Reconfiguring Existing Cabinets for a Fresh Look

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen design  Hi, guys! It's Mandi with another installment of our kitchen renovation series.

When we first moved into our house, I would just stare at the wasted, open space above our cabinets and scream (inside my head), "WHY?!" The extensions on the sides of the cupboards that went all the way to the ceiling didn't make any sense and gave the appearance of the cupboards being unfinished. Perhaps they were unfinished. Who knows? So from day one I had been considering how we could change up our cabinet arrangement without getting new cupboards.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designAfter mulling over my inspiration kitchens, I knew I liked the idea of open shelving, but definitely knew better than doing our whole kitchen that way. (Hello, stained Tupperware and Minnie Mouse sippy cups!) I need hidden storage in my life. So a great idea occurred to me—Why not chop down the cabinets, move them up to the ceiling, and throw in some open shelving in the newly freed wall space? Seemed easy enough, and honestly, it wasn't that difficult of a job! (Unlike organizing our junk drawer—ayayayay!)

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designThe worst part of the cabinet reconfiguring project was living with the entire contents of our cabinets spread throughout our house in boxes. You never realize how much stuff fits inside of kitchen cupboards until those contents become displaced! Since this part of the deal was shared with the work involved in refinishing the cabinets, it didn't seem like as big of a pain.

Removing the Cupboards

To get started, we invited some burly friends over to take down the cabinets. Boy, were they heavy! We weren't even sure how they were mounted onto the walls, so that was a bit stressful. Turns out they had been nailed directly into the wall, with the nails being driven diagonally through the wood of the cupboards. We were a little worried we'd accidentally bust up the cupboards while prying them off the wall with a crowbar. But thankfully they remained intact! Whew!

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designYou can see our ugly hood vent above and maybe understand why I was keen on getting rid of it. We actually removed the hood before taking down the cupboards, then my Dad climbed into the attic and pulled the vent through the ceiling. He graciously offered to climb up there again soon to install a new ceiling-mount fan to replace this old guy.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designCutting Down the Cabinets

Once the cupboards were down, we took them outside to cut them down to the desired size. To do this, we used a circular Skil saw, which is a great tool for this particular job because of the long metal edge along the blade that is easy to guide along an edge to cut a really straight line. You could use a clean-cutting blade on a jigsaw too, but it's so much easier to keep a circular saw perpendicular to the cutting surface.

We taped the area to be cut with duct tape to help prevent splintering. Then we clamped down a straight edge (we used a scrap piece of wood) to guide the blade, making sure that it was spaced the same distance as the distance between the saw's blade and the metal edge of the saw. This kitchen renovation was the first time I used a circular saw by myself (for cutting down the shelves when I didn't want to drive to my dad's house yet again to use his table saw), and I'll tell ya right now—I'm putting one of these on my Christmas list. What a handy tool to have for the budding woodworker/renovator!

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designAfter the cabinet was cut in half, we were able to pry the bottom part of the cabinet away and remove the nails. Then I filled the rough, cut edge of the cabinet with my favorite wood filler and sanded down the area to make it nice and smooth. It felt, as they say, smoother than a baby's bottom, though it took some patience, two coats of wood filler, and some heavy sanding before and after the second coat of wood filler. Make sure you don't apply the wood filler too thick, or it will take a long time to set up and might crumble when you sand it down.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designBuilding the Shelves

I used poplar wood to create shelves to mix in with the new cabinetry arrangement. I selected poplar because it's harder than pine or the "whitewood" that you find at places like Lowe's and Home Depot. It doesn't stain nicely, but it sure takes paint well. I used a variety of plank widths (10" planks for the lower shelves, 8" plank for the upper shelf) and attached 1x2s to the front with wood glue, clamps, and a few finishing nails. The 1×2 edge piece gave the shelves a bulkier appearance, elevating the look of a standard board without a lot of work or money. The edge also exists to hide my under-cabinet lights which will be mounted under the shelves, as well as the Ikea brackets. I did have to slice a bit of the top and front edge of the Ikea brackets, though, so they would fit nicely underneath the shelves.

