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Restoring Vintage Kitchen Cabinets

How to Refinish Period Functional Cabinetry Made of Solid Wood and Hide Glue Rather than Particle Board

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A vintage kitchen

Your kitchen’s look is shown off by its cabinet design more than any other element. To give your kitchen a cozy historical atmosphere, don’t use modern built-in style cabinets; remodel with vintage kitchen cabinets. Their signature was an unfitted character, a mixture of pieces with different finishes.

Remodeling with Vintage Kitchen Cabinets

Why remodel or restore your kitchen ? Kitchen remodeling adds a great deal of equity to your home.

If your kitchen has vintage cabinets already, you’ve got a head start. But if you need to refinish them, remember: wooden cabinets have a tendency to warp when they’re stripped. Try working on an inconspicuous door first. If you happen to have metal kitchen cabinets, they can safely be stripped and buffed, followed by an application of lacquer. This will prevent them from rusting.

The cabinet drawers might need to be tightened up. Most cabinets were assembled with hide glue and it has a life span. The joinery technique is most likely dovetail joints or box (finger) joints.

Vintage Cabinets had Style

If you buy new, vintage-looking cabinets, acquaint yourself with the designs of the time period that you’re recreating. For instance, kitchens between 1880 and 1930 typically featured Shaker cabinets. These had box frame panels with no lip on the doors. Unlike today’s cabinets, with a base inset, vintage cabinets’ bases went straight to the floor.

Since the vintage kitchen cabinet served a different culture and time period, its design was a reflection of this. For instance, the top cabinets went all the way to the kitchen ceiling, the opposite of contemporary cabinets, built leaving the top of the cabinets open and free to harbor grease and dust.

Of course the upper shelves are hard to reach, but it made good sense because storage space was at a premium, as it remains today. Some vintage cabinets were very utilitarian for the day, such as tilt-out bins for bought-in-bulk bags of flour or sugar. Today, when these vintage kitchens are restored, clever uses for these bins have been devised, such as using them to store trash or pet food!

Clever, very Clever: California Coolers

Kitchen cabinet designers of the past built other clever specialty cabinets, like the aptly named California coolers (not to be confused with the wine drink!). This unit was a ventilated cabinet which incorporated either slatted or wire shelves.

These cabinets used the chimney effect to pull cooler air from either a crawlspace or the basement. It created an ideal storage area for items that did did better with cooler air circulation such as wine, potatoes, or onions.

Gather Around the Hoosier Cabinet

Known for combining form with function, many vintage kitchens sported a cabinet that doubled as an ironing board. These are often remodeled into spice racks. And then there was the Hoosier cabinet.

It served as a central unit for preparing the family's food. It featured containers for spices and sugar, a built-in flour sifter, storage compartments for utensils, and of course, a pull out work surface.

Hardwood Vintage Counter Tops

The most common counter top was was made of hardwood with a varnish finish. This served perfectly well in most of the vintage kitchen with the exception of the sink surround because water damage was a common issue.

Ceramic Tile Counter Tops Enter the Scene

Ceramic tile was the second most common choice for vintage counter top. Hexagonal white porcelain tile is most commonly encountered, but gray was also popular.

Starting around 1920, other compelling ceramic tile color combinations began to emerge, such as jadeite green with black, lavender with peach, and burgundy with yellow. But tile had two drawbacks — first, drinking glasses would break when dropped on it, and of course the grout is notorious for accumulating grime.

If you restore a vintage kitchen cabinet counter top, here are a few tips: replace the old grout with an epoxy grout, use a darker grout color, and apply a grout sealer annually.

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© 2008 all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission.