If your cabinets are in good structural shape and you like the existing layout, then you're a good candidate for refacing. Craftsmanship was better in the "old days," so most pre-1980 cabinets are probably better than anything you could find at your home renovation retailer. All they need is some DIY love and they'll be as good as new.
So what exactly is refacing? Good question with an easy answer -- refacing means replacing the doors, drawer fronts and hardware, and covering the sides and framework with stick-on veneer or glued-on plywood. What you get is a new-looking cabinet at about half the cost. You also avoid the mess and inconvenience of completely removing and replacing your cabinets. If this sounds good, let's move ahead:
Step one: Research your options. Look on the Internet to find the hundreds of companies that offer refacing materials. There are a lot to choose from, and it's safe to say that someone out there makes a cabinet door that fits your taste. The major home-improvement retail stores also sell these items special order -- there are far too many styles to keep in stock. In your research, determine whether or not you want to use plywood or a self-adhesive covering (SAC) for your end panels and frames. The plywood comes in precut pieces and is glued on the exposed sides of the cabinet box. The self-adhesive covering is a thin sheet of wood or woodlike laminate that's peeled and stuck or ironed onto the front of the cabinet frame.
Step two: Measure your cabinets. Once you've researched and decided the direction you'd like to go, you'll need accurate measurements to order your materials. Sketch out a rough drawing of your cabinet layout and label the different sections to help you keep everything in order. Measure the cabinet doors and drawer fronts with a tape measure and record your lengths and widths on your diagram.
Step three: Remove doors, drawer fronts and hardware. With a screwdriver, remove the cabinet doors, drawer fronts, hinges and hardware. If you plan to reuse the hinges and hardware save them with the screws for later. Next, lightly hand-sand all surfaces of the cabinet box and end panels. Use 150-grit sandpaper and never use a power sander -- it will dig in too much. Your goal is to simply scuff the surface somewhat to allow for better adhesion of the plywood or SAC. After you sand, use a tack cloth to clean the dust from the surface and then wash everything with some warm, soapy water. Tack cloth is basically just sticky gauze used to clean sanded surfaces and can be found in any hardware store.
In the next section, we'll get into the next step in your refacing journey.