Tips and Ideas : How to Update Oak / Wood Cabinets



How To Update Oak or Wood Cabinets.

(While there are details specific to Oak Cabinets on this post, most of the information applies to any type of wood or laminate cabinet)

 Oak Cabinets – you either love them (if you’re a man) or you hate them (if you’re a woman).  And yes, I’m labelling here, but it seems that I come across the same gender divides again and again when it comes to Decorating.

Here’s the great thing about Oak Cabinets – they are solid wood (not the interiors necessarily, but the doors atleast).  In particular, the 1980’s / 90’s oak cabinets are great because unlike today’s wood cabinets, they have stood (is that even a word?) the test of time and only after 30 years of wear and tear do they need some love.

how to update oak or wood cabinets by painted black or white or gray

Which brings us to this post – How to Update Oak / Wood Cabinets.  When it comes to wood ‘things’ I usually defer back to my favourite saying ‘Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good’.  This means that while it might be solid wood, if it’s ugly and/or worn out, it’s not adding value (emotional or monetary) to your home.


So, let’s talk about some solutions…

#1 – Stain

This post is about ‘Updating’ your Oak Cabinets – not about bringing them back to their former glory (or lack thereof).  Therefor, when I mention Stain it’s only because it is an option (and for some people it might be the only option they will consider).

So, if you are truly wanting to ‘Update’ – then don’t re-stain.  It’s not the stain that’s outdated it’s the fact that oak has so much grain which is simply not a look that most people are looking for when they want an updated and modernized space – regardless of stain colour.


However if you’re going to be a stubborn ole bugger….

Consider these things before you restain your Oak / Wood Cabinets

  • Do they have a cathedral top or is it a basic raised panel?  The raised panel is great as the look transitions to modern styles quite easily.  The cathedral top is not…modern.  Even if you decide to re-stain your cabinets a lovely tone, they will still look outdated as it’s the ‘style’ that is dated – and it’s not coming back anytime soon – I’m such a cow sometimes.

how to update oak or wood cabinets cathedral or raised panel

  • Are you wanting to stain them a lighter colour than they currently are?  Lots of work.
  • Are you wanting to stain them a darker colour?  Still lots of work, but it’s easier than going lighter.
  • Stay away from the yellow, orange and red tones as they will not look updated – they will look fresh and fancy and awesome - if you still live in 1980.
  • Stick with medium/darker stains that don’t have dominant undertones.
  • If you want to do it properly you will need to sand them down entirely.  If you want to play around you can try Gel Stain which ‘can’ go over existing stains (it’s oil based and I find it easier to use than most water based stains, however even professionals have a hard time getting a consistent and quality look.
stained oak cabinets
Before and After:  Does it look nice? Of course it looks ‘nice’ – it’s just not ‘Updated’ – which really is the whole point in doing all the darned labour


I’d love to give you a how-to on Staining Oak Cabinets, but I’d rather leave it to the pro’s….

House - (including Gel Stain details)

Refacing - (specific details for staining oak)



#2 – Hardware

More often than not, the 1980’s / 90’s Oak Cabinets don’t have hardware (handles or knobs).  While functionally it’s not a big deal because you can still open them, decoratively it’s like you’re missing the last piece of the puzzle.

oak cabinets painted chelsea gray by benjamin moore with mineral jet countertop and mosaic travertine tile backsplash before and after
My Kitchen: Before – no hardware and no paint. After – new hardware and paint…and countertop…and backsplash…and appliances. Just keep in mind that this whole kitchen remodel cost under $3500 for the whole shebang (find it under My Home)

And you can’t do just any hardware, you have to pick ‘the right’ hardware.

Craftsman Style hardware is great and works ESPECIALLY well with Oak Cabinets (Raised Panel).  For Cathedral style doors you’ll want to choose hardware that has slightly softer lines.


9 different styles of hardware to suit craftsman style cabinets

7 different hardware options for cathedral style cabinets

And please, avoid these ones…




#3 – Paint

You had to see this one coming…Painting your Oak Cabinets is a great way to update and modernize them.  Now ‘many’ men 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, ‘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?  Well it’s good for resale.  Generally speaking, Oak Cabinets appeal to those 70 and older.  If that is your target market then just 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) then 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 birthdate on your drivers license and yelling, ‘HONEY, SHE JUST CALLED ME YOUNG AND MODERN!)


But anyways…

There are 3 colours that I usually go to when I’m painting Oak Cabinets.

