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Updating an 80’s Kitchen with Oak Cabinets

Updating a kitchen and cabinets without painting them.

In the era of Pinterest perfection, it seems we’re all striving more than ever for a picture perfect home. If painting cabinets white and updating countertops and a new backsplash aren’t in the budget or your husband refuses to paint perfectly good oak cabinets, you’re not alone. Behind many computer screens are hopes and dreams, even my own, but it’s not always a reality.

A kitchen makeover without paint - making the best of an 80's or 90's kitchen

After a stressful summer of renovations, we decided to wait on our kitchen. Despite what you see on Pinterest, you can do a kitchen makeover without painting your orange oak cabinets. While it’s a quick fix, there are a lot of other simple and inexpensive things you can do. To embrace our kitchen until we’re ready to remodel, I made a few simple changes.

kitchen before


dated kitchen


Our kitchen is like so many – it’s filled with 80’s oak cabinets, okay, veneer cabinets and soffits, which make the room appear smaller. It’s dark, with only one small window above the sink and the brown countertops leave a lot to be desired.

Rather than compete with it, last summer I took a cue from Martha Stewart’s Turkey Hill kitchens. I say kitchens because it evolved through the years.

Updating Oak Cabinets with New Hardware:

Upon moving into the house, we almost immediately removed the square nickel hardware and warmed it up by adding brass pulls and handles – the same we plan to use once we do a full kitchen remodel. In my opinion, nickel {a cool tone} tries too hard to compete with the warmer oak cabinets. Rather than competing with them, brass compliments the wood tone.

Martha Stewart Turkey Hill Kitchen

copper kitchen accessories

Martha’s Turkey Hill kitchen has been notoriously filled with copper, which reminds me of my Grandma’s basement kitchen. You had to have 2 to make all of the pies she knocked out! Much like Martha’s, the kitchen boasted a pot rack filled to the brim and pretty copper bundts hung on the walls, doubling as decor – even if unintentional.

decorating a dated kitchen

When our chrome KitchenAid mixer met the end in spring, I replaced it with a copper KitchenAid stand mixer. I was torn between cream and copper, but I knew in the end copper would add a little decorative element in our humble kitchen.

The copper utensil holder was a birthday gift from my sister last year. I love versatile pieces – it makes a beautiful wine chiller and a vase as well!

Copper kitchen accessories

I found the corner shelves to be a little awkward and susceptible to clutter, so I use them as storage. I fill the sweet little julep cups with a few blooms until their next use. It’s also a great place for overage of mugs, etc. Keeping them filled has seemed to deter other miscellaneous items being placed there {eh-um, toys we confiscate from the kids}.


I added a soft sisal runner, though I keep alternating it with a red and navy traditional rug. I just can’t decide! The sisal is plusher, which I prefer for washing dishes.

Making the best of a dated kitchen - on a budget

Updating a Kitchen with Lighting:

The kitchen used to have 3 tiny island lights that felt very 90’s and out of place. When I saw this pendant, I had to have it! It was an inexpensive quick fix. In 10 minutes it made a huge transformation. We have it up slightly higher since we have a narrow island and Chris tends to hit his head on light fixtures.

copper light fixture for kitchen

The previous owners used it as an eat-in kitchen, we decided to take advantage of the sunroom and make it a breakfast nook, eliminating the need to squeeze a kitchen table in the open area.

Instead, I found an antique table last summer that serves as my kitchen desk. It’s where I write a quick check or put a stamp on a letter, but doubles as a buffet for serving guests when needed. The copper canisters make the room cohesive while adding more storage space.

kitchen desk vignette

We also painted the walls in a soft cream to blend with the backsplash. It made the kitchen instantly appear larger and fresher. If we had used a cool tone paint color, it would have immediately made the cabinets feel out of place. Using a warm tone, it minimizes the orange undertones of the the oak cabinets.

copper kitchen canisters

Our kitchen makeover is simple – embracing what we have and making the most of it, rather than fighting it.  Key elements like copper outshine the countertops and make it feel more classic. Soon I’ll share our kitchen plans! I’m bound to need a little advice as well. What do you think? Would these changes help you embrace a dated space a little longer?


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76 comments on “Updating an 80’s Kitchen with Oak Cabinets”

  1. Love your kitchen, friend! The metallic accents make this space so special!! 🙂 You know they are MY favorite part.

    xo Michael

  2. I love that kitchen! I need your set of eyes to make my home as beautiful as yours!

  3. These small touches make such o difference. could you tell me where you got your hardware/


  4. I love what you are doing. How many of us can afford to update our kitchen and in a few years, the painted cabinets will be out of date as well? You are a voice for normal people.

