Should Nancy paint her vintage wood cabinets?

A 1950s two-tone kitchen - Nancy's inspiration

Glamorlux Nancy in Fairfax, Virginia, is updating her 50s kitchen and has her inspiration photo all ready to go. The kitchen is already quite nice looking – the overall feel of the space is terrific, and the cabinets are well-made. Nancy’s chosen her countertop and has her hardware… but she still is pondering what color… or colors… to paint her original 50s cabinets…and the accent – or not – for her new Azrock Cortina floor tiles.

Nancy's 1950s wood kitchen

Nancy writes:

Hi Pam,

I’ve seen on your site where you and your readers provide ideas for “remodeling” vintage kitchens and baths… Well, here is our kitchen, pre-restoration.

As far as I can tell, a lot is original – cabinets, GE Textolite countertops (golden beige twilight), and plastic “copper” tile backsplash. However, it is very late 50’s, and we prefer a “prettier” early 50’s look. I want our new color scheme to include: aqua (turquoise), pale yellow, red and white.

The original Textolite counters are sort of beat up and lack the metal banding, so we are planning on replacing them. We’ve already purchased the aqua boomerang Formica laminate and stainless steel banding to make the new countertops. Since the copper tiles are only over the range, we are planning on removing them, and then making a taller backsplash on the countertops.

The flooring is obviously not original. I ordered some samples off of the Azrock website, and they came within a few days! My favorite is called Cirrus V-785… (and I want to use this) for the majority of the floor, with a diagonal or random pattern of Azrock’s “Spearmint”, “Honey” and “Coral Reef”…. But, my husband said that might be too much with the boomerang countertops. Our kitchen will have a Mexican theme, so we’re going for a festive look. …

As I mentioned in another email, we’ve been going back and forth on whether to paint our 1959 wood cabinets. I’m really not into the wood look, although I know it was very desirable in the 50’s. Do you think we’d regret painting them? They are worn and slightly water-damaged in areas, so if I kept the natural wood, I’d have to refinish them anyway (which I don’t particularly relish doing). We are now thinking about painting the cabinet “structure” white, but then having the doors and drawer fronts yellow and/or coral. I’ve seen this done in vintage magazines… Do you like that look? The original Amerock cabinet hardware is gold, so I found the same style in chrome on eBay. Oh well, one thing I’ve learned from pouring over vintage “Better Homes and Gardens” magazines is that really “anything goes” when it comes to decorating a 50’s kitchen!

And, thanks for the compliment about the kitchen. It is definitely not a “chef’s kitchen” and the counter space is practically nil. We’ll be adding some shelving on the wall where the Cosco cart and microwave are now. Ha, ha – I wonder how many potential buyers took one look at the kitchen (and the pink bathroom) and decided the house wasn’t for them! I’m including some “inspiration” pictures I’ve collected, to give you an idea of what feel we’re going for. Any ideas are welcome!

Thanks so much,

First of all, Nancy, I am so impressed with all your hard, focused work. You are someone who Gets Things Done. You go, girl! My thoughts on your questions:

  • Remember how Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that when you have a bad headache, you want to take just enough aspirin to kill you – but then back off a tad so that you don’t? That’s the way I tend to feel about decoration and color…. Lay it on, but then edit it back some and you will be happier. In that vein (if that makes sense): I vote with your husband. That Cirrus floor will look beautiful and has enough going on in its own right that you don’t need to add diagonals or other color punches. I also believe your eye needs somewhere to rest as it dances happily around your happy kitchen.
  • Regarding the cabinets: Go ahead and paint ’em and never look back! Another idea: Base cabinets one (darker) color, wall cabinets another (lighter) color.
  • And Retro Renovation Peanut Gallery: Be sure to chime in with your ideas, too!

All that said — Nancy, you seem to have great instincts and have really thought a lot about this. So don’t get too stressed out and ultimately – trust your own heart. We can’t wait to see the finished job – thanks for sharing!


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  1. Terri says

    We painted our Quaker Made cabinets white, they are circa 1969…a bit too colonial for our 1948 house. I had a professional spray painter take the fronts of the drawers and all of the cabinet doors. They then spent the day spraying the actual cabinets and tile with an oil based paint. (It was the second layer of tile that had been painted cream, sadly, the first layer was black & white…so my kitchen returned to its roots!) The little wall space that we have is painted mint green – to match the FiestaWare. We had an odd wall with a mushroom shaped counter that was replaced by a black Formica rolling table and a narrow set of shelves/cabinets to match the cabinets with lights and plenty of space for cookbooks, telephone, etc.

