How to Repair Water Damaged Cabinet Doors? 10 Easy Steps

One of the main weaknesses of kitchen cabinets is their vulnerability to moisture. Whether they are made of solid wood, MDF, or plywood, you’ll have to deal with cabinet water damage sooner or later. In addition to the cosmetic damage, moisture can also soak into the material, swelling it and compromising the cabinet’s structural integrity. Considering the kitchen renovation costs, you may wonder how to repair water-damaged cabinet doors. 

The easiest way to repair water-damaged kitchen cabinets is by painting them with water- or solvent-based enamel. Applying a new laminate sheet could fix swollen particle board doors, or you could remove the existing laminate and sand and seal the cabinet door to repair a slightly swollen core.

How to Treat Water Damaged Kitchen Cabinets: 10 Easy to Follow Steps

Refinishing damaged cabinet doors is the easiest way to fix them. To do that, you will first have to remove the existing finish and treat the swollen part. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1 – Gather the necessary tools and materials

Refinishing your kitchen cabinet doors is a relatively simple process that you can do yourself. Start with gathering everything you need: 

  • Kitchen cabinet paint in the color and finish of your choice
  • Solvent-based primer
  • Waterproof seal or clear varnish
  • Sandpaper, 120- and 220-grit
  • Caulk or plastic wood filler or contact cement
  • Putty knife
  • Sander (optional)
  • Paintbrushes and rollers or a paint spray gun
  • Screwdriver 
  • Drop cloths
  • Protective equipment: face mask, goggles, rubber gloves

Step 2 – Remove and prepare the cabinet doors 

Refinishing water-damaged kitchen cabinets isn’t complicated, but removing the doors before starting will ease up the work.

Use a screwdriver to remove the hinges and place the doors on sawhorses. Remove the handles, and let the doors dry entirely before proceeding if the material is damp. 

This could take a day or two, depending on how severe the water damage is. If you don’t want to wait for so long, you could apply heat to speed up the process.

Step 3 – Fix any cracks and other visible damage

Water making its way into the material’s core can cause the different layers of kitchen cabinet doors to separate. Solid wood cabinets usually don’t have many layers that can separate, but the wood panels could crack.

It is essential to fix these damages before proceeding. Thus, use caulk or plastic wood filler to fill in any cracks and holes. Alternatively, glue the separated layers back together with contact cement.

When using contact cement, it is recommended to place a weight over the repaired area and let it sit for at least four hours before proceeding to the next step. If most of the door is swollen, detach the layers completely by gently pulling them apart and apply contact cement on the entire surface to ensure a good grip.

Step 4 – Sand the doors 

One of the most common mistakes DIYers make when repainting kitchen cabinets is skipping sanding. Sanding the surface is necessary to improve grip. So, grab a piece of coarse sandpaper (120-grit) and sand the door.

Start from a corner and work your way across the entire surface. On solid wood, always sand in the direction of the grain. You can speed up the process and reduce the effort by using a sander instead of sanding manually.

Step 5 – Prime the surface

Once the surface is even, use a vacuum cleaner or a dry microfiber cloth to remove all dust. Then, it’s time to prime the surface.

There are two major types of primers you could use: water-based and solvent-based. Solvent-based primers have a better flow and will deliver a better appearance, but keep in mind that the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they contain are toxic. Thus, it is essential to work in a well-ventilated space. 

Put on the protective equipment and apply a coat of primer with a brush. Let it dry completely before painting the surface. Solvent-based primer needs about 16-24 hours to dry. One coat is generally sufficient, but if the door is particularly damaged, you can apply a second coat and wait for it to dry before painting.

Alternatively, you could use a water-based primer. Water-based primers are more user-friendly and don’t have the same offensive odor as solvent-based products. However, the finish is not quite as smooth as the one obtained with a shellac product.

Step 6 – Apply the first coat of paint

After the primer has dried, proceed to apply the first coat of paint. Kitchen cabinet paints come in various colors and finishes and, like the primer, are available in water-based and solvent-based options. 

Solvent-based paints in a gloss finish are generally more resistant. However, you could also opt for water-based chalk paint or enamel. Use a brush or roller to apply a thin layer of product. Alternatively, you could use a paint spray gun to achieve a professional result. 

Let the first coat dry for about 16 hours if you’re painting with solvent-based paint or at least four hours in the case of a water-based product.

Step 7 – Sand again to level the surface 

You can skip this step if you’ve used a spray paint gun. However, brushes or rollers can leave unaesthetic marks that you should smooth out with sandpaper before applying the second coat. Sanding at this stage will also improve the second layer’s grip.

That said, this should be a light sanding done with fine sandpaper (220-grit). You can sand manually, but a sander will improve the finish quality.

Step 8 – Apply a second layer of paint

Using the same technique as above, apply a second coat of paint. If you’re painting the cabinets in their original color or using a darker shade to cover a lighter one, two coats of paint will usually cover all imperfections and provide a flawless look. 

