In the design world, at least as seen through the lens of the internet and social media, we’re so used to “perfect.” There doesn’t seem to be much room for “realistic” or even “good enough for now.” But the truth is, most of our homes do not look like all the photos hanging out in our saved folders and Pinboards. I’m guessing at least 75% of those of you reading don’t have kitchens plucked straight from the pages of Domino. A good majority of your cook spaces are likely just…normal. Maybe even—gasp—a bit dated.
I myself am renting a property with circa 2000s cherry cabinets, and am on a mission to work with them (not against them). It’s not easy, and it’ll never be my dream kitchen, but I’ll get it close enough to “pretty alright” with just a few additions and fixes. With a desire to help others get to their “pretty alright” states in their homes, I put out a prompt on the EHD channels for readers to send me pictures of their kitchens, specifically anyone with honey oak cabinetry. The darling of the builder world in the late 1980s, ’90s and early aughts, for
better worse or for worse.
My inbox quickly filled up with photos of kitchens that looked plucked from my childhood, with calls for help in the body of the email. I sat with Jess one afternoon and whittled down the long list of submissions to five that felt varied enough to share some ideas that might be helpful to others here, as well.
The assignment for me was to cook up (ha!) quick-ish, affordable-ish solutions to bring the spaces out of the Seinfeld era without any significant renovation or upheaval. While every space could benefit greatly from new countertops and some fresh paint or wallpaper, there were some obvious themes that popped up for me when jotting down my notes for each. After some blog surfing and internet hunting on the subject, I found that most people with these orangey, yellowy, shiny cabinets tried to limit the wood and bring in freshness and light into the space as best they can (typically, with a lot of white, tbh).
You’ll see these suggestions peppered throughout the kitchens and my recommendations below, but in general, here’s what I think each of these spaces could use.
6 Rules For Honey Oak Kitchen Updates
- When in doubt, reduce the wood load. What I mean by this is to lose as much of the wood as you can while still having the appropriate amount of storage. This could mean taking down some uppers if you can spare them to keep the weight of the wood below eye level. Also, if an existing island is easily swappable, opt for a color or white to break things up. If it’s a permanent fixture, consider painting it a light color. The same applies to other wood in your space, including dining furniture and storage/display furniture. Find some contrast with these pieces either with a light wood, black or even a color; but definitely avoid trying to match the oak with more oak. The last thing honey oak needs is more honey oak.
- Find your drama moment. I think this is true for basically every room, but especially when you want to distract from something you don’t love. In this instance: the cabinets. Consider wallpapering, or going all in with a counter-to-ceiling backsplash where there is no cabinetry.
- Reduce clutter. Honey oak can feel very heavy, even without being a dark-stained wood. I’m guessing it’s the highly visible grain. Listen, coming from someone with a small appliance addiction and a toddler that has all the tiny things everywhere, I know what I’m about to say feels harsh and maybe impossible but…GET ALL THAT CRAP OFF YOUR COUNTERTOPS. Maybe not all of it, because there’s no sense in putting your toaster away if you use it twice a day, but look around and take inventory of what *really* needs to be out, and what can be stashed away. This will help immensely.
- Keep things light and bright. I sort of touched on this already, but the most successful “work with it” makeovers of honey oak kitchens I saw did not lean into any moodiness. Every space used white as much as they could (or pastels) and it was highly effective to balance the wood to make it feel more elevated and updated. That’s not to say you can’t layer in any charm if that’s your vibe. Keep the design moments in the rugs, curtains, backsplash and hardware.
- Go modern but not too modern. There’s a tough balance I see in dated rooms trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps to err on the side of contemporary but all that does is make the dated part of the space feel even more dated. Avoid a stainless steel backsplash, ultra modern light fixtures and hardware, and the like.
- Don’t underestimate the power of some peel-and-stick. This option is either for renters or for homeowners who know they will be renovating down the line but want an update now without spending a fortune. Everything is peel and stick these days friends. EVERYTHING. Backsplashes (even real marble), countertop contact paper, wallpaper, hoods (kidding about this one, sorry). Put that temporary design power to use.
