Find all the best tips and tricks for updating your kitchen without painting your oak cabinets! From lighting, cabinet hardware, accessories and more, it’s easy to create a fresh and modern kitchen with oak cabinets!

If you’re not ready for a full remodel or if painting your cabinets isn’t an option, then you’ll love my ideas for working with what you have to create a modern kitchen with oak cabinets. I promise, it can be done!

A white kitchen with oak kitchen cabinets and a coastal light fixture in the center
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If you’ve been here long, you know that I have some experience with oak cabinets. I’ve updated two kitchens with them! In both cases and for various reasons, I decided to embrace what I had and get a modern kitchen without painting the cabinets.

Of course, I’m not against painting cabinets either. In our colonial, we painted our heavy, dark cabinetry to be a light and airy white. You can see the before and after photos of that budget kitchen remodel here.

And in our current home, we chose painted inset cabinets that are so beautiful! The cream kitchen cabinets are so warm and welcoming – they’re everything I wanted.

However, we lived with the oak cabinets for a few years prior to our renovation, modernizing it with these simple touches. We had saved and were ready for a full renovation, but updating the oak cabinets made the space easier to live with in the meantime.

This post is filled with ideas and images from two different oak kitchens. You’ll see our lake cottage kitchen and our original St. Louis oak kitchen as well! My step by step updating process is outlined for both kitchens, so keep reading!

How to Update a Kitchen With Oak Cabinets (Without Painting Them)

I’m going to walk you through the simple steps I used. These steps worked both times, in two different kitchens. I think you’ll enjoy seeing how the same process worked in two unique spaces.

  1. Gather inspiration
  2. Look at what you have and be realistic
  3. Paint the walls a soothing neutral color
  4. Change hardware and fixtures
  5. Update lighting
  6. Add warm coordinating accents

Lake Cottage Kitchen Before

First up, the lake cottage kitchen! When we purchased the lake cottage, I told myself that we didn’t have to decorate it all at once. We could relax, enjoy the lake and embrace the charm.

After winter and spring, I was ready to freshen it up a bit. We wanted to make it feel fresh, without doing major remodeling, painting the oak cabinets or spending a lot of money.

Here’s what the kitchen looked like when we first bought the lake cottage. It had a good layout and solid cabinets, but it felt heavy and dark with the busy wallpaper and outdated lighting.

Lake cottage kitchen before. Kitchen with oak cabinets and floral wallpaper.

See the full lake cottage before and after here.

Get Inspired to Update the Kitchen

I started with finding my inspiration – a guide that would help me make design decisions along the way. I knew that a few simple changes could make a big impact on this space.

After I visited Chicago for a work trip, I was so inspired by the water that surrounds the city, the history of Chicago, and architectural details of the old buildings. I wanted to integrate a few of those elements into our kitchen design.

champagne bronze faucet and flowers in an original porcelain sink

Look at What You Have

The first step to creating a modern kitchen with oak cabinets is to look for existing features you can work with. It’s easy to think a kitchen needs to be entirely redone to be modern, but often a space will already have several elements going in its favor!

replacing a faucet is an easy and inexpensive way to update a kitchen on a budget

When we moved into our lake cottage, we immediately decluttered the kitchen, removing wall hangings and ivy. It instantly felt bigger and brighter once its natural charm could shine.

I loved the unexpected sconce the builder put just to the side of the kitchen window and sink. We were also lucky to have neutral appliances, countertops and a backsplash similar to the one in the Delta Showroom to work with.

delta cassidy faucet in champagne bronze

What positives does your kitchen have? Maybe it has great natural lighting, good neutral flooring and countertops, or cute built-in shelves. Even a basic tile backsplash can be easily painted or covered in beadboard for a fresh, clean look that doesn’t break the budget.

Choose a Wall Paint Color that Goes With Oak Cabinets

At the very beginning of the process, we removed the wallpaper and painted the walls to make the space feel light, bright, and open. Painting your walls is almost always a good idea to freshen up a space. New paint makes everything feel clean and fresh!

Painting trim white, no matter what your wall color, will make it feel clean and bright. And painting your walls and trim the same color is a great way to make your space feel even bigger and brighter.

The most important part of painting your walls is to choose the right color – one that will complement your oak cabinets. Colors with warm undertones like cream, beige, and warm greens will minimize the orange in the oak. Cool colors such as gray, blue, or purple will actually make the orange stand out.

Learn how to choose kitchen paint colors that go with oak cabinets here. You can also see the White Kitchen Cabinets in our Kansas City home here.

closeup of 90s kitchen with oak cabinets, champagne bronze faucet, brass cabinet hardware, and white porcelain sink

Update Hardware and Fixtures

Replacing outdated hardware goes a long way to make a space feel more modern. Hardware and fixtures are like the jewelry of a kitchen, after all!

