Kitchen with cabinets updating a oak DAyYUUMMm!!! BABY!!

How to Update Oak Cabinets

Partner post to The Best Paint Colours to go with Oak / Wood

Oak cabinets – you either love them (if you’re a man) or you hate them (if you’re a woman). And yes, I’m labelling here, but it seems that I come across the same gender divides again and again when it comes to decorating.

Here’s the great thing about oak cabinets – they are solid wood (not the interiors necessarily, but the doors at least). In particular, the 1980’s / 90’s oak cabinets are great because unlike today’s wood cabinets, they standthe test of time and only after 30 years of wear and tear do they need some love.

When it comes to wood ‘things’ I usually defer to my favourite saying ‘Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good’. This means that while it might be solid wood if it’s ugly or worn out, it’s not adding value (emotional or monetary) to your home. Now before we get into the guts n’ the glory, you need to figure out what style of cabinets you have…

Cabinet Door Profiles

Figuring out which door profile you have can help you make the best choices moving forward.

  • Top left: Shaker style with raised panel / Top right: Shaker style with recessed panel / Bottom left: Double cathedral / Bottom right: Single arch
  • And I know that top right isn’t oak, but it’s the best example I could find of a recessed panel
  • The door in the top right and left-hand sides are usually the easiest styles to update. The bottom left is a double cathedral and is the MOST difficult. The bottom right sits in the middle – not easy, but not as challenging as the cathedral

So, let’s talk about some solutions…

Oak Cabinet Update Idea #1 – Restain

This post is about ‘updating’ your oak cabinets – not about bringing them back to their former glory – or lack thereof. Therefore, when I mention stain, it’s with the idea of changing and updating – not resurrecting.

Resurrect: To keep the old golden oak and simply refresh it with a fresh coat of golden oak stain and lacquer

Update:  Add value to your home by making it look more current and modern

So, if you are truly wanting to ‘update’, then you’ll want to restain with a darker, more modern stain colour OR neutralize it with a lighter, more natural stain that doesn’t have the orange/yellow tone. Realistically, most homeowners (if you have resale in mind) are looking for a more subtle look that is offered by maple, cherry, espresso or painted cabinets. This means that the colour of them is VITAL to their survival if you are hoping to appeal to the masses.

Consider these things before you restain your oak/wood cabinets

Do they have a cathedral/arched or shaker style? Shaker style is great as the look transitions to modern styles quite easily. The cathedral top is not so easy. Even if you decide to re-stain your cabinets a lovely tone/colour, they may STILL look outdated as it’s the ‘style’ that is dated. The one person I’ve met (virtually) who did a FAB job is Julie Blanner. Her cabinets were in FANtastic shape so she kept them ‘as-is’ and chose beautiful hardware and accessories to complement their style.

  • Are you wanting to stain them a lighter colour than they currently are? Lots of work.
  • Are you wanting to stain them a darker colour? Still lots of work, but it’s easier than going lighter.
  • Stay away from the yellow, orange and red tones as they will not look updated – they will look fresh and fancy and awesome – if you still live in 1980.
  • Stick with lighter and darker stains that don’t have dominant undertones.
  • If you want to do it properly you will need to sand them down entirely. If you want to play around you can try Gel Stainwhich ‘can’ go over existing stains (it’s oil based and I find it easier to use than most water-based stains), however, even professionals have a hard time getting a consistent and quality look.

I’d love to give you a how-to on Staining Oak Cabinets, but I’d rather leave it to the pros…

House (including Gel Stain details)

Refacing (specific details for staining oak)


Oak Cabinet Update Idea #2 – Change the Hardware 

More often than not, the 1980’s / 90’s oak cabinets don’t have hardware (handles or knobs). While functionally it’s not a big deal because you can still open them, decoratively it’s like you’re missing the last piece of the puzzle.

Transitional style hardware is great and works ESPECIALLY well with cabinets with a shaker or even arched profile. For cathedral style doors you’ll want to choose hardware that has slightly softer lines.

To view/purchase the above hardware, please visit the links in this blog post here:  The Best BUDGET FRIENDLY Hardware to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets

Because cathedral and arched style cabinets (either single or double) have more shape to them, they suit hardware that has a bit more curves as well!

To view/purchase the above hardware, please visit the links in this blog post here:  The Best BUDGET FRIENDLY Hardware to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets

And of course, there are always knobs!

