Old 70s "wood" cabinets need makeover

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I moved into our house 9 years ago and have been living with the ugly cabinets that original to our home- I know this because of the ugly factor, but also the tags inside the cabinets state who made them and when! they are a dark wood color and I say "wood" because the finish is peeling off. It looks to really be MDF under neath. Is it worth painting them? I really hate them, and they make the kitchen so dark, as well as give the feeling of a trailer. I HATE them. Any ideas?
q old 70s wood cabinets need makeover, home maintenance repairs, kitchen cabinets, painted furniture, woodworking projects, they are darker looking in real life
they are darker looking in real life
  36 answers
  • Janet Smith Janet Smith on Oct 09, 2013
    If the cabinets are fairly solid and secure, one solution is to "reface" the cabinets and add new doors. This is far less expensive than putting in new cabinets. A less expensive option is to sand and prime and paint the cabinets (be sure to paint the insides too) and add new hardware. The last home I lived in had real wood cabinets that were very VERY dark. They made the kitchen feel like a cave. I removed the doors, cleaned, sanded, and primed the doors and then used two coats of a good enamel on them. While the doors were off, I did the same to the cabinets themselves. Then I put on new knobs and hinges. We had the old "butcher block" laminate countertops replaced with a granite look laminate (fairly inexpensively) and replaced the 30 year old appliances. The kitchen was gorgeous and when we put the house on the market three years later, it sold in the first day at asking price! The buyers said they bought it because of the kitchen!

    • Sheri Sheri on May 16, 2020

      I had a rental with those and I took the cupboards off and painted everything wood white. I put new handles on and it looked pretty good. Only thing was when I moved out my boyfriend at the time had to paint the doors before I got my deposit back. Landlord loved it.

  • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 09, 2013
    Thanks Janet- I had thought about just replacing the doors, but the frames are the same finish where it is peeling. I just was not sure if they were worth sanding and painting, since they are not solid wood. Maybe I will try one and see how it looks. The other problem is that one side (the side I took a photo of) you can see the entire backside from the eat in area. Thanks!

  • Janet Smith Janet Smith on Oct 09, 2013
    If you decide painting is not an option, you can have the frames and back refaced with thin wood and replace the doors. There are companies that will do this for you. I did this in a home back in the early 70. Once they were refaced, I did the finishing myself, staining them and then adding polyurethane. (The old cabinets were knotty pine. . .yuck) and at the time, I didn't want painted cabinets since it was a "Spanish style home." The cabinets turned out really beautiful. Good luck with this and be sure you post before and after pictures!

  • I would paint them even if they are not real wood. Clean them really well to remove any grease and dirt and prime them (I use Zinsser primer) and paint them or even use chalkpaint. (or make your own). I would take the handles and hinges off and either clean really well and spray paint or buy new ~that is a great update too. I would also think about cutting out the doors to the set in the last picture and either putting in glass, stained, or metal to add some pizzazz. On the back side I would paint it with actual chalkboard paint that can be tinted and have some fun. There are so many fun options you could do to revamp those cabinets~do not give up on them yet!

  • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 09, 2013
    Thanks C Renee! That is a cool idea about the chalk paint! I had thought about putting a chicken wire inset or something like that, but didn't want to do all that work :) I think I will just try painting them- thanks!

  • Jeanna Jeanna on Oct 09, 2013
    I had the same style cabinets and was tired of looking at them so i painted the. Looks so much cleaner. Did the kitchen and dining room both.

  • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 09, 2013
    thanks! it is nice to see a picture- your kitchen is the same layout, too

  • Jeanna Jeanna on Oct 09, 2013
    Your quite welcome, It was very hard to cover the dark color. 3 coats of primer , Took me 5 days but another 1st for me on repainting a kitchen and dining room. I am very well satisfied.

  • Pro Skill Construction Pro Skill Construction on Oct 10, 2013
    Painting will take a lot of work to sand & prime - but it is by far the least expensive option. Refacing cabinets is actually about 60% of the cost of NEW cabinets. If you think a more extensive renovation could be in your future, paint for now and enjoy the new look!

  • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 10, 2013
    Thanks ProSkill- that is exactly what is in my future! Just not sure how far into the future :) Sounds like it will be a lot of work, but cheapest and quickest option. Thanks!

  • Barbara R Barbara R on Oct 10, 2013
    I think I asked the same question here on my cabinets. Taking all these answers in and ty Jeanna for that photo, it inspired me to charge ahead! I still don't know what chalk paint is, tho (?)

  • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 10, 2013
    Chalk paint is paintable chalkboard! You literally paint it on anywhere and it is a chalk board. And it comes in colors! Very cool

  • Nancy Spencer Carlson Nancy Spencer Carlson on Oct 10, 2013
    And then there is chalk paint that is literally chalk in the paint. Here is the recipe I used. http://www.iheartnaptime.net/chalk-paint/

  • Waysouth Waysouth on Oct 10, 2013
    this keeps coming up, some say chalk paint and chalkboard paint are the same thing, others disagree. Is this one of those questions with no definite answer??

