How to Update Wood or Oak Cabinets – is paint the MODERN answer?
I love oak cabinets. Crazy right? I know that 90% of you are cursing your 1990s oak, maple or cherry cabinets, while the remaining 10% love them and wouldn’t let a lick of paint go near them! And it’s not that I don’t understand both sides of the story, I do, having oak cabinets in our own home. HOWEVER, not ALL oak or wood cabinets are created equal.
Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good
While BOTH wood finishes are pretty, they don’t coordinate with each other
What does this mean? It means that just because your cabinets are solid wood, doesn’t mean they actually look good and here are a few reasons why…
- If they’re outdated in style or stain you won’t be doing the wood any justice. Overly orange, yellow, red or pickled (pink) wood cabinets can look outdated, especially if the rest of your home and its decorative choices don’t visually support them
- If you have TOO MUCH wood (ooooh the innuendos) it’s not always a good thing as one can easily dull the beauty of another (if they’re not carefully coordinated).
- If you’ve updated your wood flooring or cabinets and they don’t coordinate with each other (above), you’ll visually devalue both of them.
The after photo – so much better
And while I’ve advised MANY clients to paint their outdated oak cabinets, there have ALSO been many that I’ve advised to KEEP their oak or wood cabinets. Why? Well, let’s chat for a minute about what makes for a good wood cabinet…
WOOD CABINETS – DETAILS TO CONSIDER
Deciding whether to leave your cabinets stained or to paint them is a HUGE decision. And while this isn’t the holy grail for deciding what to do (you get the final decision), it will help you understand WHY stain or paint could be the best finish for your cabinets AND your home.
I might’ve had a conniption if my clients (above) had decided to paint their gorgeous wood cabinets. The connection with the floor is fabulous and they were wise to choose dining furniture that kept the wood palette simple and consistent. MAD LOVE.
I also posted this next kitchen on my Instagram, just to get a read on whether my followers agreed with painting them or WISH they’d been left original (it was a pretty close tie)…
But, before we get started, there are two questions that could make this whole process a bit more to the point for you…
WHAT STYLE OF CABINET DOOR DO YOU HAVE?
a. raised or flat panel
b. slab (just a plain flat door)
c. arched, curved or cathedral (either just the top edge or both top and bottom)
Top left raised panel/top right flat panel/bottom left double cathedral/bottom right arched
WHAT CONDITION ARE YOUR CABINETS IN?
a. great condition, they just need cleaning
b. good condition, but need some stain touch-ups and cleaning
c. they need to be refinished on a larger scale, they aren’t in great shape
If your cabinets need some TLC, consider the cost/labour of doing this vs painting. Also, decide whether the effort to refinish them is worth it if they will still look dated based on the other factors involved (hinge style/flooring/surrounding finishes/etc…). Restaining cabinets is not just majorly labour-intensive, it’s also expensive. In the end, you’ll still have stained wood cabinets and if they don’t have ALL of the factors needed to look ‘updated’, you will have done all of that work for the same result.
Don’t get me wrong, paint is labour-intensive and expensive too, but it doesn’t hold a CANDLE to restaining.
If you chose ‘c’ for EITHER of the above questions…
You’re welcome to do the questionnaire, but you may just want to move on down to the bottom and read the ‘Mostly C’s’ section. That’s right, these two questions supersede ALL OF THE OTHERS because if you have arched, curved or cathedral style doors, there’s no stain colour that will update them. Even painting them can only take them so far, but it’s a step in the right direction. As for condition, if they need to be completely rehabbed ANYWAY, paint is likely the best way forward for an UPDATED MODERN look.
