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How to Elevate Oak Kitchen Cabinets in a Modern Kitchen

CEO Khai Intela
Photo: BM_27 / Shutterstock Oak kitchen cabinets have long been favored in traditional homes for their timeless elegance and earthy tones. However, incorporating these cabinets into a modern or contemporary kitchen design can be a...

farmhouse style kitchen with open windows and shelving Photo: BM_27 / Shutterstock

Oak kitchen cabinets have long been favored in traditional homes for their timeless elegance and earthy tones. However, incorporating these cabinets into a modern or contemporary kitchen design can be a challenge. To strike the perfect balance between modernity and tradition, here are some tips to dress up your kitchen and keep your oak cabinets from looking out of place.

Is Oak a Good Choice for Kitchen Cabinets?

Midcentury modern kitchen with wood cabinets and pendant lighting Photo: Getty Images

Oak cabinets suffered from a bad reputation in the 1990s due to cheap and kitschy designs. However, traditional oak cabinets are a different story. As a high-quality and durable wood, oak is perfect for kitchen cabinets. Its neutral colors complement any design, and its natural grain adds a stunning visual appeal. Red and white oak are popular choices, with each offering unique undertones and shades.

Maple or Oak: Which is Better for Your Kitchen?

When deciding between maple and oak cabinets, it's important to consider their distinct characteristics.

Based on Appearance

Maple cabinets come in light colors, ranging from pale blondes to reddish cinnamon tints. The wood has a gentle and refined appearance, making it a suitable choice for those seeking a subtle touch. Maple also has a fine grain, resulting in a consistent and flawless overall appearance.

On the other hand, oak cabinets tend to have richer and darker tones compared to maple. Red oak, with its warm undertones, can exude a rich hue when exposed to sunlight. White oak, another variant, is darker and has a more robust color. Oak cabinets showcase the wood's natural charm and often feature minor imperfections and knotholes, adding character to the space.


Maple, with its lighter grain, is a relatively lighter wood compared to oak. Oak, known for its strength and hardness, is highly durable and resistant to warping, which is often seen in older or worn cabinets. If you need cabinets that can withstand the demands of a busy family kitchen, oak is a solid choice.

Price Considerations

In terms of cost, oak is a budget-friendly option. While not the cheapest wood used for cabinetry, it offers a balance between affordability and quality. On the other hand, maple leans towards the more expensive side due to its appealing aesthetics and consistent grain. If you're looking for character and affordability, oak is the way to go.

modern black and white kitchen with oak cabinets Photo: Paolo De Gasperis / Shutterstock

How to Make Oak Kitchen Cabinets Look Modern and Contemporary

One of the challenges with oak kitchen cabinets is finding ways to blend their natural grain with a modern design. While oak cabinets are often associated with traditional, rustic, or farmhouse styles, they can still shine in a modern kitchen. Here are some tips:

Keep a Light, Bright Feel

To achieve a stunning modern look with oak cabinets, focus on keeping the palette light and bright. Use white and cream shades as much as possible and avoid darker hues like browns and blacks. Since oak cabinets have naturally darker tones, pairing them with light wall colors or countertops is ideal. Consider using white quartz countertops and a white backsplash to showcase the beauty of your oak cabinets.

Opt for a Neutral Palette

If you don't want to limit yourself to a specific color palette, you can experiment with other neutrals. As long as you keep the palette light and airy, muted grays or tans can create a stunning combination with oak cabinets. Additionally, adding greenery and plants can enhance the wood's natural appeal.

Paint Your Cabinets

If the color of your oak cabinets doesn't match your design vision, staining or painting them can modernize their look. Popular paint shades for oak cabinets include black, gray, and white. Alternatively, opting for neutral or subdued stains is an excellent choice. For a bold and striking effect, consider painting your upper cabinets while leaving the lower ones in their traditional oak hue. This creates an intriguing contrast in your space. Another option is to add color to your wall cabinets if you have an island, while leaving the beautiful oak cabinets at the center of attention.

Pair Oak Cabinets with Open Shelving

Introducing open shelving is another way to modernize oak cabinets. By removing preexisting upper cabinets and replacing them with open shelves, you create a unique and contemporary touch in your kitchen. This change draws attention to your lower oak cabinets, naturally guiding the eye around the room and creating a sense of flow. It also prevents the wood from overpowering the space and feeling out of place in your modern-designed home.

Add the Right Finishing Touches

To achieve an exceptionally modern look with your oak cabinets, pay attention to the finishing touches. Opt for a crisp and modern countertop, such as quartz, white marble, or veined white quartz. These light and airy tones complement oak cabinets, preventing them from dominating the space. Adding the proper hardware is another way to modernize your oak cabinetry. Choose sleek and simple hardware in gold, bronze, or black to highlight the wood's grain and undertones. Avoid ornate or intricate hardware that can make your space look outdated or tacky. Remember, simplicity is key in a modern kitchen.

Choose a Modern Cabinet Style

If you love the appearance of oak wood but prefer a modern aesthetic, consider installing modern oak cabinetry. Modern cabinets feature straight lines, seamless surfaces, and minimal or no hardware. Black accents are especially striking when paired with an oak finish on the cabinet doors. While modern cabinetry used to focus on solid white or black options, the current trend leans towards natural woods like oak. Lighter-toned oak cabinets with prominent grains are highly sought after in modern kitchen designs, especially when combined with classic black and white accents.

Oak kitchen cabinets can enhance the style of any home, regardless of the design. If you're fortunate enough to have these sturdy cabinets, you can elevate their appearance by incorporating them into your modern design. Stick to light and bright colors or experiment with different neutrals to discover what works best for you and your space. Consider open shelving or a new spin on incorporating your oak cabinets to create a truly jaw-dropping kitchen.

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