Oak and Wood Cabinets – How do Decide Whether to Stain or Paint
I love oak cabinets. Crazy right? I know that 90% of you are cursing your 1990s oak cabinets, while the remaining 10% love them and wouldn’t let a lick of paint go near them! I hear ya. I have oak cabinets in our home and I LOVE them, but not ALL oak or wood cabinets were created equal.
Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good
See the after photo below
What does that mean? It means that just because your cabinets are solid wood, doesn’t mean that they actually look good and here are a few reasons why…
- If they’re outdated in style or stain (like the previous photo) you won’t be doing the wood any justice. Overly orange, yellow, red or pickled (pink) wood cabinets can look outdated, especially if the rest of your home and its decorative choices don’t support them
- If you have TOO MUCH wood (ooooh the innuendos – I’m biting my tongue) it’s not good. If you have anything beyond wood floor and wood cabinets (ie: wood panelling), that is an AWFUL lot of wood (emphasis on awful) and they can dilute the impact of each other
- If you’ve updated your wood flooring and it doesn’t coordinate with the cabinets, you’ll be devaluing the look of them both
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And while I’ve advised MANY clients to paint their outdated oak cabinets, there have ALSO been many that I’ve advised to KEEP their oak or wood cabinets.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 chose dining furniture that kept the wood palette simple and consistent. MAD LOVE.
But, before we get started, there are two questions that could make this whole process a bit more to the point for you…
WHAT IS THE STYLE OF YOUR CABINET DOORS?
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 you chose ‘c’ for EITHER of those 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 save them! And if they aren’t in great shape…well, we’ll get into that below too.
But first – on to the questionnaire!
Questionnaire: Should I Paint my Wood Cabinets or Leave them Stained?
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 CABINETS (referring to general stain colour)?
a. Kind of a muted ‘brown’ colour. They have a bit of warmth/colour, but nothing overpowering
b. A stronger warm tone, but it coordinates with my furnishings
c. A strong yellow, orange, red or pickled (pink) finish
3. HOW LONG DO YOU PLAN ON STAYING IN YOUR HOME?
a. You’re going to have to drag me out (as long as possible)
b. I 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, I still have wood stained trims, doors and other finishes that could be updated – and I don’t plan on doing them all!
b. It’s somewhat updated, but I still have more do to and I WILL be doing it!
c. It’s pretty updated
5. HOW WELL-COORDINATED ARE YOUR FLOOR/CABINETS?
a. They’re well-matched. I have (or will have soon) tile or vinyl that coordinates OR wood floors that are in a coordinating stain colour and wood species (tough to do, just sayin’)
b. They’re tile or vinyl and coordinate well enough, but aren’t super updated
c. My floors are wood, but in a different stain colour than my cabinets OR they are tile/vinyl and aren’t updated and I’m 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 I 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. My cabinet doors aren’t totally plumb and level, there are some gaps here and there that I 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! But 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?
Now, 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.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean you get off scot-free, you still have some serious work to do for those cabinets to look their best, and you’ll want to consider the following:
- An updated countertop in a NEUTRAL colour
- An updated backsplash (subway tile and travertine are popular choices with wood, especially oak)
- Coordinated flooring, meaning that your tile or vinyl needs to look updated OR your wood flooring needs to be VERY well-coordinated. This means that it doesn’t have a different undertone from your wood cabinets (ie: orange or red toned cabinets with a non-red or orange toned flooring)
- Updated hardware and lighting
Stain or Paint – The Choice is Yours!
If you picked mostly B’s, your cabinets could be GREAT contenders for stain…OR paint! It will be about personal preference and overall appeal of your cabinets based on what you’ve learned on this page.
See more of this project and others here
In the above photo, see how we broke up all of the wood by painting the island a colour while leaving the main cabinets in their original wood finish? Also, notice the modern countertop, backsplash, hardware AND lighting – it all made a HUGE difference in updating the look of those oak cabinets!
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
- 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
- If the countertop and backsplash are not updated/neutral, consider painting the cabinets to add a modern element to the room and to distract from the more outdated features
Better Get Your Paintin’ Pants On
If you chose mostly C’s, it looks to me like you’re ready to do some painting. Or maybe YOU aren’t ready, but your cabinets are. Remember, just because it’s WOOD, doesn’t mean it’s GOOD.
And as you may know by now, 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.
Let’s hit that baby one more time (Brittany Spears style)…
You CAN paint wood cabinets, and if you do, they’ll STILL be solid wood – they’ll just look better
Now, let’s jog back to that ORIGINAL question, ‘what condition are your cabinets in?’ 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/etc…). Restaining cabinets is not just majorly labour-intensive, it’s also expensive to have done. And 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.
Painting kitchen cabinets is HUGELY satisfying, as 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 or arched with exposed hinges).
The 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…
Will Gel Stain work on wood cabinets?
I’ve been asked this MANY times and to answer that, I have a few points for you to consider:
- It’s 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, let’s look at some examples…
Oak Cabinets with Arched Door Style and Hidden Hinges
This oak kitchen had an arched door profile, but NO exposed hinges, which made me super happy. However, because of the doors, painting was definitely the best option. 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 the island is WICKED gorgeous in BM Ocean Floor!
Oak Kitchen with Arched Door Style and STRONG Stain Colour
In this next kitchen, the countertop and backsplash were reasonably updated but didn’t work well with the strong red of the cabinets. We also had that darned arched top to consider as well, 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!
Oak Cabinets with Flat Panel (Shaker Style) Door and 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 there 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.
Maple Cabinets with Flat Panel Door Panel and Hidden Hinges
Looks like this kitchen had great bones, right? Sure, but it just 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 this beautiful space now:
- 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
Maple Cabinets with Flat Panel or Shaker Door and Hidden Hinges
Wooooof. This kitchen had great cabinets surrounded by a hot mess of finishes.
See the before and after photos of this kitchen here
It’s like a whole new kitchen! 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!