How to renovate your kitchen without changing the cabinets

Making some or all of the existing cabinetry work can do wonders for your budget and the environment

The owner of this 1920s cabin loved the original chestnut cabinetry. So, designer Gallagher Hannan left the uppers in place and only changed the lower cupboards, which no longer functioned. (Gallagher Hannan)

When you buy a house, you usually inherit things from previous owners that you never would have picked yourself. That’s the case in our 1948 remodeled ranch in suburban Denver, where my husband and I took the good hand-me-downs (soaring ceilings and skylights from an earlier reno) with the very, very bad (wall-to-wall greige carpet and a front door with a frosted glass window that could easily be part of a “Sopranos” set). We’ve slowly been updating the galley kitchen, which originally had peeling laminate counters and a gas stove I swapped for zippy induction.

Although most people would probably deem our light oak wood cabinets Dated with a capital D, they have never bothered me. With sleeker handles, they could be resurrected from Frasier Crane’s timeless Seattle condo. They have a vaguely Nordic, piney feel that’s very warm to come home to, especially when Colorado snow is swirling.

Preserving kitchen cabinets often makes both financial and ecological sense, but rare is the person who can fully embrace 1990s cupboards. A whopping 66 percent of homeowners replace all their kitchen cabinets during a remodel, according to the 2023 U.S. Houzz Kitchen Trends Report. Still, with a little creativity, you might find a different path forward.

Take Oklahoma City designer Courtney Thomas’s client, who had just moved into a place with wooden cabinetry galore. “The wife did not love it, and the husband was crazy about it,” recalls Thomas, founder of Crew Hill Designs. “We were at a little bit of an impasse and so they called me and said, ‘What would you do?’ And I said, ‘How about a compromise? What if we leave the stained [perimeter] cabinetry and then we paint the island?’”

The soft, green color (Sherwin-Williams’ Coastal Plain) on the island helped the remaining original cabinets look more current. And both the husband and wife felt like they were getting something they wanted. “Keeping the stained [cabinets] really honored the character of the home,” Thomas says.

In our own kitchen, swapping the existing peeling black laminate counters for quartz in a minimally veined white helped maximize the sunlight that flows in from our trio of east-facing kitchen windows. Thomas’s clients had a similar issue in their Oklahoma space. “They had black granite countertops, and one of their concerns was that the kitchen was really dark,” Thomas says. Replacing them with Calacatta Sol quartz “made all the difference in the world,” she recalls.

Thomas also put in a sandstone backsplash any Francophile would appreciate for its rough-hewed, natural look. “We had a stone mason come in and install a stone backsplash, and then kind of smear a little bit of the mortar.” That extra little detail lends a cozy, homey feel that makes it feel more authentic, Thomas says.

Evict what just doesn’t work

Maybe your bottom wood cabinets are salvageable, but your uppers aren’t. Keeping some rather than yanking it all out can do wonders for your pocketbook and the environment alike. “[That] is a really nice way to actually end up with something that’s going to work really well for you and keep the original look and feel,” says Gallagher Hannan, co-founder and lead designer of Boxco Studio, a custom cabinetry and kitchen design firm in Greenfield, Mass.

Hannan’s client loved the handmade original chestnut wood cabinetry in her cabin, which was built in the 1920s, but the lower cabinetry didn’t function. “She was looking to spend more time in this cabin and needed to upgrade the kitchen,” Hannan says. “Older kitchens don’t have the nice amenities and pullouts that make use of less space much more efficiently and effectively.”

They ultimately decided to preserve the strip of upper cabinets “to keep a little bit of that history,” Hannan says, while installing new stained ones at the base, giving the homeowner a U-shaped countertop where she previously had just an L. “We got to add a lot more counter space along an existing stone chimney, and we gave her cabinets that had pullout trays in them.”

They applied a wood wax finish to the new cabinets that’s semitransparent so the wood grain is visible underneath. “It can be really nice to mix modern and traditional elements together, but they still need to be in dialogue with one another,” Hannan notes.

In the Oklahoma kitchen that Thomas revamped, she and her clients opted to pull out detailed corbels that originally hung from the upper cabinets. “We removed those and had the stain matched underneath so that you couldn’t see that they had been removed,” Thomas says. “That freshened and updated the look, but took away some of those super traditional elements that just weren’t the wife’s vibe.”

New, clean-lined black hardware on the stained cabinets and brass hardware on the painted island in the Oklahoma kitchen made it all look newer. “I like treating the island as a separate piece of furniture,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t have to be matchy-matchy.” She also took out a long, nearly medieval-looking metal light fixture over the island and installed two oversized dome pendants instead, which almost instantly modernized the space.

In our case, we still haven’t changed the meh light fixture that hangs over our sink — ironic, because it’s probably the easiest fix in the kitchen. I do, however, often lug a table lamp to the countertop to cast a soft glow. It really warms the place up — just like my wood cabinets.

Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a design and travel writer in Colorado.

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