However, you may have to apply three or four coats to achieve full coverage if you want to change the color from darker to lighter. If you have to apply more than two coats, leave the paint to dry between one coat and the other.

Step 9 – Seal the surface

Painting alone won’t prevent future water damage; that’s why you should finish the job with a coat of waterproof sealant or clear varnish. 

There are many sealants and topcoats suitable for various wood products, so make sure the one you choose suits the type of wood your cabinets are made of. For instance, you should use an MDF sealant if your cabinets are made of MDF, and so on.

Another thing you should know is that the best way to apply sealant is with a brush. This method will ensure full coverage (most topcoats are too thick to apply with a spray paint gun). 

Step 10 – Remount the cabinet doors

Once the topcoat is dry, use a screwdriver to mount the cabinet doors back in their places. Before you do that, you could also proceed to paint the interior of the cabinets. That’s it. You can now enjoy your beautiful kitchen once again.

How Does Water Damage Kitchen Cabinets?

Water can damage your kitchen cabinets in a number of ways. The most common damage is mold and mildew. When the cabinets are constantly damp, the moist environment creates the perfect conditions for mold and mildew to grow. 

Not only will these microorganisms leave unaesthetic stains, but they are also a risk for people with allergies.

Rot is another common problem. The first signs of damage are stains and discoloration, but you may also observe a fine powder covering the wood surface. Lastly, water can weaken the wood material and cause it to fall apart. 

5 Ways to Protect Kitchen Cabinets from Water Damage

While most kitchen cabinets will need some repairs sooner or later, there are ways to protect them from water damage.

1. Protect the area under the sink with laminate or vinyl tiles

The most problematic area on your kitchen cabinets is the one under the sink. You can protect this portion by installing vinyl tiles or laminate. 

2. Consider a linoleum countertop 

Linoleum is a flexible floor covering similar to vinyl sheets. The material is a type of plastic; it is fully waterproof and easy to install and maintain. Instead of replacing a worn-out countertop, you can consider covering it with linoleum for a quick and budget-friendly fix.

3. Seal everything 

An easy way to prevent water damage is by applying a coat of liquid polyurethane on all cabinet surfaces. Like linoleum, polyurethane is plastic and will become fully waterproof when it dries. 

4. Don’t neglect the backsplash

Silicone allows you to seal the area between the backsplash and the cabinets, preventing any spills and splashes from leaking in.

5. Install a leak sensor

Plumbing leaks may go undetected for periods of time; that’s why you should install a leak sensor under the kitchen cabinets. This device can help you fix any plumbing issues before they get to cause any damage.

MDF vs. Plywood: Know the Difference

MDF and plywood are two types of engineered wood commonly used for making kitchen cabinets. They are more robust and durable than particleboard, so they are found in higher-quality kitchens. However, they both have pros and cons. Let’s see how the two compare.


Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is obtained from broken-down hardwood and softwood composites. The fibers are pressed together, using a type of wax as a bonding agent. The surface is very smooth and perfect for painting. Alternatively, you can find MDF cabinets covered in melamine. MDF is relatively strong but not as strong as plywood.

Plywood is made by binding together three or more wood veneer sheets into one solid panel. The material competes with solid wood in strength.

Water resistance 

Plywood is more water-resistant than MDF and is susceptible to less damage. However, MDF cabinets with a melamine finish are virtually waterproof as long as the finish is intact. Once the water passes through, though, the material swells easily and is harder to fix than water-damaged plywood.

Plywood has good water resistance and is less likely to swell or rot if it is adequately sealed. The material doesn’t need a melamine cover, but you can keep it in good conditions for longer if you seal it with liquid polyurethane or a similar sealant.


Plywood has a more sophisticated look compared to MDF. The veneer sheets maintain the natural aspect of wood, making them a great option if you like solid wood cabinets but don’t quite afford them. You can paint plywood cabinets or use a clear or translucent stain to maintain the classic feel.

MDF has a plain look, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can paint it in a multitude of colors or cover it in laminate for a modern finish.

Installation ease

Driving fasteners through plywood is harder, but since it’s made up of layers, it holds the screws tightly and maintains its structural integrity for longer.

MDF is easier to fasten, but the fine fiber it is made of doesn’t hold the screws very well. The material can also suffer damages if not handled with care.


MDF is cheaper than plywood, a feature that makes it a preferred choice for those who look for kitchen cabinets on a budget. However, plywood looks better and lasts longer; thus, it is a smarter choice for the long run.


Repairing water-damaged cabinet doors is possible, but the process is long and tedious. The project will require several days, depending on how long it takes the wood to dry and what type of primer and paint product you use. The result is well worth the wait, though, and you won’t have to spend your hard-earned money to buy new kitchen cabinets.

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