Murphy Brothers Blog

Refinish or replace when honey oak cabinets lose sweet appeal?

Honey oak cabinets with cathedral arched doors that were so popular in the 1980s and 1990 are disappearing fast across Minnesota. Some have been replaced with cherry or maple cabinets during major remodeling projects. Others simply retreated behind new coats of taupey gray paint. Bottom line – many people are souring on honey. What’s more, they consider updating the woodwork equally as important as installing granite or quartz counters if they plan to sell.

Oak Cabinets (before)

So how do you decide if you should refinish or replace your old oak cabinets? And just because you’re comfortable painting walls, are you up for taking on a whole room full of cabinets and trim?  Here’s what I have learned while finishing cabinets and trim professionally for more than 30 years.

Refinish, replace or something in between?

If your cabinets are in good condition and you like the quality, layout and functionality, consider refinishing. This would include shifting to a darker, natural finish or changing to a painted finish. Rather than invest $30,000 in new cabinets, you probably can get your current units refinished for about $8,000.  This really makes sense if you are getting your house ready to sell in the next few years.

If you plan to change the layout of your cabinets or if the doors and hardware are in poor condition and extremely dirty, consider replacing the cabinets or at least the most visible parts. One of the most popular options today is to replace the doors and drawer fronts and keep the cases (or boxes).  This not only enables you to update the look. It allows you upgrade hidden euro-style hinges and full-extension drawer slides for improved adjustability and access. In addition, it will be much easier to finish wood on the most visible face of the cabinets. Rather than filling wild oak grain, you can start with a smooth surface.


To do or not to do

Refinishing a room full of cabinets requires time, space, equipment and talent. Most do-it-yourselfers tackle the project with rollers, brushes and materials from the home center. They tend to shortchange the prep, try to complete the process in too few steps and apply the finish too thick. At Murphy Bros., we have perfected a nine step process that ensures the finished surfaces not only look good but also resist cracking, chipping and yellowing.

The Murphy Finishing Method

  1. Remove the doors and drawers, numbering each hinge and pull so it can be reinstalled in the same place. This ensures the doors align without having to readjust each hinge. The doors and drawers will be finished off-site.
  2. Mask and cover every surface that will not be finished.
  3. Install a Phoenix Guardian Air Scrubber with high efficiency HEPA and carbon filters, which will externally vent to filter the exhaust dust and fumes. This keeps the work environment safe and clean.
  4. Clean surfaces with acetone or lacquer thinner to cut through the grease and grime. These solvents are flammable so I wouldn’t recommend a do it yourselfer to try it without careful training and proper ventilation equipment.
  5. Spray on one to two heavy build coats of primer-sealer to fill grain on paint projects to ensure the new finish adheres, sanding after each coat.
  6. Spray multiple, thinned coats of finish with light sanding and dust removal between coats.
  7. For stained finishes apply multiple coats of tinted sealer to enrich the color and achieve the desired sheen. Then protect the finish with a clear topcoat.
  8. Remove the protective coverings and masking and clean up the area.
  9. Deliver and install the doors and drawers with the original or new hardware.  We never paint old hardware because the finish won’t survive the repeated movement.

Spraying vs. Rolling

The secret to applying a durable, smooth finish is to minimize the thickness of the coating material, avoid dust contamination and use the highest quality finishing products. Thick coatings are much more likely to crack and chip and slow drying finishes will collect more dust, so we spray thinned lacquer finishes under controlled conditions in the home and in the shop. Applying a finish with a roller typically leaves stipple marks and the thicker coating will dry more slowly.

We finish doors, drawer fronts and new cabinets in our finishing shop spray booth and dry them on special racks that can hold up to 50 doors.  This setup is ideal because you can only finish one side of the doors at a time and should recoat the same day to lock the layers together as they cure. Completing all of this work off site is a real plus for clients because reduces noise, dust, fumes and disruption.

Refinishing cabinets in a medium size kitchen typically takes 90 to 100 hours. We handle each door at least eight times. We’re fussy because we know cabinets are among the most demanding surfaces in the home and they deserve furniture quality finishes.– Dan Flaherty, Murphy Bros. Finishing