How to Make Oak Kitchen Cabinets Look Modern: A Comprehensive Guide

Oak kitchen cabinets were the pinnacle of kitchen style throughout many decades. However, if yours are starting to show their age and feel out of place in today’s design trends, it might be time for a change. Don’t fret; you don’t need a full kitchen renovation to get a contemporary look. With the right techniques and a bit of elbow grease (or the help of a professional), your oak cabinets can become a stunning focal point in a modern kitchen.

Let’s explore cost-effective and stylish ways to update your oak kitchen cabinets and achieve the modern aesthetic you desire.

Painting Your Oak Cabinets

One of the most dramatic transformations is painting your oak cabinets. A fresh coat of paint can completely revitalize the space and create a contemporary feel. Here’s how:

  • Choosing the Right Color: When it comes to modernizing your cabinets with paint, selecting the perfect color is key. White, shades of gray, cool-toned blues, and deep, moody greens are fantastic options that complement a modern design scheme.
  • Preparation is Key: As with any painting project, thorough preparation is crucial for a beautiful result. Clean your cabinets, sand them lightly, and use high-quality primer for optimal paint adhesion.
  • Painting Techniques: For the smoothest result, spraying is the ideal way to paint cabinets. If you aren’t comfortable with that, using a high-quality brush or roller will still achieve a beautiful finish.

Restoring the Natural Beauty of Wood: Staining Your Cabinets

If a natural wood finish aligns more with your modern aesthetic, restaining your oak cabinets is a viable option. Here’s the process:

  • Embrace the Modern Stain: Modernize your cabinets by selecting stains with cooler undertones, like grays or weathered wood effects. Avoid the classic orange and yellow-toned stains that often feel dated.
  • Testing is a Must: Before you commit, always test different stain samples on an inconspicuous area of your cabinets to ensure you love the final result.
  • Sanding and Stripping: Depending on the current finish, you may need a chemical stripper to fully remove the old stain or paint, and always follow up with thorough sanding for optimal stain application.

The Power of New Hardware

Sometimes, the smallest updates make the biggest impact. Upgrading old or dated hardware can instantly elevate your cabinets’ look. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Modern Styles: Modernize with sleek and simple hardware finishes. Opt for brushed nickel, black metal, or warm brass. Avoid ornate or overly detailed designs.
  • Shape Matters: Opt for streamlined shapes like bar pulls, simple knobs, or even consider finger pulls for a more minimalist look.

Embrace Open Shelving

To achieve a more spacious and airy feel in your modernized kitchen, consider replacing some of your oak cabinets with open shelving. This allows you to display decorative dishware, plants, and cookbooks, adding a touch of visual interest.

  • Material Mix: Play with contrasts by incorporating open shelves made from a different material, such as metal or reclaimed wood, to break up the oak cabinet design.

Modernizing with a Two-Tone Effect

Introducing a two-tone color scheme to your cabinets provides an instant style boost and is a fantastic technique for modernizing a kitchen. The contrast helps break up large expanses of cabinetry, making the space feel more dynamic and visually intriguing. It also adds a custom touch to your kitchen that is sure to garner compliments.

When selecting colors, remember that lighter shades tend to make a space feel larger. If your kitchen is smaller, consider painting the upper cabinets a light gray, creamy white, or even a soft pastel for a modern feel. The lower cabinets can then be painted in a deeper hue – try rich navy blue, dark charcoal, or forest green. This helps ground the space and creates a beautiful point of contrast.

Important Note: Don’t be afraid to experiment! If you are uncertain about your color choices, try painting large swatches on poster boards and taping them to your cabinets. This gives you an idea of how the combination will work in your particular kitchen with your specific lighting.

Backsplash Upgrade

Often overlooked, your backsplash can significantly impact the overall modernization of your kitchen. Here are a few ideas:

  • Sleek Subway Tiles: Classic white subway tiles offer a timeless look that seamlessly complements a modern kitchen.
  • Statement Tile: Add a pop of personality with a bold and geometric patterned tile or a textured stone backsplash.
  • Glass or Mirrored Backsplash: Creates a sense of spaciousness and reflects light enhancing a modern kitchen feel.