  2. says

    i have been wondering what to do with my wooden cabinets as well… they are just a veneer which is chipped in a few spots (near the floor, so not too noticeable, but in no way are they perfect) i am tempted to do a green stain with the walls pale yellow and floor a warm gold with a darker border… also i fell in love with this fabric: which i’m making curtains out of. i am dying to see “before” and “after” photos of everyone’s kitchens!

  3. ktina says

    We had 1950’s cabinets in our home as well. Someone had painted over the varnished cabinets and the paint was chipping and some places had food on it. I used a heat gun to take off the varnish and then sanded them down. It took a few months, but It was well worth it. We were able to re-stain our cabinets for about $200 and now they look brand new. Just took a little elbow grease. I would encourage you to stain them rather than paint. If you do paint, make sure you sand the varnish off, otherwise you will chip the paint off. Also, use high gloss paint as this is easier to wash.

    • pam kueber says

      Welcome, ktina. My husband taught me the aphorism: “Good…Fast…Cheap: Pick Any Two.” One of my favorites of all time. And remember DIY readers to use appropriate safety and environmental precautions such as testing paint for lead.

  4. Glamorlux Nancy says

    Hi Pam and All,
    I was so inspired by the “1964 Split-Level Time Capsule” kitchen profiled here on retroren, that it has changed my kitchen remodeling plans completely! We are now keeping the original countertops, but ‘knocking’ off the backsplash and putting in aqua tile. We will also attempt to keep the wood finish of the cabinets. That being said, we no longer need our unused metal banding (from NY metal) and sheet of aqua boomerang Formica laminate. Any ideas on passing these items along at a cheap price? Anyone interested? We live in Northern, Va.
    Well, I’m off to start painting the kitchen walls. Thanks everyone for your input on my project!!!
    =) Nancy

    • Robyn says

      Hi Nancy,

      I had written you some time ago. I am the Springfield VA historian who lives in Arlington. I’m sure I am way too late but if the aqua boomerang Formica and the metal edging is still available, I’d like to talk to you about buying those. There are two sizes of the metal edge available and the one I need is the 1 inch tall size. Not sure if you got the taller version (like Pam used on her’s) or the shorter. I didn’t see this thread again until today or I’d have jumped on your offer right away.


  5. sabrina says

    I realize this is a very old thread, but I have the exact same type of cabinets in my 1957 kitchen and am thinking of painting them as well. Interestingly, the bathroom vanities in two of the bathrooms (the third, basement bathroom is a wall-hung sink with no vanity) have are identical in style but are painted and I really like how they look. My kitchen also has the original formica in a yellow/mustard geometric pattern, and is west-facing, with a beautiful view of the SF bay, which is lovely on a foggy day, but when we’re blessed with sun is so full of glare it’s hard to see. The yellow countertops and the wood are just way too “warm” for where the kitchen is situated. I’m thinking a creamy white for the cabinets and a powder blue or aqua for the countertops to cool it down but keep it inviting. I hate to replace the really fantastic countertops, but there’s a cooktop that I’m planning to remove in favor of a freestanding range (which was the original set-up anyway, and will really open up counterspace and make the kitchen more functional) and would have a big hole in the countertop if we didn’t.

    Barclay, I really love how your cabinets turned out! Quite an inspiration!

    • pam kueber says

      Sabrina, if your countertops are still in good shape, consider putting them on craigslist or if you can’t find a buyer, taking them to the Re-Store / Habitat for Humanity. Another retro renovator might be able to work with them…

      • sabrina says

        I would love for someone to get to use the countertops, so will definitely try listing them on craigslist, whenever we get around to actually renovating! With three girls under the age of 6 underfoot, it’s hard to find a good time! The previous owners (they were the second owners, and owned the house from 1963 until we bought it last year!) also cut some of the drawers to fit a bigger new fridge and to install the cooktop. So before we can paint, I need to get my dad to come up and help us rebuild those drawers and make a couple new doors for cabinets that were damaged from steam from said cooktop.

        It’s funny, all of the things that drive me bonkers in the house are things that are not original to it! Well, except the concrete aggregate floor in the entry; that’s original but drives me bonkers because it’s impossible to clean!

