6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (2024)

How to Modernize Your Outdated Wood Cabinets

Oak kitchen cabinets – you love ’em(if you’re a man) or hate ’em (if you’re a woman).And yes, I’m generalizing, but I encounter the same gender divides again and again, especially when helping clients update homes with wood finishes. However, it’s oak cabinets that are usually the divorce makers.

And while many designers can’t WAIT to get rid of oak cabinets, I’m a big fan. Sure, some of them need a complete overhaul, however many oak cabinets from the 1980s and 90s are solid gold. Not only do these workhorses stand the test of time in STYLING (those with hidden hinges & simple door profiles), but it’s only after 30-40 years of wear and tear that they need some love (kind of like me, wink wink). I’ve seen modern kitchen installations that have barely made it past five years.

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However, whether I look at wood cabinets, trims, or furniture, I often refer to my favorite saying…

‘Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good’.

This means that if your wood cabinets are fugly, worn out, or mismatched with other finishes, they won’t be adding value (emotional or monetary) to your home.

There’s a HECK of a lot of orange and pink going on here – and check out that wood grain!

QUICK SUMMARY: HOW TO UPDATE WOOD CABINETS

  1. SHOULD YOU PAINT OR STAIN YOUR CABINETS?
  2. HARDWARE UPDATE IDEAS
  3. ADDING CROWN MOLDING & MORE…
  4. WHAT DO DO WITH A BULKHEAD
  5. PAINTING YOUR CABINETS
  6. ADD OPEN SHELVING

But before we get into the guts n’ glory of this blog post, you need to figure out what style of cabinets you have…

CABINET DOOR PROFILES

Figuring out which door profile you have can help you make the best choices moving forward.

I know the top right isn’t oak, but it’s the best example of a flat panel with a shaker-style frame

TOP LEFT: shaker style with raised panel

TOP RIGHT: shaker style with flat panel

BOTTOM LEFT: double cathedral

BOTTOM RIGHT: single arch

Are your kitchen cabinets cathedral, arched, or shaker style? Shaker style is great as the look transitions to modern styles quite easily. On the other hand, a cathedral or arched style is difficult. Even if you decide to restain your cabinets a lovely finish, they might STILL look outdated as it’s the style that’s dated.

Now let’s talk about some solutions…

1. SHOULD YOU RESTAIN OR PAINT YOUR CABINETS?

This article is about ‘updating’ your oak cabinets, not about ‘returning them to their former glory’ – or lack thereof. Therefore, when I mention stain, it’s with the idea of changing and updating – not resurrecting.

RESURRECT: keep the old golden oak and refresh it with a fresh coat of golden oak stain and lacquer

UPDATE: add value to your home with cabinets that are modern and updated

While these next cabinets are GORGEOUS, the red stain isn’t an updated look. This isn’t to say they’re bad, they’re just not what you’d install today…

With their muted, more natural stain, these next cabinets are PERFECT as they are…

These cabinets add HUGE value as they look updated and are suited to the home!

If you want to update your home, restain with a darker, more modern stain color OR sand things down completely and opt for a lighter, more natural stain (no strong orange/yellow/red hues). Most home buyers (if you have resale in mind) are looking for the more subtle approach offered by the neutral warmth of a more natural wood tone. But truth be told, many of today’s buyers really want painted cabinets (usually white).

Sherwin Williams Iron Ore feature wall

5 THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE YOU RESTAIN YOUR WOOD CABINETS

  • Are you thinking of staining them a lighter color than they currently are? Lots of blood, sweat, and beers.
  • Or maybe you want to stain them a darker color? Much easier than going lighter, but it still some good labor to do it right (there is a ‘happy medium’ which we’ll talk about shortly).

  • Stay away from the strong yellow, orange, and red hues as they will not look updated unless you still live in 1990 (helloooo sponge paint!).

  • Choose a stain depth that best suits the surrounding finishes and potential target market (if selling is in your future).
  • If you want to refinish your cabinets properly, you’ll need to sand them down entirely. You can play around with Gel Stain, which ‘can’ go over existing stains. However, do your research about techniques as it’s not easy to get a consistent finish and the look can be ‘here for a good time, not a long time‘. This is because rather than penetrating the wood, Gel Stain sits on top of the existing finish – kind of like paint, but a bit different.

  • Consider which stain color/depth best suits your countertop, whether you like a higher-contrast or lower-contrast look.

If you’re not sure what to do, I have a link at the end of this blog post that takes you to a QUESTIONNAIRE that can help you find your home’s best answer!

2. UPDATE YOUR CABINET HARDWARE

More often than not, cabinets from the 80s and 90s don’t have hardware (handles or knobs). While functionally it’s not a big deal as you can still open them, decoratively it’s like you’re missing the last piece of the puzzle for a modern look.

