Painting cherry cabinets to lighten up kitchen -- long post, sorr

baltomom_gwApril 25, 2011

Yes, I know I am insane to consider painting my 3 year old Brookstone cherry shaker cabinets, but the alternative is moving! Honestly, my kitchen is so dark that on a bright sunny day I have to keep the lights on at all times. The granite is black and the cabinets are a medium cherry. We just bought this house a few months ago, and already I loathe the kitchen so much I don't want to use it. And I cook all the time, so I spend half my life there.

Has anyone painted cherry (or other finished wood) cabinets, and if you did, how did you do it? Did you do it yourself, or use a painter? Could I have all the doors and drawers removed and professionally painted, and hire someone (or do it myself) to paint the rest of the cabinetry?

One complication: my child has severe allergies, so we have to use low VOC paints -- those beautiful oil-based paints are out, as are all the regular, ie durable, paints.

Another complication: some of the finished sides are laminate as is some of the trim. How do you paint this?

I don't want to live with this kitchen for 20 years, and it's way too expensive to rip it out and start over again. I have nothing against cherry -- I had cherry shaker in my old kitchen, but that kitchen had huge windows and loads of sunshine all day long. My new kitchen is a dark, depressing cave by comparison.

Any suggestions most appreciated. I had no idea the kitchen would be so dark when I bought the house. The realtor had all the lights blazing each time we looked at it, and it never occurred to me to turn them off! I won't make that mistake again. TIA.

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I just had my oak cabinets painted. I had lived for over twenty years with a kitchen I hated. I used a painter, but they used primer and paint whose fumes drove us out of the house. I don't know how a water based paint would hold up to kids - mine are grown. My cabinets certainly look painted, not factory fresh and the grain of the oak still comes through so they are more rough looking even though they are painted....but they are still not the miserable color they originally were. Mine are inset and if yours are too-make sure they sand down the edges of the doors or they will stick.

Honestly, if I had the money, I would have ripped them all out and started fresh. I'm happier with my kitchen now, but still not the kitchen of my dreams. That's OK,'s home, not a showplace and it is still much more pleasant to be in and work in. My grown children are upset I got rid of the ugly color; it's what they grew up with.

I would consider a cabinet refacing firm.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 6:07AM
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When changing the cabinet layout of my kitchen I used the solid maple doors of unused cabinets for the laundry. Painted them with an indoor/outdoor latex. They have really held up well, 5 years and no sight of chips, etc. Rolled paint on then used a brush to paint (while still wet) in direction of wood. Was either lucky or it is the right paint.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:32AM
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I apologize that this is probably not helpful, but I cringe at the thought of painting nice cherry cabinets. Is replacing the black granite with a white or light-colored material an option instead of painting the cabinets? Would better lighting help? If there are no or few windows, you are going to need a lot of lights turned on to cook no matter what color the cabinets are.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 4:53PM
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Our contractor told me a story about beautiful custom cherry, inset cabs in a very high end house. They were in the process of finishing them and the decorator came in saying No, No, these are to be painted white. They painted them but I know the contractor wondered why they ordered them to be built cherry. Life is short, I say do what will make you happy.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 6:16PM
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I do not like to paint wood - but I see why people want to paint wood -- since painted kitchens look so serene and beautiful!

But a more fundamental issue here is, why is your kitchen so dark? It seems unusual to me that even on a bright summer day you need to turn lights on! Seems like there are more than one problems at play here to make it dark!

Can you post a layout? Do you need more windows? Is your kitchen facing against light direction? Is something else outside casting a shadow inside the kitchen? I think just painting them white may not be sufficient and I'd recommend that you analyse it a bit deeper.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 6:37PM
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Can you add more windows or make the current ones larger? Enlarge a sliding glass door? As someone mentioned replace your counter top. I'm not sure that painting the cabinets will get you what you need/want. And unless it;s a DIY one of the other options might be cheaper.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 6:45PM
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Could you hire a lighting designer? (There's such a thing as a lighting designer isn't there?) I've heard that with good lighting, one can get away with dark finishes in a kitchen. It's possible that the kitchen will still feel dark if all you do is paint the cabinets white.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 6:46PM
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How about a solar tube (or 2) for increased daylight? Pics might help with more suggestions.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:03PM
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Post some pics and I'm with those who think you might want to first see if there is a way to address lighting, etc., Aside from the light issue, is the kitchen the style you prefer? If you could do a new kitchen (without lighting issues) would you want white cabinets or the cherry cabinets you have? Do you like the countertop?