Look for warm metals like bronze, copper, gold, and brass. They’ll look stunning against the warmth of your oak cabinets. Cold metals like chrome, stainless steel, and brushed nickel are fine, but they may fall a little flat. They often won’t look as rich or polished against the cabinet’s wood tones.

In the lake cottage kitchen, we replaced the original faucet with a Delta faucet in beautiful Champagne Bronze. Of any single change we made, this one made the most significant impact.

The original faucet felt dated while this new one felt fresh and beautiful. It reminded me of the timeless banister at the entrance of the Chicago Cultural Center and the trolley we’d spent the day on – how the handrail and oak complemented each other so well.

It’s perfect for this space. It brings the original porcelain sink back to life!

Modern kitchen with oak cabinets, champagne bronze faucet, original tile backsplash and original white porcelain sink. White flowers on counter.

We repurposed the hardware we were using in our St. Louis kitchen so that this one now feels classic and up to date. They are a warm brass.

The pulls complement the new champagne gold faucet without competing with it, allowing its classic design to be the centerpiece of the kitchen. The cabinet hardware makes my oak cabinets feel timeless.

Making a dated kitchen feel modern is easy with new cabinet hardware. Oak cabinets look beautiful with warm brass cabinet pulls and cup pulls.

For more hardware ideas, see how I used unlacquered brass hardware in my current kitchen. Brass is a beautiful way to create a modern kitchen with oak cabinets.

As you consider changing your hardware, make sure to read my guide to cabinet knob placement – it has everything you need to know to get it just right.

Brass hardware looks rich and warm against oak cabinets. Light-colored backsplash and counters with glass canisters of flour and sugar.

What Lighting Does For A Kitchen

Don’t overlook your lighting! Your light fixtures go a long way in influencing the overall tone of your kitchen.

At the lake cottage, I couldn’t resist adding a rattan light fixture after admiring them at lunch while in Chicago. Its bigger size fills the void above the kitchen window and gives the previously dated kitchen a more modern and waterside aesthetic.

The rattan also provides a lovely, warm texture. In other rooms, it’s easy to use rugs, pillows, and textiles to bring in color and texture. In a kitchen the opportunities can be a bit more limited, so I loved being able to introduce another layer of texture through the lighting.

Large rattan pendant adds warm color and texture to a kitchen with oak cabinets.

Use Accents to Make a Modern Kitchen With Oak Cabinets

After all of the other elements are in place, it’s finally time for the best part – the decorating! A few well-placed accents are all it takes to make your oak cabinets feel updated and fresh.

I incorporated a striped rug just below the sink as a nod to the blue stripes on the horizon above the water on Lake Michigan. As an added bonus, it distracts from the original ceramic tile floors.

90s kitchen with oak cabinets looks modern and fresh with rattan light fixture, champagne bronze faucet, and blue and white striped rug in front of sink.

A kitchen is a great place to have fun with a rug. Usually a kitchen rug is smaller in size, so it isn’t a huge investment to try something different.

Indoor outdoor rugs work well because they’re so easy to clean and maintain. Or a vintage Turkish rug can bring so much charm and warmth to any space. Whichever you choose, get all of my best tips for purchasing a rug!

To accent the original oak cabinets and porcelain sink, I also added a kitchen towel in a beautiful scallop pattern. It reminded me of the breathtaking stain glass ceiling at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Scalloped blue and white dish cloth on counter near porcelain sink. Accents are a simple way to update a kitchen with oak cabinets.

Updating an 80s Kitchen With Oak Cabinets

Several years ago, I set out to make simple, inexpensive changes to help me love our kitchen a little bit longer. We were saving for a full renovation, so I didn’t want to paint the oak cabinets.

I used the same steps as the lake cottage kitchen update, above, and absolutely loved the result!

An oak kitchen updated with paint colors that go with oak cabinets.

80s Oak Kitchen Update Inspiration

Just like the inspiration I found in my Chicago trip for our lake kitchen update, this kitchen upgrade sprung from design inspiration too! It was Martha’s original Turkey Hill kitchen, so warm and full of oak tones and lots of copper finishes.

I loved all of the warm copper accents and textures in her kitchen. It looked classic, warm and inviting – just what I wanted my kitchen to be.

Martha Stewart Turkey Hill Kitchen

St. Louis 80s Kitchen With Oak Cabinets Before

First, I looked at what I already had. The wall colors made the kitchen feel small and dark, but I knew that was an easy fix. It had a good layout, especially with the island. Plus the cabinets were in good condition, and the countertops and backsplash were neutral.

With a few simple changes, I knew I could take this kitchen from sad to bright and cheery. A modern kitchen with oak cabinets was just a few simple steps away.

