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How To Make Oak Kitchen Cabinets Look Modern (without painting)

If you want an updated kitchen but don’t have time to paint your cabinets, then this post is for you. Keep reading to discover 12 ways you can makeover your small kitchen today.

oak kitchen cabinets in modern looking kitchen makeover.

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In our home, we have chosen to go the route of painting our kitchen cabinets and even repainting them. However, there are ways to update your oak kitchen cabinets without painting. This small kitchen makeover may have you rethinking your next kitchen DIY project.

Can oak cabinets look modern?

Oak cabinets can still feel modern and fresh by changing the surroundings. Our friends bought this amazing lakehouse and chose to do just that. From your countertops to hardware, adding modern elements to oak cabinets can really make an impact. Use these 12 ways to modernize your 90s oak cabinets without painting them.

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The “before” kitchen with oak cabinets

Before kitchen makeover with oak cabinets, red walls.

How did they modernize the oak kitchen cabinets?

Here is a rough sketch of the main makeover ideas used to completely makeover this small kitchen without tearing everything out. You will absolutely love the final results and how they were able to do this on a budget!

kitchen makeover plan while keeping oak kitchen cabinets.

12 DIY Ideas To Modernize Oak Cabinets

1. Clean the cabinets

Seriously, have you ever seen how much grime can accumulate on kitchen cabinets? Take a wet towel or even a kitchen cleaner and really get the grime off. Really look at the cabinets up close and in all the little grooves dust can sit. A simple wiping can really make all the difference.

2. Add a modern backsplash and grout color

We absolutely love the geometric backsplash they chose in this kitchen. While the color is simple, the shape of the tiles really added a more modern feel. Not to mention they played off of their black matte hardware when choosing their grout color.

two white picket fence mosaic tiles on concrete.
These white ceramic picket tile sheets fit easily together.

Don’t want to completely replace your kitchen backsplash?

Check out how we were able to paint our kitchen backsplash tile in our cheap kitchen makeover. Honestly, it is one of the best DIY projects we have ever done. Ideas like this can help you cheaply makeover your kitchen.

3. Remove some upper cabinets and replace them with open shelving

There are mixed reviews on open shelving, but taking a few cabinets down added so much style to this kitchen and showcased the awesome modern backsplash. You can make your own floating DIY shelves or buy premade ones that match your existing cabinets.

geometric white backsplash tile with oak open floating shelves and accessories.

4. Change out the cabinet hardware

This might seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes all cabinets need is a little bit of refresh with new hardware. These matte black handles (awesome bulk price) and contemporary knobs can bring a whole new look to the kitchen. 

two matte black hardware knobs on white table with text overlay matte black knobs used.

Read More>>>Trendy Matte Black Hardware Ideas

Can you use spray paint on your old kitchen hardware?

You for sure can! When we added laundry room cabinets & shelving, we had a mix of metals that I wasn’t vibing with. We could have purchased new handles like the ones above but chose to spray paint the silver handles we already had. 

You could do the same when considering how to update your oak cabinet hardware.

handles being sprayed with black spray paint.

Frequently touched handles may have a limited life span once spray painted, but properly cleaning will help the paint adhere. Hinges on the other hand are rarely touched and are the perfect thing to spray paint to match your modern decor.

5. Change the faucet hardware

The matte black sink hardware plays so well with the white counters and oak cabinets. You don’t have to ruin your budget either when shopping for black matte sink faucets. Stores carry all sorts of styles at different price points now.

black kitchen faucet hardware with white counters and oak cabinets.

6. Replace the countertops

This is the priciest suggestion on this list. Our friends did not have a ton of counter space so they were able to achieve this without breaking the bank. And by adding a premade island they saved money on putting a countertop there. Mixing and matching different surfaces can save you money.

white quartz countertop with gray veining.
Andes White Quartz

Changing out your countertops to a more modern and airy style can make a world of difference. Our friends went with a faux white marble quartz that added a clean element to the space.

They were able to give a fresher feeling to their kitchen by adding more light and bright colors to the surrounding elements.

