The built-in wall cabinet was perfectly serviceable; well-made, nicely proportioned with subtle touches in its construction that really appealed to the woodworker in me. It had served the families that had lived in my house well, standing as a mute witness to the flow of personal history that is played out in every home — everything from inspired comedy to extreme tragedy. But sadly, the times had passed it by. What had been a very groovy look at the heart of the 1970s was just not making the grade 10 years into this new century. The red oak lumber and plywood, stained dark and varnished and outfitted with stained glass upper door panels, needed to be changed and upgraded, but the question was “how.”
As a person who made cabinets for many years, my first inclination was to yank the cabinet out of the wall and build a brand-new one. I could draw up a new design and knock it out in my shop — it would be no problem. Well, there might be just one problem ... where would I find the time to take this task on? My list of “urgent” home maintenance projects was long and not getting any shorter. And, as editor in chief of a woodworking magazine, my schedule is pretty demanding — no help there.
So I decided to try something that I had never done before. I would take advantage of all the various pre-made products on the market: reface the cabinet with veneer, purchase pre-made cabinet doors and hang them with new face frame style European hinges and slap on some new modern-looking pulls. In essence, I would get a brand-new cabinet built around the core of the existing unit.
Starting with the Veneer
The first basic decision I approached was what species of wood did I want to cover the cabinet with ... how did I want it to look? I have been transitioning the cabinetry and woodwork in my living room and dining room area to maple and birch, all finished with a natural clear top coat, so that was my first inclination, but the great thing about considering veneer products is the wide variety of options that are available.
In terms of light-colored wood species that would complement my room, there were of course the birch and maple options — but even within those two species there were selections to be made: water white birch, yellow birch, red birch, plainsawn maple, curly maple, fiddleback maple, spalted maple ... well, you get the idea. Add to those species the likes of aspen, cypress, ash — white or black — and the list goes on. And, of course, I am not even considering exotic species that would fall into that same color category.
In the end, despite the variety of selections on the market, by considering all the other components I would need in the makeover, I decided that procuring pre-made maple doors would be easier than finding anigre doors. (Although I did not actually test this theory extensively.) So I settled on run-of-the-mill, plainsawn maple veneer.
The next decision confronting me was what sort of maple veneer product to use. Maple is a highly desired hardwood and, for that reason, you can find maple veneer in several different permutations: the traditional flitch-cut raw veneer, paper-backed veneer sheets and pressure-sensitive peeland-stick veneer sheets, just to name three options. I went with the paper-backed veneer sheets, which I purchased in a 48" x 96" size. It allowed me to cut the various strips I needed to size on my table saw, and the paper backing made the strips a bit less fragile to work with. Pressure-sensitive sheets might have been OK, but it is my hope that this makeover will last for the next 40 years or so, and I was concerned that the pressure-sensitive adhesive would just not hold up.
Additional Project Details
I used contact adhesive to apply the veneer to the face frame and other areas. You can choose from water-based contact cement (less odor) or a more traditional solvent-based product. I went with the stinky stuff because I have used it for years in plastic laminate work and have always been pleased with the results. I just kept the work area well ventilated. I applied the veneer to the cabinet’s face frame (edges and front face) and to the bottom panel (the floor) of the upper cabinet. When it came to the interior walls and top of the cabinet, I chose to switch to a 1/8" maple plywood to cover the oak. Fitting the rigid 1/8" plywood panels to those interior spaces was much easier than working with the more flexible veneer pieces. In addition, a those of you who have worked with contact cement are aware, if you misalign your glued and prepared veneer by just a little bit and accidentally touch it to the surface, there is nothing you can do about it — it is stuck tight. I was able to handle the 1/8" plywood panels easier and with more accuracy during the glueup phase, as well as during the dry-fitting phase.
Another important detail in this retrofit was the cabinet “counter” or open display surface. The original cabinet had an odd feature for a dining room cabinet — it had a slide-out breadboard shelf. I got rid of that shelf, but I wanted a horizontal shadow line to break up the look of the piece. In addition, the doors and drawer fronts were changing from standing 3/8" proud of the cabinet face, to a full 3/4" proud. For that reason, I made a solid wood maple “countertop” that fit into the central opening of the cabinet. On that piece, I added a lip that extended by 1" past the face of the cabinet. That solid maple surface will hold up better than veneer over the years, and it looks great.
