servel living kitchen with new steel kitchen cabinetsDo you want or need new kitchen cabinets? I share my opinions on sourcing the best quality kitchen cabinets for the money. 

How would I approach getting new kitchen cabinets, in what order? If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you will probably not be surprised by my #1 recommendation.  Here goes:

  1. Reconsider the need for new kitchen cabinets at all.

    If you have an older house with its original kitchen cabinets, those old cabinets may be of better quality than any “affordable” new cabinets available today.  If your existing kitchen cabinets are sturdy and still serviceable, there are numerous ways to give them new life. This would help you avoid significant, unnecessary spending, not to mention the stress of a major renovation. Can you work with your cabinets? Refinish them if the wood is nice… Or repaint them… If  the doors and drawers have decorative moldings and you want to go for a glazed look, try a solution like Rust-oleum Cabinet Transformations… Then, swap out the cabinet hardware for a fresh new/old look. Other ideas: Add glass-front doors to some of the wall cabinets, or take some doors off some of the wall cabinets for an open look.

    Remember, Reality Check:  You typically do not make your money back on remodeling projects — plan your spending with care.

  2. Shop for vintage steel kitchen cabinets.

    This is the route I took. The 1975 melamine cabinets in my 1951 kitchen were literally falling apart. I learned about vintage steel kitchen cabinets and went on a five-year hunt. I finally found my 1963 aquamarine Genevas, original finish, in great shape in a cooking school formerly run by nuns. I bought 67 cabinets for $3,000. I installed a bunch of them and then sold the leftovers on ebay for $2,500. And did you catch that: My cabinets are STEEL. Like Superman. With steel roll-out shelves. These cabinets will outlive me. Heck, barring a flood, they will live FOREVER.

    Want to learn more about vintage steel kitchen cabinets? I have dozens of stories about vintage steel kitchen cabinets here on the blog.  Youngstown steel cabinets were the biggest-selling brand, so will be the most plentiful today. But St. Charles steel cabinets (shown in the photo above, 1941) are the best-of-the-best. The St. Charles’ were made of even heavier steel than my Genevas. They are something. Still, many of the other brands are wonderful — and will do the trick just fine. Searching out steel kitchen cabinets can be a chore. And then, you may need to have them repainted at additional expense. But dollar-for-dollar, I can’t imagine finding any better quality kitchen cabinets for your money, especially for a mid century house or any house with a kitchen being done with vintage flair.

  3. For new wood cabinets, read the research on Consumer Reports.

    I am a ginormous fan of Consumer Reports. All of their testing is independent. They are not beholden to advertisers. They exist to serve their subscribers. Whenever I am in the buying mode for big stuff, I buy an online subscription, so I can research like a maniac. It makes my decision-making process so much easier. Right now, they do not show any brand-by-brand tests of kitchen cabinets. But they do have an article about what kind of construction to look for if you are looking for new wood kitchen cabinets. So read up. Note, though, that their #1 recommendation is same as mine: Can you work with the cabinets you have?

Readers, what is the situation with your kitchen cabinets?
Do you have experience to share with others?

  1. Amber Rhea says:

    I LOVE our original 1961 knotty pine cabinets. They are a big part of why we bought the house. However, the insides are not practical. Several layers of contact paper and paint later (plus trying to peel up those layers) and they are gross. Plus they are too deep… I mean, it’s good to have that much space but not if you can’t access it. And some have a middle shelf in the way that can’t be taken out. I do NOT want to replace the cabinets! So I’m thinking I’m going to see if a carpenter can cut out the offending middle shelves and then build custom pull-out thingies that slide in/out and stay behind the original doors. Anyone ever done something like this?

    1. Chad says:

      I have an issue of Popular Mechanics from the 60’s that shows a kitchen whose owner built all kinds of clever things on the insides of the cabinets. Or, rather, this was written in the 60’s. It says that the kitchen belongs to his wife! Pam/Kate, that’s probably too DIY-oriented and/or copyrighted for you, isn’t it? If not I could dig it up and share.

      As far as the contact paper goes, I’m sure some kind of solvent will take the residue off.

  2. JaniceW says:

    I bought my retirement house 15 years ago, a small 1959 ranch with beautiful birch cabinets (in excellent condition) in the kitchen. It’s now a rental property, but when I move in 3 years from now, I’m going to have to rejigger the cabinets so the kitchen is more functional. The only bank of drawers is right where a dishwasher needs to go, and I want to move the frig so you don’t run smack into it when you walk into the kitchen.