Now, Let’s See Some Kitchens
Alright, the time has come to peek inside real people’s homes (yay!). Let me explain how I approached this project first, and then we can dive into each individual kitchen. First and foremost, I realized creating a moodboard a la my cherry kitchen post wasn’t going to be easy without knowing more about these readers’ styles, preferences and what the rest of the home looked like. So I did something else instead. Each home will include comments on the image of what I think they should try (remember, these are not permanent renovation ideas but more “good enough for as long as you want” ideas), and then at the end, I’m sharing a ton of product roundups that could work in any of these kitchens. Got it? LET’S GO!
Marisol: Stagnant In Sweden
I was instantly drawn to Marisol’s Sundbyberg, Sweden, kitchen. The light in there is so beautiful and it’s an amazing space that just needs a little love. Here’s a summary of what she said to me:
“We love the space of our kitchen, and the layout works pretty well. It’s an unusually large kitchen for an apartment in Sweden. But the style of cabinets, extractor fan, and tiles are not our personal preference. The kitchen also serves as our dining room, and we can expand our dining table to sit up to 10 people. When we expand the table, we change its orientation and have it perpendicular to our refrigerator and freezer. The island can be easily moved since it does not have any plumbing or electrical. I would describe our style as a mixture of timeless with a hint of modern sprinkled with souvenirs from our travels.”
What a great space, huh? It just doesn’t know who it is yet: a backsplash with country kitchen vibes, a modern island with barstools, some charm. Which is it? I think the best move from Marisol is to cover up the tile (again, a peel-and-stick would be an easy no-reno option here), change out the hardware to something a bit more classic, possibly in polished chrome, simplify the (fantastic) hood and change the island. Either something longer (though that might run too close to where they orient the table for company), but definitely something more traditional and white.
A smattering of drippy plants and maybe even some of her souvenirs atop the cabinets would make things feel more homey and eclectic.
It’s hard to tell exactly what color those walls are, but a warmer white (I will always and forever recommend White Dove by Benjamin Moore or even Chantilly Lace) would glow more in that beautiful Swedish light. Also, the large cabinet on the left feels like a giant compared to everything else. If it’s easy enough to take out and replace with a smaller display cabinet, that’s the move. If not, paint that puppy the same color as the wall (or a gorgeous minty green or Swedish blue). If it’s going to be large, it might as well be in charge.
A simple white or cream linen Roman shade on each window would bring some life to this side of the room. At first, I wanted to suggest a built-in banquette but that could be tricky with the radiator under the window (and maybe not work for their large gatherings). Instead, to balance the heavy wall of cabinets on the opposite end, I’d say add more shelving or even a built-in bookcase situation.
The table and dining chairs feel too modern; something more Scandinavian like a rush seat wishbone or stackable bistro chair surrounding a farmhouse table would be beautiful. The last thing I’d add here is a large swing arm sconce on the wall to act as a “chandelier” moment above the table.
Michelle: Builder To Better
I saw myself in Michelle, probably because we’re both moms to tiny humans and the bottles, sippy cups, pump parts just don’t quit. There’s never enough counter space with a baby, but sadly, in the layout of this space, I can’t really offer her a solution for more, like a standalone island. But, we can get this kitchen looking less tract home and more personalized. From Michelle:
“I live in a builder-grade home that hasn’t had any real updates in 15 years. The cabinets are in really good shape and functional so I would hate to get rid of them. The kitchen layout also works really well but is very cramped and small compared to the size of the rest of the home. I’d like to get rid of the microwave and replace it for a true hood or other alternative.”
First up, let’s get some hardware on these cabinetry fronts. Since the space feels a bit more modern, I’d go for a classic simple bar pull on the bottom and matching smaller knobs on top, both in a polished nickel or bronze, since the space can’t handle too much visual clutter due to its size. (Hot tip: Here’s a post the team did a while back on hardware placement since it’s not always obvious once that drill is in your hands!) The brackets under the breakfast bar could use a little updating, as well.