After the wood glue had set up, I cut down the long planks with their new front edge, using a circular saw in the same way we cut down the cabinet above. Cutting them after attaching the front edge made for perfectly smooth edges for each shelf.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designHow to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designI sanded down the shelves with 120 grit sandpaper after filling in any gaps or dents with wood filler, then painted them with the same process as the doors, drawers, and cupboards—prime, wet sand, prime some more, paint, paint some more, allow to cure on wax paper for one week before using.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designHanging the Shelves

After the cupboards and backsplash were in place (more on the backsplash later!), we hung the shelves. I used these Ikea brackets which I had trimmed down to fit perfectly underneath the shelves, nestled tightly against the front lip I had attached to the boards before painting them. We didn't space the brackets with the wall studs (because the brackets wouldn't match up with the studs and still look nicely spaced), so we had to use heavy-duty bolts secured into drywall anchors (like I did here). On the brick wall, we used Tapcon screws. To put up the Ikea brackets, you just slip the metal bracket hanger over the screws or bolts, then secure with a screw through the face of the bracket and cover with those little button hole covers.

Note: The Ikea brackets are a barely off-white color, so I wet sanded those and painted them the same color as our shelves.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designTrimming the Cabinets

When we put the cabinets back on the wall, we put them all the way up against the ceiling, but we were still left with a little gap between the cupboards and the ceiling. To hide the gap on the sides where the cabinets met the wall, I used white caulk. But the gap along the ceiling was a bit wider, so we used 3/4" quarter round to cover it up with a nice, finished look. We cut the angles of the trim pieces with a miter saw (similarly to how I did in this framing post) and only goofed up on a couple of cuts. It's easy to get confused when cutting angles, even if you are confident that you're doing it right! I recommend practicing first on smaller scrap pieces before you ruin a long piece by cutting it exactly to size, but with the angle in the wrong position.

We used an air nailer to drive in nails every 12" or so along the quarter round. You could also use a hammer and nail, but be careful not to dent a soft wood with the hammer! After the trim pieces were up, I painted them with a coat of the cabinet paint to make sure the whites matched and also to fill in the tiny gaps between the quarter round and the cupboard face.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designObviously, we still have a bit of work to do in here, like mounting the under-shelf, lightsand patching the hole in the ceiling where the vent was and install a new vent a little farther out from the wall. We opted for a ceiling-mounted vent like you'd see in a bathroom, rather than one attached to a hood. The narrow shelf above where the stove will be is so high and close to the wall that vapors and smoke shouldn't be a problem. If things on the stove happen to get really crazy one day, I can wipe down any smoke stains easily thanks to the semi-gloss paint job on the shelves.

How to reconfigure your existing cabinets for a fresh looking kitchen designMoving the cabinets all the way up to the ceiling took advantage of previously wasted space and gave me much needed storage for rarely used items, like serveware and holiday dishes. Adding a shelf below and beside the cabinets gave me the old storage space I'm used to but with the opportunity to put my prettier dishes on display—a chance for decorating that I was aching for! I love the mix of open shelving and cupboard space, because let's be real, my clashing dishes would make my kitchen crazy chaotic if everything was out in the open.

I can't even believe how fresh and open my kitchen feels now, and we added more storage instead of taking any away! The reconfiguration alongside the white paint job has given us such a dramatic change, it was certainly worth the elbow grease! -Mandi

Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson. Photos edited with Spring of the Signature Collection.

  • Wow, you did a super job. It looks great. I find white cupboards
    always look nice and fresh!

  • I love love LOVE the idea of using open shelves instead of cabinets. It makes a large space look huge, but in my little tiny apartment, it ought to make my space look just about right. Very cool!

  • Great inspiration on how to reconfigure a kitchen rather than throw everything out and buy all new. Very creative solutions.

  • We move into our new home in three weeks. I cannot even wait to put to use all of these ideas into my own space. Awesome job! Love it!