    Maybe we should start a movement to become more satisfied with what we have and less aware of what we do not have.

    • Thank you, Eva! I appreciate your support. I couldn’t agree more!

    • I agree with Eva 100%! It’s so easy to become dissatisfied when we compare our kitchens/lives to the beautiful posts we see. Making the most of what we have is key. Whether it’s a temporary fix or a forever mini upgrade, Julie has made the most of what she has right now. Who wouldn’t smile looking at the blooms in those julep cups! And your desk/buffet is beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I love your kitchen. Beautiful job. I also have oak cabinets. Custom built, and though they are pretty. I sometimes think I should paint or gel stain due to Pinterest. But I hold off knowing that all styles come and go. I have chosen to embrace also. Your so right, I love your kitchen. The color of your cabinets are beautiful and I think very classic. Great job!

  6. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this! I am just now preparing a similar post about my late 1980’s kitchen (I did use paint), but for the most part, I did just as you stated so well “embracing what we have and making the most of it.” Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Very nice! I also have copper accents in my kitchen. It’s so good to see someone embracing the wood and not painting the cabinets white. I feel like everywhere you turn everyone’s kitchen is white now and I personally love the warmth of wood tones. I also like how clear your counters are, not a lot of things to clutter them up.

    • Great minds, right Giovanna? Wood provides a warmth that no other material does. I am anti-clutter – those who have seen me cook/bake know that I need all of the workspace I can get!

  8. I have oak cabinets and floor too. I also love copper and have copper touches in our kitchen. I agree the copper updates the kitchen and also doesn’t clash with the oak. They’re both warm, so it’s a good solution, and your copper touches are beautiful!

  9. I love reading your blog. Love everything..your style, tips, and how you explain in detail! Unfortunately, I have 90’s builder grade cabinets but mine are more orange(ish). I removed the cheap brassy hardware when we bought the house but can’t figure out what would work with the orange tone wood. I did paint the kitchen sharkey gray (Martha) Would love to paint the cabinets eventually. Any advice or recommendation?
    Also, I know you recommend highest wattage bulb but do you have a favorite? I assume you don’t use led, right?

    • Ours definitely lean orange as well. While I love Sharkey Gray, grays are cool tones and your cabinets are warm tones, it will make your cabinets feel significantly more orange. If your cabinets aren’t plastic/veneer {which I’m assuming they aren’t} you may want to consider doing a lime wash. I think it offers a beautiful and subtle warm wood aesthetic. Otherwise I’d select a dark grey or a light white with grey undertones. I tend to purchase my lightbulbs from Ace Hardware…they offer the widest selection of non-LED bulbs. Most of the bulbs in our home are candle bulbs, but I use 100 watt otherwise.

  10. Thank you for responding and your suggestions!

  11. Love the detail, but I always regret using brass or copper. Too much work to keep bright and polished! What is your secret?

    • Using aged brass/copper. It looks worn and doesn’t show fingerprints. No polishing necessary! You know me, I’m all about no fuss. Have a beautiful day, Nancy!

  12. Where did the brown countertops go? I only see light color counters. Love your take on complimenting the things you couldn’t change. Working with what you have & staying in budget is a smart financial move until you an get to where you want to be.

    • They’re still there! Using a light paint in surrounding areas and removing the door that connected it to the mudroom added a lot of light, making the counters feel lighter as well!

  13. Beautiful! I truly believe in just a few short years…. Oak cabinets will be the new trend.. Again!

  14. I’m not a fan of oak cabinets. Thankfully the previous owner of our home already stained ours a dark (almost cherry) color and added granite.
    Regarding what color of hardware to use, my parents added rubbed oil bronze to their honey oak cabinets and it looked great. They also added a mosaic backsplash to tie it all together. If you don’t have much to spend, a backsplash is my favorite way to instantly update your kitchen.
    I have to say though, I love your mixer!

  15. What color paint did you use? I can’t afford to replace my cabinets but I can afford paint!

  16. I have the same problem with those corner shelves. Even when I use them for items I need frequently (from doggy medicine garlic cloves) it ends up looking cluttered. I was actually thinking about removing them…but now, maybe I’ll just think of clustering some similar items there.

