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How to make oak cabinets work and save money on your kitchen reno!

Making our 1990's oak cabinets work in our kitchen wasn't where our minds first went when we moved into our home in 2022. We immediately thought we'd tear them out and start fresh. My husband had contractors come give estimates within 2 weeks of moving in. A full kitchen renovation would land us in the 45-60k ballpark with several companies (excluding appliances). Ikea was cheaper...around 25-30k (excluding appliances). But those numbers made us take another look at our kitchen...and we realized maybe the oak cabinets aren't so bad...really it's what's around them!

And what was around ours....was rough. To each their own, but the red paint just wasn't working with the wood. It was pulling out too much orange and yellow. The tan granite countertops and tan stone tile backsplash were of course all the rage in the 90's and early 2000's. But, now, it just felt dated and added more brown than we cared for.

So, we had two options. Paint the cabinets white and try to make the counters and backsplash work (plus deal with inevitable chipping paint). Or, bring in some contrast and modern touches with updated counters and wavy, beveled subway tile to see if it brings our oak cabinets back to life. We went with the latter. And we're so glad we did!

Here are the changes we made, that you can make too!

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1. Remove some upper cabinets if they aren't your style.

Our cabinets were staggered height which was dating the look and feel of the kitchen. We assessed our storage needs and realized we could make do with removing the cabinets sitting at the lowest point and replace with open shelves. These cabinets also had the curved arches which we actually have come to not mind, but too many of them did make the cabinetry as a whole feel a bit old. Removing these freshened up the feel of the remaining cabinets, and offered opportunity to create more modern touches on the biggest wall in our kitchen.

Additionally, it removed some of the cabinets closest to the ceiling lights. As you can tell in the pictures when your oak cabinets are on the floor away from yellow light, the true color is actually a darker, rich oak rather than orange. Which we love and wanted to highlight.

Keep in mind, removing these cabinets resulted in the exterior sides of the bordering left and right cabinetry on this wall being exposed (As seen below). Seeing that it wasn't visible before, there were portions of these cabinets that were never originally stained. We used this mid-brown color briwax to stain and it matched our existing cabinetry perfectly! It was such a quick and simple fix.

On this same note, I've received a lot of questions about what to do if you have a honey (very orange) oak cabinets to begin with. If you do, I consider trying to use this briwax as an experiment to see if you can give them a darker, richer look similar to what you see in our kitchen. I would sand the cabinets and then apply this briwax to even out the orange tone. There are also darker briwax options that you might want to play with. It could save you thousands by not having to replace your cabinetry.

2. Create a focal point with a range hood and shelves

Removing a wall of uppers allowed us to really get creative and draw the eye away from all the wood, focusing on more modern elements. We chose to go with black hardware on the cabinets, so we used a black range hood from amazon as well (moving our microwave into the large remaining cabinet on the right side of the focal point wall). To each side of the hood we bought these marble shelves from pottery barn when they were on sale, which tied in the matte black look and complimented the new countertops. We toyed with doing wood floating shelves, but with the wood floors and oak cabinets, we didn't want to add more wood and grain to the kitchen.

3. Choose a contrasting, less busy countertop

The countertop process wasn't easy. And we're glad we tested several options. The grain of the oak cabinets is beautiful, but a little busy, so we chose to go with something that contrasted, lightened up the space, and looked classic. We landed on white quartz with gold veining to compliment the warm oak tones. Several of the quartz options we looked at and thought were white, really had a more gray tone once we brought samples into our home and under the light. This option from MSI surfaces, calacatta miraggio gold, was our winner. It's a true white quartz with veining that is evident and visible,

but not overpowering. We really like that the gold veins tie into the wood look. Plus, with 2 kids, we appreciate the durability of the quartz over a marble. Though, we do think some marble options would have looked great too!

4. Choose an updated backsplash and if you can, tile up to the ceiling

Seeing as we were getting rid of a tan stone backsplash, we wanted to choose a backsplash that was different than the feel the original backsplash gave off in order to make a bigger impact. Our oak cabinets needed brightened up and since the tile surrounds them, we wanted a bright white option. While we love traditional subway tile, in this case it felt

somewhat flat and boring. So we went with a beveled, wavy subway tile that offered character and dimension. You can find it here at the tile shop. The light in our kitchen highlights the grooves and waves in the tile creating a beautiful and interesting look. For the grout we also went with true white. We toyed with something darker to more evidently outline the tile, but again, the grain in the wood is busy so we didn't want to add to that visual. You can see in some of the install pics though what it would look like if you did a darker grout. We think more of an outline with a darker grout still looks nice, and is totally up to your preference!

