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. ModernT says:

    Our kitchen cabinets are original to the home (1965) and were built on-site. They are amazing. We have drawers with metal glides that still work, a pull-out/up shelf for my stand mixer, tall thin cupboards and dividers for cookie trays and things like that, and two lazy susan cabinets. We also have wood panels on our sub-zero so it looks built-in. The veneer is book-matched walnut and it is really, really thick so we can refinish them. The only thing we did was replace the old laminate counters with Corian. Even the handles are chrome and they gleam like jewelry. Everyone who comes to our house is amazed that are cabinets are original and loves our kitchen. We took down the curtains from the 80’s, stripped the peeling wall-paper and painted the walls. This kitchen is good to go for another 50 years.

  2. Barbara says:

    We’ve been in our 60’s split level for five years and are debating over the cabinets. They are 80’s oak…good quality but a bit worn. Four upper cabinets were cut into to accommodate the vent for the stove hood. Prior owners slapped a granite counter on main part of kitchen but left off white laminate on the other side. The granite includes a four inch piece that was improperly fastened to the old southwest style backsplash tile. Floor is white ceramic but with extra wide grout lines (southwest again?) and is hard to clean and hard on my legs. I think there are some cosmetic changes I could make to the cabinets and backsplash that would make them livable, but the floor is the big challenge. I think it has to be ripped out (covering with another flooring would raise the level too high). Wondering if the lower cabinets would survive a demo of the floor…the grout goes at least an inch or so up the toe kick. Any ideas for my remuddled kitchen?

    1. Sydney says:

      I feel your pain, Barbara! I’m going through the exact thing now with my 1960 ranch kitchen, right down to the slapped-on granite countertop (mine’s made of floor tiles, too, with big, filth-trapping grout lines–bonus!). The original floor in tan/cream/harvest gold/orange plaid vinyl remains, and is in good shape. The re-muddler decided to pair that with country sage paint on the cabinets (adding blocky, bead-board cottage-style replacement doors), lemon yellow walls, the aforementioned granite tiles in green balck, and a glass tile backsplash over the stove in black and gray. The original tile backsplash (off white/gold 4″) remains on the other side of the kitchen.

      Faced with all this awesomeness, I didn’t know where to start. We just bought the house, so my plans are more “remediation” that total overhaul at this point. Like you, replacing the floor for a more flexible palette would entail removing the entire sub-floor. And it was one of the few unmolested original features of the space. So, I’m keeping it. I’ve painted the cabinets dark brown (SW turkish coffee) and used orange on my walls to tie in with the floor, and plan to replace the unfortunate backsplash and countertop with laminate.

      For your floor, you might be able to get away with tearing it out and just needing to replace the kick plates? I’m sorry I’m not much help, but I just wanted to say that there are a lot of us out here going through it too. Good luck!

      1. Barbara says:

        Thanks! Love your ideas for your kitchen. I did avocado green on the walls and changed out the hardware (not really retro but better than what was there previously. Am torn between doing a remediation of what’s there already or saving for a full reno, which will take much longer…

    2. lisa says:

      Barbara, I hope you can find a floor solution. I moved from a house where we had first vinyl, then bamboo floors. Never knew how good I had it — even with thick rugs the tile floors in my new house’s kitchen are a trial for my legs and back. And they always look dirty.

      1. Barbara says:

        Plus all the chips show! My sister has porcelain…although just has hard, it doesn’t show everytime something gets dropped on the floor since the color goes all the way through.

    3. Meghan says:

      I agree with the PP who mentioned that you may need to replace the toe kick. That’s usually just a board that is fastened to the front of the lower part of the cabinets. It can be a structural support, but you should be able to replace it without removing your cabinets.

      I, too have a tile floor that’s a total loss. The sub-floor wasn’t prepared properly for the tile, and about half of them are cracked. You can hear grinding when you step on them. We think it was newly done when they put the house on the market… joke’s on them, as we’d have preferred a (much cheaper) sheet vinyl floor. Now it’s only 6 years old and it’s complete junk. What a waste of money, time, and materials.

      1. Barbara says:

        Yikes! What are you thinking of as a replacement? I’m hoping to do either cork or hardwood to match the other floors on that level.

