5 ways to upgrade your kitchen cabinets without buying new ones

Blue painted kitchen cabinets with a marble worktop
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It’s a costly option to rip out an entire kitchen and replace it with a new one. While you might have dreams of a complete remodel — I’ve been hoping for a new kitchen for years — there are other ways to make your kitchen look expensive without blowing your budget.

Kitchen cabinets are one of the key components of a kitchen, along with the countertops and backsplash. Surprisingly, refreshing one of these elements can make a dramatic difference to a whole kitchen, changing the vibe so that it looks like new. And if the carcasses are in good condition and the cabinet doors are free of water damage, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve a new look equivalent to a whole kitchen update.

Here, we take you through 5 ways to upgrade your kitchen cabinets without buying new ones.

1. Paint them

Person painting a kitchen cupboard white with a brush

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Bring new life to your kitchen cabinets with a fresh lick of paint. Transform tired, lackluster cabinets that are out-of-date with a trendy hue for an instant makeover. 

Painting your kitchen cabinets gives you a much wider choice than off-the-shelf replacements. Choose from bold, bright colors to pastel hues, to suit whatever look you're after. For practicality and endurance, pick a satin, semi-gloss or gloss paint — they are easier to clean and more resistant to grease.

With the right preparation and tools for the job, you can achieve a smooth and silky professional finish. For a good all-round latex paint, try HGTV Home by Sherwin-Williams ($65, Lowe’s). 

2.  Swap the hardware 

White kitchen base units with a mix of different handle types

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One of the simplest ways to update your kitchen cabinets is to swap out old hardware for new knobs and pull handles. And don’t be afraid to mix it up — for added impact, choose different styles for the wall and base units.

There are plenty of options for shopping — flea markets, salvage yards, DIY stores and online. Go hunting for vintage finds or contemporary hardware. But, get your tape measure out before shopping. Long handles with two drill holes will be harder to match, and being prepared will avoid the problem of being left with unsightly holes in your cabinets.  

Signature Hardware has some elegant styles, or you could check out the selection of a big-store range, like Home Depot.

3. Replace the doors 

Woman fixing the hinges of a kitchen cabinet door

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If budget allows, changing the cabinet doors is one option which will instantly update your kitchen without too much hard work. Forget sanding down and painting the door fronts: all you’ll need is a few tools to swap the old doors for new. And if your existing cabinetry is in good shape, this is one quick fix that will transform your kitchen without the upheaval of a complete remodel.

For a dramatic change, opt for cabinets at the other end of the spectrum to what you already have. However, make sure they will work with your current countertop and backsplash. If this change is too bold, you can still create an impact by choosing two colors. Select one color for the wall-hung units and a contrasting tone for the base cupboard fronts. The transformation will be dramatic if your cabinets are currently all the same color.

4. Replace wall cabinets with shelving 

Wooden kitchen shelving mounted on black metal brackets

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Sometimes it helps to think outside the box. If you’ve got an expanse of wall-hung cabinets, why not break up the visual symmetry? Remove one or two wall cabinets and replace them with shelving. 

If you’re feeling brave and not concerned about hiding your kitchen essentials behind doors, replace them all with shelving. It will completely change the look of your kitchen, opening up the space and creating a modern vibe. Then, you’ll have the space to show off beautiful glass and dinnerware and serving dishes that are usually unseen.

Rustic, modern or eclectic — choose your shelving style to suit the new look you're seeking. Sleek, white shelving will fit a modern, contemporary kitchen, while wooden shelving will provide a rustic, lived-in look.

When fitting the shelving, consider the weight the shelves will bear to ensure they are mounted with adequate fixings. 

5. Wallpaper the back panel 

White and lilac wallpaper on a dresser unit with a white tea set in foreground

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Create a decorative look by removing the cabinet fronts and lining the back panel with wallpaper. For the best effect, keep the look to the wall-hung cabinets, which are at eye level. You won’t see the benefit if you add wallpaper to the base units.

Depending on the look you want to create, choose a plain or patterned paper. A plain paper will add a splash of color, while a geometric pattern will add a funky vibe, and a floral pattern will be a knock to a vintage or cottage style. For a bold, striking look, try NuWallpapers, Black Holden Peel & Stick Wallpaper, in black ($36, Home Depot), while Wudnaye’s Retro Farmhouse Peel & Stick Wallpaper ($9, Amazon) is floral and vintage.

Give your doors the chicken wire treatment
If you’d prefer not to remove the doors completely, another option, if your cabinets have an outer frame design, is to remove the central panel and replace it with chicken wire. At the same time you can declutter your kitchen cupboards to make sure everything on show looks spick and span.

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Camilla Sharman
Staff Writer, Homes

Camilla Sharman has worked in publishing and marketing for over 30 years and has covered a wide range of sectors within the business and consumer industries both as a feature, content, and freelance writer.  

As a business journalist, Camilla has researched articles for many different sectors from the jewellery industry to finance and tech, charities, and the arts. Whatever she’s covered, she enjoys delving deep and learning the ins and out of different topics, then conveying her research within engaging content that informs the reader. In her spare time, when she’s not in her kitchen experimenting with a new recipe, you’ll find her keeping fit at the gym. In the pool, stretching at a yoga class, or on a spin bike, exercise is her escape time. She also loves the great outdoors and if she’s not pottering about in her garden, she’ll be jumping on her bike for a gentle cycle ride.