If you can, we highly recommend tiling to the ceiling. It gives the whole kitchen a more luxurious feel! It was worth the time and investment. Highly recommend.

5. New hardware

Hardware doesn't have to break the bank. We bought matte black hardware for each cabinet and drawer from Amazon. You can find the pulls we used for the doors here, and the cup pulls for the drawers here. It only cost about $50 for the entire kitchen. If you go to a hardware store or buy from a big box, the prices dramatically increase. While we chose matte black, a lacquered brass or vintage bronze look would also work really well!

6. Paint makes all the difference

This one speaks for itself. Out with the red, and in with brighter more modern and classic paint on our whole first floor. We used chantilly lace by Benjamin Moore for any wall in the kitchen that wasn't tiled. Highly recommend this color. Several whites we tried ended up with a yellow undertone next to the wood.

7. Updated light fixtures

We knew we wanted to add overhanging pendant lights for our island. While we could have gone with something more custom, we stumbled upon an option that saved us a ton of money on both the lights themselves, and also the install.

No need for hardwiring with this option. It's a pendant light conversion kit for a recessed can from Lowes. You screw it in to your already existing can lights - and you're done! We spray painted the bronze wire and bronze plate matte black to match the rest of our finishes. We then picked a textured glass globe to tie into the beveled look of the subway tile. You can see the play by play for the lighting install here.

We also saved money by using battery operated gold sconces above our shelves. You can find those here. Of course, you may prefer to hardwire, but we added these after tiling and didn't want to mess with the trouble of having to get behind the tiled wall or redoing portions of the tile wall. If you prefer to hardwire, do this before tiling.

Lesson learned, but we have no problem with the battery operated version. It holds the charge well and they look great. Upon arrival from Amazon, we found the sconces to be more yellow toned than vintage gold (which is the look we wanted). So, we used rub 'n buff to quickly and easily achieve the more muted, vintage bronze look we were going for. It's a very fast and easy process. We have gold light fixtures and door knobs on the rest of our main floor that we used the rub 'n buff on as well, which tie in perfectly. I'm putting together a post about the sconces and how to achieve this look soon!

8. Finishing touches: modern bar stools, rugs, decor.

Since the oak cabinets are a more traditional and older look, balance it out with modern touches. We didn't want wood bar stools in an effort to limit adding more wood to the kitchen, so we went with a tan and matte black stool you can find here on wayfair or here at home depot.

We added a rug runner to cover up some of the wood floor and add some color. We went with a red/tan/green runner from Target, but had a cream one as well at one point that also looked great.

We decorated the open shelves with DIY cookbook art, wine glasses, plants, and neutral plates and bowls from World Market.

9. Make it your own

If money allows, make the changes you can that you know your family will appreciate. Since we were replacing the countertops already, we used this as an opportunity to extend our island by about a foot and a half. We love having a larger island that fits three bar stools now instead of two. It's great for hosting, parties, activities with the kids, and offers more space for cooking and grocery hauls.

This, however, left a gap from where our existing island cabinets ended. It raised the question of how we fill the empty space. We could have tried to add cabinets to match, or do open shelving, but we knew we would get more use out of...a wine fridge!

This wine fridge fit perfectly and you can find it here at Lowes or wayfair. We love having the extra fridge space and it really elevated the look of the island.

We decided to do a waterfall island to add another focal point and draw attention to the white and gold quartz, rather than the wood that was so prominent in our kitchen before.

10. Total cost for the look:

Before major appliances: $11,849

Including major appliances (fridge, dishwasher, range & hood, wine fridge): $6,016

TOTAL: $17,865

A huge savings compared to the potentially 45-60k we may have spent on a total renovation. We couldn't be happier with our decision.

Here's the breakdown:

Countertop removal and install of new quartz and waterfall island: $6,500

Cabinet removal, backsplash & hood install: $3,460

Backsplash tiles & grout: $442

Hardware for doors and drawers: $57

Sink: $352

Faucet: $53

Paint, beadboard, decor & misc. supplies: $150

Major appliances (all purchased on sale):

Fridge + protection plan: $2,186

Dishwasher + 5 yr protection plan: $1,368

Electric range + 5 yr protection plan: $1,894

Here are some more before and afters. What a difference! Thanks for following along and good luck on your own kitchen renovation. I hope this helps you feel some relief if you're working with a 90's kitchen as well. Oak can work!

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