        I don’t have my own photo of the countertops right now, but if you want to see the design, check out my very talented best friend’s baking business site:

        My countertop is showcasing the yummy chocolate creation that shows up just after the bundt cake. 😉

  6. says

    The Nancy kitchen asking about painting the cabinets, can these cabinets be found? I have them in my 1962 kitchen in maple (same as picture). I would like to have an island built and wanting it to match my cabinets, can you help? Janet Bramel Englewood, Ohio

    • Tullio says

      I would like to buy Willet’s birch 1960?s kitchen cabinets to add to my original birch kitchen cabinets. If anyone has any to sell or knows where to buy them, please let me know. My Email is
      Thank you much.

  7. Minicommittee says

    I am so there! I too am trying to decide whether or not to paint. My home was built in 1963 and has some retro characteristics…but sadly not enough for my taste. However due to budget, I can only slowly re-invent it. Then there is finding everything…but thanks to this website I am finding helpful info!

    Anyway, my issue builds because the flooring is hideous peel and stick faux slate over vintage congoleum type tiles on half the floor, but the half by the ‘working’ end of the kitchen have a middle layer of roll linoleum…yeah! I am having trouble deciding on flooring too….I absolutely cannot lift or move the cabinets because if the house falls down with the end of the world…they will remain! It took us so much just to remove the L to open up for better space and to fit the new (everyone has to have stainless refrigerator).

    Adding to this I have wood tongue and grove beamed ceilings…everyone says I can never paint it!….so currently with the dark floor, wood cabinets and ceiling , lousy lighting…the room is dark. Even though we removed the lovely purple stripe/floral wallpaper.

    I would love any input. I am trying to post photos to my flckr page, but they are having server issues at the moment.

    Pam…did you ever choose? Do you have pictures?

    • Minicommittee says

      Oops….should have said Nancy did you choose, and then re-read and found out the new plans.

      I finally loaded a few photos of my kitchen…not great because I had to use my phone.
      They are on Flickr under Minicommittee.

  8. minicommittee says

    Totally decided to keep the wood….instead, changed floor to new version of old VCT tiles, went with the white to brighten the room. Repainted walls, changed placement of the fridge/drawer units. Still in the works at the moment. Finally think we picked a backspash…one of the parts to add new update look, while still keeping lots of the retro elsewhere. Once I’m finished, I’ll update the link to photos.

  9. futubu says

    paint em’ if you want,. or don’t,. i think a 50’s light robins eggy pool blue wall color would make them pop. with copper accents somewhere,. perhaps the knobs? it’s those awful tiles for backsplash that need ta go! ouch! see julia childs kitchen from the early french chef shows,.a peg board wall would be very nice in this kitchen,. just my thoughts

    • pam kueber says

      I VERY MUCH disagree with you about the backsplash tiles, futubu. Copper backsplash tiles are very cool. Please also know, on this site, we have a rule, “No one can be made to feel bad for their choices.”

  10. MrsPItcher says

    I have similar tiles in my kitchen, but I think mine are metal. Those are one major thing I’m going to keep. I love my green tiles!

  11. says

    I think I could go 1 of 2 ways with this, with the formica that you’re talking about, if it were me I would either sand and stain them a lighter color so that they aren’t as severe OR paint them, but paint the cabinet bases one color and the doors another it’s a very retro-Mexican look (that’s the way my grandparents kitchen was and it was an early 50s Spanish style house in West LA), with the color scheme that you’ve chosen my suggestion would be to paint the cabinets white and the cabinet doors turquoise.

  12. Kathy Davey says

    I would love to get in touch with Nancy. We also live in Fairfax VA and have the exact same cabinets and oven arrangement. We are ready to improve our kitchen and would love to know how her great kitchen ideas turned out.

  13. Kristen says

    I realize that this is a very old post, but I’ve seen a more recent post in which Nancy shared that she refinished her wood cabinets. Has Nancy posted her photos or information about her process anywhere? I am prepping to refinish my 1961 wood cabinets and would love some guidance and inspiration!

  14. Barbara Kornacki says

    Hi Nancy. Thanks for sharing your photos and ideas. I have wanted a vintage 40’s/50’s kitchen for years and am just now trying to pull it together too. As for painting your cupboards, it’s a big decision and it will sort itself out once you start getting things in place. You may want to check out this site to see another couples renovation although a different era: “Lauryn and Dennis’ 1939 humble kitchen”. Their kitchen speaks volumes to me, especially the cupboards. I will continue to follow your site to see the results. Have fun!

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