  • This is such a clever idea! I love the idea of an open shelf for the daily used things to keep them off the countertop

  • Refinishing cabinets make such a big difference to a kitchen. I replaced my old ones (the doors wouldn’t even close properly – they’d just hang open) with a mix of open shelves and Ikea cupboards. The cupboards hide the not-so-pretty dishes, while I can display my showstoppers on the open shelving.

    http://www.kikucorner.com

  • I love the idea of putting the open shelves at the bottom of the cabinets and having the cabinets go all the way to the ceiling. Genius! Open shelving is always so fun but it’s impractical. And that space above the cabinets, supposedly you can use it to showcase dish-ware, but that’s also kind of impractical (lols) and who really notices it when it’s so high up?!

    But, having the open shelf on the bottom brings in style and practicality!

    Nicely done!

  • I have the same pet peeve with builders not using space all the way to the ceiling, especially in closets. Love the kitchen; those countertops are amazing!

  • Wow! What an incredible job – know you still have more to go, but it is looking great! Love the fresh white mixed with the darker lower cabinets and butcher block style counters. Very pretty!

  • This is a much-needed fix to an all too common problem! I remember my mother and grandmother keeping all sorts of tzotchkes on “display” up in that gap above the cabinets, but when I encountered them in my last apartment, I had no clue what to do! Turns out, my cat just used it as a hiding space. If anywhere I own/live in the future has this cabinet configuration, though, I’m definitely going to keep this renovation in mind! Looks great!

    <3 dani
    http://blog.shopdisowned.com

  • Wow! Thanks for sharing! Your kitchen looks amazing. It’s crazy what a bit of paint can do with what you already have. And how great the cupboards look when up a bit higher. Well done Mandi!

  • The kitchen looks amazing! I like the tall cupboards, they look better than the smaller ones and there isn’t a waste of space. The sinks in the corner are a great idea too.

    Anca @ ancaslifestyle

  • it looks wonderful, Mandi. I am very impressed with your kitchen remodel! we recently moved our kitchen from its place to the living room, I know it sounds crazy but that way we won a much need new bedroom / studio. we still have to transform the kitchen into room but the new kitchen is already ready. I can totally relate to the crazy amount of things that fit into kitchen cupboards. I used the opportunity to purge and it feels really good 🙂

  • Yes, yes, yes! I have been thinking of doing something similar soon. A few questions: How long did the whole process take – from taking the cabinets off, to painting the wall, painting the cabinets, reinstalling the cabinets, and adding the shelf? I’m thinking of doing this during Thanksgiving break (I’m a teacher), but don’t know if I’ll have enough time.
    And… “I did have to slice a bit of the top and front edge of the Ikea brackets, though, so they would fit nicely underneath the shelves.” So you have to make the top thinner, so that it would be hidden by the 1×2? Were you worried about the bracket splitting? I live a 3-hr drive from the nearest Ikea, so I’d want to buy the right number of brackets the first time around, and not have to worry about the bracket splitting.

  • My kitchen cupboards don’t quite go all the way to the top either, a couple of times I have braced myself and looked up there. ICK it gets so dirty. Just why can’t they just go tot he top, to the ceiling. SO dumb. My kitchen is all dark wood, very inspired, jsut need my assistant to become inspired too.

  • You can read more about that in the paragraph before the last before/after images. It’s from the hood vent and will connect to the next fan when we instal it. The hole in the ceiling also needs to be patched. This is still very much a work in progress. 🙂
    -Mandi

  • Good questions! I’ll share more about the timeline in the grand reveal, but you can also see some of it broken down in this post (http://www.abeautifulmess.com/2014/07/refinishing-kitchen-cabinets.html) under Planning a Schedule. It all depends on how much cabinet space you’re working with, honestly. I had a lot of doors and drawers to do, which took a lot of time patching holes and sanding, priming, wet sanding, priming again, and painting. That was the most time consuming part. Pulling them off the wall and sawing doesn’t actually take that long. But any time wood filler or paint is involved, you inevitably have a drawn out project due to drying times. It’s possible to do all of the painting in one day if you’re working with a spray gun and high capacity air compressor, and if you start first thing in the morning on a day with good weather.

