad nails
  • wood filler
  • caulk
  • pencil

Tools

  • miter saw
  • nail gun w/air compressor
  • caulk gun
  • orbital sander
  • putty knife

Instructions

  1. Remove all cabinet doors, clean, and lightly sand.update cabinet doors with trim
  2. Cut 1/4" MDF into 3" or 2" strips.update Cabinet doors for cheap
  3. Use liquid nails (or wood glue) to apply strips around the cabinet door. glue trim to cabinet
  4. Secure into place with finishing nails.nailing trim to update cabinet door
  5. Apply filler to nail holes and seams. filling in holes on cabinet trm
  6. Sand the cabinet doors with #220 grit sandpaper then wipe with a clean cloth.updated cabinet trim
  7. Apply a white sealant around the inside of the door were the trim meets the cabinet door. Easy way to build shaker style drawer fronts.
  8. Paint the kitchen doors with primer and paint.painting kitchen cabinet drawers
  9. Reinstall the doors and enjoy!update kitchen cabinets without replacing them
how to update kitchen cabinets for cheap

41 Comments

  1. Your kitchen is coming along great. I love your idea for updating your cabinet doors too. That’s a very good tip!

    1. Thanks Rachel!! We are loving them!!

  2. They look great!! What is the best paint and primer to use for cupboard doors? Would love to know the color you used for the bottom.

    1. Thanks!! I truly do not know the best paint and primer to use for cupboards because this is my first time painting cabinets. I used Behr Premium Plus Ultra paint & Kilz Premium primer but I have heard people love Benjamin Moore Advanced paint for cabinets. As for the color of the base cabinets, I actually mixed the paint to get the color I wanted, you can find that here. Hope this helps!!

      1. I just redid my bathroom vanity and used Sherwin Williams Alkyd paint. It is amazing. I will be undying it in our upcoming kitchen reno as well.

  3. Your idea to add the trim is incredible! You saved so much money and saved your wood cabinets that are great quality! I can’t believe the before and after. You must be so proud! I would want to hang a photo of the before cabinets in the kitchen for everyone to see the difference.

    1. Thanks Susan!! We are loving the new look of our kitchen and I am loving the price. I like the idea of a before and after picture, I love it when people put them in their house. Thanks for stopping by!!

  4. Finally! The solution to my cabinet problem. We recently purchased a 1950’s homeowner built home in the country with kitchen cabinets that were handmade by the Amish here in PA. I want to update the kitchen, have everything needed to do it, must finish a bathroom first. But this update solves my “plain” cabinet problem. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. I am so glad this tutorial will help you out. Good luck on all your remodeling projects!!!

  5. Wow. Fantastic
    I think this might be what we do. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Arielle!!!

  6. Christine Stephan says:

    I don’t have a nail gun. Will I get the same results just using a hammer?

    1. Hey Christine, you could use a hammer it would just take longer. I would suggest if you use a hammer that you use a “pin punch”, this will help to make sure the nails are slightly indented into the wood so you can fill the hole with wood filler. I wish you the best of luck!

  7. LOVE the results of this!! Great job! I’m planning on doing something similar soon, did you use a regular paint brush for the final paint job or a foam roller?

    1. Hi Hannah, I used my paint sprayer for the finally paint job. Here is where I talk about painting the cabinets. Best of luck to you!!!

  8. How is the MDF holding up?

    1. Hi Amanda, that is a great question because that was what I was so worried about with using MDF. So far (has been about 10 months) the cabinet doors are holding up amazing! I have had no issue with the MDF, which surprised me but makes me really happy. The only thing I would change at this point with the process for redoing my cabinets, would be the primer I used. The wood is starting to bleed through the cabinets that are painted white. If you are a little worried about the MDF you could use a cabinet plywood, I share an example of cabinet plywood vs. regular plywood here. Hope this helps you and please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. David June says:

    For anyone wondering what primer to use…

    I have had wonderful success with Zinsser BIN Interior Shellac Primer. This stuff is superior to regular stain blocker. I find no comparison. At $40 a gallon, it’s ain’t cheap, but it’s worth it. I’ve covered wood paneling with it, and old pine cabinet doors. It’s fantastic. I can’t say enough good about it.

    1. Hello David, I have debating on using that primer with an upcoming project plus to fix a couple other projects. And now I am going to give it a try because I am tired of wood bleeding through the primer. Thanks!!!

  10. Andrew Schopp says:

    Are you still happy with how the mdf is holding up? I am thinking of creating some cabinet doors by adding 1/4 inch mdf strips to a 1/2 mdf slab to get a similar effect. Not sure that they will hold up well to the abuse from a young family.