Read More: 6 Tips For Choosing Countertops To Go With Oak Cabinets (plus our favorite 7 colors)

7. Paint a light color on your kitchen walls & trim

The “before” dated red painted walls really made this kitchen feel small. By using a nice white color on the trim & walls the space immediately opened up.

The color palette of neutral brown, white and black is a classic palette that will always stay on trend. You can always add fun colors to your accessories and items you choose to put on display.

oak kitchen cabinets with new white island and stainless steel appliances.

8. Add a new kitchen island

The original kitchen did not have an island. Instead of trying to match the cabinets, you can purchase a premade island or cart that could work. As you can see in the before picture, taping out the dimensions will help you truly visualize what your space may look like with the new addition. 

Don’t be scared to add color, repaint or make the piece completely different than the surrounding cabinets. Add modern stools and showcase your personality in your kitchen island piece.

9. Replace some door fronts with glass

The upper corner cabinet was already a glass front. However, if you don’t have that you could always consider changing some of your upper cabinet doors to help break up the wall of oak cabinetry. Display cool cookbooks or dishes to really add some flavor to your kitchen remodel.

10. Change your light fixtures

Have fun mixing materials and textures in your space. The neutral light hanging over the table exudes boho-chic while still working with the oak cabinets. The basket light fixture is awesome but we could also see a capiz shell light there as well.

basket light shade hanging.

11. Add modern furniture & decor

Our friends snagged an awesome leather couch and other fun decor items for the open living room by buy-sell-trade. Score cheap home items with our tips and learn the lingo for FB marketplace and BST.

The brown leather color plays off of the oak cabinets and has a complete mid-century feel. By adding contemporary furniture it gave the feel that the oak cabinets were always supposed to be part of the original design.

white geometric backsplash with black grout and glasses on wooden floating shelf.

12. Buy new appliances

In this kitchen makeover, one oak cabinet was taken out and a dishwasher was added for functional reasons. The range and refrigerator were also replaced. The stainless steel and modern appliances help to visually break up the line of oak cabinets that were previously there.

If this isn’t in the budget, white appliances would still feel modern in this space. Just give them a fresh cleaning.


  • When choosing a wall color to complement oak cabinets, consider lighter colors with slightly warm undertones such as warm whites, light sage greens or creams.
  • If matte black hardware is not your thing, you could consider bronze, champagne gold or other modern brass hardware options.
  • Keep the permanent fixtures neutral. You can always add color with accessories and decor that can be easily changed.

Before and After Kitchen

Now I don’t know about you, but these ideas will make me reconsider painting cabinets right away.

before oak kitchen cabinets and after with modern ideas.

Room Sources

Here are links to some of the exact or very close to the exact products used.

Oak Cabinet FAQs

What countertops go well with honey oak cabinets?

White counters or white counters with slight veins go really well with oak cabinetry. Consider a granite color like Super White which is meant to look like Carrara marble or Colonial White for a warmer color for a modern feel.

How do you make honey oak cabinets look good?

Add bright and crisp colors to the walls, backsplash tile, and in appliances. A pure white color can help brighten a space with honey oak cabinets. White or stainless steel appliances will also help bounce light around and make your kitchen feel larger.

Are oak kitchen cabinets making a comeback?

More and more modern kitchen designs are showing lighter wood cabinets or a mixture of some colored cabinetry. Consider refacing your oak cabinet boxes with newer style doors such as Shaker, adding modern hardware and adding soft-close drawers to modernize your oak kitchen cabinets.

Follow us on Pinterest, Youtube or Facebook for more DIY inspiration!

Related Reading

While we like painting cabinets we know that you can still make oak cabinets look modern with these DIY projects.

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  1. Charlotte W Mraz says:

    You saved us A LOT OF MONEY! Hubby WANTED TO PAINT! I SAID ” NOT OAK!”

    1. Awesome. I am glad that you were able to get inspiration from this post for your oak kitchen cabinets!

  2. Do you know what colour they painted the walls and trim? Everything looks great!

    1. Hi Heather. I am still waiting to here from our friends about the white color they used. If you are looking for a great white though, I would consider SW Pure White. We just used it in a small bathroom and it is true to its name.

