Kitchen Design

7 Ways to Give Your Old Kitchen Cabinets a Total Makeover

Ranked from super speedy to totally doable.

October 30, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

At first, a dated kitchen seems like a puzzle full of fixable pieces. A rug can hide unsightly floors and shiny accessories can distract from dingy countertops. But cabinets pose a particular challenge. When it becomes obvious that these have seen better days—as evidenced by jammed doors, missing hardware, and a dull finish—an entire kitchen feels stuck in the past. And the longer you leave them be, the more likely this minor headache turns into something you just can’t stand.

Replacing old kitchen cabinetry, however, can be expensive. According to HomeAdvisor, the average cabinet installation costs just under $5,000, depending of course on the square footage, materials, and labor. It’s the type of big-ticket item that merits planning and budgeting.

But in the meantime, that doesn’t mean you’re all out of options.

“I like to think of kitchen renovations in phases. Ask yourself, what's the quickest thing I could do that can be accomplished in one or two days?” says Carrie Waller, founder of Dream Green DIY. “Tackle updates in smaller bite-sized projects so you don't overwhelm yourself or your budget.”

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Top Comment:
“We got a $16K quote to replace our cabinets, but ended up deciding to paint and get new doors and drawer fronts made instead. We removed the old doors and drawer fronts, sanded and painted the cabinet boxes ourselves, and bought and installed new hardware. It took three days altogether. The cabinet maker painted the new doors and drilled for the hardware. I splurged on nice hardware ($1000) and in the end we ended up spending a total of $4000. They look totally different and way way better!”
— Merritt K.
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Kelly Mindell, founder of Studio DIY, agrees. “Make the smallest change you can and see how you feel,” she adds. “It may surprise you how much of a difference it makes.”

To test out this theory of incremental changes, Waller and Mindell provided seven do-it-yourself ideas to update old kitchen cabinets, ranked from easiest to hardest (still easily doable).

1. Replace hardware

Photo by Dream Green DIY

The easiest way to upgrade kitchen cabinets, Mindell says, is by changing out the hardware. She notes that trendy materials like brass or copper can add a modern touch to old fronts, and that the transformation can be accomplished in no time. “Depending on your woodworking skills, you can also DIY hardware with wooden dowels or spheres and seal, stain, or paint them to fit your style,” she adds.

2. Put up wallpaper

If you thought that peel-and-stick wallpaper was only for walls, think again. Neutral options can act as a grounding base for brighter accessories, while colorful patterns can offset darker backsplashes. “For those of us who are renting, we have it especially hard,” Waller says. “In these cases, think about what you can add on top of the cabinetry, like wallpaper. There are so many cost-effective removable wallpaper patterns on the market today that you can stick right on top of old kitchen cabinets to make them new.”

3. Expose the shelves

One project that will help your kitchen feel more airy is to remove some of the cabinet doors to expose the inner shelving, Waller says. “This is a great way to get rid of dated details without having to tear out an entire kitchen's worth of built-in cabinetry,” she says. “Instead, take down one or two strategic cabinet doors, and then style the now-open shelves with coordinating ceramic food containers and pretty baskets. That way, you'll get the look of trendy open shelving without actually having to renovate.”

4. Add more texture to a shaker

Kitchens with traditional shaker cabinets can be overhauled with this project from Mindell: “Consider cutting out the middle section and replacing it with a wicker cane material to add an instant dose of texture to your kitchen,” she says. “To do it, soak the cane material in water before nailing it to your cabinets. Nail it on while it’s still wet and pull tight, but don't worry if isn't incredibly taut. As the cane dries it will shrink and tighten up so it's perfectly smooth.” Do this to only a few cabinets, so that the detail stands out.

5. Roll on a fresh coat of paint

Mindell knows this fix might be the first one that comes to mind when updating a kitchen, but that it can also seem overwhelming. To make sure that you feel confident, ask for professional advice before getting started. “Consult with someone at your local paint store to ensure you have the right primer, sandpaper, and paint for your cabinets—and be sure to leave enough dry time between each coat,” she says. “When it comes to picking out a paint color, try painting a large piece of foam board with the colors you're considering to create a larger ‘swatch.’ Then move the swatch around, from the darkest to brightest parts of your kitchen across morning, afternoon, and night. You want to be sure you love the color before you put in all that time.”

6. Install molding

If your cabinetry is decidedly one-note, then Mindell recommends adding a decorative trim and then painting them in a fresh shade. “Explore the hardware store and see if they offer any molding that would work,” she says. “Once completed, you can either paint the entire front one color for a monochromatic look, or paint the trim a contrasting color for an unexpected pop.”

