Small Kitchen Updates that Make a BIG Difference

Small Kitchen Updates that Make a BIG Difference

Leah Moss
Jan 19, 2011

We hear more complaints about kitchens than almost any other area of the house — and few of us have the budgets or desire for a full renovation. However, if we've learned anything from our reader makeovers, it's that little changes make a huge difference in a dated kitchen. And many updates can be made with your own two hands.

Because possibilities (and needs) are endless when it comes to bringing a dated kitchen to life, I think it would be helpful to categorize projects by the amount of time the updates cost the average DIYer. In most cases, it's unlikely that you'll feel like you have a brand new kitchen after a night of beautifying, but you'd be surprised by the difference that a weekend or two of elbow grease can yield.

Instant Fixes:
• Change the hardware. Builder grade kitchens often sport the cheapest bling, and by that I mean no bling. Plastic or blah cabinet pulls only highlight problem areas whereas a modern handle or decorative knob can make some of the saddest cabinets look pretty chic. Scouring places like a Habitat For Humanity Restore or craigslist for salvaged fixtures can yield some sweet and original finds. If you have no luck there, don't write off big box stores like Home Depot, Target, and Ikea, which have large selections of current hardware. Lifestyle shops like Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, and Restoration Hardware have more specialized decorative hardware that usually go on deep discount seasonally.
New dishtowels. It's amazing what fresh linens and a little color can do for a room. If a color overhaul is not within the range of possibilities, pick out dish towels that highlight the things that you do like about your kitchen such as your vintage dishware or colorful teacups. I was impressed with what a difference Caroline's pink towels and apron made in her 40s kitchen (picture 1).
Add art. Most of us don't think about bringing art into such a utilitarian space, but it's a great place for prints and posters that may not make the cut in other rooms, and it does wonders for injecting a little personality. Other decorative elements like mirrors and fresh flowers have a similar effect.
Change the drawer and shelf liners. Most places I've lived have come complete with the dingiest or the the ugliest shelf liners imaginable, and just recovering them made my cook spaces feel infinitely fresher, not to mention more sanitary. Places like Target and Interior Place carry some decent decorative options.
De-clutter your counter-tops. Most small kitchens have an absurdly minuscule amount of counter space, so look for alternate places to store bulky items like knives (wall-mounted magnetic strip) and microwaves (in cabinets or on top of the fridge). Doing so will not only free up counter space for food prep, but will also make your kitchen look less crowded and give crumbs one less place to accumulate under. For more ideas on what to mount, check out my post on my modest galley kitchen makeover.
• Add a rug or floor cloth. You may not be up for or allowed to switch out that dingy tile floor, but you can cover it up or distract form it with a decorative rug. See's the Kitchn's article: Ugly Kitchen Floor? Change It with a Floor Cloth for ideas.

Weekend Updates & Overhauls: (As noted, some of these updates may take two or three weekends depending on your specific kitchen and other factors like drying time)
• Paint the cabinets. Doubtless, many of you will object to painting over wood, but for those of you who see the merit in giving cheap pine or other flimsy cabinetry a face-lift, I strongly recommend it. For cabinet painting instructions and more thoughts on painting your cabinets, check out this post. This is most likely a project that you'll want to tackle over the course of several weekends due to the time it takes for cabinets to dry properly.
Paint the walls. Like many ATers, I'm a huge believer in the power of paint. If you can't paint the cabinets, you can make ugly ones a little less of an eyesore by painting the walls around them with a color that compliments them, which works even if you don't happen to love the color for its own sake.
Remove upper cabinets doors (or upper cabinets, which may require pro-help depending on your DIY skill level and your type pf cabinets. If you rent, this will most likely be a no go with your landlord, so check first!). Removing the cabinets where we store our dishes made a world of difference in opening up our small galley kitchen (picture 3). It's the next best thing to open shelving, and can make a cramped kitchen feel much more spacious. Sometimes, just removing the door of an awkward corner cabinet can do the trick.
Wallpaper the inside of cabinets. This can mean, actually wallpapering with paste, or simply using double sided tape on decorative paper to give the inside of your personalities a little personality. While I love the combination of decorative paper and open shelving, even adding some inside of closed cabinets makes a difference— it's like a little surprise everytime you reach for a dish. For more ideas on where and how to work wallpaper into your kitchen check out the post Small Ways to Incorporate Wallpaper in a Kitchen

Pro-touches: (Depending on your abilities, some of these may fall into the weekend category, but for people like me that don't have any expertise in systems, it's best to call in a pro.)
Change the overhead lighting. If you're renting, ask your landlord first...obviously. I've found that many landlords are happy with the changes, and some will even pay for the cost of labor. Huge, garish-light-casting fluorescent lights are the curse of many a kitchen new and old, and switching them out for decorative pendants or stylish task lighting on dimmers can make a world of difference. If that's not an option, try bringing in a lamp (such as in Nicole and Colin's kitchen, picture 2) which provides ambiance lighting without requiring a renovation.
Remove the upper cabinets and replace with shelves. See above. Open shelving is just as volatile a subject as painted wood around these parts. It's a matter of personal preference. Making the switch to open shelving meant a little more maintenance in terms of cleaning, but for me the visual pay off is well worth it. Most of the dishes we keep on our open shelving gets regular use so dust isn't as big of an issue for us as it might be for someone who eats out regularly or doesn't entertain a lot. Lauren Liess's kitchen (picture 5) remains one of my favorite budget kitchen transformation. For more details on her redo, check out her blog, Pure Style Home. She and her husband did all of the work themselves!

Of course beyond the changes listed above, there are some big updates that make a big difference too. Changing floors, countertops, and sinks are often worth the investment especially if you cook often. The splurge that made the biggest difference for me was adding an undermount sink which made nightly cleanups infinitely easier. Not having to deal with the gunk that would inevitably build up around the sink basin adhesive is a dream! It probably goes without saying, but before making more costly investments like a new sink, consider your style of cooking as well as your preferences for what is important. For a baker, a marble countertop may be well worth the investment, but for many of us, laminate does the trick.

More ideas and inspiration on the subject:
16 Kitchen Updates You Can Do Yourself
Before & After: A Modest Galley Kitchen Makeover
Cottage Living's Best Kitchen Redo Ever And Some Tips We Can Take From It
Before & After: Amy & Chad's Kitchen Update on a Budget

What other updates would you add to the list?

Images: 1: Leah Moss for AT: DC of Caroline's Pint Size Retro Whimsy On A Budget, 2: Leah Moss for AT: DC Nicole & Colin's Streamlined Salvage, 3: Leah Moss, 4: Ish & Chi, 5: Lauren Liess, Pure Style Home

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