A rug here would help to separate the wood floors from the wood cabinets that are all the same tone. I can’t get a sense of Michelle’s style in any of those photos, but a lighter color with some pattern would be nice since the countertops are darker. And speaking of the countertops, I keep reading about people honing their shiny granite to help bring it into modern day stylistically and it looked great! I couldn’t find any straightforward answers on how much a project like that would cost, but one source told me roughly $50 a square foot. Not cheap, but considering new stone would cost twice that much at least, it’s something to consider.
Some fresh cafe curtains hung higher at least halfway up the window (3/4 works well, too) wouldn’t hurt.
And finally, like most of these kitchens you’ll see, adding in a backsplash would go a long way to feeling more up-to-date. A white picket-style tile or even a micro-stacked subway might be great here. Also, I know Michelle mentioned wanting a proper hood and getting rid of the microwave, which could be beautiful, but she’ll lose some cabinets in the process of building something like that in. Maybe something to wait on until there’s less baby stuff to stash away.
Alison: Serenity Over Storage
Alison’s was the first place I flagged to include in this roundup because there was a lot of room to play. Such a diamond in the rough we have here. The layout is already excellent, there’s tons of storage so it just needs a refresh. Here’s what she requested:
“Our kitchen needs some help. I’ve been working on some ideas, but would love another opinion! Storage near the stove is needed, but otherwise, we have plenty of storage to take out uppers or reconfigure things.”
This is the perfect example of one of my rules to lighten the load. Between the yellow double oven and hood, the mismatched appliances, the stainless textured backsplash, the mismatched island and rustic hardware, it’s A LOT.
Let’s start with the backsplash. I’m not sure if it’s those sheets that are glued or nailed onto the wall or individual tiles but they carry too much visual weight, in my opinion. They don’t look easy to cover so if they could easily be removed and replaced, that’s the way to go. Something hand-glazed (or hand-glazed looking) would work well here.
There appears to be an open cubby next to the dishwasher, which looks like maybe a good space for the trash can covered with a curtain? I really dig the oven situation actually, but the hood feels more dated. Even just a simple stainless hood to match the dishwasher would help (and if it’s in the budget, a matching fridge, too). As for soft goods, let’s bring in a simple runner in a green or blue and a cute cafe curtain in a coordinating hue.
Alison mentioned she didn’t need all the uppers, so the easiest place to start is taking down the ones to the right of the window (and maybe even left) to add some open floating shelving in white or metal similar to the ones shown here and lose some of the weight up top. Some new charming lighting and a lighter island and barstools could make a huge difference, too.
Something about the yellow tone of the walls makes the orange of the cabinets even more prominent, so I’d recommend painting all the walls and the closet doors either white or maybe even a super subtle pink (if that’s Alison’s taste…I know it’s not everyone’s). All the countertops seem to be old laminate, which could easily be covered with marble (or even just white) contact paper if they have the patience to install it. There are also plenty of DIYs on the internet for how to paint laminate and faux marble it (like this one!).
For hardware, I’d go for brass here: cup pulls on the drawers and matching flat knobs on the cabinet doors.
Kaitlin: Uppers Be Gone
Another honey oak kitchen with no backsplash, no hardware and very little life. What are these builders doing?!? But what Kaitlin’s kitchen lacks in character, it more than makes up for in storage space. WHICH MEANS WE CAN HAVE SOME FUN!
“We bought our house in January and have only made one (huge!) improvement to the kitchen: we painted the walls from a pepto bismol pink to an off-white. We know we want to make everything feel a lot more current and elevated, but we’re not sure what direction we should go in. Should we paint the cabinets, and if so, what color? Replace the cabinet doors with something like a Semihandmade and then paint? Can we make these whatever grey granite countertops look OK or would getting a different countertop make all the difference? What about a nice tile backsplash? How about light fixtures (the Tiffany glass isn’t me)? And obviously we need to update the white refrigerator because… a white refrigerator.
For reference on how the kitchen fits in with the rest of the house, the kitchen is part of a fairly new addition to the house (early 2000s) and the rest of the house is pretty old (1890). We’ve been redecorating the other rooms in kind of a slightly updated Shaker, eclectic, New England style (think: pretty wallpaper with a mix of antiques and modern furniture), so ideally this would look somewhat complimentary.”
