Retro-modern-kitchenlove the house you're inWhat do you do when life hands you perfectly functional 1980s kitchen cabinets — in a 1952 house? Susan turned to the thrifty remodeler’s #1 weapon: Paint. Specifically, she used Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations to give her 1980s melamine kitchen cabinets a new, retro-modern vibe. Amazing how modern those 1980s kitchen cabinets look when painted out. And, yes, Susan tells us painting the melamine worked — the brush strokes even look like wood grain, she says. Susan used a similar DIY formula to freshen up the bathroom. Let’s take a look at both of her thrifty before-and-after remodels –>

Retro brick ranch houseSusan — a long-time renter — recently finally found the house of her dreams in a 1952 red brick ranch in a great neighborhood. Isn’t it… perfect!  The house was listed as a fixer upper — but that didn’t intimidate Susan, who had been a DIY apprentice to her dad.

Susan writes:

vintage-house-flyerIn 2010, after many years of renting, I was tired of never being able to make a place my own and decided to buy a house.  I’ve always been a handy gal, having helped my dad with many basic carpentry, electrical, and plumbing projects, so I wasn’t afraid of fixers.  When a two-bedroom, 1952 red brick ranch in a fantastic neighborhood came on the market, I jumped at the chance to take a look.

The house had belonged to a local family for nearly 50 years, but had been a rental for about half that time before sitting empty for two years.  Neglected, it needed a lot of updating but had good bones: huge living room windows, gorgeous oak hardwoods, sunroom with 18 original awning windows and jalousie door, and a half bath with original yellow and maroon wall tile.

I was in love!  Shortly after moving in, I found the original builder’s advertisement featuring my house in a local newspaper.  Sixty years later, the outside is relatively unchanged, save for the loss of the charming garage cupola and the delicate little tree which is now a towering oak!


Inside, however, was a different story.  The mahogany paneled den had been painted, and one bath and the kitchen had been remodeled in the 1980s, complete with white melamine and pickled wood cabinets and a peel and stick vinyl floor that had seen better days.  The day I signed the papers, I started ripping out that tile!  I knew I wanted to update the space, but I also wanted to keep some retro styling that fit with the age of the house, so I chose to go with a checkerboard pattern.  I worried that traditional black and white would overwhelm the 10×10 room, so I went with gray and white instead.  Working on a budget, I chose to put down inexpensive peel and stick I found on eBay as a temporary, but attractive choice; plus it was easy to trim pieces to fit with scissors.

80s-bathroom-remodel-before-and-afterFrom start to finish, the floor took approximately two days and gave the room a retro-modern twist.  Two years later, the floor has held up remarkably well, and the tiles are simple to replace, although I’m not sure I would recommend peel and stick for heavily trafficked areas or large families.  My plan is to upgrade the peel and stick with Armstrong’s commercial vinyl squares in the same pattern and colors.

painting-cabinets-with-rustolemI didn’t start renovating the rest of the kitchen until this past summer, when I had a large chunk of free time to tackle those cabinets!  I was sure I wanted to go with white because light and bright would work better in the small space.  Plus, the backsides of the cabinet doors already were white, so that would save me from having to paint both sides.

80s-cabinets-paintedI had worked with Rustoleum’s Cabinet Transformations on my oak bathroom cabinet with great results, so I was confident it would work well in the kitchen.  The boxes were pickled wood veneer but in great shape, so they took the treatment without trouble.

I was surprised, however, at how well the melamine doors turned out! I did the same prep and application as I had for the boxes, using Pure White and a regular bristled brush to cover the fronts and edges.  I got lucky that the color matched the backside perfectly.  After two coats each of bond and top coats (I chose not to use the glaze), the final result gave the door fronts a wood-grain-like texture that blends well with the boxes.

I added stainless steel bar pulls, choosing to install them on the horizontal to match the groove along the tops and bottoms of the doors, helping hide some of the ‘80s style that lies beneath. It took about two weeks to get the job done, but it was well worth the time and effort.

Retro-modern-kitchenNot long after I moved in, I had hired an electrician to replace an old flourescent light with an IKEA, retro-styled fixture that resembles the rocket-inspired taillights on a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.  The old hood range, on the other hand, sounded like a 747 when started, so I swapped it with a clean-looking and quiet stainless model.  Since it’s unvented, installation was a snap—just a couple of wires and screws to take down the old one and put up the new.  I painted the walls with a medium blue from Eddie Bauer Home called “Gingham,” which helped the tiles and cabinets pop without being too dark.

