Renew or Redo

These past few weeks, I found myself talking to several people that were renewing their current kitchen cabinets appearance by changing the color, adding a little glaze or distressing an island or focal piece in the room.

All wanting to do it to existing cabinetry rather than buying or building new with their intention was to save on cost. With each case, the questions and answers were very similar. I thought I would share with you the basic steps we need to go through to have a successful result in this two piece blog.

First, we need to determine if the condition of the current piece or cabinetry is in good sound condition and can be altered. Next, what is it we are looking to do? If a color change is on the list, then we need to analyze how the current color will influence the final color (because it will).

Are you looking to see the grain of the wood like you do with stain? Or are you looking to make it a solid color like we get with paint? Then there is the look of both, where we use paint thinned to a semi-transparent look that will allow us to see the grain but only really faintly so that the hue of the color is basically all the same with very little variance coming from the natural wood tones. Maybe you want it to be painted a solid color but show the “texture” of the wood grain.

If you love the stained look, do we want to change it to a darker stained color or a lighter stained color? Are we adding a glaze to highlight the profiles?

After we know what color or appearance we are after, next we move onto what is the current finish on the cabinetry? We need to try to determine what the current finish is so we can apply a compatible coating. To test this, I start with rubbing the surface with different solvents graduating slowly to stronger and stronger solvents to see what the chemical resistance is. Start with denature alcohol, if the coating softens, it could be a single component varnish or shellac. Lacquer thinner will soften and erase nitrocellulose finishes. Acetone will cause most pre-catalyzed finishes to soften. If none of these solvents affect the coating, chances are you are dealing with a conversion varnish or stronger.

Once we are ready to start to work on the finish, the MOST important first step is CLEANING the surface.

We must remove any and all grease, oils, and dirt. It has been my experience; the fastest, easiest, cheapest, foolproof and best system to use to do this is to use trisodium phosphate (TSP). The worst thing that can happen when trying to apply a coating over an existing coating is getting the evil eye—fisheye that is. TSP, when used properly, will eliminate 90%+ of contaminates and your concerns go down the drain. To mix the TSP be sure to dilute in warm water, and wear gloves. Also, have a well-ventilated area and do not get it on ceramic tile, glass, or grout. Use clean white terry cloth or cotton rags to wipe up and change rags frequently. You will see the grime coming up onto the rags. Be sure to rinse the cabinets well and allow them to dry.

Once the surface is clean and dry, move on to the sanding step. Sanding will be very important because the coating will need a mechanical bond to the surface. This is supplied by creating some “tooth” with our sanding. If you do not want to sand off the finish but rather just scuff the surface, be mindful that the coating below is fully cured. Therefore the sanding scratches you put onto the surface will not fold back into the film like it does on new finishes. This means that the sanding scratches can telegraph up through the new finish you are applying. Keeping this in mind, being sure to sand with the grain and avoid cross scratches. Aluminum oxide sandpaper at 150–180 grit would be a good start; scuffing a cured finish with 220 or higher will not provide enough “tooth” for the new finish to grab and adhere consistently, and successfully. Silicon carbide sandpaper will also work however it will provide a deeper scratch. So, if you are doing a semi-gloss finish or higher, you are more likely to see the scratch lines. The good thing about silicon carbide is that the scratch is a tighter and finer scratch, so depending on your choice of “appearance” you can determine which type of mineral you wish to use on your sandpaper. Sanding sponges will not give you a sufficient scratch on a cured finish. The coating needs some real “tooth” to grab and sponges scuff, they do not sand aggressively enough for this application. Keep in mind that a 100 grit sandpaper will give you 100 grit scratch, but a 100 grit sponge will only give you a 200–240 scratch profile.

One other note, if you simply wish to sand the old finish off completely and refinish, it is STILL important to CLEAN the old finish first so that the grime and oils don’t get sanded into the wood from the dirty sandpaper and sanding process.
OK, now you have the surface ready to move onto the finishing stage. Next blog I will go over the different ways we can apply our finishes to achieve, a finish makeover in painted styles and appearances, as well as many options in stain and glaze applications.