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:35PM
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Hi Baltomom,

Paint them. Life is too short to live with something that
bothers you. So what, that you've only them a short time.
If you love white go for it. I wish you had a picture
as maybe you could just paint the uppers to start with.
That might add some light.

It is possible for you to hire someone to paint them? Then
you and your child visit Grandma for a few days. That
way your child won't be effected by the fumes. Or maybe
the fumes stick around for a long time after. I am unsure.
Forgive me, my lack of knowledge. I am also unsure which
kind of paint to use for allergies. You may want to visit
Benjamin Moore web site.

What is your backsplash like? Is it also dark? Will you
keep the black granite? Is your granite honed or polished?
Sometimes matte surfaces suck up light but shiny ones
can reflect back. Can you use mirrors in your kitchen?
What about undercab lighting or even interior cab lighting?
Mirrors strategically placed in interior cab lighting can
brighten a space in no time.

And Luv2look mentioned solar tubes. Staceyneil installed
Solar tubes to let in light. Simply beautiful. Check out
the link.

And here are a few before and after painted cabs.
Hoping these help inspire you to make your white kitchen
dream come true.


(They went dark, I just wanted others to check this out too)

Here is a link that might be useful: Solatube installed: what a difference!!

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:38PM
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Is it possible to change just the countertops? What color is the floor?

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 7:53PM
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Re changing the countertops v painting.

How about testing the idea of much lighter countertops in this way: Using either light/white marble patterned stick-on shelf paper or even just opaque white plastic tightly and smoothly covering the existing counter for a few days and see if it makes a satisfactory change. Never mind if it isn't the right shade, or tone. Just experience what that reflectivity would feel like. That may give you an inexpensive, and completely reversible test of the idea. Changing the countertops to a different, lighter stone may do the trick.

You could also try (but it would be more work) a similar approach to testing a change of color on the cabs themselves.

I second the idea of trying a professinal lighting designer.


    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 8:04PM
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Thank you all for your helpful responses. Thanks boxerpups for all those photos. They do illustrate the difference white cabs can make. I'll try to post photos, but I'm a technically challenged, so it may take a while.

I think we bought the house because the kitchen looked so much like our old one -- shaker cherry cabinets with black granite countertops. I agree that painting cherry seems like a horrible thing to do to beautiful wood, but my kitchen is a dreary cave with the lights off. With lights on, it's just fine, so I don't think lighting design is the problem. I prefer natural light on a brilliant, sunny day, and it's impossible to work in there without the lights on.

The kitchen has two ok sized windows, and four openings to other rooms. But the kitchen windows face north, so there's little direct sunlight. We're in a historic district, so there's no hope of putting in either skylights or enlarging the windows.

I visited a neighbor's house with a kitchen in the same position as mine (facing north with only two windows), and her kitchen was very light. She'd put in white marble countertops and white cabinets, plus her walls were white -- mine are a beigey color.

It never occurred to me to change the granite!! Seems crazy to throw out all that new granite, though, especially since it would look nice with white cabinets. There was a huge black granite peninsula that we took out because it was awkward, and that did lighten the room up a tiny bit. But maybe replacing the granite would be cheaper than re-doing all the cabinets, if it's even possible. I'll have to ponder that idea.

I looked more closely at the trim, and it's all laminate -- the toekick, the finished sides of the cabinets, and even part of the crown molding. I don't know if that's paintable -- anyone know??

The backsplash is a beigy stone with black granite insets. It's nice, but too dark for the room. My neighbor's white kitchen has a white subway tile backsplash and white appliances.

It didn't occur to me just to paint the uppers. Hmmm.