Colour 1 – The best white for painting cabinets – Benjamin Moore Cloud White

Colour 2 –  The best brown for painting cabinets – Benjamin Moore Willow

Colour 3 – The best grays for painting cabinets – Benjamin Moore Amherst Charcoal/Chelsea Gray

Why these colours?  Well they are neutral.  They are easy to coordinate things with (appliances and countertops) and they appeal to a wide variety of tastes.  If you choose a ‘colour’ you are awesome, but you are also taking the risk of a) getting tired of it faster and b) not appealing to as many people upon resale.  It’s easy to paint your walls – but paint your cabinets?  Not so easy.


Things to consider before picking a colour for your kitchen or bathroom cabinets

Appliance Colour

Contrast can look great in a kitchen when you’re dealing with countertops, cupboards and flooring.  However, when you’re transitioning from product to product ‘horizontally’ it’s best to keep things low contrast.

This means that if you have black appliances and you paint your cabinets white, you’ll create a high contrast look.  This will make your space look smaller and reduce the visual flow as there’s more ‘stop and start’ when your eye travels around the room.  The same applies if you have white appliances and paint your cabinets a mid-toned / darker colour.

In 99% of cases, if you have black appliances, you are best off going with mid-toned or dark painted cabinets – this will create low contrast.  If you absolutely INSIST on having white cabinets with your black appliances then you really need to have dark or black countertops as they will help to provide a visual link to your appliances.  If you have white appliances then you will want to stick with Cloud White / White cabinets.  If you have stainless steel appliances you have the flexibility of going either way – just keep in mind that if your stainless steel has a lot of black detailing, this will contrast with White cabinets, so be sure to check out your details.

Matching / Coordinating Cabinet Paint Colours with Appliances

Black Appliances - Black, brown or Gray paint

White or Bisque / Almond Appliances – White paint (or off-white)

Stainless Steel Appliances – Dark or Light Paint – basically anything goes!


stainless steel appliances with white appliances how to match paint colour

The white cabinets with stainless steel appliances looks great in this space.  Courtesy of Remodelaholic 


dark cabinets white appliances how to pick a paint colour to coordinate

While I LOVE the colour of these cabinets, it’s a high contrast palette which really just takes away from the whole look as each thing acts separate from the other and don’t look like they are at all decoratively related.


Hinge Style

If you have exposed hinges you will want to consider your paint colour very carefully.  If you are going for a more rustic or country look then you can easily paint your cabinets Cloud White as your hinges will show up more on the white which can add to the look you are going for.

If you are going for a more modern and updated approach then you will want to stick with one of the darker paint colours.  Generally speaking, exposed hinges aren’t great to look at in an updated space and will instantly expose the fact that you painted your outdated cabinets.  The darker paint will help to camouflage your hinges (whether they are nickel, black, brass or oil rubbed)

Exposed Hinges: Darker paint colour to help camouflage the hinges (unless you’re going country)

Hidden Hinges: Light or Dark paint colour



Some Before and After Photos with Tips

oak bathroom cabinets painted black or dark gray with white countertops

Courtesy of Two Delighted - love some of the shots on her site!

You could get this look using Black or Kendall Charcoal


painted oak kitchen cabinets black and white 2 colours or 2 toned before and after images

Courtesy of Southern Hospitality - love these before and after’s of Kristin’s kitchen – it makes me wish I had an island to paint a different colour!

You would get this look using Cloud White and straight-up Black!


how to update oak cabinets with paint amherst charcoal painted

 We did this oak cabinet makeover in my clients main bathroom.  The vanity was wedged between 2 walls and the alternative was custom-ordering a piece that fit the space perfectly – not worth the cost when you see what a few coats of paint and some hardware did to that old oak vanity!

We got this look using Benjamin Moore Chelsea Gray.


Kitchen oak cabinets painted white with butcher block countertop and oak flooring

Courtesy of Jennifer Rizzo and her great blog – Oh how do I love the before and after shots of this project?  SO MUCH!

You would get this look using Benjamin Moore Cloud White


oak bathroom vanity cabinet painted navy blue by i heart organizing

Courtesy of I Heart Organizing - I love this gal and her style!


oak painted kitchen cabinets painted white with blue walls before and after

Courtesy of Liluna – I love the graphic shower curtain and how it ties into the mirror frame and artwork. (Cloud White)


how to update oak painted oak kitchen cabinets chelsea gray before and after

And of course my own kitchen.  Courtesy of ma-self.  (Chelsea Gray or Amherst Gray for this look)



#4 – Crown Moulding and a Valance – On Your Cabinets

I’ve chatted about this before and it’s a GREAT way to update your cabinets.  This idea takes your cabinets from looking like builder basic cabinets – to custom made.


crown molding on kitchen cabinets how to update oak cabinets

This photo shows Crown Moulding on cabinets.  The Valance is the strip of wood (approx. 3″) that is attached to the bottom part of your upper cabinets – where you would hang under cabinet lighting.  It increases the visual height of your Cabinets, gives them a custom profile and gives you the opportunity to hide under-cabinet lighting.