        1. Sydney says:

          I second the cork. That’s what I had initially chosen, since my space is an open kitchen/den, so it would work with both spaces. I thought of doing cheaper “floating” cork laminate, but that would have made a huge hump where it meets up with the hardwoods in the rest of the house. And the lovely doors of one bank of cabinets go flush to the existing floor. Good times!

          I like your avocado green idea. The laminate I’d like to replace the granite with is Lab Designs Apple Tessaract (a bright avocado), and possibly their Arctic Retro over the backsplash. Lab Designs was profiled here a few months back.

  3. Cynthia says:

    For the past 8 years, we’ve lived with our crappy 80s cabinets (have no idea what was originally in our 1958 tri-level, but it definitely was not these). This spring, we came across a large (20-piece) set of mint-green Genevas in amazing condition. My husband and a few buddies removed them from the house they were in; they are now in storage and waiting for us to start a new kitchen build in what had been our kids’ playroom…we start next week! The new kitchen will be more spacious, but not huge — we’re going from a 6×9 galley kitchen to a 12×14 u-shaped kitchen. With three kids who love to help in the kitchen, and both my husband and I being huge cooks, the better layout and more counter space will be greatly enjoyed by all. Since the paint on the cabinets is in such great shape, we are sticking with the green and using that as our starting point for deciding a palette for the new kitchen. We also have a kitchen booth that was in my grandparents’ 1955 ranch…we brought it back from Wisc in a U-Haul this past summer. So that will have a glorious place in the new kitchen. And that old kitchen space? It’s going to make a cozy library/study room…which is what my kids need, now that they are all school age — past the age where there is any need for a big room full of toys adjacent to the main living area of our house. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Marta says:

    We bought our vintage Homeplanners Inc Design #338 MCM jewel last year and been prepping for our kitchen renovation. We had a renter in the house until our daughter finished HS and tasked him to gauge the space and the flow. He loved the house and great bones, but the kitchen was hard to work (literally 8×8 footprint) and gave us suggestions. He saw my vision and was excited to know that it makes sense.

    We are starting the renovations this week and will be selling a few lovable appliances and donating the cabinets to habitat for humanity. We were fortunate to buy not 1, but 2 1953 ST. Charles complete kitchen cabinets from two homes in Maine and Pennsylvania. That road trip was an adventure in itself (no AC in U-haul truck in 95 degree heat for 5 days). We want to maintain the integrity of the home and it was important to me to go this route. My husband will get his wish with all new appliances as part of our agreement. We’re excited, nervousness, anxious, overwhelmed but looking forward to the end result.

    1. Lisa Compo says:

      Be sure to take lots of before and after pictures, maybe Pam will want to put your story on as a feature one day. I’d love to see the sets of cabinets you plan to use for your restoration. Hope all goes very smoothly.

  5. Lisa Compo says:

    We are seriously considering building a retro style ranch (colored bathrooms and all) in the next year or so for my back problems and I am designing it myself. I will have the modern conveniences of big closets, energy efficient windows etc…but I want a very retro kitchen with lots of steel cabinets and plenty of counterspace and I will have the fortunate luxury to make the walls fit the cabinets I can collect up in the time before building starts.
    I wanted all Genevas because of how much I loved my Grandmother’s cabinets, but I think now I might have to get two brands to get enough for what I want to do with a big L shaped island and lots of wall cabinets. If you had to go with two brands…I guess the best bet would be the Genevas and St. Charles right? Pam, what is it about the St. Charles that made them “top of the line” in their day? I have never seen a set of them. Maybe my kitchen could be a tribute to a few of the popular brands if I did it right and things matched well enough. Can people give me the pros and cons of your brand of metal cabinets?
    In keeping with the current article….we have 1997 oak cabinets in our current kitchen that I thought would be sufficient when we bought the house but 1/2 of my kitchen stuff is stored in the basement and my love of vintage Pyrex and Corning Ware is overflowing, so I am just going with a whole new house based on my love of everything retro–especially steel cabinets .

