HomeThe Best Paint ColoursBenjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams: Paint IdeasHow to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets WITHOUT a Drop of Paint (PART 2)

How to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets WITHOUT a Drop of Paint (PART 2)

Posted on May 9, 2023 by KylieMawdsley


I’m a huge fan of wood cabinets (especially oak). Unlike melamine, thermofoil, and veneers, wood cabinets are almost always SOLID wood. And with real solid wood comes real potential.

Potential for what, you might ask?

Firstly, the potential for ‘hard wood‘ jokes (always a personal fave). Secondly, there’s a lot of updating potential, regardless of the century your cabinets were installed in. For example…

  • an updated look via paint (which you can learn about HERE)
  • a fresh finish with a more modern stain

And while I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about painting/staining oak cabinets to update and add value, today we’ll talk about everything BUT that.

Are you ready, Betty?

Ideas to update wood oak, maple or cherry kitchen cabinets with backsplash, hardware, home decor and more. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color advice blogger


I talked about hardware in this blog post, and today, I want to expand on those ideas with a few quick case studies…


Black is HANDS-DOWN, the top choice for updating wood cabinets. However, if you have FULLY exposed hinges (in other words, it’s not just the little edge showing), it’s a hard no from this cowgirl. Exposed hinges, especially ones that are in high contrast to your wood finish, can look harsh and show the age of the cabinets (as modern cabinets have hidden hinges).

For the scale of these cabinet doors (below), I would love to see handles with a bit more thickness and fewer curves…

Update oak wood kitchen cabinets with quartz white countertop, subway tile and painted island. Ideas from Kylie M Interiors Edesign, paint color advice blogger

In the above photo, notice how the new white subway tile backsplash and updated countertop give NEW life to the original oak cabinets – MAD LOVE!

This next kitchen has ALL of my heart…

Kitchen with wood cabinets, wood floor and island, granite countertop, mosaic travertine stone backsplash, wood trim, Benjamin Moore Texas Leather walls.

Really, the only things I might change would be to find light fixtures that aren’t hanging on chains and maaaybe a subway tile backsplash in a muted neutral that matches the countertops. But even as-is, I love it.

While this next kitchen has all the original features (likely late 80s), the coordinated hardware and light fixtures help the space feel pulled together and purposefully designed. To REALLY update this space, here are a few ideas…

Oak cabinets, wood floor, oak wood trim, orange hue, black granite countertop, beige walls.

  • Paint the island a colour that complements the countertop and surrounding wood finishes – the red stain is a bit off.
  • If the pendants are staying, choose a chandelier with fewer curves. While the look suits the pendants, fewer curly cues would be better.
  • Even better, I’d love to see black hardware, modern pendants in a black finish, and a coordinating chandelier.
  • Brighten the walls with a modern beige paint colour.
  • Budget allowing, I’d LOVE to see a subway tile backsplash, which is one of the BEST ways to update a kitchen with oak cabinets and granite countertops.


Polished nickel is in HOT second place to black, especially if you want a slightly more modern approach that coordinates with stainless appliances.

Dark wood cabinets with modern granite or light quartz countertop.

These next cabinets are gorgeous in their orange-red glory, but if it were MY home, here’s what I would do…

Benjamin Moore California Redwood rust red paint colour, orange wood cabinets, yellow stain wood floor. black granite. Kylie M.

  • I’d paint the cabinets (sorry #notsorry). HOWEVER, it would hurt me as the wood IS so darn pretty (it’s just overwhelming with the floor).
  • But because painting wasn’t an option with this client, I’d put a rug on the floor (a washable one) to get a bit of a visual breather between the wood floor and the cabinets.
  • Try black hardware and see which is better (I don’t mind the polished nickel, but I am curious to see black).
  • Paint the walls so they don’t compete with the cabinets as much.
  • Add a subway tile backsplash.
  • Remove the single pendant.
  • Add a striking, larger piece of artwork on the wall beside the back door, creating a focal point.