While it’s not easy-peasy to do, it’s still manageable for the average homeowner or a semi-capable handyman.

Read more about Crown Mouldings and Valances for your kitchen cabinets on this post (cost/details)…

How to Update your Kitchen on a Budget



Other Things to Consider When Updating Your Kitchen Cabinets

  • Sheen level.  The shinier your paint / varathane is – the more the grain of your oak will show.  While you want it to wipeable, you also want to avoid seeing your reflection in it.  If you have cabinets that have little to no grain, then sheen isn’t as much of an issue.

Refer to this post for some ideas on types/brands of paint as well as finishes – How to Paint Wood Furniture and Cabinets

  • If you have exposed hinges make sure that the finish of them matches your hardware – no mix and match hardware finishes allowed!
  • Polished nickel and black are the most popular hardware finishes
  • If you currently have knobs on your cabinet doors, consider drilling an extra hole and installing handles instead
  • Your cabinet hardware in your kitchen should also coordinate with the metal finish on any light fixtures


If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider subscribing (it’s free!) for quasi-weekly udpates!

You might also enjoy reading these posts…

The Right Height to Hang Artwork and Mirrors

kitchen cabinets painted amherst gray and cloud white

How to Update Your Kitchen on a Budget


Thanks for visiting my site and Happy Decorating!



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Kylie M Interiors    Affordable Interior Decorating, Interior Design Ideas and Online Consulting in Nanaimo B.C.




Legal Notice:    All the information and Kylie M Interiors watermarked images are the property of Kylie M Interiors, all rights reserved.  Please just ask if you would like to borrow any of my images (with full credit) and I’m sure that I’ll be happy to oblige!
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  1. Briana says

    Great post, I wish I could add a photo of my oak oak and more oak kitchen for everyone to see :). (You’ve seen it before when you were here!). Cathedral style, exposed hinges, black appliances…

  2. says

    I live in Kentucky but am interested in getting your professional help for my kitchen! How would that work?
    I enjoy reading your articles-they inspire me!

  3. Maija says

    I love your ideas when it comes to oak cabinets. I have an open concept kitchen, dining room, living room area with oak cabinets, oak trim around the windows and doors, and oak mantel around the fireplace. If you paint the cabinets, do you paint all that other oak stuff as well?

    • says

      Thank you Maija! Nope, you definitely don’t need to do that! However, if it were my home and I was painting my cabinets, I’d probably look at painting my mantle as well. The mantle feels more like a ‘major’ items – like the cabinets, whereas the trimwork can be a bit more in the background. You might eventually paint it all out, but I think you could do it gradually and see how you feel!

  4. C.C. says

    LOVE this post! Definitely going to check out your online consulting!
    My question is: if my house’s crown moulding is a cream/vanilla color, do I have to paint the cabinets that color too (if I wanted to do white)? I am worried about it making the trim look dingy. Thoughts?

    • says

      Hiya, great question! (and I’m sorry for the delayed reply – I’ve been a bit back-logged!!). You don’t have to do white cabinets, but you will want to make sure that your cabinets have a slight yellow/vanilla undertone that matches the undertone of your trim. Basically, take your trim colour and have the paint store make it in a lighter version (20% is pretty normal). It’s only when undertones don’t match that things get wonky. White can be pretty ‘stark’ which can make it look cool in comparison to creamy trim. I hope that helps!!!

  5. Donna says

    I love this post on updating oak cabinets. It’s definitely time to do something about my early 90s white washed oak cabinets that are getting more and more pink with age. We updated our countertops a few years ago with a beautiful granite called Giallo Napoleon and that helped for a while. My walls are a pretty green by Ace Hardware called Olive Oil. My dilemma is this….the trim in my entire house is Porter Paints Super White Gloss, and I do not want to tackle redoing it. My kitchen chairs are a glazed, distressed off-white finish with a beautiful floral fabric with a slightly off-white background with florals in greens, browns, orange, amber, and my favorite turquoisey blue. There is also an old piece of furniture painted in this same blue color. The adjacent dining room has been updated with a beautiful pale blue gray called Smoky Candle. My question is what color to paint the cabinets. The trim is a very stark white and would not look good on the cabinets with the granite or the kitchen chairs. It works OK on the trim…don’t love it but don’t feel like changing the whole house either. I considered whether perhaps a very pale, almost white gray would work on the cabinets to flow with the dining room and pull in more of the blue tone that I love in a subtle way. Any suggestions?

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