12 Easy Ways to Upgrade Basic Kitchen Cabinets

Want to give your outdated or builder-grade kitchen cabinets a fresh new look? Add style and functionality for a fraction of the cost of putting in new cabinets with these tricks.

By: Karin Beuerlein

Photo By: Behr Paints

Photo By: Kichler

Photo By: Judy Meek

Photo By: Bendheim

Photo By: my3monsters.com

Photo By: Sarah Macklem

Photo By: Jessi Wohlwend

Paint

If your kitchen has good bones but simply looks tired, painting your cabinets can be just what the doctor ordered. Mix up colors on upper and lower cabinets, or on cabinets and islands as shown here, to add richness. These cabinets are painted in Windsurf from Behr Paints; the island is done in Snowy Pine and the walls are Spice Garden. Behr recommends using semi-gloss enamel for painting cabinets.

Add Task Lighting or Uplighting

Installing lighting on cabinets isn’t just a practical improvement. It can make the whole room glow, especially if you take a multi-directional approach. This kitchen features uplighting from energy-efficient LED tape on the top cabinets, and task lighting from LED under-cabinet fixtures on the bottom cabinet, both from Kichler. Kichler recommends dimmable task lighting for the kitchen so that you can make it as bright as necessary for doing prep work but dial it down for evening mood-setting.

Remove the Doors

Lighten up a heavy, closed-off kitchen by converting your ordinary cabinets to open shelving. The kitchen shown belongs to blogger Judy Meek, who first tried open shelving in 2011 and documented her steps for her readers. “I have loved the open shelf concept,” Meek says. “Besides the open shelf over the peninsula, I’ve also opened up a shelf over the dishwasher for glasses, a shelf over the coffeemaker for cups and a long cabinet over our cooktop for our everyday dinnerware. The key is filling the shelves with items you use often.” Meek started by painting her oak cabinets white, and is now changing over to Annie Sloan Chalk Paint™ with wax, which makes spill cleanup a snap.

Add Glass Door Inserts

According to glass insert manufacturer Bendheim, refacing your cabinets costs about 20% of what replacing them would cost. Plus, it’s a project you can do yourself over a weekend without losing the use of your kitchen. There are plenty of options besides plain clear glass: you can choose from etched (shown), fluted, crackled, colored or patterned glass, and set off your new look with interior cabinet lighting.

Install Roll-Out Shelving

Custom kitchens have lots of built-in features to add functionality, but there’s no reason you can’t have the same perks on a budget. Roll-out shelves for bottom cabinets are a must — these sturdy bamboo drawers from The Container Store are easy to install with just a screwdriver or drill.

Replace Door Fronts With Chicken Wire

With some chicken wire and white chalk paint, craft blogger Amy Gregson transformed her builder-grade oak cabinets into her dream farmhouse kitchen. “It really lightened the space up and gave it a ton of personality,” she says. “It makes me smile every time I walk in there!” See how she did it here; since the original blog post was written, she has painted the lower cabinets navy blue and installed bright-white countertops (shown).

Add Crown Molding

If you have solid but unremarkable builder-grade cabinets, the simplest route to a high-end look is adding some height with crown molding. Interior designer Sarah Macklem of The Yellow Cape Cod tackled this project in her own kitchen with striking results. 

Add Lid Storage

Pots and their lids are great partners on the stove, but inside the kitchen cabinet, not so much. Get a handle on the havoc and make your cabinets more functional by storing lids on the door with a minimalist rack like this steel model from The Container Store.

Spice Up Your Doors

The backside of a kitchen cabinet door is a space with great potential that’s too often wasted. A spice rack is an ideal way to put it to use — it frees up the inside of the cabinet and keeps all those tiny bottles neat and readable at eye level. Designer Jan Goldman of Kitchen Elements had this cabinet custom-made for her client, but there are lots of prefab wall-mounted options available designed specifically for spice storage.

Swap Out Boring Hardware

A fresh take on knobs and pulls is one of the quickest fixes for what ails your kitchen cabinets. Browse for new options at your local big-box store, at handcrafted glass or metal shops or from specialty retailers like Restoration Hardware, which stocks this knob in amber, green, violet, black and clear glass.

Add Adhesive Backing

Peel-and-stick adhesive backing has come a long way, baby — there’s a pattern available for every kitchen style these days, and you can even design your own at Spoonflower. This cabinet was lined with Spoonflower’s removable wallpaper by DIY blogger Jessi Wohlwend a PracticallyFunctional.com (the design shown is “quatrefoil lg yellow” by designer misstiina).

Install Under-Cabinet Shelving

Don’t forget the dead air space underneath upper shelves — it’s a smart place to stash mugs, dessert plates, baking sheets and other compact kitchen items. The Container Store offers under-cabinet shelving in vinyl-coated wire that adds usable real estate to existing cabinets without taking up any extra space in your kitchen.