Kaitlin seems the most open to overhauling this space, but in the spirit of this post, I’m not going to recommend anything too drastic. Yes, swapping the cabinet fronts and painting everything would go a looooong way to revitalizing this kitchen, but if not, there’s still a lot to do.
In the above view, you can see there’s an island in the middle that has an overhang breakfast bar, which frankly, is a bit odd. No one is going to sit with their backs to the stove just a few feet away. If the island is just floating over the floors, I’d give it the boot to replace it with an open freestanding island. They don’t need much more storage, and the room could use some airiness.
The grey countertops might look great with the honed or leathered treatment I recommended for Michelle. A cool linear pendant over the island would be great to hit that modern look Kaitlin mentioned wanting in here, and my note about removing the crown and adding in cabinet boxes would help make these look less dwarfed by the ceiling height. This is an example of what I mean.
Here, I want to recommend losing ALL of those uppers and framing the window in shelving (I think white shelves would be great here). I’d take the added backsplash up to the bottom of the top shelf and then wallpaper up from there (this is an example that Emily did in a recent kitchen reno). A Roman shade in a stripe would be wonderful against the print of a floral wallcovering. For the light above the sink, I’d ditch the pendant and go for a flush mount there instead or a sconce just above the window.
And finally, we head to Cincinnati to see reader Caitlin’s large builder-grade kitchen complete with an awkward island (why is this ever a thing?). Honey oak floors, honey oak cabinets…it’s a lot.
“I was so desperate for a change that I searched high and low for a ceiling color to bring a little life into the kitchen (seriously, my paint samples made the ceiling look like a patchwork quilt). We have taken down several upper cabinets (somehow there was too much storage?) and replaced them with a pot rack and a range hood (which means our over-the-range microwave became a countertop microwave). We’ve got an odd L-shaped island, a sliding door pantry that is very impractical, and so many cabinets! I am desperate for drawers. We also have a strange little corner area with a shallow counter and more cabinets under the pot rack that I don’t know what to do with. In addition, our pot lids live on top of the refrigerator, which is an awful place for them, and both the garbage can and recycling bin live out in the open. I would like to have them concealed.”
Okay, let’s see here. We have a few places we can keep removing cabinetry. First and foremost, if this island can be swapped, let’s swap it. There are some great options out there that are drawer-heavy, which is what Caitlin wants and needs. And that little narrow cabinet on the right…let’s just take it out. A tall freestanding cabinet would be nice to break up all that wood, plus it would nicely tuck away her pots, pans, and all the lids that currently live on top of the fridge.
Caitlin mentioned an excess of storage and that she’d be happy to take down some cabinets, so to open things up a bit more, let’s pull down the cupboards around the stove hood. Adding shelves (and a backsplash up to the first shelf height throughout the kitchen) would modernize the space.
Again, take down some cabinetry, add shelving, and while the hardware here is perfectly fine, the size of the room allows for something a bit more stately or even something modern like a micro knob.
If they chose not to remove the island, I think it would be a solid place to install a pull out trash and recycling bin so we lose the visual weight of the black plastic can here.
And since she mentioned the pantry sliding door being inconvenient, in the future, if they’re open to it, reconfiguring this whole wall to be top-to-bottom cabinetry with an integrated fridge would be seriously groundbreaking to the room.
Phew, I feel like I just ran a “suggestion box” marathon there, but I really hope that was helpful. I know a lot of the ideas were similar across the board, but it seems that most of these spaces had the same issues. Small updates will absolutely make all the difference in how the kitchens feel to those using them every day, even if it’s not a full reno or reconfiguration. Let’s not make perfect the enemy of good (enough).
Now, for some shopping. I was pretty specific in my picks to find things that stylistically and colorwise would make sense with the honey oak color and general design aesthetic of all the rooms here. I’ll never be able to hand-select items for someone’s home without knowing much about their style and likes and wants, most of these things could easily be mixed and matched to great result.
