Understanding the Basics of Cabinet Repair

Basic Cabinet Repair is one of the most common maintenance issues homeowners face. Through normal wear and tear, hinges, drawer slides, and other hardware will break down. Add to the normal wear issues, the fact that cheaper parts and materials are, increasingly used in newer homes and it's inevitable that every homeowner, at some point, will have a cabinet in need of repair. My goal here is to provide you with a basic understanding of the different types materials, construction methods, and repair techniques that are most common today, as well as the necessary tools and resources for replacement parts.

What Type of Cabinets Do I Have?

In residential construction, you generally have 2 choices. There are prefabricated (prefab), which are factory-built cabinets that come in generic sizes and shapes and can be mixed and matched to fit the needs of any room with filler and trim pieces to make up any differences. Many years ago, prefab cabinets were found in, mostly, lower end tract homes. Today, however, they're used frequently, even in higher end new homes. The other type of cabinets you'll find are custom built. As the name would imply, these are built specifically to fit your house. If your home is more than 30 years old, there's a good possibility you have custom cabinets. These days, due to the price, you'll only find them in higher end custom homes.


The ease or difficulty of repairing prefab cabinets depends, largely on their age. If they are fairly recent models (10 years or newer, replacement parts and units are likely available from the manufacturer. If they are older, it becomes hit and miss and you may have to get creative. There are many different brands and styles of prefabs and the prices and quality vary. The very low end or cheap ones are constructed completely from types of particle board or compressed board materials, which are basically pieces of shavings or sawdust that have been glued and pressed together. Many of the better ones have solid wood fronts and doors, but with a few exceptions, most all of the boxes or frames are still made from particle board. Eventually the particle board becomes a maintenance issue. With age and use it will begin to deteriorate and moisture will cause it to swell and will usually ruin it beyond repair. In kitchens and baths the frequent exposure to water can cause serious damage. The hinges and drawer slides on prefabs are usually among the cheapest of cabinet hardware and, consequently, tend to wear out, causing doors and drawers to drag and wobble. As I mentioned earlier, if the cabinets are fairly new, it shouldn't be to hard to find replacement parts if you know what you're looking for.


Custom built cabinets present a completely different set of issues and repairs than prefabs. They usually consist of plywood boxes with solid wood or plywood fronts. They may be built on site or in a shop, but are fitted for a specific house and room. They are generally much more durable and long lasting. Repairs are, generally, easier because the materials, hardware, and trim are readily available. If the cabinets are painted, this simplifies things. However, if they're stained, you'll need to learn to recognize the different types of wood in order to properly match finishes. You'll find there are a lot more options and flexibility when dealing with custom cabinets.

Replacing Hinges and Drawer Guides

The most common cabinet repair issues involve faulty or worn out hinges and drawer guides. Fortunately, these are also some of the simplest repairs. The secret is knowing what part you need, where to find it, and, of course, understanding how it works. There are many types of hinges and drawer guides and many brands of each type. If you know which type you need, the different brands are often interchangeable.

Let's start with hinges. The first sign that you have a hinge problem will be problems with the opening and closing of the door. It may begin to drag or stick or it may not close completely. This doesn't, necessarily mean you must replace it. Begin to asses the problem by checking the screws. Many times the screws, either in the door or in the cabinet will work their way loose and it's simply a matter of tightening them with a screwdriver. Just be careful not to over tighten and strip out the hole. This is why I recommend using an old fashioned screwdriver rather than a drill with a screwdriver bit. If you find that the holes have already been stripped and the screws will not tighten, this cabinet repair becomes a little trickier, but you do have a couple of options. First, try using a little larger screw. Remove one of the existing screws, take it to your local hardware store, and try to find one that is slightly larger in diameter. You should try to find the next size because if it's too big, it won't fit through the hole in the hinge. Try slowly starting the screw into the hole by hand using a screwdriver. If the hole hasn't been bored out too much, you may be able re-thread it with the larger screw. You will know if this is working, if you feel the screw begin to tighten. Just be careful not to apply too much pressure and strip the hole again. If using the larger screw doesn't work, you still have one option left. Remove the door from the cabinet and remove the hinge. Using a sharp knife, cut some small slivers of wood, roughly, the size of the holes in the cabinet or door. Pine is a good wood to use for this because it's soft, cuts easily, and is regularly available at lumber yards and home improvement stores. Insert the slivers into any holes that were found to be stripped out. It should fit very tight and if you need to lightly tap it with a hammer, that's even better. Don't worry if it's too long. Just use a knife or chisel to cut the excess off flush with the door or cabinet. Once you've filled all of the holes, Put the hinge back in place and use a screwdriver to restart the screws. The wood sliver should give the screw something to grab to and tighten. If this doesn't work the first time, start over and try again. Many types of hinges are adjustable; either from side to side, up and down, of both. Sometimes, after years of use, they will work their way out of alignment and need to be adjusted. This is a very simple cabinet repair procedure if you know what you're dealing with.
Troubleshooting drawer guides is similar, in some ways, to the process I described about hinges. You may begin to notice that the drawer rubs or drags when opening and closing it or that it wobbles from side to side. Again, the place to begin with this cabinet repair is in checking the screws. The difference is that, with drawer guides, there are 2 components. One piece attached to the drawer, the other to the cabinet. The piece attached to the cabinet will, usually attach at the face and at the back. It's important to check the screws in both places. The most common drawer guides are mounted to the side of the drawer. However, the are a few types that are bottom mounted (most common in prefab cabinets). Side mounted guides are usually adjustable up and down. If the screws work loose the drawer will drop down and begin to drag when opened and closed. To adjust it, simply push up slightly and tighten the screw. Just keep in mind, if you go up too much, it may drag at the top. The same techniques for working with the screws, that we talked about earlier, can be used. However, depending on the type of guide you have, a larger screw may protrude too much from the side of the drawer and prevent proper operation.

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