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.”
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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”