If you’re looking for a low-contrast look, antique brass is a beautiful finish with oak cabinets, but it’s definitely tougher to pull off unless you have mad style (think Studio McGee) and the right cabinets (shaker style). The bonus is that most oak cabinets (if they have their original hardware) have hinges in this finish, so that’s one less thing to worry about.


Oil-rubbed bronze is another beautiful finish with wood cabinets but is usually better with oak than cherry or maple (depending on the stain colour).

However, of the four finishes, oil-rubbed bronze is usually the LEAST modern-looking.

To UPDATE this next kitchen without painting the cabinets, I would change the light fixtures for sure, going down to two slightly larger ones and capping off the middle one. I would also update the backsplash with a creamy beige subway tile.Travertine tile floor, black granite countertop, cream painted island, dark wood cabinets. Kylie M interiors edesign, client before photo


While gold and brass are POPULAR finishes these days, they aren’t always a hit with wood cabinets.


Gold/brass is usually a yellow-toned metal finish, and some cabinets are too orange/red-toned for this yellow-gold look. Aged brass (antique brass) is often a better fit, but both can be considerably more expensive than black or polished nickel.


Adding glass to a few key doors will relieve some of the visual weight of the wood and add reflective value to your kitchen (which is great if you have a dark kitchen and keep tidy cupboards). And of course, you could hire a cabinet company to do this for you, but with a bottle of wine and a saw, you might be AMAZED at what you can accomplish (it’s how I trim my toenails).

Ideas to update oak wood, maple or cherry kitchen cabinets with backsplash, hardware and more. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color advice blogger

Seriously though, want to know how? Confessions of a Serial DIY’er has a great ‘how-to’ as does my gal Tamara over at Provident Home Design.


Whether you have an outdated backsplash or none at all, adding a well-chosen tile will do WONDERS for your wood cabinets!

The most popular, timeless choice would be subway tile with either white grout or grout that coordinates to your wall colour/countertop. This works well when partnered with a neutral white, gray, or black countertop.

This next kitchen looks right on-trend with its cream subway tile backsplash and warm white walls…

wood kitchen before painting (2)

A few budget-friendly update ideas would be…

  • paint the pantry door a darker accent color
  • add a bit of interesting decor, like branches/leaves in the large vase
  • considering pendants with a fabric or solid white shade as they offer a softer light
  • find some upholstered stools in a darker fabric (dark green-gray would be pretty, as it would contrast the warm woods)

This next kitchen shows oak cabinets with exposed hinges…

Ideas to update oak kitchen cabinets with countertop, backsplash and hardware. white appliances. Kylie M Interiors E-design

My client took this photo mid-project, so excuse a few funny spots.

My client added a new countertop and white subway tile with contrasting grout to subtly jazz things up.

As shown in this next photo, you could also consider travertine. While travertine gets a bad rap, I’m a huge fan, and with the coming warm trends, you just might see it coming back! I also love the polished nickel hardware – a simple complement to the warm wood tones, whereas black would’ve created more contrast and been a bit harsh with the organic look of the travertine.

Ideas to update wood cabinets, oak, cherry or maple with new hardware and backsplash. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color advice and blog

This next photo shows how adding hardware, a modern countertop, and a new subway tile backsplash can lighten, brighten, and update wood cabinets. I know a LOT of you would paint these bad boys, but other than the exposed hinges, LOOK at the bone structure of these cabinets – gorgeous!

Ideas to update oak or wood kitchen cabinets. Greige subway tile quartz countertop. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color consulting

To finish this up, I would replace the yellowed phone jack and put something pretty in the open cabinet

6 Budget-Friendly Ideas to Update Your HOME

How to Create a Timeless Home – 4-Part Series

This next kitchen is a great example…

Ideas to update oak cabinets with marble backsplash and white quartz countertops

  • White quartz countertops.
  • Modern marble tile backsplash.
  • New black hardware.

And all of this was done without changing the cabinets or the original tile floor!