Styling Tips for a Modern Touch

Minimalist Mindset

Modern kitchens thrive on simplicity and functionality. Start by clearing your countertops of all but the most essential appliances and tools. Think of negative space (empty space) as a key design element. Carefully select just a few decorative items like a sleek vase, a bowl of fresh fruit, or a single, striking plant. This will enhance the visual impact of your newly modernized cabinets and create a sense of serenity.

Similarly, consider what’s inside your cabinets. Do you have mismatched mugs or plates crowding the shelves? Invest in a cohesive set of dishware and consider paring down rarely used gadgets or utensils. This not only adds to the clean look, but also improves function in your kitchen workspace.

Focus on Lighting

Lighting plays a crucial role in showcasing your updated kitchen. Under-cabinet lighting serves two purposes. Firstly, it acts as focused task lighting, improving visibility while you prepare meals. Secondly, it casts a warm glow over your cabinets, highlighting their new color, modern hardware, or textural finish.

Don’t forget the power of natural light! If your kitchen has windows, let the sunshine in. Clean windows, minimal window coverings, and strategically placed mirrors can all amplify natural light for a brighter, more spacious, and inherently modern feel.

Declutter & Organize

A modern aesthetic celebrates function as much as form. Cluttered, disorganized cabinets will disrupt the visual harmony of your updated kitchen. Take some time to declutter your drawers and cabinets thoroughly. Donate any items you rarely use or kitchen tools you have duplicates of. Invest in drawer organizers to keep utensils and gadgets tidy. Clearly label pantry items in clear, uniform containers. With everything in its place, the beauty of your modernized kitchen will shine through.

Additional Tips for Modernizing Oak Kitchen Cabinets

  • Change the Door Style: If your oak cabinets have raised panel or cathedral-style doors, updating them to sleek, flat panel doors can instantly modernize your kitchen.
  • Add Glass Inserts: Introduce light and a sense of openness by replacing a few solid cabinet doors with glass-front options to showcase beautiful dishware.
  • Consider a Professional: If a DIY project feels overwhelming, hire a reputable cabinet painter or refinisher. Professionals have the expertise and experience to provide a flawless finish.

Cost Considerations

Updating your oak kitchen cabinets can be surprisingly budget-friendly. Here’s a breakdown of potential costs:

  • DIY Approach: Your biggest expense will likely be materials like paint, primer, stain, and hardware. This method is the most cost-effective.
  • Professional Services: Expect to pay more when hiring a professional cabinet painter or refinisher. However, their expertise will ensure a flawless and durable finish.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Should I always paint my oak cabinets to modernize them?

A: Not necessarily. If your oak cabinets have a beautiful wood grain that you’d like to preserve, staining them with a modern color can be a great alternative.

Q: Are there any popular alternatives to replacing hardware?

A: Sure! If your current hardware is solid but outdated, you can paint it with a metallic spray paint to achieve a fresh and modern look.

Q: How long does it take to update kitchen cabinets?

A: This depends on the chosen method and whether you hire a professional. But expect the project to take at least a few days for DIY or up to a week if working with a professional.


Oak kitchen cabinets have incredible potential to seamlessly blend into a modern design aesthetic. With the strategies outlined in this guide, including painting, staining, hardware replacement, and strategic accessorizing, you can achieve a fresh, contemporary look that will elevate the style of your entire home.

Are you ready to transform your oak kitchen cabinets? Let us know in the comments which method you’re most excited to try! For further inspiration on updating other aspects of your home, subscribe to our blog.


Nyla from Nyla Home is a blogger who loves to write about home improvement. She started her blog in 2013, and she’s been writing about home improvement ever since.

Nyla has a passion for helping people improve their homes, and she loves sharing her knowledge with her readers. She believes that everyone deserves to live in a beautiful home, and she strives to help her readers achieve that goal.

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