Transitional style hardware is great and works ESPECIALLY well with cabinets with a shaker door profile. For cathedral-style doors, you’ll want to choose new hardware with slightly softer lines (#9, 10,12), nothing too tubular or sleek. If you want to learn more about what looks best, read PART 3: The Best Hardware to Update Wood Cabinets.

  1. Cup Pull – Black | 2. Bar Pull – Black | 3. Arch Pull – Black | 4. Cup Pull – Polished Nickel | 5. Bar Pull – Polished Nickel | 6. Arch Pull – Polish Nickel | 7. Cup Pull – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 8. Bar Pull – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 9. Center Bar Pull – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 10. Cup Pull – Brass | 11. Center Cup Pull – Brass | 12. Center Pull – Brass

Truth be told, I’m disillusioned about #8 as it’s quite the pocket-catcher (but you do you, boo).

And of course, there are always knobs…

  1. Classic Mushroom Knob – Black | 2. Mushroom Knob – Black | 3. Geometric Square Knob – Black | 4. Square Knob – Black | 5. Basic Mushroom Knob – Polished Nickel | 6. Mushroom Knob – Polished Nickel | 7. Round Knob – Polished Nickel | 8. Square Knob – Polished Nickel | 9. Mushroom Knob – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 10. Basic Mushroom Knob – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 11. Detailed Mushroom Knob – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 12. T-Bar Knob – Oil Rubbed Bronze | 13. Mushroom Knob – Brass | 14. Simple Mushroom Knob – Brass | 15. Square Knob – Brass | 16. Rectangle Knob – Brass

A FEW CONSIDERATIONS

  • If you opt for a square/rectangle knob (or number 12), you have to tighten them VERY WELL or you’ll constantly be straightening them – no biggie though.
  • Number 12 is a pocket-catcher.

If you want to learn more about picking the best hardware for your wood cabinets, check out The Best Hardware to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets.

3. ADD CROWN MOLDING & A VALANCE TO YOUR CABINETS

Crown molding isn’t just for ceilings!

Crown molding is the ‘crown’ that sits on top of your cabinets – not to be confused with the crown molding that attaches to your ceiling line. The valance is the strip of wood (approx. two to three inches) that’s attached to the bottom part of your upper cabinets. It increases the visual height of your cabinets, gives them a custom profile, and allows them to hide under-cabinet lighting.

These two features take your cabinets from looking like builder basic – to custom-made.

While adding crown molding and a valance isn’t easy-peasy to do, ESPECIALLY with older wood stains, it’s manageable for the average homeowner or a semi-capable handyman.

Get the that DESIGNERS hire!

Click HERE or on the above image to view available packages

Now, because 99% of my photos come from my Online Color clients and readers, I don’t always have JUST the image I need. In this case, I don’t have examples of wood cabinets for the inspirational ideas below. HOWEVER, the ideas are still fabulous!

4. FILL IN THE BULKHEAD ABOVE YOUR CABINETS

NOTHING makes basic cabinets look more custom than a filled-in bulkhead. And while you can do it with proper cabinets (ideally), you can also save a LOT of money and even DIY it with some well-placed MDF and decorative molding.

As some inspiration, my client (below) filled in her bulkhead and painted her honey oak cabinets, giving them a fresh new look…

Benjamin Moore Cloud White is on the cabinets

My next client did the same, although the look is a BIT more natural as the space between the cabinet/ceiling isn’t as tall…

Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray is on the cabinets.

As for this next kitchen, believe it or not, my client updated it for LESS than $4000 – bulkhead and all. She even hand-painted her Zellige-look tiles! While white subway tile is the most timeless look, this application suits the charm of this kitchen…

Not only did she paint the tile and cabinets herself, but she also found a piece of scrap marble countertop at her supplier for $100! She saved even more by keeping the original beige laminate countertop on the perimeter.

4 MORE Ideas to Update Wood Cabinets – WITHOUT A DROP OF PAINT!

5. ADD OPEN SHELVING BY REMOVING A CABINET OR TWO

Not every kitchen can handle open shelves, either decoratively or functionally, but if yours can, it’s a great way to open up and modernize your space.

When it comes to the above-mentioned ‘decoratively’, some layouts don’t suit open shelving – there’s no natural spot to put them. Other layouts, especially those with cabinets that sit between the kitchen sink and an open dining area, are great contenders.

Again, I don’t always have just the image I need when it comes to these creative ideas. However, this white kitchen is a great example of open shelving in the right spot with well-placed home decor

6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (15)

6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (16)

Now, with having WOOD cabinets, not white ones, you’ll want to get shelving in the same species as your cabinets and stain it the same color/sheen for things to flow.

My next client painted her wood cabinets Sherwin Williams Alabaster and added wood open shelving in place of upper cabinets in several areas…

6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (17)

6. PAINT YOUR CABINETS AN UPDATED, MODERN COLOR

For wood cabinets that have seen better days, paint is a GREAT way to update and modernize them. Many men (and some women) will say, ‘But it’s wood; YOU CAN’T PAINT WOOD!’ and this is where I hand them a scotch on the rocks and calmly repeat my previously mentioned mantra…

‘Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good.’

