When buying our house back in 2003, Alex and I wisely made the decision to allow our apartment lease to slightly overlap with our closing date. We figured that worst case, if we had problems with our closing we wouldn't have to live in our car for a little while. Best case, we would have about three solid weeks to get the house in shape so that we could move into "our home," not someone else's.

Luckily for us, closing went off without a hitch on the originally scheduled day and we were able the walk the couple blocks from the settlement office to our new home. We had actually parked our car right in front of the house and had the trunk loaded with the half dozen tools we owned at the time so we could get started on our projects immediately. Our plan was to hit the ground running and get as much done in those three short weeks, while also working full time jobs. If you're reading between the lines, that meant lots of late nights, hard work, and crankiness.

Since we knew the kitchen would be one of the most frequently used areas, we set out right away to make several inexpensive yet big impact changes, making the most of what we had to work with. After all, what we were dealing with was dark and dingy, and despite the many, many other areas in the house calling out for help, I knew I couldn't live with what we had in this room, even for a short time. Here's a glimpse at what we were starting with. 

And here's another look at the refrigerator/stove wall.

I'm getting depressed just looking at these photos. 

In the kitchen we opted to start with the fixed elements that we could improve upon without a lot of money, which led us straight to the cabinets. We quickly decided we'd apply a coat of primer and paint in order to turn the dark brown natural wood into something brighter that suited our style. 

Now I realize this may be a sore point for many readers. The cabinets had been unpainted, dark stained wood (maple?), and we planned to brush paint them white. If you're shaking your head in disgust at our painting of unpainted wood, we totally get it. We'll just have to respectfully agree to disagree in this situation. 

The dark wood cabinets are solid, but not particularly high quality cabinetry. They served to make a poorly lit space darker than it had to be, and made the kitchen feel like it belonged more fittingly in a woodsy cabin than in the middle of a city. With little prior painting experience, and having never taken on a task of painting cabinets, we began removing the doors and hardware to do just that.

We made sure to carefully number each door and drawer, so that re-installation would be a snap.

The interior of the cabinets was covered by a dingy and yellowed contact paper that featured a small floral pattern. Removal of this vintage 1980s piece was a pain in the butt, but necessary to allow us to paint the interior, as well as stomach opening the cabinets at any time in the future. Gross!

This brings us to the first item we would do differently now. We took the extra step at the time to paint the interiors of all of the cabinets. Over the last eight years, general wear and tear has taken its toll, and the surfaces of the shelves and drawers are now scuffed, scratched, and are looking pretty shabby. At the time, we liked the idea of the inside matching the outside, but it sure was a pain, and you really don't see it. I think today I might be okay with leaving the interior dark. I'm still thrilled the contact paper is long gone.

Yes, I'm standing in the sink.

While I worked to remove the paper and begin priming the interior and exterior of the cabinet boxes, Alex was hard at work sanding the cabinet doors. If you want to paint your cabinets, this is a crucial step. You aren't sanding to remove anything or get it to bare wood, you're sanding to remove any gloss covering, sort of to rough up the surface to give the primer something to grab onto.

Alex used a 150 grit sandpaper for the first pass, and followed that up with a 220 grit. This is another item we'd do differently now. The paper is good for the flat areas, but to really get into the corners of intricate or detailed areas, it is best to use a #1 or #0 steel wool.

The sanding seemed to take forever, but once completed we quickly moved onto priming. We used a Kilz primer, nothing special or out of the ordinary, and a 2 1/2" angled brush. When painting raised panels of any kind it is best to choose a routine. And to us it seems best to paint the panel borders first, then the raised panel area, and finally the frames. This approach keeps a consistent wet edge, let's you move quickly, and allows your brush strokes to follow the grain of the wood while maintaining a consistent stroke pattern.

Alex found it was easiest to paint the backs of the doors first, allow them to each dry thoroughly, and then paint the fronts while holding them like a pizza. It was an odd approach that seemed to work for him. Personally, I'd use a table with a couple of those paint pyramids, but hey, that's just me.

While Alex worked on the doors I was painting the interior and exterior of the cabinets and drawers...and I wasn't always happy about it. It was January, we had the heat set very low to save money (since we weren't officially living here yet), and it was a pretty uncomfortable work environment. At least we remembered to stock the house with toilet paper, judging from the package next to me in this picture. I guess that beats heat in my book any day.