    1. Hi Andrew! I actually talked about my cabinets one year later here, this way you can see pictures. But in my honest opinion, I am very happy with how the MDF is holding up. I would wonder about having the back be MDF too, have you priced out the option of a cabinet grade 1/2″ plywood to give it more strength? For my cabinets, the trim piece looks amazing one year later (with kids too). I would suggest using a better paint than I did but the one I used is still holding up well. Also, a paint sprayer will be your best friend for this project. As a side note: I am working on building drawer fronts for a closet system I am building, I am planning on using MDF again for this project because I am happy with the previous project. Let me know if you have any other questions and good luck with your project!

  11. ?this! Great job! What paint colors did you use for your cabinets?

    Thank you!

  12. I love all your posts. Your directions are clear and easy to follow. Most of all I like that you give an approximate cost to this project. Overtime costs may change, but that is for the reader to figure out. I’m a 71 yr old female who is sorry I didn’t find your site sooner!

  13. Thank you! We used your directions as a guide and couldn’t be happier with our results! Our original cabinets were the same exact design as yours and we chose to go with Annie Sloan Chalk paint, since there is less painting prep involved. Wish I could post before and after pics for you to see!

    1. I would love to see the before and after, can you email it to me! twofeetfirst@gmail.com

      I have been wanting to try the Annie Sloan Paint so I cannot wait to see how it turned out!

  14. how much were the new pulls? Gotta add that to the bottom line? :)

    1. Hi, Bryan! The pulls were right around $35 for a pack of 10. I found them on Overstock.com and I believe they are the 8″ pulls: here is a link.

  15. Amanda Dean says:

    Thank you for this tutorial! I’m in the same position – I have wonderfully solid cabinets that just need a facelift. A couple questions: It looks like you replaced the hinges as well, from the before and after photo. Any tips/info on that? We have almost the exact same doors and possibly hinge style. I am not sure where to shop to get hinge replacements that will be a simple swap-out. Also what would you ballpark is your time spent per-cabinet-door on this? I’m new to this kind of DIY and am notorious for under-estimating project effort. ?

    1. Hi Amanda! Yes we did replace the hinges, I would suggest trying to find a hing as close to the old type (how it wraps around the door). I wrote a post about installing our new hardware because we had a couple of hiccups: https://www.twofeetfirst.net/adding-some-new-hardware-the-easy-way/ . As for the time per cabinet, I would say it takes about 20-30 minutes to add the trim (includes sanding/filling in holes). The process does take longer then this because of dry times but overall assembly time is this. The longest part is painting, I would recommend a paint sprayer: https://www.twofeetfirst.net/tips-on-painting-kitchen-cabinet-doors-with-a-paint-sprayer/ . But if you add 3 coats primer, 3 coats paint and 3 coats polycrylic, you are looking at at least 9 days of just painting and I would suggest letting the paint sit for a couple of days before adding the polycrylic. All together I would plan on 3 weeks to a month, to give you enough time for everything but you could have it done faster! Hope this answers your questions but let me know if you have more.

  16. Cindy Pina says:

    HI. I am gong to do this to my sons house for him. I’m wondering doe the extra 1/4″ make the cabinets seem to stick out more than they should? How did you talk the guy at Home Depot into cutting the mdf? They’ll cut it in half but balk at doing any more cuts. Nice job. Cindy

    1. Hi Cindy! That is so nice of you to redo your son’s cabinets!!! The cabinets are thicker then most cabinets but I do not notice a difference because all the cabinet doors are the same. I think if you only did some doors it would look funny. As for Home Depot, I know every store is different but they should be able to cut the wood. Some stores may charge you for the cuts (Lowes does this in my area and they do not like to make these little cuts) but if you are nice and sweet, they normally are more willing to help you! Best of luck and I would love to see the finished project!

  17. I love this tutorial! I’m in the middle of updating our old cabinets and I’m following your directions every step is the way! I’m a little confused about what the caulking is for and where it goes. Can you clarify? Thank you!

    1. Thanks Annie and I am glad the tutorial is helping. You do not need to do this but I personally wanted a seamless finish (not gaps) so I applied caulk where the added trim piece hits the old door on the inside. Sorry this can be hard to explain but in another post, I created drawer fronts using this method and I have better pictures to showing this: https://www.twofeetfirst.net/build-shaker-style-drawer-front/. Hope this answers your question and please let me know if you have any more questions. PS I love seeing finished projects!!

  18. Your kitchen looks great. I used your cabinet door idea to create a door to cover the electric panel in the basement. I have a suggestion… I would remove the scalloped piece of trim in front of the window. I removed mine and it updates the kitchen immediately. Great job and thanks for the idea.

    1. I actually have that on my to do list because I think you are completely right!!!

  19. How has the MDF stood up against water? I’ve been considering the same thing but I’m worried about the cabinets, especially those around the sink!

    1. Hi Alexiss, that was my worry too but it has been three years and I have had NO issues. Good luck!!

  20. Why the caulk?

    1. Hi, that is a great question. You do not need to apply caulk but it depends on the look you want. I apply caulk because I do not want a gap. If you do not caulk, you will have a black line where the trim meets the door after you paint and that is a look I did not want. So the choice is up to you and the look you want! Hope this helps.

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