If I were to suggest one BIG thing, it would be to remove the wood valance over the sink. Valances like this cut back on the quality of light and date a space to the 80s.


Using unified home decor with a consistent colour palette can help update a kitchen or bathroom with oak cabinets. The more colors and metal finishes you add, the more cluttered it can make a room look.


Neutrals and simple, classic colors are a great way to update wood cabinets. Rather than contrasting the wood with a colour like blue or green, neutrals keep things simple and modern while still adding visual interest.


Copper is a beautiful complement to oak cabinets with its earthy, rich metal finish. Whether it’s canisters or small decorative pieces, adding copper can help to simplify and unify your cabinets and decor, as copper tends to have the same warm undertone as some oak finishes.


This next kitchen shows how the right furnishings finish a space. Wood stools would be overwhelming, considering all the wood already in this space.

Wood kitchen island cabinets, orange stain, wood floor,granite countertops, stainless steel, pendants, Benjamin Moore Texas Leather greige brown gray blend green

If I were to suggest a change, I might choose stools that are just a bit less fancy – still upholstered, but with more simple lines and no nailhead details (and seriously, I’m just being picky for the sake of showing you ideas/options) – this space really is beautiful. And the artwork? PERFECT!


Generally speaking, too much colour isn’t great for wood cabinets. However, adding some greenery and keeping things simple is a GREAT way to add energy to the room without overwhelming it.

While I might add a bit more decorative love to this next kitchen, the right bones are in place, and the photo shows how even a wink of green adds LIFE (this home was getting ready for staging, so it was kept simple)!

Open layout dining room, kitchen dark wood cabinets, tile wood look floor. Sherwin Williams Pure White. Paint color consulting Kylie M Interiors Edesign (13)

NEED HELP? Check out my ONLINE PAINT COLOR SERVICES – let me make it easy for you! 

I also believe that CLEARING THE CLUTTER is a great way to update wood cabinets. Simplify your space and let the products do the visual work for you. Wood cabinets (especially oak) have a grain that can add visual interest/clutter to a space.

Let’s look at this next photo…

Ideas to update oak wood, maple or cherry kitchen cabinets with backsplash, hardware and more. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color advice blogger

Although the simplicity is alright for home staging, I have a few suggestions that would respect the owner’s need for simplicity while adding a decorative touch…

  • add simple, repetitive decor pieces in those upper glass cabinets (i.e., coordinating bowls/vases/stacks of plates)
  • remove the knife holders as they’re hangry-looking
  • add a plant or two to complement the warm tones and add some energy! Even just one in the corner with the blender would make a BIG difference
  • use a nicer utensil holder with some stainless utensils
  • add a decorative soap dispenser

4 Tips for Picking the Best Subway Tile for Your Backsplash

In this next photo, while the backsplash diamond pattern isn’t terribly modern, the cabinets have great bones and a totally workable stain. If the countertops were cluttered, this space would have WAY less appeal. The use of greenery keeps the accessories in this room well-connected and complementary to the maple cabinets.

Dark wood kitchen cabinets and trim with travertine tile backsplash and warm granite. Sherwin Williams White Duck darkened on walls. Kylie M Interiors Edesign, online paint color advice blog

How to Update a 1990s Home

If the above owner wanted to take things a step further, they could consider the following:

  • Add a soft, warm, creamy white subway tile. White would be too stark with the flooring and countertop. I would do a soft, light beige-ish grout to define the tile layout.
  • Replace the pendant lights with clear glass ones that are slightly larger and more updated. I’d probably take it down to three lights and cap one.
  • Find upholstered stools to break up the wood a bit and add some softness and texture.

edesign, virtual paint colour consulting. Kylie M Interiors Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams color expert. marketing (10)

Click HERE or on the above image to see available packages


Okay, so I’m a big fat liar, I know – slap me with a wet noodle. However, this idea doesn’t involve painting ALL of your cabinets – just some of them, and it’s too good of an idea not to share!

