In the hierarchy of kitchen remodeling, replacing cabinets is king -- no other improvement does more to transform both the look and function of the space. At the same time, all-new cabinets tend to cost more than any other element and often mark the dividing line between a makeover and a full-blown renovation, complete with a home equity loan and weeks of microwaved meals. But the fact remains that if your kitchen needs some sprucing up, you can't ignore the cabinets. No problem. There are plenty of ways to give yours some love (without letting them know you're working with a small budget).
Painting or Refinishing…Maybe
The most ubiquitous idea for an easy cabinet upgrade has to be painting or refinishing. And this makes sense; it's a lot of hard work, but it can yield a dramatic change at a cost that's dramatically lower than full replacement or even adding new doors and refacing the boxes. But here's a caveat that's a lot less common than the idea itself: Don't expect a factory-quality finish. DIY-painted cabinets have brush strokes and muddled details, and standard paint isn't nearly as durable as the stuff that manufacturers use. Stripping, sanding and refinishing stained cabinets is a ton of work, and getting stain just right takes years of experience (you can certainly wing it; you just need to have realistic expectations). Bearing this in mind, painting or refinishing cabinets often is a good idea if their existing finish is really bad and can't be substantially improved with a good cleaning. So start with that, try on some new hardware (see below), then decide whether repainting or refinishing is really worth it. If so, take the time to do it right, and you'll likely be happy with the results.
Replacing cabinet hardware is an absolute no-brainer. Start with the knobs or pulls for all the doors and drawers. You can also replace the door hinges if they're visible, but often you can get away with keeping the old ones. Choosing new hardware is fun, and replacing the pieces is so easy and satisfying that you'll feel like those happy can-do couples in the TV ads for home improvement stores. This job really is that simple -- IF you select new hardware that fits the old holes in your cabinets. Of course, it's possible to make new holes, but this is harder than it seems and works well only if you're repainting the cabinets. And by the way, spackle or caulk won't hide the holes under paint; they'll shrink on you every time. You have to use a non-shrinking wood putty or an auto body filler, both of which require sanding for a flush surface.
If you've peeked into a cabinet showroom or catalog in the past decade or so, you know that these days it's all about pullouts. Pullout shelves, pullout trash and recycling bins, pullout spice organizers, pullout everything. And unlike cold granite slabs, this is a kitchen trend that's not going away, because pullouts are a great idea. They're also absurdly pricey when you buy them off the shelf.
Making your own pullouts is really quite doable. A pullout shelf essentially is a wooden tray with drawer slides. A pullout trash bin can be a tray (on which you set the bins) or a slide-out shelf with holes cut in it (for suspending the bins by their rims). Look around online for good tutorials on building your own pullouts, and keep in mind that slides can go at the sides, as with standard drawers, or underneath, using "undermount" slides, which can be surprisingly strong. For a quality look, build your pullout frames with solid hardwood or furniture-grade plywood, such as Baltic birch (call a lumberyard or hardwoods supplier for info; the box stores don't carry premium plywood).
Wood Panels to Glass
If you have traditional frame-and-panel cabinet doors, you swap out the wood panels for glass, creating an expensive-looking accent for little more than the price of the glass alone. The hardwood frames of these doors provide the structural integrity; the panel actually "floats" inside grooves in the frame's edges. Use a router and a straight-cutting bit to cut out the backside of the grooves, remove the panel and add a piece of precut glass, securing the glazing with plastic glass clips and screws. The glass can be plain, textured, frosted, beveled, etc., but for safety it's best to use tempered glass, which you can buy from any local glass company. Mixing glass-front cabinets and plain wood cabinets is also an attractive option. A good example is Dallas architect Eddie Maestri's farmhouse-style kitchen, in which a Dallas carpenter installed both glass-front and plain panel cabinets, creating a rustic and light look.
Task and Accent Lighting
All well-designed kitchens have good lighting, and this always includes undercabinet lights. The nice thing here is that you don't have to splurge for nice-looking fixtures because you don't have to look at the fixtures. That is, if you have standard cabinets with faceframes; with Euro-sytle frameless cabinets, you might want to spend extra for more attractive lighting, but there's no reason to go overboard because the fixtures aren't prominent. Standard wall cabinets have a recess underneath that nicely hides "slimline" fluorescent fixtures. This is all you need to create an upgraded look and vastly improve the usability of your countertop work areas. Don't go for halogen puck lights, which are inefficient and put out way too much heat both below and above the cabinet's bottom panel. As for above-cabinet accent lighting, the same no-see-um benefit applies. This can be as simple as snaking a rope light on top of a bank of cabinets or adding a few uplights to play off the ceiling. In any case, it's the light -- not the fixture -- that creates a custom look.
Philip Schmidt writes for Networx.com.