Skip to main content

How to keep oak kitchen cabinets from looking out of place in a modern kitchen

Transform your outdated oak kitchen cabinets for a luxe, modern design

farmhouse style kitchen with open windows and shelving
BM_27 / Shutterstock

Oak kitchen cabinets are a staple in many traditional homes. Their earthy tones and elegant appearance have placed them at the top of the ladder, making them one of the most beloved cabinet materials in recent decades. While this wood has stood the test of time in interior design, keeping an oak-heavy kitchen from looking out of place in a redesigned home can be challenging. Oak cabinetry often caters to traditional decor, making it hard to implement these gorgeous tones and textures into a more modern or contemporary space.

If you’re a modern enthusiast who wants to maintain the traditional oak cabinet look without creating a tacky design, then we have the tips for you. Here’s how to dress up your kitchen to balance modernity with traditional oak cabinets.

Midcentury modern kitchen with wood cabinets and pendant lighting
Getty Images

Is oak a good choice for kitchen cabinets?

We can thank 1990s interior design for giving oak cabinets a bad name due to an abundance of cheap, kitschy honey oak cabinets. Traditional oak cabinets, however, don’t disappoint. As a high-quality, dense wood, traditional oak is perfect for kitchen cabinets. The neutral colors can flow with any design, and the natural grain is stunning to behold.

Additionally, oak is one of the most durable woods to use in cabinetry, as its natural hardness resists warping due to age or humidity. When choosing oak cabinets for your kitchen, there are a few options. Red and white oak are most popular, with the former inviting warm, red undertones into your space and the latter offering a dark and rich color to your existing palette.

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

Are maple or oak kitchen cabinets better for your kitchen?

Maple and oak are some of the most popular woods used for kitchen cabinets in recent years. Because of this, the two can easily be confused with one another, and many homeowners have difficulty deciding which is best for their space. Below, we’ll cover some of the distinct differences between these woods to help ease your decision-making process.

Based on appearance

Maple comes in light colors ranging from pale blondes to reddish cinnamon tints. Its color is gentle and refined, making it a perfect choice for those looking to lend a more subtle touch to a space. In addition, maple has a very fine grain, making it easy to smooth and often allowing the overall appearance to be consistent with little flaw.

Oak, on the other hand, tends to be richer and darker than maple. Red oak features a rich, red undertone that can sometimes come through in the sunlight. White oak is another variant of this traditional wood that also tends to be much darker and with a more robust hue than maple. Oak wood is strong and often appears earthy and natural in the home. You can also expect to see minor imperfections and knotholes in the grain, giving this wood more character.

When it comes to durability

Due to the nature of their grains, maple tends to be a lighter wood compared to strong and hardy oak. Oak wood is extremely durable and resistant to warping, a problem often seen in older or worn cabinets. If you have a family and need a bit more durability in your kitchen, oak might be the way to go.

Considering the price

When it comes to cost, oak probably won’t break the bank. But while it’s not expensive, it’s also not as cheap as some woods used in kitchen cabinetry. Maple, however, leans toward the more expensive side due to its stunning appeal and even grain. So if price is a consideration and you love a bit of character, oak would be the best option for you.

Oak kitchen cabinets modern
pics721 / Shutterstock

How to make oak kitchen cabinets look modern and contemporary

One of the challenges of oak kitchen cabinets is finding a way to blend the natural grain with a modern space. Typically, we see oak cabinetry in traditional, rustic, or farmhouse designs. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t look lovely against a modern backdrop!

Keep a light, bright feel

One of the most important tips for pulling off a gorgeous modern oak cabinet look is to keep your palette light and bright. Focus on using white and cream shades as much as possible, and avoid darker hues like browns and blacks. Oak cabinets are traditionally darker wood tones, so it’s best to pair them with equally light wall colors or countertops. Try to use a white quartz counter and a white backsplash to really show off your gorgeous oak cabinets.

Opt for a neutral palette

You can branch out with other neutrals if you don’t want to limit yourself to your color palette. So long as you keep the palette light and airy, a neutral palette with muted grays or tans can look stunning paired with oak cabinets. Additionally, since oak offers a rich and earthy shade, try decorating with some greenery and plants to bring out the natural appeal of the wood.

Paint your cabinets

While some people adore oak cabinets for their durability, the color isn’t always what they’re looking for in their design. If you want to keep your oak cabinets but are in need of modernizing them, try staining or painting the cabinets to blend in with your existing modern design. Black, gray, and white are popular paint shades on oak wood, but opting for more neutral or subdued stains is another excellent option.

If you’re feeling bold, try painting your upper cabinets while keeping your lower ones in their traditional oak hue. This can offer a beautiful juxtaposition in your space. Alternatively, if you have an island, try adding color to your wall cabinets and leaving the beautiful oak on display in the center of your kitchen.