I chose American Olean’s Legacy Glass mosaic tile for the backsplash, picking up the gray floor, black counters, and white cabinets with their Delfino Black Magic pattern.  It was my first tile installation, so I did a lot of internet research beforehand and read the company’s guidelines before starting.  I moved the stove out of the way and mounted a cleat to the wall to make certain the tile stayed square and level where there was no countertop to guide it.  Luck was on my side and I was able to install full tiles along both walls.  I had to use glass nippers, though, to cut pieces to fit under the hood and the window opening over the sink, but had some trouble getting clean cuts.  Fortunately, the window sill hides most of my mistakes.  Tiling and grouting took two days and really transformed the feel, adding some real pizazz to the room!  I used thinset made specifically for glass tile and unsanded grout that wouldn’t scratch, making sure to clean off the grout before it dried, or else I would have been chipping and chiseling for hours!

using-kitchen-desk-for-microwaveA few red accent pieces—a Sterling & Noble retro-inspired clock from Target, coffee maker, and giant fork I spray painted—added some color, contrast, and whimsy.  Thanks to some closeouts at Lowes, I was able to pick up a new refrigerator and stove for about $1100, keeping the existing dishwasher and black laminate countertops, both of which were in good condition.  My next step is to leaf through several 1952 House & Garden issues I got from eBay for an advertisement or two I can frame and hang that will help tie everything together.  All told, I spent three or four weeks’ time and approximately $600 (without appliances) transforming my kitchen from dated 1980s to retro-modern 2013!

Here’s the materials and cost breakdown:

  • Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations in Pure White, Lowes: $79
  • American Olean Glass Tile, Delfino Black Magic, Lowes: $144
  • Valspar paint, Eddie Bauer Home “Gingham,” Lowes: $33
  • Gray and White floor tile, eBay: $36
  • Gatehouse satin nickel bar pulls, Lowes: $70
  • Whirlpool under cabinet range hood, Lowes: $99
  • Leding ceiling light, IKEA, $30
  • Supplies (brushes, thinset, grout), Lowes: $125
  • Grand total: $616

Susan also remodeled her bathroom using similar techniques on a similarly tiny budget. She writes:

 I also made over the bathroom in a similar style and on a small budget ($500).


Above: Susan’s bathroom before … and after.

Susan — what an adorable home you have. The best part is that you used affordable resources and your know-how to transform both your kitchen and bathroom from the marred by abuse state they were in — to their present cheery and clean state. Congratulations on a job well done — and thanks so much for sharing your story and photos with all of us.

  1. Chelsea says:

    I have the same 80’s cabinets. I removed one of the doors and took it to sherwin Williams and had them match the color of the melamine. I sanded the wood trim and only painted it. It came out really well. Probably a lot cheaper too????????

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I love the outcome of your kitchen cabinets. I was wondering if you could tell me if the paint has lasted. Any chips or peeling occurring? Any advice and updates are appreciated! Thanks!

  3. jan says:

    Just wondering if anyone has just painted the oak trim at the top of the cabinets and if so, what did you use and do you recall what color white? I hate to have to repaint the entire cabinets faces.

  4. Pat says:

    Susan’s kitchen is exactly like mine. We followed her plan and are really pleased with the result. At the moment we are about to install the door handles, I see from the pics the handles are mounted inside the groove of the wooden trim. As I hold my handles to the trim they do not seem to be flush against the wood. Was this the case when you installed yours.
    Beautiful job!
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. lucille says:

      Love the make over but also confuse about how to install the handles inside the grooves.Please expain.

  5. Tom and Norma Grace Miller says:

    My wife who is a handicapped RN after 40+ years and myself, disabled Air Force veteran have this exact kitchen. We currently have wall papered walls in the kitchen, old outdated almond colored appliances and the old kitchen counters. My wife would like new granite kitchen counters, back splash, refinished cabinets because on our budget we cannot afford new cabinets and new appliances. Could you give me some suggestions on how to go about this without breaking the bank. Our funds are limited and we would like to restore our kitchen. Thank You for any and all suggestions.

    1. pam kueber says:

      Hi Tom, Thank you for your email, and for your service.

      This website is not really about creating modern kitchens with granite countertops. We are about keeping the old and working with it, to the degree possible. Fundamentally, I think you might do better off at looking at other sites for ideas and advice. But one thought: Get you know your local ReStore/Habitat for Humanity — they have great deals on countertops, cabinetry and appliances that folks remove from their kitchens — and if you go regularly you might find just what you are looking for. Good luck!

      1. D says:

        Rustoleum has a countertop product that works fantastic. We used the black on an old formica countertop and it looked amazing!

  6. Susie says:

    Love the kitchen! Just have a question, I don’t know if I overlooked it. What did you do with the oak trim lips of the cupboards? Were they taken off and replaced with something else? Or did you use woodfiller? They look different in the Before and After. Thanks!

  7. MJ says:

    cannot find colors in that flooring like you have. I only find black/white checker or red/white checker patterns… love that floor and working on finding it.

  8. Jaime says:

    Thanks for sharing! I have been trying to decide what to do with my melamine cabinets for a year now… I did not realize the Rustoleum Transformation products would work on melamine….did you have to sand the melamine cabinets first in order for the paint to stick. Have you had experience with any other colours on Melamine

    Thanks for the ideas! Looks great

    1. pam kueber says:

      Jaime, you should connect with Rustoleum directly re: how to prep for melamine… Good luck.

  9. pamela burt says:

    In the early 80s those cabinets were all the rage. I am a Realtor and sold new homes with these. We called them Euro cabinets and they had these modern adjustable hinges. I don’t see them often now. Most were refaced or replaced. Not one of the best trends I’ve seen. I Just wonder which of the hot trends today will be tomorrow’s mistakes???

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