8 Ways to Avoid a Total Remodel in a Kitchen with Oak Cabinets

Give dated wood cabinetry a fresh update with these design ideas.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, oak was a popular choice for kitchen cabinetry in homes across America, and this cabinet material remains in many homes today. Oak is a hardwood and, if properly cared for, can still be used in contemporary kitchens. However, the typical orange oak finish of decades past can look dated in today's kitchens. It may not make sense for you to replace your old wood cabinetry only for aesthetic reasons, especially if they're still in good condition. The challenge then becomes how to create a modern kitchen with oak cabinets. Use these oak cabinetry ideas to make this material work if your kitchen needs updating.

Kitchen with wooden cabinets and geometric wallpaper
Kritsada Panichgul

1. Create a Focal Point

Large stretches of oak cabinets have a tendency to overpower kitchen designs. To minimize this, create a different focal point. Install a striking tile backsplash or opt for a statement range hood to shift the attention away from the cabinetry. For a more budget-friendly update, lay down a patterned area rug or runner to balance the visual weight throughout the room.

Contemporary kitchen with two tone cabinetry
Laurie Black

2. Cool Down Oak Cabinetry

Oak cabinetry often features an orange finish that can make your kitchen appear outdated. To tone down the warmth and create a modern kitchen with oak cabinets, outfit the rest of the kitchen in cool refreshing tones such as blues or greens. Here, the backsplash is tiled with varying shades of teal to temper the rich wood tones in the cabinetry. Cool gray walls and blue accessories reinforce the effect.

red oak cabinets
John Gruen

3. Accessorize Oak Cabinetry

Wood furniture or cabinets act as a neutral, opening up opportunities to incorporate color into your kitchen. Accessorize around oak cabinetry with treasured objects such as decorative plates or colored glass vases. Add decorative things to your kitchen that reflect your style or preferred color palette, such as ceramic planters, dish towels, or small appliances. Lighting contributes to the ambiance, so use fixtures that complement the existing architecture or the overall aesthetic.

dark green tiled kitchen with larch-wood cabinets with cutout handles
Kim Cornelison

4. Design Contemporary Oak Cabinets

Oak that doesn't have a lacquered shine and is left in its natural state makes a more modern statement. Consider alternative ways to update to a modern kitchen with oak cabinets. Use contemporary pulls, sleek countertops and fixtures, or a backsplash in modern geometric shapes. For another fresh update, minimize clutter and introduce artwork and home accessories in moderation to balance the weight of the heavier wood surfaces.

Kitchen with gray brick and wooden cabinets
John Granen

5. Mix Wood Tones

There's no design rule that states wood tones need to match. In fact, mixing wood tones brings an updated feel to a kitchen. A rich walnut stain will add depth and richness to cabinets. Combine the dark cabinets with lighter ones in natural or rustic exposed wood for a look that showcases the grain's natural beauty.

after kitchen vintage orange cabinets
Laurie Black

6. Pair Oak Cabinets with Light Tones

Detract from the heavy look of oak cabinets by opting for lighter tones in other areas of your kitchen. Use white or light-colored walls, flooring, and countertops to brighten a space. Shiny surfaces, including glass tile and stainless-steel appliances, can also reflect light and give the room a visual lift. Notice how the oak cabinets in this kitchen are balanced by white walls and sleek gray accents for a polished look.

high ceiling dining room with gray rug and wooden accents
Kim Cornelison

7. Try Two-Tone Oak Cabinetry

Two-tone cabinets are a great look in kitchen design. Consider painting a block of cabinets, such as the base cabinets, in a contrasting accent color to add interest and variety to a kitchen that feels overwhelmed by wood surfaces. If you're nervous about going bold on such a big project, warm white is a classic choice that pairs well with most oak cabinets. Repeat the shade chosen for the painted cabinets in accessories for a cohesive kitchen color scheme.

Kitchen with green cabinets and black and white geometric floors
Annie Schlecther

8. Paint Your Oak Cabinets

​​An alternative to preserving the look of oak is to take the plunge and paint your kitchen cabinets in an appealing shade. Neutral colors such as white, cream, black, taupe, or gray make timeless cabinet paint colors. Painting cabinets preserves their integrity and provides a fresh new look without the cost of replacement. Once you've painted oak cabinets, consider adding new hardware, a glass tile backsplash, and affordable laminate countertops in modern patterns that replicate stone. These updates are budget-friendly ways to transform a kitchen.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much do new kitchen cabinets cost?

    New kitchen cabinets will cost you anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000 depending on the materials and scope of the project. Premade cabinets are the most affordable option (at about $50 to $200 per linear square foot), but the options for tailoring them to your space are limited. Fully custom cabinets are the most expensive (at about $200 to $300 per linear square foot) but offer the most options for designing the perfect storage and look for your space. 

  • Can you refinish oak cabinets?

    Yes. You can refinish your oak cabinets, but you will need to clean them first with a strong detergent and then prep the surface with sandpaper. You can do a light sanding with fine to medium-grit sandpaper if you are staining your cabinets the same color or darker, but you will need to put in some elbow grease with courser sandpaper to remove the old stain if you are going lighter.

  • Should you paint or stain oak cabinets?

    The decision to paint or stain your cabinets often comes down to aesthetics, but there are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you love the look of wood grain, staining is a fantastic, low-maintenance option, but it is somewhat limiting in terms of style. Alternatively, painting your cabinets is an easy, affordable way to tailor the space to your style—whether it’s farmhouse chic, French country, or contemporary—but that may reduce the home’s value for future buyers. Also, with painted cabinets, you’ll need to exercise more caution to prevent staining or chipping the paint. 

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