To view/purchase the above hardware, please visit the links in this blog post here:  The Best BUDGET FRIENDLY Hardware to Update Oak or Wood Cabinets

Oak Cabinet Update Idea #3 – Add Crown Molding and a Valance

Crown moulding isn’t just for ceilings you know! I’ve chatted about this before and it’s a GREAT way to update your cabinets. This idea takes your cabinets from looking like builder basic cabinets – to custom made.

Crown moulding is the ‘crown’ that sits on top of your cabinets – not to be confused with the crown moulding that goes at your ceiling line. The valance is the strip of wood (approx. 3″) that is attached to the bottom part of your upper cabinets – where you would hang under cabinet lighting. It increases the visual height of your cabinets, gives them a custom profile and offers the opportunity to hide under-cabinet lighting.

While it’s not easy-peasy to do, it’s still manageable for the average homeowner or a semi-capable handyman.

Read more about crown mouldings and valances for your kitchen cabinets on this post (cost/details)… How to Update your Kitchen on a Budget


Oak Cabinet Update Idea #4 – Paint

You had to see this one coming…painting your oak cabinets is a great way to update and modernize them. Now many men say, ‘but it’s wood, you can’t paint wood!’ and this is where I hand them a scotch on the rocks and calmly repeat…

‘Just because it’s wood, doesn’t mean it’s good’

And they will still BE wood – they will just be painted wood.

Why is it good to paint wood? Well, it’s good for resale. Generally speaking, oak cabinets appeal to those 70 and older.  f that is your target market then just keep them stained and call it a day. However, if you’re looking to appeal to a younger and more modern crowd (69 years and younger) then you’ll want to consider painting them.

(I know your hubby is cursing my name right now and polishing his darts – and you’re checking the birth date on your driver’s license and yelling, ‘HONEY, SHE JUST CALLED ME YOUNG AND MODERN!)

Via Kylie M E-Design

But anyways…

There are 3 colours that I usually go to when I’m painting oak cabinets…

Why these colours? Well, they are neutral, they are easy to coordinate things with (appliances and countertops) and they appeal to a wide variety of tastes. If you choose a ‘colour’ you are awesome, but you are also taking the risk of a) getting tired of it faster and b) not appealing to as many people upon resale. It’s easy to paint your walls – but paint your cabinets?  Not so easy.

Before you paint those cabinets, think about your appliance colour

Contrast can look great in a kitchen when you’re dealing with countertops, cupboards and flooring. However, when you’re transitioning from product to product ‘horizontally’ it’s best to keep things low contrast.

This means that if you have black appliances and you paint your cabinets white, you’ll create a high contrast look. This will make your space look smaller and reduce the visual flow as there’s more ‘stop and start’ when your eye travels around the room. The same applies if you have white appliances and paint your cabinets a mid-toned / darker colour.

If you have stainless steel appliances you have the flexibility of going either way – just keep in mind that if your stainless steel has a lot of black detailing, this will contrast with white cabinets, so be sure to check out your details.

Other Things to Consider When Updating Your Kitchen Cabinets

  • Sheen level.  The shinier your paint/varathane is – the more the grain of your oak will show. While you want it to wipeable, you also want to avoid seeing your reflection in it. If you have cabinets that have little to no grain, then sheen isn’t as much of an issue
  • If you have exposed hinges make sure that the finish of them matches your hardware – no mix and match hardware finishes allowed!
  • Polished nickel and black are the most popular hardware finishes
  • If you currently have knobs on your cabinet doors, consider drilling an extra hole and installing handles instead
  • Your cabinet hardware in your kitchen should also coordinate with the metal finish on any light fixtures
  • If you decide to paint the grain texture will show through. If you have the opportunity to have them professionally sprayed go for it. This will give you the best chance to reduce the amount of grain that shows through
  • Discover how to update your oak cabinets without any paint here…5 Ideas:  How to Update Oak WITHOUT a Drop of Paint


For your own Personalized Consultation check out my Online Decorating and Colour Services 

Read more

The Best Paint Colours to go with Oak / Wood

5 Ideas:  How to Update Oak Without a Drop of Paint

Kylie M Interiors    Affordable Interior Decorating, Interior Design Ideas, Home Staging and Online Consulting / E-Design in Nanaimo B.C.

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