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Tune Up Those Cabinets for a Professional Look

Written by Matt Ellis, Industry Expert Cabinet Maker and Installer

We have all seen cabinet doors that do not close, drawers that sag or bind, and those chipped and dented corners where years of wear and tear have taken a toll.  Even the most beautiful and well-constructed cabinets can look cheap and worn simply by having one crooked door.  One of the easiest and quickest ways to address these issues and more, and make the cabinets in your home look as good as the day they were installed, is to give them a tune up.  Tuning your cabinets is a simple process that anyone with a few hand tools and a straight eye can do themselves.  The results can be anything from subtle to dramatic. 


There is a distinct difference between a quick tune up and more extensive cabinet repairs that may require the services of a professional cabinet maker, or skilled individual familiar with the cabinet making and installation process.  Of course, if you are not comfortable with any aspect of tuning or repairing your cabinets, I encourage you seek the assistance of a professional.


Level vs. Straight:  Unfortunately, walls and floors are rarely level or straight, so which one matters more?  The answer is they both matter.  The trick in tuning cabinets is to work with what you have and not re-install the cabinets.  Many homes have, at one time or another, settled due to foundation issues and repairs.  This settling and repair, (or lack of), can wreak havoc on cabinets that were perfectly built and installed.  The good news is that usually the cabinets are still straight even though they may not be level.  This is a situation that makes a tune up easier.  Most cabinet makers, if forced to choose, would rather have straight cabinets that are not quite level than to have bowed or crooked cabinets.  Our eyes notice crooked lines much more easily than a gradual slope.  If your base cabinets support a stone, quartz, or tile countertop, do not attempt to level the cabinets!  These materials are very sensitive to movement and cracking may result, especially at seams or around cut outs for sinks and appliances. 


Now that we have cabinets that are relatively level and straight, we can tune them up!  The tune up can be broken up into four parts:  Doors, drawers, trim, and finish.  We will discuss each of these separately.  Now is a good time to step back and look at the cabinets from a distance and note anything that looks crooked, chipped, broken or dented.  Use Post It notes or masking tape on each location that does not look right.  Next, get as close as you can to the cabinets and look down each of the cabinet faces along the line of doors and drawers with one eye closed, as if you were looking down a fence line.  We want to identify any doors or drawers that are obviously out of line with the others.  This step helps minimize adjustments to only the door or drawer that requires it.  We do not want to adjust all of the doors when only one needs to be moved.  Note the doors or drawers that are clearly out of line. 


Doors:  Door adjustments are made primarily by manipulating the hinge side of the door.  If your doors are cracked or broken they must be repaired before proceeding.  We do not want to cut, plane, sand or otherwise remove wood from a door to adjust it unless we really know what we are doing.  This is a quick way to mess up a run of cabinets.  Remember, when those cabinets were built, they all lined up and had just the right amount of wood in them.  If we remove wood, the doors will likely never line up again unless we remove the same amount of wood from all of the doors. 

Concealed hinges are generally adjustable in three planes:  Up and down, left to right, and in and out.  These types of hinges are found in homes with newer cabinets and will have three adjustment screws.  The middle screw holds the hinge to the cabinet.  Loosen this screw and adjust the doors that are mentioned above as the ones that are most obviously out of line in relation to the others.  Tighten the screws once the adjustment is made.  The front screw is the left to right swing and is typically the one most in need of adjustment.  The screw turns a cam that can swing the top or bottom of the door to line it up with adjacent doors.  This screw only turns ½ of a turn either direction, so it is important not to torque it too much.  Adjust these screws until the gaps between the doors are consistent.  The back screw is to adjust for warp and will push the door in or out.  If the lower corner of a door is not touching, bump the top corner hinge out and it will correct the warp.  Vice versa for the opposite corner. 


