Kitchen cabinets are put through a lot of stress, especially if they're under the sink or refrigerator and they're made from materials like MDF and particle board which don't tend to be super strong. Water from your sink and moisture in the air can lead to water damaged cabinets that look a bit worse for wear.
Water damaged cabinets will often become swollen, causing paint to chip off or laminate to bubble up and ruin the finish. You might even notice that a laminate surface starts to pop off completely due to water damage inside your cabinets.
However water damaged kitchen cabinets affect your kitchen, you need to repair them as soon as possible before the damage gets any worse. Wood can survive a certain amount of water damage, but the team at Kitchen Infinity can definitely tell you from experience the cabinets can also reach a point of no return where they become unsaveable.
Here we're going to look at the best way to repair kitchen cabinets that are water damaged, as well as discuss possible ways to protect your cabinets from water problems going forward.
Let's get to it!
9 Steps For Repairing Kitchen Cabinets After Water Damage
Now, these are general steps that can be broadly applied to most situations for most cabinet door materials and styles. Obviously, you need to use some common sense regarding the level of water damage and how feasible it is to save your cabinets from water damage.
These 9 steps should work fine to repair water damage off of cabinets made from MDF, particle board, plywood, and many other materials.
So, how do you repair water damaged wood cabinets?
1. Prepare the cabinets for repair
First things first, you need to prepare the cabinets for the work you're going to do.
You need to remove the cabinet door from its hinges and place it on a work surface which is safe and protected for tools/paint. Preferably move it to a garage/shed and put dropcloths around to catch paint.
Depending on the severity of the water damage, you may want to remove the hinges, door handles, and any other pieces of hardware from the cabinet door. You may find that this makes the process easier regardless of the water damage level.
Make sure that the doors are dry before you start working on them – they cannot be recently water damaged. Take them off a couple days before you plan to repair them if necessary.
2. Use a shellac-based primer on the wood
Easy to find in most hardware stores, shellac-based primers are designed to help repair small blemishes and damage in wooden furniture such as our cabinets.
Shellac-based primer normally comes in a spray bottle for easy application over damaged areas. Apply 1 or 2 coats of this product over damaged areas to help even out the surface of your cabinet door.
The great thing about shellac-based primer is that you can put any kind of paint over it. This primer is going to help even out the surface of the wood but also allow your paint to stick to it really well.
3. Apply plastic wood filler if necessary
If there are larger areas of damage on your kitchen cabinets, you may like to use plastic wood filler to help seal them up and repair the water damage. Particle board tends to get more bumps than MDF so if you have particle board cabinets, do this step thoroughly.
Personally, I like to apply the plastic wood filler straight from the tube into affected areas and then smooth it over with a small putty knife. Obviously the amount you use and the technique you use to apply it will depend on the situation you've got in front of you.
Make sure that you get the surface of your cabinets nice and flat (or as flat as possible!) before the next step.
4. Get sanding that cabinet door!
Now it's time to start sanding!
Kitchen cabinets repair often involves sanding at some stage, and this is no exception! Water damaged cabinets need sanding down so that the surface of the wood appears even once again, without any bubbling or swollen areas.
I like to use 120-grit sandpaper, though any similar coarse grit should be okay. Some people do this step by hand, but I find that it's much easier to use an electric sander for this step.
You should ideally use a high-quality electric sander made by a reputable home design company.
Be careful not to sand the wood too much – you're probably going to repeat the process, so the cabinets shouldn't look as good as new straight away. Just make sure it looks smoother and less damaged after you sand it down.
5. Repeat the previous steps if necessary
If your cabinet are really badly affected by water damage, you should consider repeating the previous steps 1 or 2 times over until the repair work is adequate.
You may want to reuse the shellac primer, the plastic wood filler, and the sanding process depending on how damaged the cabinet door actually is.
Use your best judgment or ask a friend who's good at home DIY if you're not sure! Repeat steps 2 to 4 until the wood is looking flat and relatively smooth.
Don't worry about the color at this point – focus on the wood repair itself.
6. Start painting your kitchen cabinet!
Once the water damage is barely visible and the cabinet door looks very flat and smooth, it's time to start painting it back to how it was.
Use the same type of paint that you used for the original cabinet design. The shellac primer will help the paint to adhere to the wood nice and easily.
If you're working with larger a cabinet door, you may want to use a paint roller for the process, finishing off any minor details with a small paintbrush. Some people also like to use paintbrushes for the whole thing – it depends on your preference and skill level with painting.
You probably want to paint over the entire cabinet door (not just the water damaged areas) otherwise the paint will look patchy and uneven.
Once you've finished painting, leave the cabinet door to dry for however long is necessary according to the type of paint you've used. Bear in mind that oil-based wood paints can take several hours to dry in between coats, so allow as much time as you'll need.
7. Sand the painted cabinet doors down
You'll find that you're very good at sanding after this repair job!