Once I finished painting and allowed some dry time we applied two coats of polyurethane onto each shelf surface. This step definitely helped preserve the coat of paint for quite some time, but back to my earlier point, the shelves don't look great today.

We actually finished painting the cabinet boxes long before the doors, and we had to start moving our stuff in. So for a little while we had open cabinets. I'll tell you one thing for sure, anyone without cabinet doors needs to work extra hard to keep their cabinet goods super organized.

The final step on the minor kitchen cabinet upgrade was the selection and installation of cabinet hardware. We picked up a bunch of inexpensive chrome hinges from Home Depot, and purchased glass knobs for all of the doors from House of Antique Hardware. Mounting the hinges actually took quite a bit longer than we anticipated. It seemed each hinge had to be slightly adjusted to ensure plumb and level. If memory serves, I'm pretty sure there was a fair amount of swearing involved.

It was a slow process, but the end result was a significant departure from what the house looked like when we took ownership. It took us a few weeks to complete the cabinet transformation, and it seemed to take far longer than either of us originally anticipated. The end result though was something we enjoyed and could be very proud of. Little did we know at the time, the "this project took far longer than anticipated" theme is one that has been repeating itself for the last nine years. 

There are some things we'd surely do differently if we were doing it today. I've already mentioned the fact we wouldn't paint the interior of the cabinets, but beyond that we'd make sure we used better (high quality) paint. I think we used America's Finest true white for this project. It took us four coats plus primer to get complete coverage, and even then I kept finding places that needed minor touchups in the days and weeks following the project. 

Note: Using high quality paint supplies is also very important. Here's the low down on the steps we take and the tools we use to ensure a high quality paint finish.

If we had used a better paint, we would have gotten better coverage and saved ourselves quite a bit of time. Next time around we'd absolutely use a color other than true white. We might also try to use a sprayer instead of a brush. This would have taken a bit more money at the onset, and that would be money we didn't have, but the time savings might have been worth it.

And if you're wondering how our countertops went from gross hunter green to a softer grey, be sure to check out our post about the inexpensive approach we took to update our countertops using spray paint. Next up? We'll take you through how we installed under cabinet lighting, transformed an ugly 1980s brass chandelier into a custom light fixture, and how disaster struck mid-project.

What do you think of our inexpensive kitchen makeover at this point? Decent? Worth the time and effort in our first few weeks in the house? Are you attempting to makeover your kitchen on a shoestring budget? Have any time and money saving tips you'd like to share? We'd love to hear all about it. 

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Comments 19


1/16/2012 at 10:12 AM
What a huge transformation! We did the same thing - gave ourselves time in our old place (well mine, since Mike technically still lived at home) before having to move into the house. We tried to do too many things though, and spread ourselves too thin, so what we did do (like painting cabinets) wasn't done all that well.
I know what you mean about being spread too thin, Ashley. We did that a lot at first especially. I'd like to think that nine years in we're better now about taking our time and focusing in on one project...but as you know from reading our blog we usually have a lot going on at once too. :-)
1/16/2012 at 10:59 AM
When we took possession of our house we were dealing with a dark, out of date kitchen as well. We immediately set out to update the room by painting the cabinets white. We didn't paint the inside which saved us a lot of time, but I'm constantly reminded that they are ugly cabinets every time I open one, so there's seemingly pros and cons to both approaches.

In addition to using a quality paint, I would also advise your readers thinking of tackling this sort of project to invest in quality brushes. We didn't and I'm now left with terrible streaks, and in one case a door with an unseen bristle dried into the finish. :-(
Great tip about the brushes! Yes, we absolutely agree. One of the keys to getting a high quality result is using the right supplies.
1/16/2012 at 8:51 PM
We're going to paint our cabinets in the Spring. Just wondering...if you wouldn't paint the cabinets white, what color would you use?

We are trying to figure out what color we should paint our cabinets and though we think the white looks beautiful, we might spend up a lot of time retouching since we have a large dog.

Any thoughts along this line would be appreciated.

Great post!
Great question Monique. If I had it to do all over again, rather than a true white I'd paint the cabinets an antique white, a soft gray, or even black (in a bright enough kitchen).

I know what you mean about the concerns with white cabinets and dogs coexisting. Lulu is a total slobberer, but luckily with a high gloss finish, most "crud" easily wipes off. But a darker color would sure hide it better until you have the chance to clean.