1. Zellige Costa | 2. Smart Tiles Penny Sergio Green 8.97 in. x 8.95 in. Vinyl Peel and Stick Tile | 3. Mi Alma 6″x6″ Vinyl Peel & Stick Mosaic Tile | 4. 11” W x 11.2” L Stone Composite Peel and Stick Mosaic Tile | 5. 6″ x 7″ Stone Composite Peel & Stick Mosaic Tile | 6. InHome 19-in W x 20-in H Self-adhesive White Geometric Wall Decal
1. 1″ Diameter Spherical Knob in Polished Chrome | 2. Bradt Versa 8 13/16″ Center To Center Bar Pull | 3. Oval 4″ Polished Nickel HBar Pull Polished Nickel | 4. Vernon Bin Pull Aged Brass | 5. Marion 1-1/8 Inch Mushroom Cabinet Knob Ash Gray | 6. 4″ Belfast Solid Brass Cabinet Pull – Satin Brass | 7. Alzassbg 10 Pack Polished Chrome Cabinet Pulls, 5 Inch | 8. Modern Fluted Brushed Brushed Brass Cabinet Knob | 9. Kinney 6-5/16 Inch Center to Center Handle Cabinet Pull Ash Gray
1. William Morris Roman Shades | 2. Artdix Cordless Roman Shades Blinds Window Shades | 3. Printed Café Curtain – Set Of 2 | 4. Cordless Roman Shades Made to Order Blackout Sand Beige | 5. Johanna Hankie Café Curtain – Set Of 2 | 6. Riviera Striped Linen/Cotton Cordless Roman Blackout Shade | 7. Faux Linen Kitchen Curtains 36 Inch Length | 8. Farmhouse Roman Shades | 9. Jinchan Boho Kitchen Curtains Linen Tier Curtains 36 Inch
1. Imperial 35.5″ Pedestal Dining Table | 2. Plumas Walnut Dining Table for 6, Extendable | 3. Keener All Wood Round Dining Table | 4. Aya 94″ Charcoal Brown Wood Dining Table by Leanne Ford | 5. Odyssey Brass Dining Table | 6. Massena Natural Wood Dining Table, 72″
1. Florence Modern Farmhouse Rubberwood Dining Chairs (Set of 2) – Midnight Blue | 2. Clement Solid Back Side Chair (Set of 4) | 3. Henry Solid Wood 30” Stool | 4. TON 18 Bentwood Caned Chair | 5. Svelti Aloe Green Counter Stool | 6. Note Side Chair | 7. Walsh Stool (Set of 2) | 8. Hamm Dining Chair | 9. Ceylon Woven Counter Height Barstool
1. Francis – FRA-01 Area Rug by Chris Loves Julia x Loloi | 2. GioHand-loomed Wool Rug 2.5’x9′ | 3. Amber Lewis x Loloi Billie Ocean / Brick Area Rug 2’6″x9’6″ | 4. Comb Washable Rug 2’7″x9′ | 5. Natural Sycamore Striped Jute Area Rug 2’x8′ | 6. Alina Light Stone Rug 2.5’x7′
1. Henry Pendant | 2. Trade Winds Genevieve 2-Light Wall Sconce | 3. Presley 1 – Light Single Empire Pendant | 4. Bezel Perforated Metal Pendant (16″) | 5. Aristo 12″ Wide Pendant | 6. The Creative Lamp | 7. Brashear Dimmable Pendant | 8. Handmade Rattan Lampshade | 9. Rodarte 1 – Light Single Pendant
1. Spence Wood Kitchen Island | 2. Vertex Closed Storage Bookshelf Cabinet | 3. Delaney Kitchen Console | 4. Arnika Dining Cabinet | 5. Frame Kitchen Console – Marble | 6. Hemnes Glass-Door Cabinet | 7. Torniviken Kitchen Island | 8. Casement Black Tall Storage Cabinet | 9. Grayson Kitchen Island | 10. Mysen Walnut 70″ Cabinet | 11. Belmont White Kitchen Island | 12. Luna 72.88” Tall Accent Cabinet with Fluted Glass
Thank you to all the readers who submitted their kitchens, and to the selected few for accepting my comments. And to any readers who might have other easy suggestions, feel free to hop into the comments and drop those gems.
Your friend in design, Arlyn