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House & Home

Inexpensive Kitchen Upgrades

Posted May 16, 2008
Updated May 22, 2008

Full kitchen remodels — where you replace everything including cabinets and appliances — now cost at least $25,000 and frequently run $50,000 or more. But many kitchens aren't worn out or dysfunctional, they just look tired and out-of-date. The answer is a cosmetic upgrade. These are things that improve the look of your kitchen and make it more current without breaking into walls, changing cabinets, redoing plumbing and electrical, or installing new appliances.

Some of the easiest fixes are installing new flooring and repainting with fresh new colors. But there are two areas of the kitchen—the cabinets and countertops—that will produce the most dramatic change when updated because they draw the eye with their huge surface areas.

Having countertops replaced professionally will run from $1,000 to $2,500 even for stylish new materials in a typical kitchen. Since you have to pull the kitchen sink and its faucet to replace the counters, it makes sense to replace the sink with a new one; consider a new material, color, or bowl design. The same goes for the faucet—another design statement these days. Total cost for the two is anywhere from $300 to as much as $1,000.

Painting your existing cabinets is a great way to update their look for less than $100 in paint and sandpaper if you do the work yourself. Want the "wood" look? Replace cabinet doors and drawer fronts for under $2000 and stain the cabinet face frame and end panels to match. There are a few tricks to this work so you get a good looking, long lasting finish (see below), but you'll be fine if you're already comfortable painting interior rooms and trim. As a final nod to the new look, replace your cabinet hardware with new, more stylish hardware (pulls and possibly hinges) for between a dollar and $10 a piece.

Countertop Options

There are a wide variety of countertop choices these days that range from as little as $10 a square foot to over $100. Here are those choices in order of expense from lowest to highest:

Plastic Laminate Countertops

This inexpensive but durable material has been around for decades, but continues to offer a huge array of colors, patterns and even textures (though these aren't great for a kitchen countertop). Laminate is made by covering what is essentially a photograph with clear melamine resin, backing it with phenolic-impregnated kraft paper, and putting it under high pressure. The least expensive plastic laminate countertop is "postformed" to create an integral backsplash and rolled front edge. They are often found in home centers and lumber yards in a few colors already made up. But most plastic laminate countertops are ordered from a countertop or cabinet shop after picking one of hundreds of samples of laminate and specifying the edge treatment you want.

Ceramic Tile Countertops

Again, you have a huge variety to choose from, including size—from tiny mosaics to one foot square, although tiles in the 4 in. to 6 in. range are scaled best for countertops—and color. With the popularity of stone surfaces these days, many ceramic tiles are made to imitate travertine, limestone, and even granite. The disadvantage of tile-like stone and engineered stone is that it is a very hard surface if a glass slips out of your hand, and it has mortar joints versus a smooth continuous surface.

Ceramic tile comes in a wide range of prices (machine-made tile is more economical than handmade), but it requires a good deal of labor on site in setting the tile and grouting it. It should be adhered to cementitious backerboard or a mortar bed for longevity.

Solid Surfacing Countertops

This stone imitator, often called Corian because it was the first entry in the field, is made from plastics with a mineral filler. It also comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns, and it has the advantage of being repairable. An abrasive sponge or fine sandpaper will polish out scratches. The seams in a solid surfacing countertop are literally invisible, and cast solid surfacing sinks can be combined with it to form a smooth, seamless presentation. The only major downside of this material is that will not take a hot pot out of the oven.

Stone Countertops

For the kitchen, the premium choice in stone is granite; it has become much more affordable in the last decade though it is still a high-end option. Some of the softer stone like limestone and travertine found so frequently in baths these days are not great choices for the kitchen because they will absorb stains. This is also true of marble, so limit marble in the kitchen to a baking center area where it is ideal for rolling out dough.

Granite is very hard and dense, so it will not stain as readily as softer stone and will resist wear and hot pots. It's not indestructible, but it is very durable. Part of the magic of stone is that every piece is a little different-an expression of nature. Most homeowners opt for slabs (you are sometimes offered the choice of picking out your own) which are fabricated into countertops. In almost all kitchens, there will be several different slabs, and it will show where they butt. A less expensive alternative is "tiles" made of granite that are set in mortar. The joints are kept very narrow (3/16 in.), but they are grouted-typically with a colored grout.

Engineered Stone Countertops


This is a manufactured material that is often referred to as "quartz" because it is more than 90 percent crushed quartz stone with enough polymer to hold it together in large slabs. It is fabricated into countertops and backsplashes from the slabs, and is available in a number of vibrant colors and in several patterns. It is very hard and durable, can't stain and will take the heat of a pot. Because it is manmade, it is uniform in look, but has a depth that is unique to manufactured countertop surfaces.

