Touch Up, Refinish, or Reface?

Thoughts on approaching some worn kitchen doors in a systematic, step-by-step way. September 3, 2010

I got an email about refinishing some wood faces on cabinet doors. I've been doing some back and forth with the homeowner, trying to get a grasp on what he wants done. He sent me some photos of his kitchen, and I'm not certain if it's going to be possible, so I need some advice.

He wants the wood faces sanded down and recoated, mainly due to the damage around the handles. If I was sure that the faces of these doors were solid wood veneer, I wouldn't have an issue - I would just sand off the old finish, stain to match current colour, and re-clear. But I can't tell if this is just a laminate over an MDF slab. If it is, what should I tell him? Do you think something like this is repairable with some paste wood filling and a touchup marker (if it's a laminate?)

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
A good close look at the edge of the door should tell you all you need to know. Almost certain they are veneer. They didn't get enough finish on them originally and wore through from contact at the pulls. It then looks like they got wet somehow and discolored the wood. To fix this properly, they should either be stripped and sanded and refinished or replaced with a new set of doors.

From the original questioner:
That was my original response as well; "looks like you need new doors." But he is working within a very limited budget, so I am trying to come up with some inexpensive solutions for him.

I told him I could sand down the finish and touch up around the handles, followed by topcoats - though I'm not sure that would blend well enough... Hence the paste wood fill and touchup marker idea. I too think it's a thin veneer, so sanding down to raw wood may be out of the question. I considered stripping, as it's just flat panels, but I'm worried it will damage the wood, as it may be too thin. There doesn't seem to be much finish on those doors at all, so a chemical stripper may be too much for them. Also I don't want to damage the white paint because he doesn't want that part done, just the wood.

From contributor I:
Looks like the veneer is worn down to the core. Can the oak panels be removed from the doors and replaced?

From contributor R:
It will sand out fine but because of the discoloration, it will be very hard to get a good touchup. You will probably save time by just sanding the doors down completely.

From contributor L:
Peel and stick veneer. Just reface them.

From contributor T:
Easiest solution first - this is how I was taught to troubleshoot, and it can save a lot of trouble and time. The easiest solution would be to sand just the damaged area and try a touchup. Next would be to carefully sand the entire surface, and next would be to strip.

The first solution would only take a few minutes, and right away you would know to go on to the next step. With the sanding step, as long as you are careful and really have a feel for the sander, i.e. you know when you are about to go too far, you won't have sanded below the veneer, and it is still reasonably fast. The last step is to strip. I would do this before I re-laminated them or bought new panels. I do a whole lot of chemical stripping. Just recently I was doing work on an old federal courthouse that is no longer in use as a courthouse, but was bought to use as an office building. It is on the national historic registry, so replacing was not allowed. You can strip effectively and quickly as long as you know what steps to take.

If you do strip them on site and do not want to damage the white, use Zipstrip or a comparable high strength semi-paste stripper. You want a good semi-paste because you will need to control it around the edges so as not to damage the white. Following the stripping, after you have successfully removed the finish, you will need to chemical wash them with a mixture of 1 part lacquer thinner (dissolves any remaining finish), 1 part denatured alcohol (dissolves the wax that will be in most strippers), and 1 part mineral spirits (isn't as hot and doesn't evaporate as fast as the other two, is used because as the other two chemicals break down substances, the mineral spirits stay wet long enough to clean them off with a rag). You do not want to mix a lot at any time. Just mix small amounts at a time, and keep using clean chemicals. You do this to avoid re-contaminating the finish.

If all this fails, you tried your best to save his doors. You now can reface them.

From contributor K:
I have all too often been caught in a situation where I am trying to do a repair the least expensive way for a customer. In those instances, I have spent a lot of time going from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C and so on, before discovering that Plan C was the best way to go all along.

1) What is causing the darkening? It is difficult to touch up to a lighter color. Maybe it can be done satisfactorily with 1 or 2 doors, but with more, there will be a lot of variation in the results.

2) Sanding can easily result in a sand-through of the (supposed) veneer, or if not sanded sufficiently to remove the current finish, it will result in uneven staining.