Should you paint your wood cabinets or leave them stained? QUESTIONNAIRE
Pick the answer that best applies to you and your cabinets (even if it’s not bang-on)…
1. WHAT TYPE OF HINGES DO YOUR CABINETS HAVE?
a. totally hidden
b. partially exposed
c. full-exposure (oh, you dirty bird)
2. WHAT COLOUR ARE YOUR STAINED CABINETS (referring to general stain colour)?
a. kind of a muted ‘brown’ colour with a bit of warmth/colour, but nothing overpowering
b. a stronger warm tone, but it coordinates with your furnishings
c. a strong yellow, orange, red or pickled (pink) finish
3. HOW LONG DO YOU PLAN ON STAYING IN YOUR HOME?
a. we’re going to have to drag you out
b. you don’t know, maybe the next 3-5 years?
c. not much longer, no more than 1-2 years
4. HOW UPDATED IS THE REST OF YOUR HOME?
a. it’s not very updated, as it still has wood stained trims, doors and other finishes that could be updated – and you don’t plan on doing them all!
b. it’s somewhat updated, but you still have more do to and you WILL be doing it!
c. it’s pretty updated
5. HOW WELL-COORDINATED ARE YOUR FLOOR/CABINETS?
a. they’re well-matched
b. they’re tile or vinyl and coordinate well enough, but aren’t super updated
c. your floors are wood, but in a different stain colour than your cabinets OR they are tile/vinyl and aren’t updated and you’re not prepared to change them
6. HOW UPDATED ARE YOUR COUNTERTOP AND BACKSPLASH?
a. both are updated in neutral colours
b. one or both of them are a bit dated but you plan on changing them in the future
c. not updated or are a colour/non-neutral
7. HOW’S IT HANGIN’? YOUR DOORS THAT IS…
a. your cabinet doors aren’t totally plumb and level, there are some gaps here and there that you can’t fix/straighten-up
b. everything is more or less level and straight, only a few spots aren’t 100%
c. everything is top-notch and level, meaning if the cabinets are painted white, you won’t see a bunch of uneven black gaps between doors/drawers
THE STAIN SHALL REMAIN
If you picked mostly a’s, you may want to KEEP your cabinets in their natural wood finish. Just remember, if you have arched, curved or cathedral style doors OR if they need a LOT of prep work, you’ll want to head on down to the ‘c’ section, it’ll be like giving birth to a whole new kitchen – get it?
While the grain of these next cabinets is STRONG, the overall look suits the style of the home…
Based on all of those a’s, you have GREAT bones in place to support wood stained cabinets; the first bone being the right door style. And while hidden hinges are BEST, exposed hinges are okay, as long as other factors (a’s) are in place.
But that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free. You still have some serious work to do to update the look of your kitchen and you’ll want to consider the following (if you haven’t already):
- Replacing your old countertop with an updated one in a NEUTRAL colour.
- Add an updated backsplash that suits your countertop and general style (subway tile and travertine are popular choices with wood, especially oak).
- Update your flooring so that it coordinates perfectly. This means that either, a) your tile or vinyl needs to look updated and must coordinate with the cabinet stain/countertops, OR, b) your wood flooring needs to be VERY well-coordinated with your cabinet stain.
- Updated hardware and lighting that suits the style of your home. Finishes should be consistent and coordinated.
Sure, this next kitchen would look BRIGHTER and more UPDATED with painted cabinets, but I absolutely love the rich depth of these cabinets and how the updated countertop and backsplash brighten the space instead…
Same with these next ones – great bones. And sure, a lighter paint colour would BRIGHTEN the spaces and IMPROVE RESALE VALUE, but the cabinets sure are pretty as-is…
I know many of you won’t agree with my thoughts on this next kitchen, but if you ask me, this wood is good. Why?
- while the grain is a BIT wild, it has a moderate stain colour
- the cabinet stain jibes with the floor
- it suits the surrounding finishes which AREN’T being changed
- there’s wood trim throughout the space
- I’m not sold on the island colour, but it’s not BAD
Now, if we’re talking about RESALE or seriously UPDATING this kitchen, there are some changes we’d make. HOWEVER, for enjoying a home as it is and appreciating some good hard wood and warm earth tones, this kitchen has a lot going for it. Actually, my best suggestion for the above kitchen is one we’re going to touch on shortly in the ‘b’ section – the painted island.
But unfortunately, in the process of updating, a lot of people mistakenly choose a more modern ‘wood-look’ flooring with their REALLY PRETTY wood cabinets (below), without coordinating the two stains. My clients chose a much more muted LVT floor in their kitchen, making it a necessity to paint the cabinets (which they wanted to anyway)…
This next kitchen has a modern door profile and while the stain colour is a bit bright, it suits the floor and surrounding finishes. COULD you paint them? Sure, but I sure as heck wouldn’t…
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STAIN OR PAINT – the choice is yours!