Thanks again for all your suggestions and photos.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 12:01AM
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I've done plenty of kitchens with cherry cabinets and blaqk counters. None of them looked like a cave because we also addressed the lighting needs of the kitchen at the same time. I know you prefer natural light, but there are just some homes that won't have enough of that and NEED additional light. Yes, even in daytime. And, even a white kitchen will need good lighting at night or it'll be dark. And in a dark home, a white kitchen will still be dark. If it's the quality of the supplemental lighting that you don't like, you definately need to consult with a lighting designer. There are a lot more options out there than just fluorescents or incandescents. The right mix of lighting takes your cave and creates cozy instead!

Address the idea of changing the counters first. Then consult with a lighting designer. And learn to love your lighting!

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 12:20AM
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Hi Baltomom,

Here are few more pics that might help. I think the
idea of keeping your cherry and painting just the uppers
could be beautiful. Another idea is putting in a lovely
white marble for your counters. Marble and cherry is

White Marble with Cherry

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 6:17AM
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Thanks, Boxerpups. those photos are very helpful. I'll show them to DH, who has almost no say in the matter, but i sometimes take his opinion into account! Painting the uppers might be a good compromise. I'll think about light marble counters, but my kids are very messy and I cook a lot, so there will be stains, which would bug me.

Livewireoak: I have very nice lighting; it's just that I don't like to use it during the day. And I know the kitchen will be brighter if it had light counters and cabinets. But I'll tape white paper over the cabs and counters to "try it out". Maybe I'm wrong. I'll post photos when I get there.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 10:17AM
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I think that painting the uppers would look gorgeous! I painted our cabinets white, but I didn't have a very nice before so I figured anything would be an improvement...I haven't taken official "after" pics yet, but you can see how they look like different cabinets just with some paint.

I followed this tutorial, but I don't know how it would work with low voc paints. I used sw water based primer and latex sw pro classic. I'm not sure where either of those fall on voc scales.

Here is a link that might be useful: cabinet painting tutorial

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 12:12PM
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boxerpups, you always find the best photos!

baltomom, how discouraging to have a new-to-you kitchen that doesn't thrill you. I think you've been presented with some excellent options already. I'll add a few more for you to consider.

Counters first. If stains are a concern, consider a light-colored quartz or one of the tough-as-nails granites (some granites stain more, are more high maintenance than others) instead of marble. You could get the light look without the worry.

Backsplash. Switching out existing tiles for something lighter (or at least replacing the black tiles with light colored tiles in the existing backsplash) might also help make your kitchen appear brighter and should be considerably less costly and less disruptive to your life (and less allergenic?) than painting cabinets.

Cabinets. If your kids are messy, keeping the lower cabs stained might give you peace of mind because stained wood shows dirt, wear and tear less easily, less quickly than painted wood. It's one of the reasons that I'm strongly considering the painted uppers/stained lowers option when we redo our kitchen (besides, I love the look).

One other thing that I don't think anyone has suggested yet is to have a cabinet shop replace some of your upper cabinet door panels with glass. If you're concerned about messy cupboards, consider one of the opaque glass options.

Flooring. You haven't said what your floors are. If they are wood, consider having them refinished in a natural finish.

Lighting. Not to sound like a broken record but reviewing your lighting with a lighting designer might help more than you realize. Some years back I switched out my builder grade incandescent can lights (100 watts) for halogen cans (75 watts). Wow, what a difference! Not only was my kitchen brighter but it also seemed sunnier. My kitchens' colors also appeared truer, thanks to halogen's bright white light (cooler than incandescent, warmer than florescent). Add in that halogen is more energy efficient than incandescent and it was win-win all around. Lighting technology, particularly regarding LED lighting, has really made strides in recent years so I'd bet you'll have more options than I did.

I'm not saying you shouldn't paint your cabs if that's what you ultimately decide but I think you have more options at hand and IMO it's worth considering all of them to make sure you find the right solution (or combination of solutions) for your home. Best of luck!

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 1:10PM
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I agree with livewire that some homes need lights on even on the brightest of days and changing the color of the cabinets or counters will not change that.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 1:50PM
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Two more questions for you, baltomom.

What color are your appliances? If they are black, that will add to the cave-like look. Swapping them out for SS might not be cheaper than painting, but you won't have to worry about your child's allergies going wacko from that change.

