Restoring cabinet veneer may take more than elbow grease

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Q: My kitchen cabinets have a veneer that has rotted from moisture in certain places. How can I restore the cabinet panels to their original finish?

A: If indeed it is a veneer issue — and there is some doubt about that among several professional cabinet refinishers who looked at the picture you sent — it would be easier to buy replacement door and drawer fronts rather than try to replace the veneer. "Veneer is really hard to remove," said Joe Henel of Pro Refinish in Fredericksburg, Va., (703-853-9665; prorefinish.com). "And if you put on new veneer, you still have to sand and finish it. So it's better to just get a new drawer or door and stain that."

Plus, as Peter Simonello, owner of Cabinet Restoration Company in Manchester, Maryland(443-292-5650; cabinetrestorationunlimited.com), pointed out, buying new doors "would be more cost-effective and in the end a better product." If your cabinets do have a wood veneer, they are almost certainly not solid wood underneath; they are much more likely to be a manufactured product, such as medium-density fiberboard. But when you buy the replacement parts, you can upgrade to solid wood and never have to worry about veneer peeling again.

And what if it's not a veneer problem? You wouldn't need replacement parts.

Simonello said he is "99 percent sure" that your issue is water damage, which you can determine by running your finger across the surface. If you feel a jagged edge where the cherry color stops, it's veneer. Otherwise, Simonello's hunch is probably right. When water damage strips the color from a cabinet, he said, "what is usually the case is that all of the color was put into the finish rather than a stain that would have been wiped on to the raw wood and penetrated into it." A manufacturer might do that to create a specific look or just to save money, because it's faster. But because the tinted finish sits on the surface, if the finish is damaged, all the color comes off. "So what they're seeing is raw maple beneath the finish with no color beneath."

Whether you need replacement parts or just refinishing, your big challenge will be getting the color to match your other cabinets. Because the color is likely to wind up slightly different, you might want to start by taking a door or drawer front with you to a company that has a kitchen cabinet showroom and seeing whether they have Shaker-style cabinet parts that closely match the color you need. If so, even if it's not a perfect match, you might want to go with that.

Otherwise, you will need to custom-mix stain or seek help from a company that's experienced with refinishing cabinets and is willing to do small jobs. Some companies take on only whole kitchens. Simonello cautions that it is nearly impossible to get a perfect color match if you work on a single cabinet.

If you're willing to accept the chance that the color might wind up slightly different, Simonello's company will custom-mix stain and apply it and a clear, protective finish. Refinishing a door or applying finish to a new one typically costs $125 to $175 per door and $75 to $95 per drawer front, provided you take the pieces to the company's shop. For an extra price, often about $750, the company will go to your house to remove and then reinstall the pieces. That would save you the hassle of having to adjust the new doors and align the drawer fronts.


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