    • Sue Sue on Oct 11, 2013
      @Waysouth No two very different products!see Andrea Dipper's response

  • Andrea Dipper Andrea Dipper on Oct 11, 2013
    Chalk paint and chalkboard paint are very different. Chalkboard paint leaves you with a surface that can be drawn/written on (just like the old chalkboards in school). Chalk paint is paint that has some "chalk" component--plaster of paris, calcium carbonate, etc. that provides a very durable surface. There are chalk paint companies out there, but there are also many homemade chalk paint recipes on the web using regular latex paint, too. The beauty of chalk paint is, not only that it is durable, but most times needs no priming. Hope this helps.

  • Lee M Lee M on Oct 11, 2013
    I painted mine - cleaned first - light hand sand and painted with a flat base - then went over with a enamel and finally wiped on a stain (brush on - wipe off) - great look - loads of compliments and where did you get that done? Also removed the old glass inserts with fleur de lis design and did a faux stained glass in frank lloyd wright type design

    • Cheryl M Cheryl M on Oct 12, 2013
      @Lee M I like that. I was thinking of a pickling effect as well would look nice.

  • Diana Diana on Oct 11, 2013
    I'd clean these cabinets and mix up a homemade chalk paint and paint these tired cabinets. No primer needed rather than use wax as a sealer I'd use poly. By using poly you can clean them off should something splash on them.

  • Robert Snow Robert Snow on Oct 11, 2013
    I did my kitchen cabinets this past winter. They were solid core Birch that we had put in when my Dad built the house in 1961. I washed them all down with soap and water and a scuff pad , then primed them and finally put a 3/4 inch decorative molding inset from the edge of the door about 3 inches then painted the whole kitchen an off white . Goes great with new countertops and our black appliances . Going to follow up with an embossed copper backsplash . Good luck and have fun !!!

  • Evette Evette on Oct 11, 2013
    I would cut out the panels of the upper cupboards and use glass, much easier to clean than chicken wire. Paint the upper cupboards a light colour and the lower ones a darker colour to contrast. What will you do with the counter tops, if using granite or marble pick out colours that are in the grain.?

    • See 1 previous
    • Kirt N Kirt N on Oct 12, 2013
      If you want to paint them, sand them first, very well, then use a paint sprayer to do the finish. A brush looks terrible. I did this a long time ago, and they turned out ok, but finally decided to change them. I went to a discount home center (DHC on Facebook), and purchased the oak cabinets for less than $3000. (See my pictures). I know times are tough everywhere, but it was well worth the sacrifice to replace the old ones.

  • Sue Sue on Oct 11, 2013
    I would definitely paint these! There are many easy to use products out there! Country living is one source if you google it you can find a dealer either in your area or willing to ship. Also American paint company is a chalk based paint that does not require sanding, and priming before using. You will havers clean your. Cabinets first for sure :) there are many who claim making your own chalk paint is as good as the manufactured chalk paint. Having tried both I disagree, AmericanPaint, Ce Ce Caldwells Chalk paint and MaisonBlanche chalk paint are some I have used ,they over I one or two coats and really goes far! Here is a picture of my bathroom cabinets, I used the country living textured base coat and then Maison Blanche chalk paint as a top coat!

    • Nancy Spencer Carlson Nancy Spencer Carlson on Oct 11, 2013
      @Sue So interesting that someone else bucks the 'trend' and paints things a dark color. And I really like the lamp. Lamps are great in unexpected places. I have one on the kitchen counter.

  • Raya Deych Raya Deych on Oct 11, 2013
    There is another way, Just use PVC Roll of Kitchen Back splash and glue over the cleaned smooth surface. Many Patterns in Many Colors, CALL 800-349-5799 See These Links: http://www.ceilingtilesbyus.com/store/index.php/pvc-back-splash-1.html AND GALLERY: http://www.ceilingtilesbyus.com/galleries/pvc-backsplash-installed

    • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 11, 2013
      @Raya Deych That is interesting, but would think you could only use as an accent on the insets- would look odd completely covering a cabinet.

  • Raya Deych Raya Deych on Oct 11, 2013
    Here are a few Pictures of Customer Projects Visit www.ceilingtilesbtys.com or call 800-349-5799

    • See 1 previous
    • Raya Deych Raya Deych on Oct 12, 2013
      @ToolHQ VERY GOOD AS THIS ON IS AT A BAR WHERE PEOPLE DRINK AND CLOWN AROUND. THE CLEAR COAT ADDS STRENGTH>

  • MARIANN MARIANN on Oct 11, 2013
    I have noticed many times the doors warp when repainted. Does anyone know how to keep warping from happening?