If you picked mostly b’s, your cabinets could be GREAT contenders for stain…OR paint! The big decision will come down to personal preference and the overall appeal of your cabinets based on what you’ve learned so far.
This next kitchen has great bones…
- cabinet doors with square profiles
- flooring and cabinets that are well-coordinated
- stain colour that isn’t overwhelming
- while the white appliances are no screamin’ glory, they’re being replaced
The ONLY THING is that between the wood cabinets, island and floor, there’s a HECK of a lot of wood, to the point where you lose some of the beauty in the AMOUNT of it – it’s just one big orange-hued blob…
Painting the ISLAND ONLY was a great solution, offering a bit of contrast to the floor and the main cabinets. Along with a new countertop, backsplash and paint colour, the BEAUTY of these solid oak cabinets really shines through…
See more of this project and others here
In this next kitchen, while I’d take down the valance on the window, the cabinets have some pretty good bones. If they WERE painted white, the hardware would REALLY pop in contrast, creating a busier look. Instead, we painted the island Sherwin Wiliams Night Owl, just to add some visual interest and play off the wood…
Sherwin Williams Night Owl
Now, if you can’t decide whether to keep the stained look or to paint, here are a few things to consider:
- if you plan on selling in the near future (ie. five years or less) consider painting them, as painted cabinets are almost ALWAYS more appealing to buyers – especially in the younger demographic (the exception would be if you have exposed hinges, that’s always a tough call unless you’re painting your cabinets a darker colour)
- if the cabinets are AWESOME but don’t look so hot with the floor – but you’re not replacing the floor, I’d paint the cabinets a colour that DOES work with the floor or you’re devaluing both
- if the countertop and backsplash are not updated/neutral, but you don’t want to change them, consider painting the cabinets and updating your lighting and hardware to add modern elements to the room and to distract from the more outdated features
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BETTER GET YOUR PAINTIN’ FACE ON
If you chose mostly c’s, it looks like your kitchen is ready for a change – maybe YOU aren’t ready, but your cabinets are. Remember, just because it’s WOOD, doesn’t mean it’s GOOD.
And you know what? Even if your cabinets are GOOD, as shown next, you can still paint them if you want a LIGHTER and BRIGHTER look. Don’t feel bad, they’re still WOOD, they just have a few coats of paint on them…
Sherwin Williams Pure White and Peppercorn
And as you now know, there are many factors that can devalue the look of wood, which in turn, can devalue your home. I know, there are oodles of hubbies out there who can’t understand how wood cabinets can be a BAD thing, I mean, they’re SOLID WOOD and you CAN’T PAINT WOOD! But just think…
If you paint them, they’ll still be solid wood – they’ll just look better.
This next kitchen had a double-whammy (no, not Tim’s favourite Friday night move), but curved doors and a strong red stain. They also weren’t so hot with the orange-hue of the flooring. It didn’t matter HOW MUCH the homeowner may have wanted to keep their wood cabinets (which they didn’t) the ONLY choice was to paint…
And while this project involved a HUGE facelift, including new door fronts, white was the way to go as the previous look would turn off the majority of buyers…
See this project and its listed finishes HERE
These next cabinets CLASHED HARD with the flooring – something HAD to go. On their own, each was pretty, but together they were a HOT MESS…
While I’d love to see a more interesting backsplash in the above kitchen, this was a budget-friendly refresher for the sake of resale, so we painted the backsplash instead!
Painting kitchen cabinets is HUGELY satisfying. If you go white or off-white, it will INSTANTLY brighten your space, adding a more updated look to even the most OUTDATED of cabinet styles (which would be cathedral).
This kitchen below had GREAT bones. I loved the colour of the stain, the door profile and hidden hardware, but it was SO stinkin’ dark! And while a light countertop/backsplash could’ve jazzed things up, so could some paint…
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Will gel stain work on wood cabinets?