By choosing a few key places to paint, you can give your kitchen an updated look and give the oak something to play off.

The 6 Best Paint Colours for Bathroom Vanities Are ALSO GREAT for Kitchen Islands! 

I’m in LOVE with this next kitchen with its cherry wood cabinets. And while this approach isn’t for the faint of heart, remember, sometimes wood needs something to PLAY with to come into its full glory!

kitchen with slate tile backsplash, black granite countertop, dark gray green painted hood fan and cherry wood cabinets. Kylie M Interiors

Not sure if you should even CONSIDER painting your cabinets? Take my fun QUESTIONNAIRE to see what your kitchen says!

Oak kitchen with wood cabinets, painted island, update ideas white quartz countertop and subway tile backsplash. Kylie M Interiors DIY paint color advice blogger

Of course, there are MANY different kitchen layouts, so it can be challenging to say, ‘Always paint these cabinets and leave these ones wood,’ but here are some ideas to get you going…

  • paint only the upper cabinets
  • paint only the lower cabinets
  • if you have a pantry-style cabinet in the kitchen, paint it as well as the uppers OR lowers
  • paint the island
  • if you have a unique range hood or desk area, paint it



This year, we’ve seen more wood cabinets, particularly white oak, emerge. In the coming years, expect to see more wood, even some mid-depth stains.

As for honey oak, in particular, it’s all about the grain and the stain. Some honey oak cabinets are muted; if they have a shaker or non-cathedral-style door, there are ways to update them.

However, some oak cabinets are heavily grained and have a strong yellow or orange stain on them, making it harder for them to look trendy or updated.

The cabinets in this next kitchen have GREAT bones, but in terms of being modern (if the homeowner were concerned about that), the strength of the orange stain is a bit strong. This being said, there are still ways to make cabinets like this work!

Accessible Beige with golden honey oak cabinets, wood exotic floor, Kylie M Online Paint Color consulting and update ideas

Want more?

5 Ideas to Update Oak Cabinets – (PART 1 in series)

Budget-Friendly Hardware to Update Wood Cabinets (PART 3)

The 16 Best Paint Colors to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets or Trim (PART 4)

The 16 Best Paint Colors to Coordinate with Wood

Should I Paint My Cabinets or Leave Them Stained? A Questionnaire

The 12 Best WHOLE HOME Gray & Greige Paint Colors

Need HELP?

Check out my E-Design and Online Color Consulting Packages 

Online paint colour consultant Benjamin Moore Sherwin Williams, Vancouver Island, USA, UK. Interior, exterior, edesign colors. Kylie M Interiors, blogger marketing

Kylie M Interiors Edecor and Edesign



  1. Thank you so much for these fantastic ideas! My family and I are house hunting right now and practically every house we look at has my least favorite kitchen design – oak cabinets with tile countertops! Ugh! I didn’t know what to do until I came across your site. Thank you again for giving me hope!

  2. I have replaced my upper cabinets with oak cottage white-the oak grain can be seen. I want to match my island which is oak/grain with antique white. But I want the grain of the oak to show through like my other cabinets. How do I do that?

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      Well, I’m thinking that if you just use a quality primer and paint that should do the trick! It actually takes some work to fill in the grain on oak (which is why most people don’t do it). You’ll also want to make sure that you use the same sheen level as you have on your other cabinets as the sheen can affect how the grain looks as well. Take one of the doors that is a bit more hidden and do a trial run (or go to a building recycling store and get a few doors to play with). This way you can get a feel for how things will look when they’re all done without getting too far ahead of yourself!

  3. Thank you! I thought I was doomed to wake up each morning and walk into my new home’s oak cabinet kitchen which I dislike to depression. You have given me so many useful ideas. I’m having fun incorporating most of your recommendations.

