CAN YOU UPDATE WOOD CABINETS WITHOUT REPLACING THEM? HECK YES!
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?
1. UPDATE HARDWARE & LIGHT FIXTURES
I talked about hardware in this blog post, and today, I want to expand on those ideas with a few quick case studies…
BLACK HARDWARE ON WOOD CABINETS
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…
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…
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…
- 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 HARDWARE ON WOOD CABINETS
Polished nickel is in HOT second place to black, especially if you want a slightly more modern approach that coordinates with stainless appliances.
These next cabinets are gorgeous in their orange-red glory, but if it were MY home, here’s what I would do…
- 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.
ANTIQUE BRASS HARDWARE ON WOOD CABINETS
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 HARDWARE ON WOOD CABINETS
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.
GOLD OR BRASS HARDWARE ON WOOD CABINETS
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.
2. ADD GLASS TO FEATURE CABINET DOORS
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).
3. ADD A NEW BACKSPLASH
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…
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…
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.
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!
To finish this up, I would replace the yellowed phone jack and put something pretty in the open cabinet
This next kitchen is a great example…
- 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.
4. USE THE RIGHT HOME DECOR
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.
BLACK, WHITE, CREAM, BROWN, & GRAY HOME DECOR
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-COLOURED HOME DECOR IN KITCHENS
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.
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!
GREENERY IN KITCHENS
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)!
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…
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
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.
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.
Click HERE or on the above image to see available packages
5. PAINT…JUST A LITTLE
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.
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!
Not sure if you should even CONSIDER painting your cabinets? Take my fun QUESTIONNAIRE to see what your kitchen says!
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
PEOPLE ALSO ASK…
ARE HONEY OAK CABINETS COMING BACK IN STYLE IN 2023 & 2024
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!
Check out my E-Design and Online Color Consulting Packages
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 2018, FULLY UPDATED IN 2023