    2. @Erin,
      Hi Erin,
      Did you happen to find out the paint color used in the kitchen? I’m needing to paint and would love to sample this color. I too have the oak cabinet blues.. I’m hoping this will help 🙂 Thank you for the article as I’m searching for a modern look.

      1. Hi Madeline. My friends think they used a very basic and clean white called from Behr: Ultra Pure White. This is a very clean and crisp white that is similar to SW High Reflective White.

  3. The white walls over the uppers blend so much that at first glance, it appears that the ceiling was lowered.

  4. Cindy Brandt says:

    I have a lot of the oak cabinets, I am thinking about distressing them, and painting my kitchen that flows into my dining room a medium rich yellow. It kind of freaks me out, because what if I don’t like the look and then then I have all this on my cabinets. LOL! I can visualize it, and it looks nice, but……I have already done the hardware, glass doors, just not making much of a difference. I like you back splash, this house has none (we bought it a year ago) and I think that would make a huge difference. Us DIYers have lots of creative ideas, and they go around in circles in our brains. LOL

    1. Hi Cindy. Yes, DIYers are always letting one project lead to another. We do that all the time here! Good luck with your kitchen projects.

  5. Thank you for sharing your fresh and practical transformation! Can you please be more specific about the countertop material – “faux white marble granite?”

    1. Hi Gina. So my friends used granite that is meant to look like marble for their countertops and not actual marble which can be harder to maintain. We have seen awesome success with the granite color called Super White which is meant to look like Carrara marble.

  6. We have some old oak cabinets in our kitchen and have desperately wanted to invest in cabinet refinishing or cabinet painting of some sort. Thank you for the inspiration, Erin!

  7. I’m keeping my honey oak cabinets, but changing countertops to something NOT white. They’re white now and it’s too easy to stain white. I like the backsplash tiles in the new kitchen, but don’t care for the open shelving or that institutional “island.” I would chose a different light fixture but anything is better than the nondescript fixture in the old kitchen picture.

    1. Hi Cindy. Good luck with your kitchen makeover. I would love to know the countertops and light fixture you picked.

  8. R u in Westerville,Oh? My hometown!

    1. Hi Sherry. One of our friends also grew up there!

  9. What do you have on your floors? We want to add wood look flooring but want something that won’t clash with the oak.

    1. Hi Kimberly. Those floor were there the whole time. If you look closely, you can see that there are multiple wood colors/variations in the flooring. I am sorry that I do not know the exact name of the flooring used.

  10. I kind of feel most of these ideas would be more expensive and time consuming than just painting the doors

    1. Hi Sally. Yes, if you did all of this it could be more costly than painting the doors. However, you could also just do one or two things off this list to help modernize your kitchen with oak cabinets. Good luck with your kitchen reno!

  11. Have you seen anyone take the cabinet doors off and then paining the rest of the cabinet white and then put the doors back on. I am wondering if the outline in white would offset the oak???

    1. Hi Brian. We have not seen that personally. I guess the worse case scenario would be that you end up painting your cabinets all white. We would maybe consider painting the lower or upper cabinets instead of doing only part of the all the cabinets.

  12. I would also add the tip to ‘refreshen’ the look- is a nice long, neutral rug runner. I really like how they look in a kitchen!

    1. Hey Reba! Yes, great idea. There are so many fun rugs and patterns out there to fit any style.

  13. We ate doing a kitchen upgrade. Just moved in 7 months ago. The hone is 20 yrs old and has oak cabinets. Actually alot of oak everywhere! The cabinets are in very good condition so at this time they are staying oak.Anyway I had thought of many of your ideas already..we are changing counters hardware and backsplash and new sink and faucet.
    I want to put in a black granite counters as I think it would look nice with oak? Any thoughts?

    1. Black counters could work, but I would recommend keeping the other elements lighter in the space. We would love to see any before and after pictures of your kitchen once you are done. Good luck with your kitchen remodel.