    The worst thing about the kitchen is that the soffit is also birch and it sticks out an inch or so over the cabinets. The soffit makes the room seem so dark and I just hate it. Haven’t decided if I can just paint it and live with it or not.

  3. Meghan says:

    I just want to encourage people to take this on. I have those awful, bottom of the line 80s melamine cabinets in my 1967 home, and, with a little help from eBay, thrift shops, and my Dad, I am retrofitting them with new doors, new shelves, wire organizers, and new drawer boxes. My total cost is going to come in under $500, but I also need to replace the floor. Even adding a high quality floor to my budget, I will still come in under $1000. (Fortunately, I asked for and received new laminate counter tops as a birthday gift several years ago- our previous beige laminate counters were burned, worn, and sagging.)

    NOTHING that was put in this kitchen to start with was quality, and the previous owners were not gentle with the kitchen. Still, so far, so good. I expect to be able to get another 10 or 20 years out of this kitchen… barring fire or flood. 🙂

  4. Pat Wieneke says:

    There usually is nothing better built than cabinets built in place by a carpenter. The only problems come in that
    1. There are not enough of them
    then see if you can find a carpenter to duplicate them in another part of your kitchen
    2. They do not have the features you want…like drawers instead of doors
    Again, a carpenter may be able to retro fit them
    3. They are just too grody and damaged to be savable ( ours were actually moldy in some areas, they had layers of lead paint on them, and they had been partly knocked akimbo, most likely by someone trying to alter their set up with a sledge hammer)
    In this case, we DID get new cabinets. But I chose ones that were reminiscent of kitchens of the age or our house….although not of the original cabinets, because they were sort of strange looking with different grains and directions of grain.

    If you DO decide to take them out, get a Sawzall, an 18 lb sledge hammer and a couple of good crowbars, one should be a ‘packing tool” ( my favorite tool in all the world) Be prepared for a lot of work. They will be nailed and glued to kingdom come.

    1. Robin, NV says:

      Now I’m scared! I will be removing my cabinets in the near future to deal with insulation and wiring issues in the walls. My husband keeps saying “it won’t be a big deal.” But I’m really scared we might damage the cabinets pulling them off the wall. So far, I’ve only noticed the nails attaching them to the studs – I didn’t know there could be glue too!

      1. Chad says:

        Use the crowbar very gently; coax them out. You can drive it behind them with a couple hits from a hammer, but then just kinda jiggle a bit; don’t just pull violently. If there’s glue you’ll probably be able to feel it, and maybe you can wreck the plaster to save the cabinets. Plaster is nice but drywall isn’t that much different. And if it makes you feel any better, my parents’ cabinets from 1951 were not glued in. Mine, which are new and pretty junky, were glued and nailed to a brick wall, and I wrecked a few of them, but their frames were only about an 8th of an inch thick. Too bad for me; I’m not ready to buy replacements!

  5. Sandy says:

    Our original (1964) cabinets were wood and structurally sound. They were also ugly, but that wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem was that they couldn’t be easily adjusted, which meant food had to be put away by height — perhaps the worst idea on the planet. We used the old cabinets in the laundry room and garage and replaced them with basic oak cabinets that work well and blend with our furniture. I’m much happier than if I’d tried to work around the originals.

  6. ChicagMel says:

    I had originally wanted to refinish my kitchen cabinets, but my father, the retired cabinet maker, decided that we are going to put new wood veneer on the boxes and get new doors. I had also decided on birch as an economical and authentic choice for the cabinets, but again my dad talked me into a fancier maple. I can’t complain about the increase in cost because the only cost will be supplies. All of the labor and tools will be provided by my dad and husband.
    We built and installed new laminate countertops over the summer and it brought our whole family closer together. My 2 year old son looks up to anyone who can wield a hammer; my father and husband had plenty of bonding time and my father was really happy to be doing his carpentry magic. All the neighbors were looking into our yard to see how the project was going and see the progress. I can’t wait to start on the cabinets at Thanksgiving!
    On the practical side, this townhouse was sitting on the market a long time because of the terrible kitchen. With all of the free labor, I’m fairly certain that we won’t lose the money we put into retro-renovating the kitchen. Hopefully, we will never have to sell and can enjoy the kitchen built with our own hands for decades to come.

