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

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Your home is your castle, no matter the size (or if you're renting). To help you feel at home in your home, we've partnered with The Home Depot to bring you DIY home renovation tips, tricks, and hacks.

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).

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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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

Tags: kitchen cabinets, cabinets, renovation