How do I Refinish a Built-In Cabinet?

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  • Written By: Carol Francois
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2019
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A built-in cabinet is a common fixture in bathrooms and kitchens. In a built-in cabinet, the wall of the room is used as the rear of the cabinet. The cabinet itself is comprised of two sides, a top, and a door. The purpose of a built-in cabinet is to provide storage space for common activities. Refinishing a built-in cabinet is a process that depends on three things: cabinet material, quality of materials and final design.

Cabinets are typically made of wood or plastic. The first step in refinishing the cabinet is to determine if the cabinet is wood or plastic. Look for a screw that goes into the cabinet. Remove the screw and scrape the inside of the hole with a sharp blade. You will be able to tell if the cabinet is wood or plastic by the material that is on your blade.

Check the quality of the existing cabinet frame to determine if the materials are warped, deteriorating, or damaged in any way. Focus on the sides of the cabinet, as the door can be easily replaced. Look to see if the cabinets were installed as one piece, or if they were installed in sets of two or three cabinets.


Think about the final design for your new cabinets. Determine if the change is cosmetic or functional. If you want to refresh the look, it is a cosmetic change. If you want to move the cabinet height, increase the depth, or change the shape, this is a larger scale remodeling project and a functional change.

To refinish wooden built-in cabinets, remove all the materials from inside the cabinets, and remove the doors. Sand the existing paint or varnish off the cabinet frame, paying close attention to the doorframe and sidewalls. Wipe down the cabinet with a damp cloth to remove all sanding residue.

Take the time to thoroughly clean the area before you start to varnish or paint the cabinets. There are two options for the cabinet doors: reuse existing or install new. For a quick change, simply sand, re-varnish and then reinstall the cabinet doors. If you want to replace old cabinet doors with a new design, this is a great time to do it.

If you are installing new doors, measure the location of the pre-drilled holes in the doors and compare to the cabinet frame. You may need to purchase and install new hinges if the hinge location has shifted. If new hinges are required, take the time to fill in the old holes, as this will add to the structural strength of the cabinet. Cabinet doors receive a great deal of use and can wear down the hinges over time.


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