How To Make Old Cabinets Look Modern

CABINETS AFTER Kassandra DeKoning/HometalkAre your cabinets starting to show their age? Would you like to bring your kitchen into the present century … without the major expense of replacing all the cabinetry? Don’t worry, it can be done. Check out these inspiring suggestions for how to make old cabinets look modern.

Problems with Old Cabinets

Can these cabinets be saved? Let’s take a look at exactly what’s bugging you about your current cabinets.

Condition. Carefully assess the condition of your cabinets. If the doors are ugly, faded, or damaged (due to heat, moisture, and age) but the boxes – the part that’s attached to the wall – are sound, the cabinets are good candidates for a facelift. However, if the boxes themselves are in bad shape, you may need to completely replace the cabinetry.

Material. Two kitchen cabinet materials that shout “90s nostalgia!” are oak wood and cheap thermofoil. While the thermofoil of a few decades back often has problems beyond outdated style (like peeling and delamination) which may require replacement of either the doors or the entire cabinet, oak usually withstands the test of time. It just needs a modern tweak.

Style. There was an era – not so long ago -- when “more is more” was the prevailing kitchen theme. Now the aesthetic is a lot simpler. If your cabinets feature intricate cathedral patterning or other signs of outdated style, a change is overdue, not to mention easy to DIY.

CABINETS BEFORE Kassandra DeKoning/HometalkUpdate Your Cabinets

Update hardware. Cheap, fast, and chic: If your kitchen cabinets just have a mild case of the blahs, switch the hardware for a quick pick-me-up. Brushed gold or black pulls and knobs are very on-trend.

Simple DIY refinish. There are lots of options for a fast do-it-yourself refinish with no sanding needed. Go for wax, gel stain, glaze, or chalk-style paint. This will give a casual, countryish look. Or apply a stencil atop the existing paint.

Paint or stain. Painting or traditional staining of kitchen cabinets requires meticulous sanding and expert application. The payoff? High quality, smooth results. Color choices of new neutrals (such as sage green) or unexpected dark tones will bring your cabinets up to the moment.  You can either start asking, “where can I find house painters near me?” and hire a qualified professional to take care of it for you or do it yourself.

Reface. When the door surfaces are scratched or scuffed, consider cabinet refacing. This is a process of applying a veneer to cover the existing doors. Consult a local carpenter to see whether this is an option for you.

Replace doors. Cabinet door replacement is an excellent idea when the doors are in rough shape, but the boxes are still solid. An example is cabinet doors with badly peeling thermofoil. DESIGN TIP: Consider replacing a few doors with glass to brighten your kitchen and display treasured dinnerware.

Remove doors. For the breezy look of open shelving, remove doors altogether, especially on top cabinets. This works well with today’s trend to minimize upper cabinetry.

Update Your Kitchen

How to make old cabinets look modern? An indirect approach – updating other features – will often work wonders without the need even to touch your cabinets.

Paint the room. Paint the kitchen walls (and ceiling while you’re at it!) instead of cabinetry. If you’re trying to downplay orange-toned wood cabinets, choose a paint color with subtle contrast, such as charcoal or lavender. Avoid cream, yellow, and – obviously -- orange.

Add a backsplash. Similar to painting, addition or replacement of a backsplash distracts the eye from less-than-lovely cabinets. Choose a clean, contemporary tile – run, don’t walk, from elaborate tile mosaics! Terrazzo is making a comeback and can coordinate beautifully with your cabinet color.

Install the right lighting. Revamp your kitchen lighting to show your cabinets in their best light. Task lighting is a must and pendant lights are both practical and pretty.


  • Before making any upgrades, get those cabinets squeaky clean. Scrub off every bit of grease with TSP.

  • Coordinate your new cabinet look with existing appliances and furniture, as well as any woodwork sharing the same space (especially in an open-plan kitchen/living/dining area).

  • To update cabinet style, add strips of plywood or MDF to create “Shaker” doors on a budget. Or fill in an outdated engraved design with putty. Then cover your handiwork with paint.
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