    I did slice about 1/2″ off the top of the Ikea bracket, and trimmed down the length of the top section of the bracket too. They do sell shorter brackets, but they were too short. If you are worried about compromising the integrity of the bracket (which didn’t seem to be a problem, in my opinion), you could just use a 1×3 instead of a 1×2 to create your shelf. If the 1×3 (which actually only measures .75″x 2.75″) is too wide, you can rip it apart with a table saw to get it the exact width of the bracket+top board width. Does that make sense? If not, just ask, and I’ll try to clarify. 🙂

    -Mandi

  • I love that you have a rational understanding of open shelving and cabinetry with doors. I see so many lovely kitchens with all open shelving and I have no idea how they keep it that nice on a daily basis. Plastic kid plates and sippy cups need room to hide, as do the mismatched stuff we all have.

    You did a lovely job. My cabinets go all the way to the top of my 9 foot ceiling so it’s certainly a way to maximize space. I love it although a step stool is needed frequently!

  • Wow, this transformation is so stinkin’ gorgeous! I absolutely adore it. I know I couldn’t live with complete open shelving, so I love the combination of both!

    xoxo
    Taylor

  • Love what you’ve done with this space…. very creative use of space and materials. Would love to hear a bit about your counter tops… it looks to be a butcher block… was this a DIY project or did you have it done?
    Sorry if I missed you explaining it earlier….

  • I’m curious…after moving your cabinets up, to make room for the open shelving, do you find the items up there difficult to reach/inaccessible, or is it all still pretty handy?

    Thanks,
    Rachel

  • This is such a great series, thank you! We are in the beginning stages of our kitchen remodel – planning, budgeting, sketching, so it’s great to follow a few (hundred!) steps behind you! Loving the transformation!

  • Well the upper shelf of the cabinet is now bonus storage that I didn’t have before. The open shelf under the cabinet is used to hold items I formerly kept in cabinets, so I didn’t lose any of my reachable storage, I just gained a shelf that’s a bit tricky to get to. I have a step stool beside the refrigerator which I use to reach the top shelf. I keep serving dishes, holiday dishes, and extra pantry items (flour, sugar, oil, that couldn’t fit in canisters/jars) on the top shelf, so I don’t have to get to it very often.
    -Mandi

  • Wow! This looks fantastic! I’ve been thinking of doing something similar.

    How long did this take – beginning to end? I’m thinking of doing it during my Thanksgiving break (I’m a teacher), but don’t know if that’ll be enough time.

  • Thank you! The timeline is definitely dependant on the scope of your project and the amount of cabinets you are dealing with. Our kitchen had lots of cabinet doors and drawers to work with. You can see how I broken down the work in this post (http://www.abeautifulmess.com/2014/07/refinishing-kitchen-cabinets.html) under Planning a Schedule. The most time consuming aspect of our kitchen project was patching holes and sanding, priming, wet sanding, priming again, and painting the cabinets, and second most time consuming was the countertop. Pulling the cabinets off the wall and sawing doesn’t actually take that long. But any time wood filler or paint is involved, you inevitably have a drawn out project due to drying times. It’s possible to do all of the painting in one day if you’re working with a spray gun and high capacity air compressor, and if you start first thing in the morning on a day with good weather.
    -Mandi

  • Wonderful and cleverly done!
    For quite a while now, I’ve been into dark bottoms and all white upper cabinets.
    Spot on, just so lovely to see your version. Especially the black-black, with same-tone-painted frames too.
    The golden handles are a joy to behold. Very elegant and t i m e l e s s !

  • I love the knobs and pulls and am looking for something just like that! Where are they from?

  • is a bathroom style vent enough for a kitchen? We’re remodeling our kitchen and not having to accommodate a vent hood would be awesome!

  • Mandi this is great!
    Also, I am considering butcher block countertops–what wood did you choose/where did you buy?
    Thanks!

  • My boyfriend is teeny, and I collect midcentury kitchenwares, so the space above the cabinets works great for us. He can reach (almost) everything in the cabinets, and I can store my pretties.

  • Hi Mandi, beautiful job! I have a question: where, oh where, did you get the brass pulls for your drawers? We just moved, and I am itching to replace the ugly oversized knobs/pulls in our kitchen with some sleek brass. Been unable to find anything I like so far, but yours are absolutely what I want.

  • I realize this is an old post, but just wanted to comment on how impressive this transformation is, and at a minimal cost. I love the power of paint and a little bit of sweat equity. Great job!