Update Builder Grade Cabinets Without Painting

 Okay I need to start this post with a very clear caveat:  We cannot paint our cabinets, and we cannot stain our cabinets.  Ahhh… that feels better to get that out in the open first thing.  Okay, so the reason that is the first thing in bold red text, is because I know I am going to get comments “Why don’t you just paint your cabinets?”  BUT our Realtor advised us not to paint because we decided to rent our home and not sell it.  And rental homes/cabinets get beat up, but it shows less with wood than paint, she knows this from LOTS of experience.  AND we only had 4 weeks to finish our entire house, there technically wasn’t time anyway.

Updating builder grade cabients without painting

Sidenote:  Since I feature a lot of painted kitchen remodels, I get a LOT of comments about how people can’t paint their cabinets, usually a spouse is not okay with painting for one reason or another.  So this post will hopefully show you that you can update the look of your cabinets without painting them… 

Update Builder Grade Cabinets:

Without Painting

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Update Builder Grade Cabinets Without Painting


1″ x 6″  Oak, or matching lumber in needed length (see diagram below)

Oak Crown Molding (we used vinyl composite oak look moldings)

Pine 5/16″ half round molding, same length as header plus an inch or two. (use oak if available)

Natural Oak Stain (or matching shade to your existing cabinets)

Polyurethane spray paint (or regular polyurethane in matching finish to your cabinets – satin for us)

Scrap blocking wood, for cleats and backing blocks

1.  Finish Your Wood

The first thing that we did was stain the new wood to match the existing color of the cabinets.  Take your oak 1 x 6, small pine molding and crown (ONLY if real wood) stain them to match the color of your cabinets.  It is a good idea to use a small test piece to see if you need one or two coats of stain, check it against your kitchen in the actual space, to make sure it looks right.

Follow the drying instructions on the stain before applying polyurethane to the boards.   Spray(or brush) with Polyurethane and allow them to dry.  Lightly sand with 250 grit or higher sandpaper and wipe dust away with a tack cloth before you apply a second coat.  (You can decide if you need a third coat, a light sanding between coats is a good idea for a professional finish).

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-1

2. Measure and cut the boards.

Once they are stained, lacquered and completely dry, cut them to the length of the cabinets.  Don’t forget you will need mitered edges on any outside corners, where the two boards meet, to keep it looking professional.

Measurements you will need, the front length of your cabinets (measurement 1 and 3) and you need the return to the wall measurement (4 and 2)

measuring for crown molding copy

3. Glue and Nail the Header Pieces Together:

It is easiest to secure the molding corners before installing them above your head.  Place your wood on a level surface.  Then glue and nail the mitered corner of the header together, be sure to keep the corner square.  (Piece 1 to 2, be sure to keep the finished side of the wood out)

Because the length of our cabinets was longer than the wood, we did a scarf joint (shown below).  Try to place any scarf joints in inconspicuous places.  I did mine as close to the wall, above the fridge, to avoid it being noticeable.  Once it is placed and cut,  glue and nail the joint together.  Wipe away any excess glue with a wet rag.   Allow glue to dry.

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-3Mitered Corner Joint Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-4  Glue and nail corner before installing
Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-5Scarf joint, miter the edges so they lay flat together Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-6Glue and nail together

4. Nail Cleats to wall

Use 4 small scrap pieces of wood (1″ x 3″ no more than 5 inches tall) as cleats for the header.  Set them back the same thickness of your wood on the ends of your “L” shaded header space.  Make sure the cleats are level up and down the same as your cabinets.

 (Sorry the picture is fuzzy, it is the only one I took! UGH!!  So, I created a location image to give you an idea of where these pieces go, below) Cleat for attaching header copy

Cleat locations copy

5.  Attach the Header to Your Cabinet Top:

Place the header on top of your cabinet.   Open the doors to your cabinets and use a clamp or two to hold the header in place.  Before tightening the clamps, be sure that you line up the front of the header exactly with the front and side of your cabinet, then tighten clamps to hold the header in place.