    1. Marta says:

      Lisa, first, I think it’s absolutely awesome that you want to build a retro style ranch and if I can be of service, I have 3 booklets of Homeplanner’s Inc. full of plans and design layouts that may help you for some inspiration. Our house was showcased on the cover of one of the booklets and we were fortunate to have the original blueprints to the house. Naturally they are already framed and put up in the lovely wood paneling office full of floor to ceiling windows. I can give you the history of Homeplanners, but that will take another thread discussion ๐Ÿ™‚

      I can’t speak towards using multiple brands simply because I like one cohesive look however I can envision the L shape of cabinetry being one brand in one color and the island be another brand in another color! Can you imagine how cool that would be…SO FUN! We are doing something very similar in the layout.

      I can only speak for me and not anyone else here, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE my St. Charles that we purchased earlier this summer (2 sets in fact and we will probably not use them all so I am sure that I will be selling off the pieces.) After going through all my research regarding Genevas, Youngstown, and St. Charles…my heart started beating rapidly for St. Charles. The history in itself which right now I can’t seem to find, but this is a great starting point: Additionally, most architects were using St. Charles vs. the others so I think they had more of a highend brand recognition then the others. Not sure why that was, but either way I think Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van de Rohe, (among others) knew what they were doing at the time. I have to trust the experts. It saddens me that St. Charles no longer exists.

      I hope this helps

      1. Lisa Compo says:

        Marta, Thanks for the great reply. That’s awesome that your home was showcased on the cover of the booklet-you must be very proud. I bet it looks great in your office. I wish you could post a picture of it on here somewhere. I want lots of crank out floor to ceiling windows, too. Let the outside in…as much as possible.

        I have already sketched out the floorplan I want for the house, but I guess since I have lots of time I could always browse other ideas and incorporate them. Basically, what I am trying to do is a modified Brady Bunch house (LOL) with two masters on the first floor and a split level style staircase in the foyer area up to two more bedrooms upstairs with a J&J bath of course. A 2 bedroom “ranch” with two bedrooms put upstairs for resale value. hee hee

        You are spot on with my idea for the kitchen…funny how you knew. I would like to do white cabinets all over the walls, lowers and sink area, then do the big L island in aqua. I think that would look OK with the bright yellow tile I want for the backsplash. I want it to be cheerful but not too busy. Can I ask what part of the country you live in? If you need to sell off a few odd cabinets later I might like to grab a few. I keep hoping to pick up a few here and there and not spend a lot of money at one time. I have a builder/remodeler looking for some for me, too. Reminds me of the old song “One piece at a time” for building this house. I will look up the link and read the St. Charles history you sent. I am sure it’s juicy reading if it’s on here. I literally spend every free minute on this site. Thanks again for your input–I appreciate it.

  6. Bob Connor says:

    I would like to make our kitchen one that would be the same period of the house, which was built in 1972 but the cabinets were cheap to begin with, had a bad refacing job in the 80s and had water damage. It is going to need all new cabinets. Has anyone here have Merrilat cabinets? They seem to have colors styles that would be in the period but in the “we are Merrilat” video I saw some particleboard. Is that bad or is that usual?

    1. Lisa Compo says:

      Maybe you could find some on Craigslist or a local ReStore from that era that would fit. They might not be made of particle board as some of the later models. Just a thought, but if you want “new” then definitely do your research, I think just about every company cuts corners anywhere they can these days because things are so expensive.

      1. Marta says:

        Lisa, I’m always here to help and bounce ideas off ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m based in the Detroit area and would love to continue this conversation (offline) if you like.

        1. Lisa Compo says:

          Marta, It would be great to make a new friend to bounce ideas with, and being in Detroit seems almost like neighbors with how far away some people on here are . LOL I am down by Cincinnati so I am a reasonable distance from you if I ever get to needing those extra cabinets. Sure, we’ll have to figure out a way to exchange email addresses or something to get in touch with one another. Thanks for the offer, always good to make a new friend. ๐Ÿ™‚

          1. Marta says:

            Lisa, that’s perfect! We’re practically neighbors! We have our HQ in Mason, OH and tend to venture down there from time to time on business. My phone has been listed in the St. Charles selling/buying forum in the past, but I’m sure it’s buried ๐Ÿ™‚ My email is

            1. Lisa Compo says:

              Marta, Thanks for the address. I wrote you an email this morning. I am getting myself set up now ๐Ÿ™‚ I am about the same distance from you as the people in St. Louis that have all of the good stuff. Now I need to make a good friend there so I can be in the “triangle” of reasonable travel to obtain goodies. Dear Hubby is not so fond of road trips ๐Ÿ™ When I used to be able to drive I’d go anywhere for anything. LOL

  7. Molly Evans says:

    Pam, thank you for this! I’m starting a Palm Springs mid mod remodel Monday! I’m on the hunt for those forever cabinets too — shoot — I don’t have to fit the cabinets to the house, this house is going to have to accommodate itself to my cabinets!