Yep, once the paint is dry, sand it down again with a finer sandpaper. The goal here isn't to flatten or reshape the wood – it's to make the finish of the paint appear more seamless. The sanding also creates small holes and grooves in the cabinet door surface which helps future coats of paint to adhere properly.
I use 220-grit sandpaper for this part of the repair process.
You can sand the painted wood by hand or use an electric sander once again. However, I would recommend sanding this step by hand because you need to be more careful and preserve the paint job.
8. Apply a final coat of paint and sand it down again
Now apply a final coat of paint, allow it dry, and gently sand it down again with fine 220-grit sandpaper or similar. You might want to repeat the process 1 or 2 more times depending on how your cabinet door is looking.
At this point, no water damage or paint chipping should be visible. The cabinet door should look as good as new. The repair is almost complete!
9. Apply a water-proofing varnish or seal
If you want to really repair water damaged kitchen cabinets and stop the problem from coming back, I would suggest applying a final topcoat or clear coat to help keep the water out going forward.
You can find various waterproof seals, clear coats, and varnishes for wooden kitchen cabinets. Make sure you find one that is suitable for the type of wood you're working on and the type of paint that you've been using.
Also be aware of the clear coat's finish. For instance, if you're going for a flat matte paint finish, you want a clear coat that will not look glossy when it dries.
Waterproof paints and varnishes won't make your cabinets impervious to water, but they will make it much more difficult for future moisture to penetrate the wood.
How Do I Protect My Kitchen Cabinets From Water?
Once you've got your kitchen cabinets repaired, you want to keep them safe from future damage. After all, it's better to protect your cabinets than constantly repair them. There are 5 main ways to do this:
1. Get them laminated
You may have heard of laminated kitchen cabinets. This is when your wood cabinets and frames have a layer of “laminate” over them which protects them from water damage.
This laminate layer is a smooth, shiny applique which may be made from plastic or a similar water-resistant material. Laminated kitchen cabinets are not waterproof, but this smooth outer layer can stop water droplets from penetrating the wooden core of your cabinet doors.
Laminated kitchen cabinets are usually on the glossy side, though it is possible to paint laminate kitchen cabinets so they match your intended kitchen style.
2. Use a water-proofing varnish, seal, or clear coat
You can find various clear coats for your kitchen cabinets that help to keep them waterproof. This way, you can stop your kitchen cabinets from absorbing water easily, even if they're made from cheap wood.
Waterproof seals, varnishes, and clear coats come in various formulas and are applicable to different types of kitchen cabinet door, depending on the type of wood and the paint used.
If you find a waterproofing clear coat, just ensure that the finish (i.e. glossy, matte, satin) matches the finish that you're going for with your new kitchen cabinet design.
3. Get a deeper style of sink
If you keep dripping water all down your kitchen cabinet doors, you might find it's time to change the design of your kitchen.
For instance, do you need a deeper style of sink so that water doesn't splash out so easily? Perhaps you need a better seal around the edges of the sink to stop the water from leaking out.
Changing your sink style could stop water spillages from happening altogether. Prevention is better than repair!
4. Try new countertop edges
You might also want to change the design of your countertop edges. You might not think about it, but the way that your countertop edges are designed can significantly impact the likelihood of water dripping into your cabinets and ruining them.
For example, kitchen countertops with a bullnose edge (i.e. an edge that curves all the way around) tend to carry water spillages over the edge and drip them into the cabinets below.
On the other hand, beveled edges on your kitchen countertops tend to make spillages drip down straight onto the floor, missing the cabinets entirely.
If you find that your home is prone to cabinet damage, a square edge or beveled edge countertop is a great solution if you don't have small children to worry about (the edges can be sharp!)
5. Get better ventilation or dehumidification
If you find that your problems are caused by moisture, you may find that you want to invest in better ventilation for your kitchen. For instance, if you boil a lot of water or do a lot of cooking that produces steam, you need to help that steam get out of your home.
It's not rocket science.
The obvious solution is to open your windows to help the moisture and steam escape, but you might also want to consider products such as kitchen extractor fans and dehumidifiers to help soak up excess moisture in the air which is ruining your precious cabinets!
Open windows can only do so much.
The Bottom Line
It's not super easy to repair your kitchen cabinets, but it is definitely possible if you're willing to put in the necessary time, effort, and materials. Depending on the type of paint you're using and the severity of the project, it can take anywhere from a few hours to several days to repair your wet cabinets, so keep this in mind.
Personally, I find that it's best to keep your cabinetry protected from future spills by investing in deep sinks, good sealing, and counter edges which help spills to roll off the end and straight onto the floor. Whether you're repairing existing issues or safeguarding against future moisture, I hope that your repair job goes well.
Remember to stay safe, take all the time you need, and keep repeating those steps until the cabinets look good as new!