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  4. Can I start by saying that I’m a fan of my oak cabinets. They are made of solid wood and plywood…no particle board, no thin and cheap veneer! After thirty years they look as good as new, and stainless steel appliances and an off-white quartz countertop have brought them into the new century nicely. I love the mix of old and new! And I love the warm tone of the wood, I just can’t imagine painting it! Here’s the thing, if you chase kitchen trends, you will always be unhappy because, like clothing trends, they always change. Remember when everyone had to have cherry cabinets with darke granite counters? Exactly!

    1. I agree totally I have the same cabinet you talk about and we paid a pretty penny for them, I think I may and try to incorporate a few glass doors on the top cabinets. Doors with a semi-frost design and then update my hardware.

  5. Give me solid honey oak cabinets over fake wood, particle board or plastic thermofoil any day. You can stain them. Paint them, put in glass doors or leave them as they are now. A solid real wood cabinet stands the test of time…u like most others. Look for quality even if you just admire it as a base to work from.

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  6. Hi thank you for the ideas. I too have solid oak cathedral cabinets that we remodeled and installed in 1993 . There is a beautiful stain I saw that is light grayish color that allows the grain to show by Minwax. I think I’m going to sand down the sheen on my cabinets and stain them. It will be pretty I think, and add the knobs and pulls. Modern update without painting them a solid color. I love solid wood!

  7. Kylie, love this website! I have a love/hate relationship with all the oak in my home and especially the kitchen. I’m happy to know there is an expert who supports painting the island. I have been color paralyzed for 2 years for this makeover. What color suggestions do you have for painting it?

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  8. We have allot of counter space and could not afford to replace it so we chose to do a counter paint kit and absolutely love it. It was very easy. There are a few downsides though, the first being that it’s inconvenient not to be able to use your counter space for several days. You do have to be very careful not to set anything hot on it because it will take the finish off (we found that out the hard way). We do have a few nicks here and there after only a year but they are very easy to touch up.

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      Sweet, I love notes like this – thank you Kristin, I’m glad it turned out and I bet it was a FRACTION of the cost!

  9. Thank you for some ideas. My cabinets are exactly like Julia Blanner’s. What are your thoughts of adding cabinet black crown mounding with an oak inset, cabinet light rail in black and then black hardware? Counter tops would also have some black to tie all together. Your thoughts. Thanks.

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  10. I have a fairly large kitchen with lots of solid honey oak Shaker-style cabinets. The island is 12 feet long and has honey oak cabinets on both sides (the gas cooktop is in the island). There are 7 doors and 3 windows in the room that are all dark wood with dark wood trim. Additionally, the crown molding is dark wood. I don’t want to paint the cabinets but want to update the room. I’m thinking I can get a lighter and updated feel by lightening up the walls, doors, and trim. Do you think this is an acceptable first step? Any advice is most welcomed!

  11. Kylie, Love your website! Very helpful in many ways.
    I have medium oak kitchen cabinets (early american stain color) and colonial maple stained trim throughout the house. What are your thoughts on adding crown modeling to a kitchen for an updated look versus chair rail?
    I see many wood look floors in kitchens with oak cabinets. I have a dark kitchen, thinking all that brown wouldn’t help. Do you have any ideas for a lighter type flooring that would bring an updated look? Thanks for any thoughts you may have. 🙂

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      Hi Jill! Well, no matter what you do, I’d stay away from the chair rail (I mean, I haven’t seen your home, so this is just my general advice) as they can really date a space. White chair rails are 90s and wood ones harken a bit to the 80s. As for the crown, it can depend on how high your cabinets are, but I worry about it putting a bit of a cap on the room or weighing it down. As for the flooring, try one or two tones lighter, but make SURE you pick up the same brown tones – don’t add yellow/gray/orange/red to the mix!

      1. Thank you so much Kylie! I will rethink this. I hear wallpaper is coming back. Would something like that textured that goes with colonial maple stain or maybe just a painted focal wall?

  12. Kylie, love reading about stained real wood cabinets. I have shaker style birch cabinets stained in what I would call a fruitwood. They are from 2008 and in very good shape. But hating the dark granite and beige diamond backsplash. What color quartz would give a warm blend with cabinets? I love white quartz or white with gray, but is that too cold or stark for the stained cabinets?

