6 ideas for refreshing honey oak cabinets to liven up those golden oldies

Honey oak cabinets are usually well-built, so don’t default to ripping them out

Honey oak cabinets were all the rage in the 1980s. But if your kitchen cabinets are stuck in the Reagan Administration, there are ways you can update them for new life in the 21st century. 

Those honey oak cabinets were usually solid and well-built, too. At least compared to a lot of modern kitchen cabinets, the oak cabinets of yore still have a lot of life left in them. Longevity has a lot of value. Here’s what you can do instead of ripping them out.

Paint oak or wood cabinets for the fastest refresh

Painting cabinets is one of the most effective, affordable, and quickest ways to refresh kitchen cabinets. Neutral shades like white, gray, or black can give you a modern kitchen vibe. Warm wood tones, as any honey oak kitchen can attest, can work well — just tone down the yellow and oranges..

It sounds self-serving for us to say this, but you probably don’t want to paint wood cabinets yourself. It’s way faster just to take the cabinets off the walls to paint in the backyard. But removing and re-hanging cabinets can be a real challenge for many people, and almost certainly for a single person. Hiring a professional painter with experience in cabinet painting is money well spent.

While you’re at it, we can paint the walls, too. Once the upper cabinets are removed, painting the walls is more accessible and uniform. Wall color palette ideas matching the wood tone or cabinet paint color you choose will make your whole kitchen look new.

Refinishing wood cabinets retains some of the wood feel

It’s not for everyone because it’s likely pricey but solid, well-built oak cabinets can take well to sanding and refinishing. This can turn your original oak cabinets into something richer, like dark brown, maple cabinets, or even cherry cabinets. Since honey oak cabinets are often relatively warm, refinishing to warm tones usually works better than going lighter.

Refinishing honey oak trim, however, can be challenging. All the wood in those crevices around the edges or crown molding of the cabinets has to get sanded to refinish evenly, which can be a painstaking process by hand or with small tools. But the results are often stunning.

White trim is standard and familiar if you decide to paint the wood, but that’s also common of a builder-grade kitchen. If you’re unsure of color palette ideas that might work, talk with a color consultant or interior designer. Our color consultants are available at no cost for all Woodiwiss Painting customers.

Change out the countertops or backsplash

If the honey oak kitchen works for you and you don’t mind it that much, that’s fine! You can still get a more modern kitchen feel by changing out the countertops. White quartz countertops, for instance, can go well with honey oak and is relatively easy to replace since most kitchens have standard-size countertops you can just pick up at the hardware store.. 

A backsplash can make a huge difference, too, especially if your kitchen is highly visible from areas around the entire house. Backsplashes can be tile, chrome, or other vinyl materials. Hardware stores carry many options you can mix and match to create any color scheme.

Lighting can do more than just change the fixtures

Light fixtures are sometimes a focal point in a kitchen, but the light they cast can change the way a room feels. Anyone who uses smart bulbs that change colors knows you can get a lot of different vibes out of some well-placed color bulbs. 

Those smart bulbs are less common in a kitchen, but updated lighting and pendant lights can cast warm undertones or reflect off a bright, creamy white countertop. Earth tones can work well, too, if cast by the right domes and fixture coverings.

Replace the hardware

Swap out the old cabinet pulls, door knobs, and other metal for new hardware. Cabinet hardware can be extremely affordable compared to the time and cost of painting, refinishing, or new cabinets.

Like light fixtures, contemporary cabinet hardware with brushed nickel, stainless steel (which goes well with new stainless appliances, if you have them or are thinking about new appliances), matte black, and brass hardware really do make a big difference. 

You can replace the hardware without painting anything, but if you do paint the cabinets and replace the hardware, too, it’ll feel almost like a complete renovation.

Trends come and go, but black hardware and chrome hardware are both feeling increasingly dated to the early 2000s. What you choose is up to you, but you may be best to pick what matches your appliances or other fixtures.

Clean and declutter your oak kitchen cabinets, then take off the doors

Taking off the doors is not for everyone. If you open the cabinets and have dozens of cups or bags of food falling out, you might not be in good shape to remove the doors. 

But, if you tidy up, declutter, and organize all your cabinet interiors and can keep them that way (or, more likely, can keep everyone else in the family from cluttering them up again), taking off the doors can do wonders and even impact your dining room or spaces in line-of-sight of the kitchen.

It’s modern and trendy to take off the doors, leaving you with the wood trim and sides. This can reduce the amount of honey oak kitchen surfaces by 80-90%, which lends to easier painting or refinishing later. Or, just less of the honey oak to look at right now.

The simple lines that result put more emphasis on the contents of the cabinets, which can work well if you have neatly packed plates, bowls, cups, and pantry items in sleek containers. But if you just put the pork and beans and potato chips up there, you risk making your kitchen look like the inside of a grocery store. 

If this appeals to you, consult an interior designer to review some options. Even if you have to buy a bunch of new containers or cabinet organizers, it’s a quick way to change the room.

Worth noting you should save the doors, and most people typically only remove the upper cabinet doors. Tuck the door panels in the attic or pack them in a safe place away from harsh temperatures or moisture. If you ever want to sell or paint, some other buyer — or your future self — may appreciate not having to find replacement doors.

You can add light fixtures inside the cabinets, too. Interior lights can help put a focus on nice dishes or china and eliminate “dark corners” in cabinets that get tucked into corners and may look ominously shady with the doors off.

Do you have oak cabinets in your kitchen you’re ready to move on from?

We can help in and around the East Bay area. We’ve updated hundreds of oak kitchens and have decades of experience refinishing wood cabinets. 

We’re also one of the few professional painting services that can help you choose new colors, handle the wood trim, install new trim, and replace the cabinet hardware for you. 

Wall paint is also always an option and, depending on the size of your kitchen, is likely very affordable to “add on,” even if you weren’t considering painting the walls. 

Give us a call, send us a message, or email us at info@woodiwisspainting.com to get started.