  7. LauraRG says:

    Correct me if I missed it, but what about the environmental costs to replacing cabinetry? It takes resources to build, transport and install the new ones… and energy to remove and haul away the old ones. And where will they be hauled TO? (landfill is my guess) Granted, some are beyond repair, but most aren’t. It may be as cost effective to make some small modifications and refinish the existing cabinets… and certainly more ecologically sound.

    My 1961 vintage house has a very small kitchen, but the cabinets are to die for! Beautiful pecan (with the original gold fleck Formica!) I wish they went to the ceiling instead of having a soffit, I wish there was a dishwasher, and I wish there was a little bit more counter space, but I have found I really don’t need a d/w, and there are creative ways around the counter dilemma. Why would I ditch these gorgeous cabinets, send them to the landfill and replace them with some garbage from a big box store?

    1. Lauryn says:

      Hence number 1 above: “Reconsider the need for new cabinets at all” and number 2 above: “Shop for vintage steel kitchen cabinets” (keeps them out of the landfill!).

    2. Meghan says:

      I wish I didn’t have a soffit either! But I have a cunning plan. My parents’ 1954 home has some closets in an early 1970s addition that have some little sliding panel doors above them, still with the original cup pulls. I’m going to make sure there’s nothing inside my soffit (Shouldn’t be, we’re a one story rambler) and then duplicate them so I can use the space up there to store my infrequently used items.

    3. Joe Felice says:

      On the DIY shows, they always show people throwing their old materials into a dumpster (roll-off) or Bagster. I always wonder what happens to all that stuff. Why don’t they encourage watchers to be more responsible, remove the items carefully, and repurpose or recycle them? If nothing, you can always take them to Re-Store. I hope all those things are not simply going to a landfill!

      You know what they say: “The greenest rmodel is to refinsih what you already have,” and “The greenest home is one that is already built.”

  8. Rebecca says:

    I wish i loved our original cabinets, but they smell so musty and they are poorly configured. (i want my stove to be opposite its current location–how do you reconfigure site built cabinets?

    1. Chad says:

      You do what you gotta do! I didn’t even make kitchens a priority because all the sturdy old kitchens I saw had layouts that wouldn’t work for me – minimal amounts of work space to allow room for a tiny breakfast table. I’m having a “formal” dining table only so I have room to cook! But at least if it’s serviceable you can decide exactly what you want, and shop around for bargains

  9. Heidi Swank says:

    I absolutely agree to live with your cabinets for a while. We’ve been in our house for 8 years and have finally come to the decision that we need to put in new kitchen cabinets. Half of the cabinets were torn out at some point and some less than quality ones were put in. They are signficantly washboarded and the layers of paint keep some doors from closing. We tried to strip them and then sand, but the paint had seeped into the wood.

    In the end, we researched and researched vintage kitchen cabinetry, purchased some vintage appliances (keeping the original Thermador cooktop), and had friend design a reproduction of a 1950s era kitchen. She did a wonderful job listening to us and pulling together our ideas. Much of what we are doing is putting the same thing back in, but we got lots of good ideas going through Pam’s pix here.

    We also have a fabulous cabinet maker who has made reproduction cabinets (including aging the stain) to match original cabinets in our rental house, so we know we can get the look we want. And we are saving some of the features (e.g. bent wood lazy Susans) and re-installing them. All of this will allow us to recover some of the original features of the kitchen (e.g. a second kitchen entry) that were covered over.

  10. Tava Bronston says:

    I agree with previous sentiments of living with your cabinets. I am a poster child for love the house your in. When I bought my home in 2004, I had no idea of the popularity of mid century modern design. When looking for a home the considerations were location, affordability, and space. The home we purchased is a 1959 California Ranch. With only two previous owners much of the home had been left original. I can remember the first time walking though the house, leaving, and saying to my husband- “It has metal kitchen cabinets!!!!!” Not in a happy and enthusiastic voice either. Living in the home, researching what I had, painting every square foot, and totally diving in to the mid century style. I can truly say that I absolutely love my butter yellow St. Charles kitchen much more than any home or apartment that I have lived in. Thanks to Pam for rallying us “to love the house your in”!!!!

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