Kitchen Hacks

A DIY Kitchen Cabinet Makeover (Even if You're Renting)

November 10, 2017

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I like the puzzle aspect of DIY projects, plotting how to skirt constraints to achieve an aesthetic result. When it comes to execution, though, my workspace is limited and my enthusiasm exceeds my skill (as my sloppy painting technique in the video will no doubt reveal).

When I signed a lease on a new rental apartment in March, the landlord was in the process of making some minor improvements. He added a dishwasher, enclosed the hot water heater, and replaced the oven. Since he was open minded about further improvement (as long as I stuck to a budget) we worked together to source an inexpensive sink and countertop, retile the backsplash with square subway tile, and tuck a pull out spice rack into a 5-inch gap. I contributed a fancy faucet I bartered from a design client, and installed my own (modern) light fixture.

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The improvements elevated the kitchen, but the cabinets still irked me. The maple veneer and paneling wasn’t objectively bad, it just didn’t track with the clean-lined look I favor. The arches on the upper cabinets, a traditional motif, vexed me most. Stirring sauce on the stove, I would stare at them, disappearing into a fantasy of renovating my rental kitchen with sleek, lacquered cabinets with a slab front. To actualize my fantasy would be financially irresponsible and in violation of my lease.

But, I could change the doors.

Change your cabinets, change your life (or at least the way you feel about your kitchen). Photo by Mark Weinberg

I discovered from a quick probe with a screwdriver that the doors pop on and off with just two screws per hinge, with each hinge sitting in a drilled out cup in the door front. The trouble was that cutting the doors with precision would require access to table saw, and drilling the hinge cups (though possible with a handheld drill and steady hand) would be better done on a drill press. My railroad apartment has no wood shop.

But, I could paint the doors, if someone else fabricated them.

I recruited woodworker Aaron Black to cut the medium-density fiberboard I was using and drill hinge cups according to the specs of my old doors. To limit costs, I replaced only the upper cabinet doors, and drilled 1-inch finger holes into them instead of purchasing new hardware. To visually streamline the lower cabinets, Aaron suggested 1-inch maple pulls turned from Brooklyn Brewery scrap wood. (That unplanned detail turned out to be one of the most impactful changes in reconciling upper and lower—the 1-inch circular face of the wood pulls echoes the 1-inch negative space of the finger pulls.)

If I did it again, I’d amp up the gloss in the paint for greater grease-resistance. The eggshell finish looks great, but requires a wipe down every time I use the stove. Still, there’s something liberating about a temporary fix like this one—I can pop the old doors back on in seconds when I move on to a new apartment in a few years. If I stay longer, I can repaint in satin or semi-gloss. But for now, I can stir soup and stare up, satisfied.

To paint your own custom cabinet faces, you’ll need:

  • A dropcloth, to protect your floors
  • Painters pyramids or sawhorses, to keep the painted surface elevated from the ground
  • Mini paint roller, like Wooster’s 4" and Sherlock Roller Frame, with foam cover
  • Paint tray
  • Gentle sanding sponge, like 3M’s Fine Grit Sanding Sponge, for smoothing out texture between coats
  • A clean rag, for dusting the surface of the cabinet face after sanding
  • A small angled paint brush, like Wooster’s 2" Polyester Angle Sash Brush, for cutting the edges of the cabinet face and painting inside the finger hole
  • A heavy-duty primer that will adhere to and smooth out the surface of the MDF, like Kilz Premium Water-Based Interior/Exterior Primer
  • Good quality paint, like BEHR Premium Plus Ultra, in a finish with some gloss to it (the color featured in the video is Pale Cornflower in Eggshell, but I recommend a finish of satin or semi-gloss for ease of cleaning)
  • A measuring tape

Follow along with the video for a step-by-step breakdown. You too can transform your kitchen!

With a few tools and a bit of inspiration, your home (whether house, apartment, or room) can feel like, well, a home. We've partnered with The Home Depot to bring you DIY home renovation tips, tricks, and hacks so you can make your home the home of your dreams.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Laura Fenton
    Laura Fenton
  • Jamie Davis
    Jamie Davis
  • M
  • Olivia Bloom
    Olivia Bloom
  • Alex Kalita
    Alex Kalita
An indoor and outdoor enthusiast. Happiest cooking at home with a podcast on, or hiking towards a campfire meal. Believes the best design is simple and approachable. (And thinks DIYs should be too!)


Laura F. November 13, 2017
I'd love to know where you got the 1-inch round pulls? Were they off-the-shelf? Congrats on the mini-makeover--it looks great!
Author Comment
Alex K. November 13, 2017
Hi Laura! Sadly, they weren't off the shelf. My woodworking friend turned them on a lathe for me out of scrapwood from a local brewery. But here's a really similar set I found on Etsy (sorry about the long link!):

I think the key is to find hand-turned ones that won't have as delicate a neck as the machine-made ones you find at Home Depot, etc. The more "primitive" and block quality of the hand-turned ones feels more modern to me.
Laura F. November 13, 2017
Thanks for your reply, Alex!
Jamie D. November 11, 2017
Wow. This is exactly what I need (want). I had been wanting to de-ugly my cabinet, but didnt want to put money/effort into a rental. I am going to look for colours and supplies next weekend.
Author Comment
Alex K. November 13, 2017
Haha, yep -- I had to keep reminding myself of that want v. need distinction when I moved in. But ultimately, if something makes you crazy in the kitchen (I'm guessing the place where most Food52 spend the bulk of their time) there's a fine line between "want" and "need" ;) Good luck with color and supply hunting!
M November 10, 2017
No one ever considers the grease. Love to see it acknowledged above, unlike the countless kitchen makeovers that take off upper cabinet doors, remove range hoods, etc.
Author Comment
Alex K. November 10, 2017
Grease is such an issue if you actually use your kitchen! Particularly if you don't have a high-end hood. My old rental apartment had super high-gloss doors on the upper cabinets, and while it wasn't necessarily the finish I would have chosen for myself, it really did help hide the grease splatters in between cleanings.
M November 12, 2017
Indeed! Still cringe at the memory of reading a design article years ago about improving the look and function of kitchens by exchanging upper cabinets for a couple open shelves, and removing the greasy range hood and replacing it with a nice light. Clearly there was NO need for a range hood over the stove. The grease must've come from elsewhere. :)
Olivia B. November 10, 2017
Ooooooh, I'm trying to zhoozh up my new rental kitchen kitchen and this is genius. I especially love the color and the simple finger pulls. Looks awesome. Can't wait to get home and see if my current cabinets have these simple hinges...
Author Comment
Alex K. November 10, 2017
Thanks, Olivia! I'll keep my fingers crossed for you on the hinges. I haven't tried it with other hinge types, but I bet the materials + process would be quite similar. Good luck!
Lydia D. November 11, 2017
It would be! You would just need to measure carefully and drill according to the hinges you have. :)

This looks fantastic, Alex, and now I'll be spending the winter eyeballing my kitchen. :D
Author Comment
Alex K. November 11, 2017
Thank you, Lydia! If you get tired of eyeballing them and make a door switch, please post about it. I'd love to see / hear how it goes.