7 Easy Ways to Modernize Dated Oak Cabinets Without a Drop of Paint

published Jan 13, 2024
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If you’ve spent any amount of time on home improvement sites and blogs (like, ahem, Apartment Therapy), you know that there are seemingly limitless non-permanent and renter-friendly home upgrades you can do (plenty of DIYs, specifically!). But the great ideas always seem to come to a halt once you lay eyes on oak cabinetry in a kitchen. 

With a medium wood tone and heavy grain that can’t easily be covered, oak cabinets rose to popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s and have been used ever since. Not a fan of the traditional look? For the most part, we can’t blame you. While some claim oak cabinets are making a comeback, they still aren’t the best option for today’s more modern style. So if you’re wondering how to have a modern kitchen with oak cabinets, you may need to get a little creative — and we’ve got you covered. 

While a coat of paint might be the most obvious choice for many, it’s not always an option, whether you’re a renter or on a budget. But don’t lose hope — we reached out to several home design experts for their take on how to make a modern kitchen with oak cabinets. From simple to clever to downright eye-popping, they’ve given us seven great ideas to share with you. 

How to Modernize Oak Cabinetry

1. Update Hardware

First up, the simplest of solutions: Remove dated hardware and replace it with more modern options. “Think: copper, brass, or matte black,” says Nigel William, a home improvement expert and contributor to Australian-based Toolazine. “It’s a simple switch that instantly elevates the cabinets, giving them a fresh, modern edge.” The matte silver hardware in this small kitchen is a great example of a kitchen featuring oak cabinets that doesn’t look dated. 

2. Go Dark With Your Backsplash

Embrace the power of contrast in order to trick the eye, Williams says. “Introduce a bold, dark-colored backsplash to create a striking visual impact. The deep hues will complement the oak, making it pop without a drop of paint,” he says. “This idea suits kitchens aiming for a contemporary or transitional aesthetic. The result is a stylish kitchen that feels updated without losing the charm of oak.”

Credit: Amelia Lawrence/Kitchn

3. Add a White Backsplash

Or, lighten things up with an all-white backsplash. Whether you opt for a modern subway tile or something more eclectic, white looks great with the natural color of oak, and immediately opens the space up, giving a clean, modern vibe. “Choose a backsplash tile complementary to the oak cabinets, such as a light gray or white,” says David Mason, founder of knobs.co, an online purveyor of hardware for cabinetry. 

“This works well for kitchens with traditional or rustic aesthetics, as the oak cabinets complement these styles,” Mason says. “It will produce a more modern and updated look while still keeping the warmth of the wood tones.” Check out this kitchen for inspiration.

Credit: Artazum/Shutterstock

4. Use a Dark Stain

You can also use stain to darken the cabinets and create a more sleek look, says Seyman Usta, interior design specialist and founder of Seus Lighting. Achieve a look similar to this stately kitchen by using a dark, cherry-colored stain. 

Credit: Erin Derby

5. Try Vinyl Wrapping

Those who can’t stand the look of oak cabinets but can’t use paint for an upgrade can try this unique approach that’s surprisingly easy to accomplish. Use vinyl sheeting, contact paper, or wallpaper on your cabinets to create a totally chic look that’s easily removable: perfect for renters! 

6. Add Glass Fronts and Open Shelving

Some of the hottest trends in kitchens today are open shelves and glass-front cabinetry. These options allow you to not only store your belongings, but also to show them off. If you have an eclectic collection of beautiful bowls or glasses, Williams suggests replacing a few of your oak cabinet fronts with glass, or adding some open shelving to your kitchen for a touch of personalization. 

7. Mix Wood Tones

One of the best ways to cope with oak cabinets (or anything else in your home you’re not super fond of) is to simply detract attention. One way to do that is by mixing wood tones. You can do this by painting some of your cabinets if you’re allowed, applying a peel-and-stick paper (or vinyl wrapping, as noted above), or adding some open shelving in a drastically different wood tone. This Seattle kitchen displays a mix of oak and white cabinetry.