7. Completely remove cabinetry

Older kitchens tend to be lined with closed cabinetry, and Waller thinks that this is part of the reason why this design can feel dated. “Modern kitchens often forgo the idea of upper cabinets altogether,” she says. “If your kitchen feels a little dark, try taking down one or two of the upper cabinets, especially those that might be blocking the flow of natural light. If you take them down gently, you should be left with minimal drywall patching and repainting to do. Once that's done, you can either leave the wall empty or put up a couple of open shelves.”


What DIY tips do you have for updating old kitchen cabinets? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kim Marks
    Kim Marks
  • Jamey
    Jamey
  • Sunnycovechef
    Sunnycovechef
  • Suzanne Bonilla
    Suzanne Bonilla
  • Merritt Kennedy
    Merritt Kennedy
Kelly Dawson

Written by: Kelly Dawson

Writer and Editor

13 Comments

Kim M. February 20, 2020
Good idea to show pictures of the tips for the unimaginative like myself.
 
Jamey February 20, 2020
I’d really like to replace our kitchen cabinet doors. Any recs for companies that do this or how to figure out who made my cabinets and see if they have more modern door options that could replace our current doors?
 
Sunnycovechef January 5, 2020
I have beautiful quarter sawn oak cabinets in my kitchen that are 35 years old . I also also have some handmade Brazilian tiles that I would like to replace with granite. Everyone tells me I am crazy . I cooked 1000 of meals in my kitchen and it’s my happy place. What should I do?
 
GigiR February 20, 2020
Start with a little something. Go to a kitchen design store and look at the cupboard door types. See if you can sign out some sample doors. Take them home and put them right against your old cupboard doors. You either notice the great difference in new and old materials, or you’ll cave and say “What am I doing?”. Its YOUR kitchen and you can be crazy if you want. Don’t let others guilt you out. I have quarter sawn oak paneling in the dining room that was almost black with age. It was so depressing. Well, a lovely paint job has revived the previously avoided dining room. We are now keen to use it. Its as if we got a part of our house back. Do it! You only live once and this is not a rehearsal.
 
Suzanne B. January 2, 2020
i think a bomb would be just the thing for my kitchen, but it isn't my house.
 
Snow January 3, 2020
Been there. I was amazed at what a liberal dose of Orange Glo sprayed on cheapo kitchen cabinets did! They looked like the high quality cabinets I coveted at the home improvement store!
 
Suzanne B. January 6, 2020
Even Orange Glo won't help this kitchen. It's tiny and totally outdated. My sister is adamant about not doing anything. The newest feature is the range I got 3 weeks ago.
 
Janet C. June 30, 2020
I got together with my BFF, GOOGLE😍. She empowered me as a tenant, showing me that I can make major changes inexpensively and simply to cabinets, counters, walls, appliances, even floors with contact "paper"!

I bought a roll 18"×20' marble self sticking ($6.99 Amazon) for my kitchen counter, but now I'm thinking a marble floor would be incredible❤.

Dollar Trees have the self adhesive stuff.

Remember, dreams are visual and feelings are cerebral, so if your kitchen counter looks like the marble you've been dreaming of - Your dream has come true😇
 
Merritt K. January 2, 2020
We got a $16K quote to replace our cabinets, but ended up deciding to paint and get new doors and drawer fronts made instead. We removed the old doors and drawer fronts, sanded and painted the cabinet boxes ourselves, and bought and installed new hardware. It took three days altogether. The cabinet maker painted the new doors and drilled for the hardware. I splurged on nice hardware ($1000) and in the end we ended up spending a total of $4000. They look totally different and way way better!
 
Yirgach January 3, 2020
You are so lucky! We have ancient knotty pine built in custom cabinets which require 2 coats of white shellac to prevent knot bleed thru, then two coats of paint (light sanding between coats). Could not replace the hinges due to ancient overlay offsets, so spray painted them too. Doing the painting in the good weather outside, have about half of 18 doors done, will finish up this spring. Did splurge and put in two nice IKEA glass paneled doors with modern self closing euro hinges. Does look nice so far, spent about $500 on materials and $150 on new knobs/pulls. Lookin good. The alternative was a complete tear down and rebuild with new modular cabinets. - $15K. Whoo!
 
tia October 30, 2019
Anyone who tells you you can paint your kitchen cabinets in a weekend is lying. I say this as someone who thought she could, and spent every free moment last October dealing with it. It's not even a big kitchen!

That said, it was worth it, and I really, really wasn't sure it would be because I have those awful melamine and oak cabinets. But the paint made them look SO much better, and adding hardware made the kitchen feel much more "me".
 
Suzanne B. January 2, 2020
definitely not an easy job, but worth it.
 
KarenE October 30, 2019
Thank you once again for the recipes Mose can be changed for vegetarians without any hardships and YOU do so much veggie ones already. You are up with all current diets out there without preaching about which is better. There is one question how do I get the recipes that show on HEA videos. Some have ingredients some don’t and they go way to fast for me to copy. Even the titles.