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      Hi Peggy, I just LOVE the look of wood cabinets with white countertops. Warm gray makes me NERVOUS, it would depend on the one. As for white, if you do one with details/veining, find a bit of a warm veining. If you have access to Omnia quartz, check out Monterey :).

  13. I really appreciated this post! We retired and downsized to a smaller home. The kitchen was from the late 80’s or early 90’s. The cabinets are honey oak in the cathedral style, the countertops were tourquoise laminate, and the appliances were very old and black. I used so many of your ideas to give my kitchen a refresh, as the cabinets were in excellent condition. We put in a warm, white quartz countertop, marble subway tiles, new stainless appliances, oil rubbed bronze hardware, a patterned kitchen runner and updated lighting in a beautiful seaglass to reflect the feel of this coastal home. It now has a welcoming coastal, farmhouse feel! I love my kitchen now! Thanks for the advice!

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      Wow, Anne, this is JUST the type of email I love to get – and you know, I would SO love to see some photos (if you’re so inclined, if not, i TOTALLY understand). kylie@kylieminteriors.ca I don’t have NEARLY enough photos of beautiful wood kitchens with updates to show my readers :).

  14. Hi! My husband inherited his parents log cabin and so persuaded me to move from my beautifully sleek minimalist home in the UK to this wooden woody yellowy pine place that makes me feel like I’m stepping inside a Swedish sauna everytime I come home. The kitchen cabinets are (of course) wood. The walls are logs, the ceiling is wood panel and anything that’s not wood is still somehow, well…wooden. My husband thinks it’s amazing, all it really needs is a a deer head.
    But I don’t even know where to start. I hate it. We can’t afford to replace the kitchen cabinets. They’re solid but UGLY. I’d never seen hinges on the outside of a kitchen cabinet before I moved to the USA. I didn’t even realize that cabinets had hinges to be honest…
    I wondered what you would do with an 80’s log cabin and an ugly ass kitchen (with hinges) that wouldn’t involve painting all the logs white ( I can dream…) or moving house? Save me!

  15. Took your advice and painted some of our cabs, not all. Uppers white, lowers remaining knotty alder. Added hardware in champagne finish , diff faucet and replaced corian counters with quartz. We gave our mullet island a trim, and painted her a deep rich navy (SW naval). The dated arch in the uppers almost disappears with paint (SW alabaster). Thanks for all of the inspo!

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  16. Pingback: Light Or Dark Countertops With Oak Cabinets - Which To Choose? - Answered Queries

  17. That was a very interesting read and the one I was looking for. I have been wanting to save my kitchen oak cabinets. They surely look beautifully but don’t look modern at all. And the kitchen being the heart of every house I really want to update them without painting them. I also have a ugly blue colour laminate counter top and I am struggling to find budget friendly ways to update it or already change the colour. Is there any simple DIY project there.

  18. I spent a lot of time on your (fantastic!) website, looking for an inexpensive way to improve my oak kitchen. I had no idea that the existing pale green wall color was actually accentuating the honey oak cabinet color. After watching your videos, I decided to paint the walls Benjamin Moore Balboa Mist — a beautiful neutral color. Big improvement!

  19. Loved your article and all the beautiful pictures with oak cabinets. I am thinking about painting the island. My cabinets are a red oak. What color should I go with for the island? Should I used one of the wall colors you suggested or do you think they are too light and won’t ground it. I will be changing the floor tiles and counter soon so I can tie it in.

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      Hi Denise! It actually depends on your countertop/backsplash/flooring combo for your island colour! These are what you’ll want to tie in into. And while lighter colours can ‘sometimes’ work, it’s usually best to go darker, into the darker greens, greiges or navy blues! Check out SW Urbane Bronze, Cyberspace and Gauntlet Gray – see if any of those work with your finishes!

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