  17. Thank you so much for this blog post! I too have floor to ceiling oak cabinets that my husband refuses to paint. Also an eat in kitchen and horrible wall paper. I hate my kitchen and that is where I spend most of my time. Thank you for giving me some realistic inspiration!

  18. Julie, I agree 1,000% about the Pinterest Perfect home. I would love to redo our kitchen but have 4 children to put through college…so I use “band-aids”
    I wondered if you thought about using Liming wax on the cabinets in the meantime? Maybe that would add some tone/texture that you would like. Could be a nightmare…not sure. Just a thought. I also LOVE the mudroom…That IS pinterest perfect 😉

    • I have absolutely considered it – so beautiful. Unfortunately ours feels a little plastic/veneerish and I’m not sure it would work, so I’ve just decided to enjoy it until we do a full remodel someday. Thank you SO much, Maurie! I hope you have a beautiful day.

  19. We moved into our 1945 house in 1982… Beautiful oak cabinets ????. We are 68 and really rather travel than mucho $$$$$ on new kitchen
    But we can sure paint and are handy
    Think we need to take down vent too ? Huge oak vent with pots on it

  20. I too have oak cabints. Pintrest does make you fell your cabinets are not in style. This is how our society is on to the next new fad. I predict there will be a many make over shows that will be getting rid of the white painted cabinets. They will point out how dated they are etc. Then on to the next new cabinet fad. I’ve imbraced mine.

  21. Your kitchen looks lovely and love the copper accents. Love to see I’m not the only one that has chosen not to spend a fortune on new cabinets or paint the old ones white….not everyone is into white kitchens. My house was built in 1990 and the cabinets are maple very similar style as yours. I used a product called Restorz-it to clean up the finish and it made them slightly darker. I also used an ebony stain pen along the details of the cabinets. Changed the hardware to rubbed oil bronze. Made a world of difference in my cabinets. I did go further and replaced the pink Formica counter tops (egads) with black granite, the linoleum with tile, and added a tile backsplash. Point is, the cabinets look amazing! Have gotten many compliments on them.

  22. Hello Julie, I love your home and your style so much! I’ve learned so much on your blog. Thank you for sharing so willingly. I’m curious to know if you’ve written a post on your remodeling plans for your kitchen. I think your kitchen looks so beautiful. I have oak cabinets that are yellowish and floor too. Recently, after starting the sanding process on the cabinets to paint them white I found out I’m expecting our 9th baby. My sweet husband is willing to hire someone to paint them. However, our home has not been painted since it was built in 1999. There is so much to do! After reading this post I’m wondering if we should put our money elsewhere and embrace our cabinets. Our oldest is 14 so trying to get projects done is a bit challenging. Last weekend we painted one wall of the living room soft chamois after I saw it on your website. I’m thinking I might switch to zurich white now! Anyway, having fun trying to make a cozy home for my family but I’m not very confident and am getting a little overwhelmed. I appreciate your blog, such an inspiration! God bless you! Rebecca

    • Congratulations! I’m not sure how you get anything done! Sanding and painting cabinets is a long, tedious process and tends to be more expensive than you’d think. I’d get 3 quotes and weigh the options. If you even remotely think you’ll replace them eventually, I would invest elsewhere. I don’t know – I loveZurich White and used it in our living room, but tend to lean a little more to the warmer Soft Chamois. I actually am considering using it throughout our new lake cottage {photos coming soon} as well. I recommend making a list of projects so that you can prioritize them. Sometimes in doing so you realize one of your wishes is not so urgent after all. Best wishes, Rebecca!

      • Julie, thank you so much for your advice and for such a quick response. Upon returning to the kitchen this afternoon I looked at the cabinets and, you know, they might have an orange hue to them. It’s really hard for me to tell! But, I also looked at my dark green counter tops and thought, maybe I should start with those! I think you’re right, I need to make a list. Anyway, can’t wait to see the photos of your new lake cottage. P.S. As I read through your site this past week I thought the same thing about you- wondering how you have been able to get done all that you’ve done with your little children 🙂 They are such a gift and a blessing.

  23. Love your comments.

  24. I love this!!! I have had the hardest time finding how to update our kitchen without painting the cabinets and this is it!
    Originally I was thinking a light blue gray on the walls but after seeing this I love the color. What is the wall color?
    Thank you!