Good luck!
1/16/2012 at 10:04 PM
In August 2010 my husband put an addition on his workshop. When we finished painting the new part the old part look so terrible we painted it as well. We pick a sort of yellow color that I thought would blend with saw dust. The old color was a dark brown and every speck of dust was obvious. When I painted the lower portion of the cabinets they looked beautiful, but it only took a day or two until finger prints were quite obvious, so back to the paint store I went. I went with a nice green that had worked well. I think I did a post on my blog about this process.

I just found your blog, I think from Southern Hospitality, but I'll certainly be following your projects. My favorite magazine is "This Old House".
The green sounds like a perfect solution!

We're glad you found us and welcome! We're big fans of TOH too, both the show and the magazine.
1/17/2012 at 1:24 PM
Kitchens are important! When we brought our little house, the second thing that we did inside was to have our contractor knock two walls down to enlarge the kitchen! The first thing was to expose the original hardwoods that had been covered by contractor-grade carpet throughout the downstairs. We also overlapped our rental to enable our contractor to complete the kitchen remodel without us living thru it!

Wow, that's fantastic! I'm definitely not looking forward to living through our "real" renovation of the kitchen. It's going to be a mess.
1/19/2012 at 3:40 AM
Great results. I did something similar to hideous builder grade cabinets with flat doors with sort of a reverse bevel on them. I painted the cabinets off white and put new doors on them I ordered from Home Depot. I had a fairly large kitchen and needed about 20 doors and drawer fronts. It ended up costing me about $1000 for the doors in paint grade lumber but well worth it because they weren't nice paneled doors like yours. In fact the ones I ordered looked like yours.

My suggestion is use oil paint, not latex. Yes, its a pain in the butt to clean up especially for a job that takes this many days but my paint lasted forever. I lived in the house for 15 years after I painted and the cabinets were in great condition when I moved. And very scrubable. Latex paint does not dry as hard as oil and does not have as smooth a finish. I used Benjamin Moores top of the line. And I agree, good brushes are a must. The secret to cleaning them is shaking the hell out of them outside after rinsing and repeating.

This whole job is a major undertaking and I wouldn't recommend it as a temporary fix for a kitchen you're planning on replacing in a year or two. Only do it for sturdy wood cabinets that you're going to be keeping for a long time.
Thanks for sharing your experience Esther! Now that we have a few more years experience under our belt, I think we would probably go the oil paint route as well. And I agree, it's a major undertaking and I'd only do it if I knew I would be enjoying the results for quite some time. :-)
1/22/2012 at 5:46 AM
I had to laugh at the contact paper in your cabinets....I covered a WHOLE WALL with that same stuff back in 1986 in my 2nd apartment out of college. I pinned your picture on Pinterest in a board called "It seemed like a good idea at the time".

I have dark cherry cabinets (but not fine cabinets) which suck all the light out of my kitchen. I'm going to be painting, too, and am collecting pictures of these kinds of transformations.
No way!! The exact same contact paper? That's hilarious...and your pin is really funny too. :-)

Good luck with your painting project.
1/29/2012 at 9:50 AM
WOW. Isn't it amazing what paint does to dark cabinets? It looks amazing!!

I HATE sanding, so when we painted our cabinets in our old house (before my blog so no pics to share) I used Zinsser 1-2-3 Primer instead. It helps paint stick to any surface, therefore allowing you to skip sanding. I'm SURE sanding has tons of advantages, but the primer works pretty darn well. I've painted lots of furniture and wood work with it and it holds up very well. Paint over it and it you are done!
Is there anything better than a nice coat of white paint? ;-) We're big fans of Zinsser primer as well.
1/30/2012 at 1:59 PM
Hi there,

I came across your page from the apartment therapy tour you guys did. Your home is lovely, thanks for sharing it!

We are in the process of renovating our 1899 Victorian in Florida. It was in horrible shape and had a ton of termite damage. We are getting close to finishing the outside and it is looking great already.

I have a question about your exterior paint color. What is the name and brand of the paint? It looks lovely and I am thinking of going in a similar direction.

Thanks again for sharing your experience... I will keep checking back for updates!
Thanks so much Alicia! Our exterior paint colors are Sherwin Williams Anonymous (house color) and Sherwin Williams Pearly White (trim). The front door is Benjamin Moore Florida Keys Blue. (Might be one to try based on your location!) :-)

Thanks for checking us out and good luck with your reno. Termites are the worst!
1/30/2012 at 2:15 PM
Awesome, thanks for the info! I am excited to add your site to my google reader list :)
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