Pair oak cabinets with open shelving

Another way to modernize oak cabinets is to remove the preexisting upper cabinets and swap them for some beautiful open shelving. Open shelving is a fun and unique aspect of modern home design and can really enhance the look of your space. Additionally, by taking out the upper cabinets, you create a bigger statement with your lower oak cabinets, drawing the eye naturally around the room and creating a sense of flow. This also prevents the wood from dominating the space too much, which can make the entire room feel out of place when compared to the rest of your modern-designed home.

Add the right finishing touches

To make your oak kitchen cabinets look exceptionally modern, it’s important to pair them with the right finishing touches.

A crisp, modern countertop like quartz, white marble, or veined white quartz will look light and bright in your space. These soft and airy tones pair beautifully with oak cabinets, allowing the latter to have their moment in the spotlight without weighing down the space. Additionally, since oak wood cabinets have a tendency to feel dark in the kitchen, adding a lighter countertop helps counterbalance the color palette, giving you more room to experiment with color without the kitchen feeling drab or lackluster.

Adding the proper hardware will also help modernize your oak cabinetry. Choose something sleek and simple to pair with your elegant oak cabinets. Gold, bronze, and black hardware typically look best and will bring out the grains and undertones of your wood. Avoid ornate hardware that could make your space look outdated or tacky. While complex metal work on cabinet handles has its place, it can look kitschy in a modern kitchen.

Choose a modern cabinet style

If you love the look of oak wood but aren’t a fan of traditional or rustic cabinet aesthetics, you might consider installing modern oak cabinetry. Modern cabinetry focuses on straight lines, a seamless and smooth surface, and often simple to no hardware. Black accents in modern cabinetry also look fantastic paired with an oak finish on the cabinet doors.

While modern cabinetry used to lean into painted solid white or solid black options, a movement towards a more organic and biophilic design in the kitchen has ushered in a resurgence of natural woods. Oak wood, in particular, has entered modern cabinet styles and is now popping up in modern kitchen spaces. Lighter-toned oak cabinets with a prominent grain are ultra-popular within modern cabinet aesthetics, especially when paired with classic black and white accents.

Oak kitchen cabinets are a lovely addition to any home, no matter the design style. And if you are already fortunate to have this sturdy wood in your space, try up-leveling it by creating a sense of juxtaposition with your modern design. Stick to light and bright colors, or experiment with different neutrals to find what works best for you and your space. Also, consider open shelving or trying a new spin to incorporate your oak cabinets with your modern design. The results could be jaw-dropping.

Editors' Recommendations

Amelia Wilson
Amelia Wilson (author pen name Amelia J. Wilson) is a content writer in Greenwood, IN. She often enjoys topics on…
We found the absolute best places to buy affordable midcentury modern furniture
Here's where to get midcentury modern furniture on the cheap
Interior of a house. Mustard yellow velvet loveseat. Living room with midcentury modern furniture. Concrete floor. Vintage carpet. Eclectic living room.

Furnishing a home or apartment can get uber expensive, especially when you’re all about creating a stylish, cohesive look in your place. So where can you buy midcentury modern furniture cheap, which is in fashion right now and shows no signs of going out of style?

Inexpensive midcentury modern furniture can be hard to come by in a typical, big-box furniture retail store. This style will only be a small part of a vast collection, and normally at a high cost. But there are many other ways to find the chic pieces you’re looking for. Lo and behold, we present our guide to buying affordable midcentury modern furniture.

Read more
11 helpful tips to keep bugs out of your apartment or condo
Keep bugs out of your home without calling the exterminator
Dead bug with pest control sign

Cleaning your apartment will keep your place looking nice, but it may not be enough to keep pesky bugs from making your home their home. Keeping bugs out of an apartment or condo is much different from keeping them out of a house. When you live in an apartment building or condo that's part of a larger unit, bugs can quickly enter your space from community spaces. So if your neighbors have habits that attract bugs, it doesn’t take much for those critters to come into your rooms, too.

Your apartment or condo location can also contribute to the number of bugs in your living area, such as if your apartment is near the woods or close to the outdoor dumpsters. Also, apartment complexes and condos often have several entrances, which increase the chances insects have to get into your home.

Read more
Spruce up your kitchen with these eye-catching kitchen cabinet colors
We love these 6 kitchen cabinet colors and think you will, too
Orange and wood kitchen cabinets in brightly colored kitchen

Home decor trends, including kitchen cabinet colors, come and go as the years go by. But replacing or changing your kitchen cabinets can be an expensive and time-consuming task. Instead, you can opt for alternative methods to revamp and refresh your space, such as painting your cabinets a new color.

The last thing you want is for your kitchen to look like you dropped it into your house with no regard for the colors in the rest of your home. These are our favorite kitchen cabinet color palettes that will give your space a fresh look for years to come, no matter where the trends lead.
Wooden-colored kitchen cabinets
Within the past several years, we’ve seen everything from blonde bamboo to dark mahogany trending. There’s no getting around the timeless nature of wood; it's warm, and it brings a comforting organic quality to your design. Wood pairs well with earth tones, like the colors of rocks, stones, pebbles, trees, marble, and granite.

Read more