3) Trying to selectively strip only the panels could easily lead to a few "oops" on the painted sections, requiring additional labor to solve that problem.

4) With these particular doors, stripping the entire door has an added expense of having to work with the panel separately from the rest of the door in the staining, painting, and refinishing, thus adding significantly to labor. Offsetting this is the fact that each step of the process can be handled en masse, assuming you have a flow-over or stripping vat.

If it were me facing this task (and I have a substantial range of methods to use), given the budget constraints of the customer, I think I would use the peel-and-stick veneer suggested, to maintain the same look. But it can be tedious to trim the veneer. Stain and finish by hand. Or mask off and spray.

Even cheaper - just paint the panels brown (although it hurts down to my soul to suggest this). Make sure the customer is aware that this approach is a repair, not a renovation or restoration. And make sure that the customer understands that you are not a non-profit institution.

From contributor T:
I have to clarify - I wasn't suggesting the least expensive. I was suggesting finding the most appropriate. If you skip the easiest to try and go straight to the veneers, how do you know that you couldn't have just spot sanded and touched up? You only go through the processes on one door, not the entire project. I could run through the first 3 steps in an hour. It is much better to try than assuming that step A and step B won't work, so let's just jump to step C. If a car won't start, you don't buy a new motor before you check the gas gauge or the battery. Easiest solution first.

From contributor O:
Contributor T is giving the best advice every finisher should know, and many never learn.

From contributor L:
I could have 5 of those doors veneered in an hour. Trimming is simple as a flush cut router. If you want to go overboard, you can veneer the edges first, then the face to get a pretty seamless door. Here is a boat door, for which I basically did what you need to do.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

Image courtesy of Leo R. Graywacz Jr.

From the original questioner:
Wow! Thanks. You have shared some awesome information here! I will definitely follow your advice, contributor T, and go through the steps first.

If all else fails and I must reface them, how difficult is veneering? I have never done any veneer work, though since it has been mentioned here, I started doing some homework. I'm not much of a woodworker, but when presented an opportunity to learn something new I'll never back down! How much is that peel 'n' stick veneer? Where would I find it? I came across a few threads mentioning a curling issue after the finish has been applied. Is this a common problem?

From contributor L:
I get my peel and stick veneer through my plywood vendor, Atlantic Plywood. I can get Cherry P&S 4' x 8' sheets for about $70 ea. Pretty easy to use. Wash the door down with denatured alcohol and rough it up a bit with some 220 grit. Wash it again. Just apply the P&S, start at one end and burnish it to the other end, making sure to keep any bubbles from getting trapped.

From contributor R:
Maybe I'm missing something here... Those look like simple plywood slab doors, probably with a rabbet on the back? I think I would just cut some new panels and be done with it. It's not like these are raised panel doors with stiles and rails or even matched veneer panels. I am pretty sure you can buy the plywood cheaper than the veneer and the glue on the plywood will hold up better than contact cement any day.

From contributor L:
Maybe, maybe not. Cutting the plywood, cutting out the corners, sanding the edge, copying the existing hardware holes, sanding, staining, clearing. As opposed to light sanding and a quick wash with DNA, rough cut the veneer and peel and stick, sand, stain, clear.

The good thing is the doors already fit. The cost of the plywood may be cheaper, but the extra work to make the doors may offset that cost savings pretty quick. Both options are viable. If you can't get the P&S easily, then the plywood route may be easier.

From contributor D:
I've always had good results by scuff sanding the panel, treating the worn through area(s) with oxalic acid to remove tannins, rinsing very well with a borax solution, sanding, blending in the area with an appropriate stain, and then topcoating the entire panel. It's easy to do - generally the existing top coat will act as a barrier so you don't really have to worry about being ultra careful. If the client is on a budget, you can't find a less expensive fix.

From contributor G:
I would guess the easiest way to solve this problem before it happens to more doors is to use a backing plate behind door pulls. Either buy ones that can cover the wear area or get creative and make your own out of wood, plastic, metal, tile. They can be surface or inset mounted. Of course the shape, color and texture should complement the door and pull.