  25. That whiteish kitchen you have posted – is that Martha’s? I want to go white with our kitchen, and my current cabinets are oak – can oak be refinieshed to look like that? I love love white/pear kitchens and the offsets of colors – but i don’t want to break the bank on replacing all the cabinetry.

    Julie, do you know how to tell if i can get oak to look like that? this is my favorite kitchen – or very close to my favoite.. i love how it looks but not sure if I can get my oaks to go like that, can you help give any insight?

  26. Julie, what color did you use to stain your cabinets? I like the color and your kitchen is beautiful.

  27. Love this, and I think it’s something we can do to our kitchen, too, till we can afford an upgrade. Also, are those one- or two-gallon glass canisters on your countertop?

  28. Hello Julie. Your home looks so well put together. I also have the same shade oak cabinets without the arch. I decorate more vintage style with aqua, red and soft yellow walls. I have brushed dark bronze pulls and plain white ceramic knobs. Don’t like the mixmatch. Do you
    think the vintage white milk glass drawer pulls would look good with the white knobs or too much contrast? I’m afraid I would paint them if I could but don’t want the tedious job. Just need to lighten up a bit. The counter top is a new light formica with some grain that I do like.
    Thanks for your input. Penny

  29. PS. I do have white beadboard backsplash. Thanks. Penny

  30. I love how you made your kitchen look good with the existing cabinets and did not paint them white. Can you help me figure out what to do with oak 90’s style white washed cabinets? I have dark green laminate countertops that have to go, I want to replace them with granite. Any ideas for the cabinets ?

  31. Hi I also love your kitchen especially the color of your cabinets and would like to achieve this to update my 80’s basic builder yellowish ones. Any idea what it might have been called. My hubby does not want painted cabinets and we want to keep it light but not white, live in a log home in a rural area that is dusty. We have a U shaped kitchen with nice glass in the 2 upper corner cabinets also have round brass knobs on all doors and drawers, which I don’t mind. Any suggestions?

  32. Hi there, I’m considering keeping our oak cabinets and trying to modernize them as well but I’m having a really hard time figuring out what flooring will compliment the oak… I would prefer a wood looking floor that goes all throughout the house but I’m open to the tile look as well. Any advice is much appreciated 🙂

    • I wish I had a great answer for this! You can see here what wood floors looked like with the oak kitchen in our St. Louis home. I personally don’t love tile, but maybe it’s because I’m always barefoot and clumsy? I cannot tell you how much I love having wood throughout our home.

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  37. Hi Julie! Your posts have helped me so much to feel better about not rushing to paint our oak cabinets. We are getting ready to paint our first floor in one color and I am struggling to pick one to compliment the cabinets. I like Zurich white but am concerned with it showing every little mark with children over the years. What are your thoughts on accessible beige with the oak cabinets?  Ours are definitely lean toward orange. 

    • I originally left our orange cabinets with Zurich White (as shown). It works. I think Accessible Beige May make them look more dated, personally. You can always try a sample for $6 to see what you think!

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  39. Love!! I have the same oak cabinets as you. They’re in such good shape, so it is hard to want to paint them. They also match with the custom oak staircase that was put in not too long ago. I really like your wall color. The previous owners of our house painted the kitchen slate blue, and the cabinets pop, but not in a good way. Our countertops we’re forest green, but I bought some granite contact paper off Amazon a few months ago and covered them. Temporary fix, but what a change.

    • So smart! Little changes can make a huge impact. I love that you’re embracing your home and making it yours without feeling the need to do a major remodel!

  40. I’m so happy to have found this post!  I have these exact cabinets and back splash!  The main floor in my house is painted bm elephants tusk. All the trim is sw incredible white. I am ready to paint my kitchen Zurich white. It is currently a light butterscotch color. Similar to the one pioneer woman used in her lodge. My question is regarding my dining room. It is only visible to my kitchen through a small doorway, but it is open to my entry way by a larger opening. Should I go with Zurich white in the dining room or pick a third color?  What would coordinate with the elephants tusk? Thank you for your blog!  I appreciate your style and simple approach to decorating. 
    A fellow kansascitian!

    • Hi Regina! You don’t have to paint your dining room the same color, but I do love keeping our home to a limited color palette, especially adjacent rooms. Something in the same “family” would work, too. Thank you for your kind words, neighbor!

  41. I have so much copper but it is looking dull. Do you have any suggestions on how to make it new and shiny? Thank you for the tips on oak cabinets. We are searching for a new home and so many have the dreaded oak cabinets. 

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