Before and After: A $1,900 Redo Makes a “Too Brown” Kitchen More Stylish AND More Functional

updated Mar 7, 2023
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Wooden kitchen
Credit: Mariko Russell

Sometimes, you can look at a space and immediately know what you want to change. The color might not be your favorite, or maybe you know without a doubt that a lot more storage will be required (giving you a great excuse to DIY some built-ins). But other times, it’s only after you spend a ton of hours in a space that you can identify any pain points — and come up with ideas for how to make it better.

When it came to their 1980s mountain house, homeowner Mariko Russell and her husband Ernest fell in the latter camp. For a while, the couple was using this place primarily as a vacation home, and they lived happily with the brown cabinets, floors, and counters. “While we used the cabin as a vacation home, things didn’t bother us as much,” Mariko says. It wasn’t until they fully moved into the space and made it their permanent home base that they realized they wanted to make a change.

Credit: Mariko Russell

What Needed to Change

There were several items the couple took issue with. First, “the overall feel was too dark and not as peppy as we wanted,” Mariko says. The overhead light was insufficient for actually illuminating the space, and the color scheme wasn’t helping matters.

“The kitchen was too brown for our taste,” Mariko says. “The oak cabinets were brown, faux-wood countertop was brown, the wallpaper was brown, and the floor was (and still is) brown. The problem was they were all in different hues of brown, which was not creating an integrated feeling.”

Credit: Mariko Russell

Second, the old sink setup wasn’t functional. As Mariko puts it, “it was shallow and beaten up.” One of her pet peeves was that the shallowness of the sink made it hard to wash large pots and pans.

The kitchen also didn’t have great ventilation. “The kitchen did not have a real vent where air really goes outside rather than circulating,” Mariko explains.

Kitchen storage space was majorly lacking, too. “We did not have enough storage space for all the kitchen stuff plus the food,” she says.

And finally, “to top everything off, there was no backsplash, just drywalls,” Mariko says. Here’s what their final wish list looked like:

  • Minimize the kitchen’s brown color palette
  • Install a new, more practical sink
  • Add ventilation
  • Create more storage space
  • Protect the walls with a backsplash

Mariko and Ernest spent about six weeks and exactly $1,900 addressing everything on their list. They hired a local plumber to help with installing a new (and deeper) sink, but everything else in this project was DIY.

Credit: Mariko Russell

How They Remodeled

The couple raised their existing upper cabinets to make space for a row of open shelves beneath, which helped provide some extra storage in an accessible location. Filling in the space above the cabinets so there was no gap between them and the ceiling made the whole setup look more custom — and much more expensive. They hit one hiccup during the process: One of the cabinets started to fall apart while they were raising it, so Mariko and Ernest re-glued some boards and added a reinforcement piece to help shore it up.

To give their old cabinets a new look, Mariko and Ernest painted the uppers crisp white. The color choice gives the whole room a brighter, cheerier feel. “We love the lighter and brighter feel more than anything else,” Mariko says. The lower cabinets got a little color, though, with a pretty shade of sage-meets-mint green. Once the cabinets were painted, they all — uppers and lowers — got new hardware.

“Do not cut corners when you paint cabinets,” Mariko advises. “Remove doors, remove hardware, do enough sanding, use primer, put at least two thin coats of paint, and give them a nice sufficient drying time between coats and before you put them back. Do not be impatient.”

Credit: Mariko Russell

You might have random cabinet doors strewn about your house for a while, but, she says, “give them time. You will not regret it.”

Mariko and Ernest further brightened up their kitchen by installing under-cabinet lighting, but here’s another trick to steal from these smart DIYers: Instead of hard-wiring in those lights, they opted for battery-operated puck lights from Amazon. So easy! Mariko and Ernest also added a light above the sink, which did require hardwiring through the wall — but now gives them more visibility in a once-dark area. A newly installed white subway tile backsplash helps protect the drywall behind it from splashes and splatters.

Credit: Mariko Russell

To address the ventilation problem, Mariko and Ernest cut a hole that connects to outside above the stove and installed a new microwave above it that helps vent out the air. And lastly, to modernize the window above the sink, they painted its frame dark charcoal gray and added a new honeycomb shade on the window in place of the old lacy valance.

Mariko says she and Ernest love the “newly refreshed feel” they created, and they’re proud that they addressed both function and style in their mostly DIY makeover. “The lighter and brighter feel, real vent, and more storage space makes us very happy,” she says.