Sink and Faucet At The Same Time

In order to replace countertops in a kitchen, the sink and faucet have to be removed as well, so it's a great opportunity to replace these for ones with a new look (color, shape, different materials and finishes), a new configuration, or increased capability. Materials for sinks include stainless steel, porcelain-over-cast iron, solid surfacing, quartz and others, and each has their advantages. Sinks are configured in one-, two-, and three-bowl models with varying sizes and depths to each. They can also be undermounted below the countertop, integrated with the countertop in the case of solid surfacing, or designed to drop in.

Kitchen faucets are sporting lots of new hand-rubbed finishes, and many new configurations as well including pull-out, wall-mounted, and high arching. Again, all have their advantages as do different types of improved internal valves that can nearly eliminate leaking and frequent maintenance.

Making Cabinets Look New

If you have wood cabinets now, the least expensive way to update them is paint them. To really make them look good, you need to use top-grade primer and paint, be very methodical in your technique, and use a little trick to make brush strokes disappear.

Painting Cabinets

1. First, scrub the all doors, draws, and cabinet face frame and faces with detergent and a damp rag to remove years of grime
2. Then wipe them with down with alcohol and a clean rag to remove any grease.
3. Next, use a random orbit sander (or a sanding block if you have lots of energy) and 220-grit sandpaper to uniformly ready the existing finish for the new one.
4. A tack rag purchased at a home center is the key to getting the surfaces you've been sanding completely free of dust and ready to paint.
5. Next use a primer that's compatible in formulation and color to your top coat of paint to coat all surfaces. Try for a thin, uniform coat.
6. Sanding between coats is the key to a smooth finish, so very lightly sand the prime coat after it's dry and use the tack rag again.
7. Stir an additive into your paint to improve its flow. Ask your paint dealer-there are separate types for solvent- and water-base paints, but either will essentially eliminate brush marks from your painting. For the paint itself, use an enamel that will dry hard and scrubable.
8. Apply the first top coat using a professional paint brush (nylon bristle for water-base paints and china bristle or natural bristle for solvent-based paints) and long even strokes. Again, a thin even coat is the goal.
9. Once it is dry, sand the first top coat and go over everything with the tack cloth
10. Finally you can apply the final top coat for a smooth, even, durable finish.

But what if you still want the wood look, just not the worn finish and outdated style you have now? You can get it with a little more work. In this case, you want to remove the doors and drawer fronts from your cabinets and replace them in the style and stained finish of your choice. Local cabinet shops can produce these for you, but there are also a number of national manufacturers that specialize in this that can be found on the Internet.

Once your doors and drawer fronts arrive, you will need to stain the exterior of your cabinets (the face frame and any other exposed areas) to match. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, and here again, there is a trick that will help.

Staining Cabinets to Match New Doors and Drawer Fronts

1. First use a random orbit sander or sanding block and 150-grit sandpaper to gently take off most of the existing finish. As you get below the clear lacquer coating, be careful not to take much wood.
2. Now switch to 220 grit sandpaper and get the wood to look as uniform in color as possible without rounding over the edges of the wood or creating depressions in the surface. Don't be concerned if all the stain isn't completely removed.
3. Next, take the interior wood stain that your paint dealer has helped you match to the new doors and drawer fronts and mix it with a satin polyurethane varnish finish in a separate container. Using this formulation will allow you to "overstain" the existing wood. If the color isn't quite dark enough after the first coat, you can mix in the stain a bit more heavily for the second coat. If the color is about right after the first coat, then just add a second and third coat of the polyurethane without any stain in it.
4. To get the smooth finish you expect on cabinets, make sure and sand lightly with 220-grit sandpaper in between coats and use a tack rag to get every bit of dust from the surface before picking up a paint brush again.

Buttons and Bows

The final touch that will make your cabinets appear new is replacing existing hardware. In all cases you will want to replace door and drawer knobs or pulls, but you may also want to replace hinges. Both hinges and pulls come in a variety of different configurations and sizes, so if you're shopping for pulls at a home center or a kitchen and bath showroom in your community, take an example of each with you (this includes the screw from both a drawer pull and a door pull, which vary in length depending on the thickness of the material they penetrate). Another good source for cabinet hardware is the Internet, which has a huge variety of traditional, contemporary, and whimsical examples. The best advice for the process of choosing: Take a chance on something distinctive (shape, color, material), while also making sure the pull relates to something else in the kitchen (the same metal finish as the appliances or a color common in the kitchen) and that it is comfortable in the hand.

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