Two final design and construction details. While I could have swapped the stained glass section of the original upper doors into my new maple doors, I thought it would look too dated. Instead, I chose a non-colored textured glass panel for the upper doors. The reeded glass interacts with ambient room lighting and really adds to the modern feel of the new look.
The last construction detail to determine was what type of hinges to use to hang the doors. For me, self-closing European hinges were the best option. These days, there are versions that mount easily to face frames, so it is just a snap to use them.
Initially, I had thought I would remake the drawers entirely for this project. It would take little time and they would be brand spanking new. But after a bit, I decided to keep the old drawer boxes — for sentimental reasons. They would be a small piece of the old unit that moved into the future.
The trick was that the drawer faces were nailed to the drawer boxes. So I used a small sliding jig on my table saw to cut off just the forward 3/8" thick section of the existing fronts. Then I glued and nailed new drawer faces to the remaining section. It worked very well.
To begin this sort of project, the first step is demolition. Remove all the parts that you will not be using going forward (doors, shelves, etc.).
Then clean all the surfaces to which you will be applying veneer or some other sort of covering (like my 1/8" maple plywood).
I wiped the entire surface with a solvent to remove the years of built-up oils and polishes.
In addition to that, I scuffed the surfaces with a good sanding. I didn’t worry about removing the existing finish completely, but I did give it a thorough treatment. When I was done with that, I wiped away the sanding particulate with a tack cloth.
Now I was ready to apply the veneer. Approach this with the same methodology that you would plastic laminate work. Cover the narrow (outside) edges of the face frame with veneer first.
Apply a coat of the contact cement to the veneer strips and to the edges of the face frame. Allow the contact cement to dry. Carefully place the veneer strips in their proper alignment — you won’t get a second chance at this. Stick the veneer to the edges and press it on with a J-roller. That’s it ... it is secure and in place. Now trim the edges of the veneer flush to the face of the face frame.
I found a block plane, followed by my sander, to be a quick and efficient means to do this. Next, go through the same steps to apply the wider veneer pieces to the front of the face frame.
I used a laminate trimmer to clean up those edges, and it worked great. I put the veneer around the perimeter of the face frame first, then I applied the crosspieces. In this way, the components of the veneer mimic the look of traditional stiles and rails seen in face frame construction.
Now it was time to cover the interior faces of the cabinet with the 1/8" maple plywood. I tried a traditional construction adhesive (Liquid Nails®) for securing the panels, but was not happy with the results. I moved back to the contact adhesive and could not have been more pleased.
Take a moment to plan the sequence of which plane of the interior compartments you will cover first, second and third ... etc. Trust me, sequencing the panels properly will make a good deal of difference as to which joint lines are most visible. For example, I covered the bottom of the compartment first (I chose to put a piece of paperbacked veneer on the bottom of the compartment rather than the plywood), then the top, and then the back. Next, I put the two side panels in place. It looked very good when I was done.
Doors, Drawers ... Done
I had ordered the doors before I started the whole process so they were ready as soon as I had completed all my veneering work. Right after they arrived, I put a coat of clear sealer on them ... just to keep them from moving on me. I also ordered the glass earlier, but as is my practice, I did not order it until I had the doors in hand and could measure the openings. The upper doors that I chose came with glass retaining strips precut. That was a nice touch. I bored the holes in the doors for the cup hinges, mounted the clips on the face frames and did a test fitting. The drawers were completed, as I mentioned earlier, so all that was left to do was apply the finish. Using a good quality brush, I put two coats of Zinsser® SealCoat™ onto the raw wood. I sanded down the nibs and followed with two wiped-on coats of polyurethane.
That is about it. I installed the glass in the upper doors, hung them and adjusted them evenly. I drilled some holes to mount the hardware ... brushed nickel pulls and some wide drawer handles — and I was done. The shelf in the upper compartment was made from solid maple. Having lived with it for a few weeks, I have decided to replace it with a tempered glass shelf. Hmm, maybe this project will take a while to be “absolutely” done. I’ve been looking at interior shelf lighting lately ...