Kitchen cabinets: The pros and cons of DIY painting, buying Ikea or going custom

When Molly Miller moved into her new house last summer, the kitchen was dark, with black countertops and only one small window. And, “it had beautiful, early 2000s cabinetry,” she says. “The people before us really loved that honey oak. They really loved it.”

She has a friend who repainted her kitchen herself, and thought about giving it a try since she was staying home due to the pandemic. “I started looking into it, and I didn’t think I could do a very good job,” she says. “I didn’t want it to look junky. I wanted it to look professional.”

She hired painters in June, and about a week and $3,000 later, she had bright white cabinets and no more honey-hued oak.

“I love it. No regrets,” says Miller, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Dyer, Indiana. “It looks cleaner, brighter. A new, fresher kitchen will bring me joy every day.”

The kitchen is the heart of the home, and the cabinets are among the most visible elements in the space. If your kitchen layout already works well, the least expensive option for updating your cabinets is painting them. With a bigger budget, installing prefab cabinets or custom cabinets lets you add in handy features and change the layout.

“I’ve done kitchens from $10,000 for cabinets to over $100,000 for cabinets,” says Sara Wise, an architectural designer and furniture maker at Sara Wise Design in Seattle. “Obviously, with the $10,000 kitchen, we’re looking at an Ikea kitchen. The other end is custom to the Nth degree. There’s just a huge, huge range.”

To get the most for your money, here are some tips for updating a kitchen in three different ways.

Painting your existing cabinets

The cost of painting cabinets is mostly in the labor. You can hire that out or attempt to do it yourself. If you DIY, the most important thing is to make sure you do all the prep work (search online for “cabinet painting video” to find complete instructions).

“Painting cabinets can be great,” says Caitlin Jones Ghajar, an architectural designer and owner of Caitlin Jones Design, a custom design firm with offices in Seattle and the Bay Area. “You definitely need to spend the time and money to prep your cabinets, otherwise they’re going to look terrible within a month.”

To update this kitchen, designer Sara Wise repainted the cabinets a medium gray, changed the cabinet glass and added new counters, backsplash and hardware. (Courtesy of Sara Wise)

Ghajar once had clients who repainted their kitchen cabinets themselves. They primed them, but didn’t do all the necessary sanding. The cabinets quickly began chipping, and they ended up hiring a professional to paint them the second time around.

When it comes to choosing a paint color, Ghajar suggests going for a lighter color that’s closer in tone to your primer so you won’t see chips as easily. (Make sure you keep a little touch-up paint on hand.) 

White is classic, and a crowd-pleaser if you’re thinking of selling your house within the next five to 10 years. A nice twist on white is a very light gray. Or go for a pop of color with an on-trend blue hue. 

Use paint with a matte or satin finish (not glossy) so scuffs don’t show as easily.

This semi-custom bar area by Caitlin Jones Design pairs Ikea’s prefab cabinets with West Elm floating shelves. (Courtesy of Vivian Johnson for Caitlin Jones Design)

Prefab cabinets (AKA the Ikea route)

Wise recently completed an addition and renovation at a home in Seattle that included three kitchens: one for the main residence, one for an attached apartment, and a kitchenette for the home office. She used Ikea’s popular prefab cabinets to free up room in the budget for nicer appliances and quartz counters. 

“There are some nice bells and whistles you wouldn’t expect, like really good drawer-glide hardware,” Wise says of the Ikea system. “On the con side, the box itself is made of particle board, so it’s not necessarily going to be as durable in the long run. And they don’t offer custom sizes.” 

To hide the Ikea giveaways — such as the company’s baseboards and end panels — Wise customized some elements, such as adding waterfall countertops to avoid using the end pieces. 

Another option is adding custom fronts to the Ikea boxes. Semihandmade and Portland’s Kokeena are among the companies that make fronts specifically designed to fit Ikea’s boxes.

“Don’t be afraid of creative solutions that allow you to get the look you want,” Ghajar says.

Although its sizing is standardized, Ikea offers several different configurations to choose from. And they’re typically 30 percent less than the cost of fully custom cabinets, Ghajar says. 

If you’re handy, you can even install the cabinets yourself, as long as you’re both careful and patient.

A custom kitchen, like this one by Caitlin Jones Design, features cabinets built to fit your exact needs and spacing, and can also be a playground for design. Here, the owners chose beadboard cabinet fronts painted in Benjamin Moore Newburyport Blue.(Courtesy of Vivian Johnson for Caitlin Jones Design)

Going fully custom

Custom cabinets are designed to fit your space, style and needs exactly. They are also the most expensive option.

Tim Moser, senior designer at Phinney Ridge Cabinet Company, a small design studio that does semi-custom and fully custom cabinets, says to consider if you’re in your forever home when you begin the planning process. 

“Or do you plan on being there a year or two? Then maybe fully custom cabinets are not the thing for you,” he says. “Or maybe custom is the way to go because we can really design the cabinetry to fit the space, limit wasted space and build in the goodies people are looking for these days.”

Those goodies might include pullout waste/recycling/compost bins, pullout pantry units, a knife drawer with a childproof lock, utensil pullouts, a microwave drawer or an appliance garage. And don’t forget under-cabinet lighting. “Especially here in the Northwest,” Moser says. “It’s going to start the 10-month gray period pretty soon.”

As you work on the design, think about how you use your kitchen. Are you a baker? Do you need wine storage? Is it a one-cook kitchen or should it accommodate multiple people? When was your house built and what style is it? Do your homework, paying special attention to houses that were built in your era.

Ghajar chose fully custom cabinets for her own kitchen, with everything designed down to a quarter of an inch. “What’s fantastic is the sky’s the limit,” she says. “You can do any color, any layout, it’s much more flexible. You also don’t have filler pieces. The cabinets are built just for your room size.”

This custom kitchen by Caitlin Jones Design features very light gray cabinets and floating shelves in Sherwin Williams’ Gossamer Veil. (Courtesy of Vivian Johnson for Caitlin Jones Design)

Generally, custom-cabinet makers charge by the linear foot, from $500 a linear foot at the low end, up to $1,300 a linear foot at the high end. 

No matter which route you take, Ghajar has some tips. First, take your time to plan. Don’t force yourself into a decision. Get lots of inspiration and when you find the look you love, establish a strategy so it’s done as beautifully as possible.

Second: “Have fun with it! It does bring joy,” she says. “I’ve gotten so many emails during this period of time, ‘We’re so happy to be sheltering in place in a beautiful place.’ ”

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