    You’ve been the trailblazer though — muchas gracias to you — you’ve made it so much easier for people not *quite as* obsessive as you were to walk along the same path. Consequently – and no doubt – a lot more people are willing to renovate with vintage design and aesthetic detail. That’s something you ought to feel really good about. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’ve been a long time lurker but now that I’m embarking on this renovation I’ve become a stalker! Really appreciate the site and all the contributors. Thanks so much!


  8. Rod Miller says:

    When redoing my tiny 1951 kitchen- which was falling apart after a botched 80’s remodel- I found that it was significantly cheaper to get custom cabinets made by a local cabinet guy than to purchase basic cabinets from the big box home store. They say that those big box cabinets are customized- but what they mean is- if you have an 18″ space you can choose a spice rack or a wine rack from their selection. Going custom got me a much needed row of drawers- and made the small kitchen functional versus wasting the space on a fancy spice rack. I would also suggest calling in a bunch of kitchen contractors for free estimates- you’d be surprised how each one can come up with a different take on how to utilize the space in ways you’ve never imagined.

      1. Rod Miller says:

        Pam- I seem to remember you mentioning once that you were interested in floor plans for smaller mid century homes? I have the original sales brochure for mine- which is modest modest mid century- would you be interested or are you swamped with reader emails?

  9. MJinNC says:

    I just tore out the original custom wood cabinets in my 1940 Colonial. There weren’t enough of them – I had dishes stashed in 2 china cabinets and in the built-ins in the dining room. We tended to stash bulky items under the built-in desk, or even the floor in the dining room. The “pantry” was about 5″ deep with fixed shelves. I can’t be sure what was original and what was remodel. The floor was rotten pine over 2 layers of vinyl. There was an unexplained wall cubby with a power outlet – possibly formerly a wall oven but no matter how many times I cleaned it, it was mostly a clutter catcher. Some cabinet space was sacrificed to a garbage disposal I never used because once the garbage was smashed I couldn’t remove the bag. The dishwasher space may or may not have been original. The lazy susans in the corner cabinet drove me crazy – stuff was always falling off and getting stuck. There was a 70’s era (?) Jenn Air stove with downdraft vent that by the time I tore it out had one working burner. Early in my research I learned that stoves with downdraft vents are about twice as expensive as regular stoves. At some point the kitchen had been changed to completely white – white cabinets and white laminate countertops. I like lots of color so this was totally not my taste. In retrospect, I probably could have painted them until I replaced them but I didn’t think of that. The hardware had paint on it, was squeaky, there was liner in some of the cabinets that was a mess. So after 13 years, I embarked on a complete gut remodel.
    The centerpiece of my new kitchen will be the 1954 O’keefe and Merritt that has been sitting in my garage since 1993. Before that I used it, and before that my 1st husband’s mother used it. I don’t know where it came from before that as my MIL wasn’t old enough to have bought it in 1954. We take it next week for refurbishing. To get more space, we incorporated a small porch in the new layout, making the extra exterior doorway a pass thru to the dining room. I did look at Ikea for cabinets first, but they didn’t have many color options at the time, so I went with custom cabinets in a simple Shaker style. After first considering a yellow and green combination, I went with a two-tone green combination, mint and pine, based on some sample kitchens from this site. There is very little wall space with 3 doors and 4 large windows, but we painted what there was yellow. I am adding new wall appliances in white – a microwave with trim kit and a wall oven – that I think will complement the vintage stove. I’m also getting that really cool retro Vent-a-hood. The new fridge will be counter-depth and paneled to match the cabinets, so it won’t detract from the vintage stove. We are also redoing a 1948 GE fridge to continue the vibe and provide extra cold storage. I have actually been buying vintage refrigerator dishes to decorate the inside!
    Lastly, because the kitchen, and most of the house for that matter, was originally painted blue, I added a small island in cornflower blue as my homage to the original. No more white kitchen!

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