  • Tobey McCool Tobey McCool on Oct 11, 2013
    You mentioned that the wood is peeling off, if you paint over it , it will continue to peel off. If you can sand them down before you paint then they will be fine. If you can't then you should replace them. I paint everything with chalkpaint, but I would invest in another paint for the kitchen cupboards something more durable so you can wipe the cupboards down. Chalk paint is only durable if it has been waxed and sealed, and frankly that is way too much work for kitchen cupboards. good luck

    • ToolHQ ToolHQ on Oct 11, 2013
      @Tobey McCool Yes, the paint is peeling, like they must have put some sort of faux finish on them. It is weird, and ugly! Now that I look, it is the brown inset trim that is peeling. I guess the wood part itself is fine-

  • Diane Slater Diane Slater on Oct 11, 2013
    I had those same ugly cabinets. I sanded the finish so they would accept the paint. I painted mine all white and used black ceramic knobs. I used an oil base, because of it being in the kitchen. I used a very good quality paint brush, this was in the 90's when I did this. But I would invest in a sprayer, about $50., you will be much happier having a more professional look. I had black counter tops, and used white melamine board for the backsplash. But now there are ceramic tiles that are inexpensive to use. You will be very happy with them painted. Mine lasted another 20 years before we completely remodeled. Be sure that you prime them, before you paint. I talked with pros, before I did mine.

  • Evette Evette on Oct 11, 2013
    You could do the frames of the upper cupboards in the darker colour of the lower ones and the top panels lighter, this wouldn't be difficult. Or for a quick fix sand down the surfaces and paint with light emulsion paint and wipe off with a cloth immediately to give a shabby chic finish then seal

  • Janet Smith Janet Smith on Oct 11, 2013
    Our neighborhood is fairly new and lots of new homes are being built. I love visiting the open houses to see the "new trends." I have seen several kitchens with black cabinets. I would never have thought to paint cabinets black, but they were gorgeous with light back splashs and light granite countertops. You'd need a kitchen with plenty of light, though, to keep it from looking like a cavern. On kitchen had cream cabinets and a black island and that was pretty also.

  • Evette Evette on Oct 12, 2013
    If you are happy to keep the wood just cover the brown strip with some nice thin beading, thin strips of wood, and you can leave them plan or give them a finish of your choice

  • John John on Oct 13, 2013
    This looks like a good candidate for a cabinet re-facing project. If you do not want to tackle the project on your own, there are many professional companies which can do this for you. It will provide the appearance of new cabinets at a fraction of the cost. Family Handyman recently did an article on this topic. Here is a link to the article. http://www.familyhandyman.com/kitchen/design-ideas/cabinet-facelift/view-all

  • Rich Rich on Oct 21, 2013
    Paint them white with black trim and handles then varnish. That would brighten things up a lot.

  • Mary Mary on Oct 21, 2013
    I am in the process of thinking of painted my laminate cabinets...sounds like that is what yours are. I've been reading LOTS (and I do mean LOTS) about painting laminate. One thing that continues to come forth is to clean them thoroughly of grease, grime, etc. Someone said SoftScrub was great for it. I may try that. ANYHOW, once they are clean thoroughly, re-glue anything that needs it. Here are directions from one person, which sounds good to me and I intent use them. Use BIN shellac based primer that’s made by Rustoleum. According to the user, it's one of the stronger primers that adheres the best to pretty much every surface. It also cures fast. So, to avoid chips and scratches as much as possible, I would do 1-2 coats of this primer. Make sure there is plenty of primer on the surface. If you don’t want to use that or are having trouble with shellac based primer, try an oil based primer like Cover Stain or Kilz. Once you have a good, solid coat of shellac based primer on there, painting your piece will be the same as painting any other piece of furniture. Make sure to do at least 2 coats and maybe a clear coat for extra durability, depending on what you are using the piece for. Once you have finished painting it, just be careful with it until the paint is fully cured. With latex paint that usually takes up to 30 days. After that, it should be ok for wear and tear. Good luck. Paint Away! Once you have a good, solid coat of shallac based primer on there, painting your piece will be the same as painting any other piece of furniture. Make sure to do at least 2 coats and maybe a clear coat for extra durability, depending on what you are using the piece for.Once you have finished painting it, just be careful with it until the paint is fully cured. With latex paint that usually takes up to 30 days. After that, it should be ok for wear and tear. OverlaysShareTweetPreviousNextPreviousNext

  • You can always go with refacing .just clean up the old wood then you should be ok

  • CottonwoodMama CottonwoodMama on Jun 29, 2015
    I once saw a picture of cabinets someone had refaced with grass cloth with great success. Here is a link: http://www.houzz.com/photos/1553535/Beyond-Mid-Century-by-Heather-Garrett-Design-contemporary-kitchen-raleigh You could add a wood strip around the front perimeter of the door to frame it in and cover the grooves and it would look a lot like a shaker style. The link above shows the cabinets painted in a gray color. good luck!

  • Kayo Frazier Kayo Frazier on Feb 25, 2016
    Agrees w/ Rich on the white paint for the cabinets & black for hardware. ..However, I would add 2 tweaks..There is a bead board wallpaper that I would add & then I would add a squared off trim to make it have a more shaker style.

  • Phyllis Robinson Phyllis Robinson on Jun 26, 2016
    If the ends are peeling, I would clad them with 1/4" bead board panels. I have painted laminate by sanding it a lot and using a good bonding primer. If the doors are not in good shape, you can order new wood doors on line.

  • Chloe Crabtree Chloe Crabtree on Nov 03, 2021

    Instead of trying to paint them, you might want to go with just new cabinet fronts.