The other question has to do with what's outside your windows. Do you have a lot of shrubs and/or trees that block sunlight from reaching your windows? North light is less bright (my living room/entry faces north and I know what a difference that can make) and that is reduced even more when you add in light-blocking plants. Perhaps selective pruning (not topping, *never* topping) might help you capture more sunlight. If this is the case, ask a certified arborist about "windowing," thinning or limbing up trees on your property.

Here is a link that might be useful: tree pruning info

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 2:37PM
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You've gotten some great suggestions. Love the stained lowers and painted uppers with light counters. Maybe you could have the upper doors taken off and sprayed to minimize problems for your child. Not sure how that works with different types of paint, though.

I'm right there with you on not wanting lights on during the day. Our kitchen also faces north but luckily, we inherited light cabinets and we were able to add another window. Also, we had a patio cover outside that we lightened up by removing some of the slats. It actually helped quite a bit. HTH

    Bookmark   April 26, 2011 at 4:52PM
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That is a wonderful cabinet company. I used them last year for a condo. I would not paint them. I would consider having them refinished first but before that I would change the counters. I can't stand dark counters. I feel sorry for your plight but painting them makes me cringe and I don't even know you. The suggestions about lighting may help too. Hope you find a better solution.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 8:45AM
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While it may be a bit of a waste to paint cherry, it would be far more wasteful to trash the cabinets or move. I have a painted cherry blanket chest-I always wondered why they did it in cherry. That said, it took paint very well. They used a milk paint-which should be low or no VOC-and gave it a distressed finish. It looks great. Not sure about the laminate bits. Maybe try painting the walls a bright color first. Walls are fairly easy thing to change. Cabinet finishes and counters aren't.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 9:31AM
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In my last house I had med to dark cabs with off white counter, back-splash and appliances. Floor was oak. When we redid the kit I did light cabs, dark Uba Tuba counter, back-splash - same floor. I added recess lighting to the point of looking like swiss cheese and never needed or used most of them. The lighter cabs brightened the room in spite of the dark counter/BS.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 10:06AM
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As a few people have mentioned before, posting a picture of your current space would really help! Painting your cabinets is, of course, an option (milk paint and chalk paint are two durable low-VOC options). However, I'd try a few simpler strategies first.

1. Backsplash. Try cutting sheets of beadboard to fit in that space. If your current backsplash is anything other than white, white beadboard will brighten it up quite a bit.

2. Mirrors. Do you have an area of wall where you can hang a mirror? To outsiders it may seem vain to hang a mirror in your kitchen, but reflecting what little light there is can really make a difference!

3. Appliances. Someone mentioned it before - black appliances will make the space seem darker.

4. Window. If you have any valances or window hangings, take 'em off! And check outside, too, for anything that's blocking light.

5. Upper cabinets. If you have ample storage space, consider removing a section of your upper cabinets. This is especially true if they're hanging over a peninsula or island. Other options in this vein include removing the doors on a couple sections, using glass inserts (frosted if you're worried about keeping things tidy), or replacing a run of uppers with open shelving. Or you could paint them.

6. Lowers. Cherry darkens over time/exposure to light, so it might be possible to lighten the tone by refinishing them and then sealing without a stain.

7. Counters. Replacing perfectly-good granite would likely be as expensive or more so than for professionally painted cabinets, but I think it would yield better results. Not an ideal solution, but still keep it in mind.

8. Flooring. Short of replacing your floor (what is your flooring, by the way?), try a couple of light-colored throw rugs.

9. Connections. How does your kitchen connect to the other rooms in the house? You mentioned you are in an historic district, so chances are you don't have an open floor plan. Do any of the adjacent rooms have natural light to spare? "Borrow" light with French doors or transoms above. Or remove a door completely (where it makes sense, of course), leaving a cased opening.

10. Declutter. A lot of extra stuff can make even a well-lit space seem claustrophobic. However, a few well-placed objects (especially reflective surfaces like a silver platter, or a small lamp for a dark corner) can brighten the room without having the overhead lights blazing.

Let us know what you decide to do!

    Bookmark   April 27, 2011 at 11:07AM
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Check out Staceyneil's kitchen for an idea of shaker cherry and marble. It's a beautiful kitchen, and might give you an idea of how yours would look with lighter counters.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2011 at 8:17PM
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