4 Ways to Make IKEA Kitchen Cabinets Look Like Custom Built-Ins

published Oct 28, 2020
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When it comes to renovating your kitchen on a budget, it’s hard to beat IKEA cabinets. They come in a range of styles and finishes at an affordable price point and can be easily mixed and matched for functionality—plus, installation is DIY-able.

But when the same cabinets hit the top of everyone’s redo list, it can feel like your home doesn’t stand out from the crowd. And as much IKEA devotees love the catalog, no one wants to feel like they’re living inside of it. Thankfully, it’s easy to get the best of both worlds: an affordable kitchen redo and custom style that sets you apart from everyone else on your block. Here, designers and DIYers give their expert advice on how to make your favorite IKEA kitchen cabinets look like they were tailor-made for your home.

Paint or wallpaper the inside

A simple glass front IKEA cabinet can become chic and stylish with the right changes. DIY-savvy designer Vikki Savage, who goes by Little Savage Life on Instagram, liked the shape of the cabinet in the HEMNES range but thought it needed a makeover.

First, she cleaned the cabinet with sugar soap, a powdered soap that’s often used in the United Kingdom to remove grease and residue from surfaces. 

Then Savage primed the inside and then added a coat of white paint. “I needed that to be quite hardy as it would get knocked about a bit with holding plates,” she says. Next, she coated the exterior of the cabinet with charcoal chalk mineral paint with built-in primer and upgraded the pulls. But the most striking change was adding a black and white hexagon print wallpaper to the back. 

“I love doing these sorts of upcycles,” says Savage, who lives in Shropshire, England. “My family and friends are always surprised where things have come from. They always think they look much more expensive!”

For the pattern-averse, try a solid color painted in the back of a glass cabinet, which helps put sculptural dishes on display.

Add fresh doors and hardware

This option works just as well for new cabinets as it does existing ones. Often, the most expensive part of cabinetry is the cabinet box; the doors themselves are easy to swap out and much cheaper to adjust than replacing cabinets altogether.

Brands like Semihandmade make cabinet doors and appliance fronts for IKEA products to make the swap even easier, since you can buy the exact dimensions you need.

The company offers cabinet doors in a range of design styles and colors, coordinating hardware that includes picks from Rejuvenation, Park Studio, and Sarah Sherman Samuel. The designer’s burnished Half Moon pulls look right at home on her Quarterline doors (shown above), a sleek riff on Shaker-style paneled doors.

Even if you don’t replace your IKEA cabinets’ doors and drawer fronts, you’ll gain a lot of high-end mileage by swapping out the standard hardware for something more personal. Whether you reach for pretty glass knobs for cottagecore style, or cool sculptural pulls for a mid-century spin, choosing hardware that comes from a source other than IKEA will ensure that your kitchen doesn’t look like it’s in a catalog.

Paint a mural on your cabinets

This bold, artistic choice is a fun way to add some personality to your cabinets—and when you get tired of it, you can paint over it in a solid color.

The piece above was created by Ella Mazur, an artist and muralist based in Toronto who creates art inspired by the natural world. Mazur says her sister really wanted one of her murals, but because she was living in a rental, she didn’t want to upset the landlord or create art in a place they might have to leave.

The solution: Decorate a set of cabinets instead.

“We were able to use four of the IVAR cabinets to create the same effect as a mural,” Mazur says. “So she can move it around or take it with her.”

Before beginning, they bolted the cabinets together; then, Mazur primed them with interior wood primer. She says this important step saves time and money. “If I hadn’t used primer I would have had to use a lot more layers of color,” Mazur says. “It also helps with durability and preventing the colors from seeping.”

Mazur created the cheetah with acrylic paint, then her sister sealed the painted portions with Golden Acrylic Varnish. She left the unpainted wood natural, so the pine’s natural warmth showed through.

If you don’t have a talented artist sister—hey, not everyone can—there are still some mural-inspired options within reach. Try taping off your cabinets before painting just one half a fresh color, or adding a simple geometric pattern such as repeating triangles.

Cover cabinets with wallpapaer

It’s hard to believe, but Michelle Nussbaumer’s stunning art studio kitchen, which was named House Beautiful’s 2019 Kitchen of the Year, started with IKEA’s plain white SEKTION cabinets. “It was the least expensive one, and I made it my own by doing whatever I needed to do,” says Nussbaumer, a Dallas based designer renowned for her global more-is-more aesthetic. “It was a really cheap and chic thing to do.”

She created her color-soaked kitchen by sticking her Blue Red Ikat pattern (available as a wallpaper or fabric) wallpaper to the cabinet fronts. Nussbaumer left the back of the doors plain to make them easy to clean. Then they lined the shelves with a fun striped paper. The jewel-like knobs, called Fretwork, is from her line with Addison Weeks Hardware.

Nussbaumer has wrapped cabinets, refrigerators, and even a Miele coffee maker in wallpaper, and she hasn’t had any problem with adhesion. Just make sure the surface is clean and free of oil before applying, she advises.

The hardest part of the project is figuring out how much wallpaper you need, so Nussbaumer relies on her installer—but a brave (and patient) DIYer can take this on, too. “If you have patience and a utility knife, you can do it yourself,” she says.