Pre-drill holes for screws to avoid spiting wood or breaking drill bits.  With the door of your cabinet open, pre-drill a hole straight up through the face frame of your cabinet into the header piece.  Screw in a wood screw to hold it in place.  Repeat the pre-drill, screw process about every 3 feet, down the length of your cabinets, or where it seems necessary.

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-15 Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-14

6. Nail the Header Ends to the Cleats

Now that the header is secured to the cabinet body, nail the ends to the cleats near the top of the header.  (We nailed where we knew the crown would cover so that no holes were visible)

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-8 Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-12

This is what they will look like with the headers installed:

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-7
Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-17
7.  Cover the Gap
Cover the gap between the cabinet with the small pine molding, (sorry I forgot a picture of this, but the example below from our tutorial on how to raise a short vanity tutorial in our mater bathroom is the same, except we painted instead of staining).  Miter the outer corners of the small molding, for a clean finished look.
Note about the crown: We couldn’t find any solid wood oak molding at any local home stores, or even lumber stores.  It was only available for special order, but we didn’t have time to wait.  So we used a vinyl composite type molding with a finished “oak look” available and Lowes and Home Depot. We had to piece our molding to get a crown look because not only did they not have the solid oak crown, they didn’t have a fake oak in a crown profile either.  What we used:  3/4″ oak look cove molding and 2 1/2 ” oak look chair rail molding.
8. Cut Crown Molding Cleats
Because we couldn’t  find a full crown piece, I have instructions for both piecing together a crown and regular crown.  Cut backing blocks to a triangular shape, or follow the diagram below if piecing molding.  Please note that not all crown moldings are made for 45 degree angles, some are made for 38 degree angles check your before cutting your blocks.
backing block diagram b

If you are piecing the board together.

backing block crown molding diagram 45 modified

 For crown moldings .

Cut the backing blocks from any solid scrap wood, 1×4 or 2×4, like shown below.cutting backing block diagram b

 When installing the crown it will look like the images below:

molding profile diagram bHow to piece cove and chair rail molding. crown molding profile diagramFor regular crown molding.


9. Nail Cleats to Header Board

Because we wanted to add as much height as possible to the crown, we installed our cleats to extend above the header board.   To make sure they were all level in the easiest way, we held a spacer in place to to set the height of each cleat, and secured the cleat in place with the nail gun.  The spacer was not secured, and we used it for each block. See the diagram below.  Install cleats about every 2 feet.

crown molding profile diagram c


Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-18

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-19

10. Install the Moldings

Now just install your moldings.  For our project, we started with the cove molding.  Miter all outside corners.

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-20 Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-21

After the cove molding is in place, nail on the chair rail molding and miter the edges around any outside corners.  Be sure not to butt joint any seams in the moldings, always do a scarf joint like shown above in the header.

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-23

Here is a look of how it is all coming together.

Upgrade Oak Kitchen Cabinets With Crown Moldings-24

Now just as a reminder, here is the before:

Kitchen Before

And here is the after shot.  I think that it is a big improvement!   All told the project took about 4 hours.  (not including drying times)

Kitchen cabinets with crown molding Updating builder grade cabients without painting

I’ll have the final kitchen tour up in the next few days so please come and check it out!   If you want to see where we started, the first few changes,  and installing the new back splash tutorial please check out those links.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this project!

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I am the husband of the amazing Cassity of Remodelaholic. I love to problem solve and to design and build things inside and outside the house to make life better. I am a professional Landscape Architect by trade and love the outdoors.

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  1. This is an awesome tutorial and the black cabinet handles really help modernize the space! I just got my kitchen cabinets painted white by a local cabinet refinishing company and they did a great job, so I won’t be able to do this project on my own kitchen. But I just shared this with a friend and am going to help her create and install the moldings!