And they will still BE wood – they will just be painted wood.

WHY IS IT GOOD TO PAINT WOOD CABINETS?

Well, it’s good for resale. Generally speaking, traditional golden oak cabinets appeal to those 70 and older. If that’s your target market, then keep them stained and call it a day. However, if you’re looking to appeal to a younger and more modern crowd (69 years and younger), you’ll want to consider painting them.

I know your hubby is cursing my name right now and polishing his darts – and you’re checking the birth date on your driver’s license and yelling, ‘HONEY, SHE JUST CALLED ME YOUNG AND MODERN! But seriously, if you have resale in mind, you might want to put paint at the top of your to-do list (maybe even before new quartz countertops or a tile backsplash).

Ideas to Update Your 1980s Kitchen

See the FULL PROJECT HERE

To update the above kitchen, we chose a soft warm white for the upper cabinets, gorgeous medium-depth green for the lower cabinets, and Benjamin Moore Maritime White for the walls.

Undoubtedly, this next kitchen has MUCH more personality than it used to. And while this might not appeal to the masses, if you’re staying in your home, don’t be afraid to embrace a bit of COLOR!

The Best Green Paint Colors

These next cabinets didn’t have any redeeming features…

  • the stain is too dark and red and clashes with the flooring
  • the door profile is dated
  • the beige tile backsplash is super 1990s/2000s (update your 1990s kitchen HERE)

While my client opted for new doors, a subway tile backsplash, and white quartz countertops, she saved money by keeping the cabinet boxes and having them all painted the same beautiful white (Benjamin Moore White Dove)…

See the FULL REMODEL HERE

And HUGE thanks to all of my E-Design clients and readers who send in their after photos. I rely 99.9% on these and couldn’t do this blog without you!

You can also consider a happy medium by leaving some areas wood while painting others, as shown in this next beautiful kitchen…

Sherwin Williams Urbane Bronze on cabinets, Graystone walls

If you’re ready to paint ALL of your cabinets, I have endless blog posts, but here are some gooders to get you started: The 5 Best White Paint Colors for Cabinets / .

Still not sure whether to stain or paint your wood cabinets? Take the QUESTIONNAIRE!

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN UPDATING OAK OR WOOD CABINETS

SHEEN LEVEL

While you want your finish to be wipeable, you also want to avoid seeing your reflection in it. If you have cabinets with little to no grain, then sheen isn’t as much of an issue, but I’d still do satin/pearl regardless (read more HERE).

EXPOSED HINGES

If you have exposed hinges, make sure the finish of them matches your handles/knobs – no mix-and-match hardware finishes allowed!

HARDWARE FINISH

Polished nickel and black are the most popular hardware finish, hands down. However, learn which finish looks BEST on your wood cabinets HERE.

CONSIDER KNOBS ON THE DOORS, PULLS ON THE DRAWERS

If you currently have handles on your cabinet doors, consider filling in that hole and installing knobs instead. Using two different types of hardware on your cabinets creates a custom look (see hardware HERE).

The 20 Best Paint Colors to Go With Wood Cabinets or Trim

THE GRAIN OF YOUR WOOD (OAK IN PARTICULAR)

The shinier your paint finish is – the more the grain of your oak will show. If you can have them professionally sprayed, go for it. This will give you the best chance to reduce the amount of grain you see. While you CAN take the time to fill in the grain to get a more seamless approach, it’s a biiiig project.

6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (24)

This golden oak vanity has a super muted, rift-cut grain.

APPLIANCE COLOR

If you have white or black appliances, you’ll need to figure out which color makes the most sense regarding contrasting with the appliances (black appliances with white cabinets) or blending them in (white appliances with white cabinets). I can help! Black appliance owners HERE. White appliance owners HERE

THESE are some gorgeous wood cabinets!

Want more?

4 MORE Ideas: Update Your Wood Cabinets (PART 2)

The Best Hardware to Update Wood Cabinets (PART 3)

The 20 Best NEUTRAL Paint Colors to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets or Trim (PART 4)

The 12 Best Paint COLORS to Go With Oak or Wood (PART 5)

Not Sure Whether to Paint or Stain Your Cabinets – TAKE THIS QUESTIONNAIRE!

Ideas to Update Your 1980s Kitchen

How to Update Your 1990s Kitchen

6-PART SERIES: How to Update Your 2000s Home

Get the that DESIGNERS hire!

Originally written in 2016, awesomely updated in 2024

*This postmay contain affiliate links that I have carefully selected, meaning if you purchase an item or sign up for a service through a link in this post I may receive a commission.These programs are a big help to me to be able to maintain this blog. Thank you in advance if you find something you are interested in and choose to purchase with these providers.

6 Ideas: Update Your Oak or Wood Kitchen Cabinets (PART 1) (2024)
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