Ray Hensen has written a great post on how to freshen up worn cabinet surfaces. Let's face it, they'llnever be new again, but these tips can certainly help make them more acceptable to prospective buyers and new owners.
I have been previewing a lot of homes with rough looking kitchens. Many kitchens have old, worn, stained and lacquered cabinets. I know these cabinets can look very bad and seem like they are going to be very expensive to fix. I look at these cabinets as an opportunity. There are numerous ‘fixes' for these worn finishes and some are quite inexpensive.
A very inexpensive way to rejuvenate cabinet finishes is to use a product called Howard's Restore a Finish. I learned about this product from an investor friend of mine. He has been using this product for years on his oak cabinets and the results have been very good. All you need to do is clean the surface and wipe the cabinets with the Restore a Finish. This will not bring back the finish to new again, but it will make the finish much more uniform and bring back some of the sheen. I have been amazed what this product will do for such a low cost. My friend's rental units are twenty years old and the cabinets still look good.
If the cabinets are more damaged or if you want to apply a clear coat of finish over the fixed surface for added protection, I would use a gel stain. Gel stains are great because they help to even out the color of damaged cabinets. A regular wiping stain will go on much more unevenly. Also, you can mix and match gel stains to get to just about any color you need. Rub the stain over the cabinet surfaces and then apply a coat of lacquer over the top. For small jobs, I use Deft aerosol cans (note-always apply Deft in an inconspicuous spot first. Deft will destroy the finish if it goes over anything other than lacquer). For larger jobs, I use Deft brushing lacquer. I like satin finish, although the other sheens are all right.
If the damage is even worse and you really need to cover a lot of damage, then use a chip brush to apply the gel stain. The chip brush is a very cheap brush that has course bristles. If you apply the stain in the direction of the wood grain, the brush adds a faux grain. You will not be able to use lacquer over gel stain applied this heavily. A quick drying varnish works a lot better. This process can be very inexpensive if you choose to do the work yourself. The one drawback is that it can be pretty time consuming.
Another option is to paint the stained cabinets. I would use a synthetic TSP to clean the cabinets and then I would sand the cabinets with 220 grit sandpaper. The next step is to prime the cabinets with a quick drying oil primer, called Cover Stain, by Zinsser. Sand the dried primer and then apply two coats of paint. I use a product called Breakthrough, satin finish. The satin is close to most semi-gloss paints and has a very hard finish. Also, most acrylics stick when one painted surface touches another. This is a process called blocking. Breakthrough resists blocking very well. In a strange twist of fate, I dislike gloss Breakthrough paint. It is very difficult to use and I would not recommend it. If you cannot find Satin Breakthrough paint, then ask your paint store for a 100% acrylic paint that resists blocking.
What if the cabinet doors are damaged? Check the cabinets. If they are well built, then buy new doors and drawer fronts. After being painted, the cabinets will look almost brand new. I used this process on a rental unit of mine and it saved me a lot of money. I even had the carpenter take off the old fifties style hinges and install new, European style hinges. The kitchen turned out great!
Kitchen changes do not always have to be expensive. If you have a little creativity and time, you can create some pretty remarkable upgrades. If you know a painter, carpenter, tile guy, etc., ask them for their ideas. They do these projects day in and day out and have a lot of great ideas. Maybe the painter has a great idea for adding color to your kitchen. Maybe the marble guy has some marble slabs in his shop that he is willing to sell for a reduced price. Maybe the plumber has a great stainless steel, self rimming sink that is dented along the rim and your tile guy can tile right over the dent. I have used every one of those tricks and saved a lot of money. Be creative and ask a lot of questions. If you have any questions for an ex-painter like me, feel free to email me or give me a call. I would be glad to help!
One final note, I have used the above products for years and they work great, but I receive no other benifits for recommending them.