Our Super Inexpensive Kitchen Update

As we all know, in 2020 time has lost all meaning. So, somehow, the first big project that we wanted to do in our first year in our home took longer than a year to start and longer than a month to complete. But after all that time? It was totally worth it. Our super inexpensive kitchen update boils down to a little bit of wood, new hardware, and lots of paint. 


As a quick refresher, this is what the kitchen looked like when we first moved in. It's a pretty decent size, all things considered, but it's dark, dingy looking, and definitely not our style. Oh and the cabinets smelled. Literally, they stank. 

The cabinets were obviously made by a contractor or the original homeowner when the house was built in the 70's. We know this because they're made from actual wood (not MDF) and not one single cabinet door, shelf, or drawer was precisely the same size as another. These little differences aren't obvious unless you're literally inspecting down to an eighth of an inch (which is something you have to do when you're adding trim). 

We really wanted to update this kitchen because when the previous owners did a quick flip on this house they stained the cabinet a dark brown color as hastily as possible. There were visible sanding marks in the wood from using too harsh sandpaper, and huge streaks of the stain all over. It looked fine from far away, but pretty terrible up close. For example:


And the smell. I know it's gross to talk about smelly cabinets, but what do you want me to do? It was a pretty big component to our kitchen update research! They didn't smell like cigarette smoke, they just had a weird old musty smell to them that never aired out even after a year.

Planning Phase

We know we won't be in this house forever so whenever we're making updates we keep in mind how it will impact our resell. Because of this, we're typically going for "safer" options instead of bolder choices we might do in a longer-term home. This means farmhouse accents all the way. 

There were a few main things we were keeping in mind as we planned for this project:
  • Cost - We wanted to keep this as cheap as possible. This meant working with the existing cabinet structure, appliances, countertops, and flooring.
  • Ease - It's not like we're master woodworkers over here, and this is the first time we're doing any sort of project like this. Basically, we didn't want to dig ourselves into a hole that we'd have to pay our way out of later.
  • Timeframe - I love to cook, and we don't want to go out to eat every night for days or weeks (because of COVID and the cost). This meant that the kitchen needed to be in working order for as long as possible, and back up and running quickly when we did need to avoid using the kitchen. 
Many months before we really started planning this kitchen update, I found this blog post by one of my favorite bloggers, Daniel Kanter. The finished kitchen he features is basically the moody older brother to Dave and my dream kitchen. This got us started thinking about adding a "faker shaker" border to the cabinet doors and directed a lot of our plan from there on out. 

The Plan

After figuring out that we wanted to add the border to the cabinet doors, we decided to update the hinges and handles to match. Next, the only problems to tackle were deciding on paint colors and solving the smell problem. These both were shockingly easy, and it boiled down to this:

The Paint Colors

I knew I wanted the upper cabinets to be white to open up the space. The dark cabinets all around made the kitchen feel smaller than it is and was just generally a downer. But, with the existing countertops, white paint on the lower cabinets would look really weird. 

The countertops are a green faux-granite laminate and I was torn between a grey paint or a green paint to match. To figure it out we picked out a few paint samples in shades of green and grey and tried them against the counters. 

Immediately we knew that the grey was a no-go, and the greens looked much better. We narrowed down the green choices to just two and taped the samples on both sides of the kitchen so we could see them in different lights throughout the day. The winning paint color was Weathered Plank by Valspar. 

The Stank Problem

This simply boiled down to a bit of research. We ended up using the Kilz Kitchen and Bath Primer which worked perfectly to knock out the smell. Simple as that. 

The Work Plan

To make our lives less miserable on the day-to-day kitchen use factor we decided to remove and update all the cabinet doors before tackling the actual kitchen paint job. This allowed us to use the kitchen easily while getting a huge chunk of the project done. 

The entire door process worked like this:
  1. Remove all the cabinet doors and sand off the old finish. 
  2. Add borders. Each of the cabinet doors were a little off so all of these needed to be measured individually. The borders were 2-inch by 1/4 inch and cut down to size. We used wood glue and finishing nails to attach the boards.
  3. Final sand of doors and clean off all the dust. 
  4. Paint - first with primer, then with our paint of choice, Sherwin Williams paints in untinted white and color-matched to Valspar Weathered Plank. This took several coats of both paint colors. 
  5. Add new hardware and set aside till the big kitchen week.
The cabinets were a whole other process:
  1. With doors removed, empty out all of the cabinet shelves and give them a good clean to remove dust and grease. 
  2. Sand off old finish and clean the cabinets again to get rid of all that sawdust. 
  3. Two layers of Kilz Primer, allowing to fully dry each time.
  4. Paint with the same Sherwin Williams paint until we reached full opacity, and allow to dry.
  5. Cover shelves with water-based poly to prevent regular use of plates and cups from peeling up the paint. 
The painting of the cabinets took absolutely ages. Because the inside of the cabinets were smelly we knew we'd need to prime them which also meant painting them. Every. Single. Surface. So tops, bottoms, edges, everything got the full treatment which took two full weekends.

After all the doors and all the cabinets were fully dry and ready to go we reinstalled the doors, put all of our kitchen stuff back in, and gave her one last final clean. 


OMG was that worth it or what? Sure it was a lot of work, but the end result was totally worth it for a kitchen that is updated, useable, and (thank God) smells nice. 

Because it's taken me ages to write this blog post I can also let you know how it's held up after a good two months of use! Everything is holding up nicely. We have a couple small touch-ups on paint that we didn't notice we should have done earlier from adding the hardware. But besides that, everything looks as good as it did on the day we finished! No chipping paint from use, and they clean well to boot. 


  1. When remodelling an existing kitchen or building a new one, there are plenty of factors to take into account, including backsplash designs, kitchen islands, cabinetry, appliances, and lighting. If you are thinking about re-designing your kitchen. My Home Handyman help from the planning stage up to the finished project.


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