I’ve been asked this MANY times and as an answer, I have a few points for you to consider:
- Gel stain on wood cabinets is WAY less labour intensive than restaining, but still requires DECENT prep (sand/clean).
- Unless you have bare wood, it does not penetrate the same, meaning you’ll have more product sitting on the surface. To sand enough so that the stain sinks in, well, that’s a heck of a lot of sanding and it needs to be a CONSISTENT sand job so that you avoid blotchiness where the stain sits/absorbs. The more stain that sits on the surface, the more you risk the ‘painted’ look as you see more of the product and method of application (ie: wipe marks/brush marks) and you also risk it wearing off sooner.
- You can only go the same colour or darker.
- It can reduce the look of the wood grain. Why? Well, when wood is unfinished, the stain will penetrate the wood, but the grain area doesn’t always take stain as well as the open wood areas. When you break up that sheen and restain a darker colour, the open wood area will often take more stain, while the grain doesn’t always darken much more, so they start blending into each other a bit (I hope that makes sense…).
- It takes a steady hand and can look like a hot mess if you don’t do a great job.
To see some gel stain before and after projects on Pinterest, click here.
If you’re still not 100% sure what to do, sometimes seeing a home SIMILAR to yours can be a great way to settle any nerves…
WOOD KITCHEN CABINETS: oak with arched door style, hidden hinges & travertine tile backsplash
This oak kitchen had an arched door profile, but NO exposed hinges. Sadly, I don’t have a great ‘before’ shot as it was a Realtor’s photo (I’m not allowed to use them, I only use photos from my E-Design clients), but I do have a snippet of another area of the kitchen…
See this project and a few others here
Notice how they also filled in the bulkhead to give the cabinets a full-height/custom look. And check out the island in the WICKED gorgeous Benjamin Moore Ocean Floor!
Click HERE or on the above image to see available packages
WOOD KITCHEN CABINETS: oak with arched door, raised panel & STRONG stain colour
In this next kitchen, the granite countertop and backsplash were circa the early 2000s, but still doing the job the homeowner wanted them to do (personally, I’m a BIG fan of travertine tile). BUT these finishes didn’t work well with the strong red of the cabinets. We also had that darn arched top to consider which meant it was
drinking painting time!
All of a sudden the backsplash and countertop look more updated and the WHOLE space has a new, brighter lease on life!
WOOD KITCHEN CABINETS: oak with square inset (shaker style) door & exposed hinges
You know, the stain colour of these cabinets wasn’t bad, but in such a small space, the grain, hinges and hardware were too busy and weighed things down…
Truth be told, they actually put in new cabinets. However, the IDEA is to show you how a space can go from outdated to updated with the right paint colour choices and products! They could have kept the existing cabinets and done the same paint treatment, but you would’ve still seen the hinges and they would have had to fill in the bulkhead.
And again, BIG thanks to my E-design clients who send me their before and after photos – I couldn’t do this without you! Real people…real homes…REAL BUDGETS!
WOOD KITCHEN CABINETS: maple with recessed door style (decorative shaker) & hidden hinges
Looks like this kitchen had great bones, right? Sure, but it didn’t have any energy. There was no contrast or interest and the cabinets clashed with the wood flooring.
See more of this project here
There are a few things to notice in the above kitchen:
- the GORGEOUS granite countertop which all of a sudden came to LIFE
- the new glass-front cabinets which brighten the space
- the removal of the microwave oven and new range hood
- the covering up of the dated-looking side of the island
WOOD KITCHEN CABINETS: maple with shaker style door & hidden hinges
Wooooof. This kitchen had great cabinets surrounded by a hot mess of finishes…
After, it’s like a whole new kitchen…on a budget!
See the before and after photos of this kitchen here
The fresh paint colour, along with hardware, backsplash and countertop were game-changers for this kitchen, adding to the resale AND emotional value of the home!
So there you have it! Hopefully, these tips and ideas have helped you figure out what is the best choice for you and YOUR kitchen!
Check out my E-design Colour Consulting packages, I’d love to help!
WRITTEN IN 2019, UPDATED AWESOMELY IN 2021