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.
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 It’s not the stain that’s outdated it’s the fact that oak has so much grain which is simply not a look that most people are looking for when they want an updated and modernized space –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 Even if you decide to re-stain your cabinets a lovely tone, they will still look outdated as it’s the ‘style’ that is dated – and it’s not coming back anytime soon – I’m such a cow sometimes.
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.
I’d love to give you a how-to on Staining Oak Cabinets, but I’d rather leave it to the pro’s….
House Painting.com - (including Gel Stain details)
Refacing Cabinet.com - (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.
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.
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!)
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
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!
The white cabinets with stainless steel appliances looks great in this space. Courtesy of Remodelaholic
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.
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
Courtesy of Two Delighted - love some of the shots on her site!
You could get this look using Black or Kendall Charcoal
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!
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.
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
Courtesy of I Heart Organizing - I love this gal and her style!
#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.
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)…
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
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