A dark and dated oak kitchen with outdated light fixtures.

Painting Walls to Go With Oak Cabinets

I chose a soft, creamy white for the walls and soffit. The room instantly felt larger, lighter, and more airy and open. Fresh paint is a quick and easy weekend update you can do to improve your home.

With the new paint, the soffit blended in so the ceilings looked higher than before. Plus, the paint color was close to the color of the existing backsplash. Before the space looked choppy and uneven, but with the new paint it looked cohesive.

A modern kitchen with oak cabinets, fresh white paint, a jute rug, and copper accents.

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 ones we ended up using in the lake cottage remodel.

Just like with choosing the right wall color, the brushed nickel tried too hard to compete with the warmer oak cabinets. Brass, on the other hand, complements the wood tone. In other words, the new hardware worked with the cabinets instead of against them. 

An oak kitchen updated with white kitchen paint looks fresh and modern.

Adding Warm Accents to Update a Kitchen With Oak Cabinets

Martha’s Turkey Hill kitchen has been notoriously filled with copper. It reminds me of my grandma’s basement kitchen – she needed two kitchens to bake all of the pies she did!

Much like Martha’s, Grandma’s kitchen boasted a pot rack filled to the brim with copper pots, plus pretty copper bundts hanging on the walls, doubling as decor. 

Marth Stewart's Turkey Hill kitchen with copper kitchen accessories
Martha Stewart’s Turkey Hill kitchen

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

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

A modern kitchen with oak cabinets and warm copper accents

I found the corner shelves to be a bit awkward and susceptible to clutter, so I used them as pretty storage. I filled the sweet little julep cups with a few blooms until their next use. They were a great place for storing extra mugs and bowls, too.

Intentionally keeping the shelves filled with pretty items deterred us from letting random things collect there. 

Copper julep cup with white flowers

Warm oak cabinets just seem to call out for warm, inviting textures! I added a plush sisal runner along the front of my sink cabinet. It has warm, rich tones that complement the wood tones in my kitchen instead of fighting with them. And it is so soft underfoot – perfect for the time we spend at the sink preparing meals and washing dishes.

Set of 4 copper kitchen canisters on a wood desk

What other warm textures do you see in my kitchen? A wood knife block and wooden spoons near the stovetop, a flickering candle by the sink, pretty green stems in a clay vase on the island – even the smallest details add up to create a warm and inviting space!

New Lighting to Create a Modern Kitchen With Oak Cabinets

The kitchen used to have three tiny island lights that felt very 90s and out of place. When I saw this copper pendant, I knew it would be right at home in my kitchen.

Changing out lighting is a quick and fairly inexpensive fix. In ten minutes, this one change completely transformed this space. Where the old lighting looked strange and distracting to the eye, this copper pendant looks like it has always belonged right here. 

copper light fixture for kitchen

Of course, the copper tone once again looks beautiful with the oak cabinets.  Plus the shape of this light just looks classic and welcoming.

Lighting is often an overlooked element, but it makes such a huge impact on a space. So the next time you’re doing a simple update, don’t forget to look up! 

Our kitchen makeover was simple – embracing what we had and making the most of it, rather than fighting it. Key elements like new wall paint, copper details, warm textures, brass hardware, and a new light fixture made the kitchen feel more classic – and outshined what I didn’t love about the space. 

Do you have an 80s or 90s kitchen with dated oak cabinets? If so, do you plan to paint or refresh?

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  1. You definitely made the best choices to update the look while not undertaking a high cost/time solution. Good job!

  2. This was a welcome post. I stare at my 80’s cabinets a lot and sigh. But a new kitchen is out of the question at this time. Tonight, I will stand back and look at all the oak with a different eye and hopefully come up with my own way of embracing my dated cabinets. Great ideas!

    1. Rose,
      When I had oak cabinets I found using Guardsman on them twice a year really made the wood pop in a nice way. I would use Murphy’s Wood Oil soap on them once a month and then twice a year give them a nice conditioning treatment with Guardsman…loved how they looked.
      They were only builder grade and held up nicely for almost 30 years. I have passed them on to a niece that home schools and she has used every single one in her home classroom and cannot believe how great they look.

      Just an idea….

  3. Wow! Who knew that kitchen could look so beautiful with painting the cabinets?? It’s stunning – the colors all work really well together, and the faucet actually compliments every color in the kitchen. I LOVE it!

  4. What a great transformation, Julie! I love how you tied the makeover to Chicago (I live just west of the city). I like the warmth that natural wood cabinets add to a kitchen. The new faucet makes a big difference, too. Funny how a small change can create a big impact.

    1. So true! I think we’re so quick to paint, but wood will always be beautiful. Thanks for stopping by to say hello!