Standard face mount hinges are a different animal altogether.  On the plus side, they are the least likely to require adjustment.  The downside is they can be the most difficult to adjust.  Often, adjustment issues with this type of hinge are not really adjustment issues at all, but are actually broken hinges.  Closely inspect the hinges on all suspect doors and replace any that are defective or look to be defective.  MINOR adjustments can be made by bending the hinges using a wood shim wedged between the face frame and hinge while closing the door.  Use caution while doing this and do not ever hit a hinge with a hammer to adjust it.  Some older cabinets may have magnetic catches or spring clasps.  Both of these items are notorious for breaking and are easily replaced as needed.  Inset doors should be adjusted only by a qualified cabinet maker. 


Drawers:    Drawers are comprised of three parts, the drawer front, the drawer box and the glides (if applicable).  First, ensure all drawer boxes are solid and there are no loose bottoms or sides.  Pre-drill pilot holes and repair broken drawer boxes with screws.  Next, make sure the front is securely attached to the box.  Now we want to inspect any drawer glide hardware and replace any parts that may be worn or broken.  Often, the back of a drawer glide has fallen loose from the cabinet and must be re-attached.  If the bracket holding the back of the glide to the cabinet allows the glide to move side to side, make sure that movement is not impeded.  Lubricate squeaky rollers with a very small amount of graphite powder.  Lubricate wood to wood contact drawers by rubbing the areas of contact with butchers wax or an old candle.  Drawers do not generally require much adjustment if they are sound and the glides are attached and in good shape. 


Trim:  We want to inspect all of the trim and make sure there are no broken pieces, loose pieces or gaps.  Replace or glue broken pieces of trim with the appropriate pattern and, if applicable, wood species.  Use the smallest nails possible to do the job.  If access to a small gauge nail gun is available (18 or 23 gauge), use it!  Use color matched wax fillers or putty designed for touch up to fill any nail holes or joints.  Use paintable latex caulk in the appropriate color for ceiling and wall transitions.  Wipe away any dust or dirt before caulking.  Apply caulk from a tube with a very small tip cut on a sharp angle and use a clean, damp rag to wipe away any excess.  Large gaps may require more than one application.  Caulk will not stick to dusty or dirty surfaces, so a clean surface is critical.  Do not use 100% silicone or polyurethane based caulks.


Finish:  We want to inspect the cabinets and identify any areas with dents, scratches, holes or other defects in the finish.  A few words of caution:  It is very easy to go overboard when tuning up a cabinet finish.  The other three elements of a cabinet tune up are all fairly benign in nature and the worst case scenario is not that bad.  Touching up finishes, however, can go bad very quickly and the worst case result can be catastrophic to your cabinets and your wallet.  Most painters will be happy to assist with cabinet touch ups if you are in doubt.  We want to limit touch ups and finish application as much as possible.  Our goal is to take the eye off of obvious defects in the finish, not to eliminate the defect altogether.  This means NO SANDING!  We are only going to add color matched products over the top of what is there. 

Painted and stained cabinets are easy to touch up if you have the correct paint or stain.  It is very easy to take a door or drawer off of the cabinets and into a local paint store to have the color matched exactly.  It is important that the paint sheen match as well, and that the paint be suitable for application over any finish.  Never apply oil paint or lacquer finishes over a latex paint!  Try to touch up stained wood without applying a top coat and check the results after the stain has dried.  If a topcoat is absolutely necessary, be very careful to match the sheen and not to use a product that causes the underlying finish to degrade.  Polyurethane and shellac are generally safe choices, but always test the finish in an inconspicuous place.  Remember, the goal is to tune up and touch up, not to refinish.  Many a fine cabinet has been ruined by touch ups gone awry.  Do only the least amount necessary and keep in mind “less is more” when touching up finishes.  Try to concentrate on corners and edges and avoid the middle portions of panels where touch ups are more noticeable. 


By using just a few tools and a little bit of time, we can make our cabinets look great and function properly.  Cabinet parts and hardware are widely available to professionals locally, but the homeowner can be at a disadvantage, as most local parts are sold through wholesalers only.  Amazon is a great resource for otherwise hard to find cabinet hardware. 


Matt Ellis, Cabinetmaker and President of Keystone Kitchens.

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