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Upgrading Builder-Grade Cabinets


*Links to all tools and other items will be listed down below. 

I think it’s safe to say that there are very few of us that walk into a spec house and scream, “OMG! I love this builder-quality kitchen!”

Let’s face it, we don’t say that because, well, it’s builder-quality. Typically, that means it’s not made of high-end materials (because it’s literally the cheapest thing they could find), and it’s probably devoid of anything resembling a personality. 

When my husband and I purchased our first home in February of 2020, I was definitely not screaming praises about my kitchen. From the get-go I was piecing together my attack plan on the boring, lackluster, dark kitchen that seemed to drag the rest of the open concept right down. 

Finally, I settled on a two-toned look with white cabinets on top and light gray cabinets on the bottom. 

The thought of taking on this project was both completely exhilarating and utterly terrifying. That’s probably why I kept putting the project off for almost a year. I was only prompted to do the project when it came time to replace our flooring. I figured why not have a messy house all at once, right? 

Before I picked up any tools, I made sure to do my research. I have seen people paint their cabinets and it ended up looking really good, but I’ve also seen people’s kitchens end up looking patchy and unfinished. Needless to say, I wanted to know exactly how to make sure my little project didn’t result in a catastrophe. 

I found this article on Pinterest particularly informative. I also looked at the work of some Instagram DIYers like Morgan from Olive Branch Cottage. And, I was lucky enough to know a trusted cabinet expert who I asked about a dozen different questions just to make sure I didn’t mess this whole thing up.

The consistent threads that appeared in my research were PREP, PREP, PREP and TAKE YOUR TIME. This is not something you want to do quickly, and you definitely don’t want to rush through the steps and get straight to painting. 

Before removing the doors, I taped up the hardware from each one on the inside of the cabinet. I then numbered both the inside of the cabinets and the doors themselves. That way, I would know exactly what door went where and I wasn’t losing any hardware. 

After this, I sanded my cabinets down to the unstained wood grain. My cabinets were originally dark, so the sanding process was long and rather tedious. But, I knew from a little bit of trial and error that not removing the top layer of stain would prevent the paint from sticking to the cabinets. 

I used my Ryobi sander for the finer details and my circular Milwaukee sander for larger surface areas. I also had some scraps of sandpaper laying around for the really fine details.

Once everything was sanded, I used this TSP spray to clean everything off. When it was dry I started painting. I did multiple coats on both the white and gray cabinets, not only to ensure full coverage, but also durability. I used the Behr Marquee line in satin which came with the primer included to save myself some energy.

Before rehanging the doors, we decided to drill holes and attach door handles. Previously, the doors had no door pulls (because it was cheaper, I’m sure), and this was quite annoying. We chose simple matte black handles similar to these from Amazon. They were a very affordable and modern option that elevated the cabinets even more.

Just to be a little “extra,” I also added a set of puck lights to shine some light on the countertops. 

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It has been about a month since we finished the upgrade and we are absolutely loving it so far! The space feels much brighter, more modern, and suits our tastes much better than it once did. I think the new cabinets paired with the new floors makes the house feel bigger. 

The process of upgrading the cabinets involved a lot of hard work, but it has definitely paid off. I’m actually excited to go into the kitchen now, and even had the brief thought of cooking in it (a very short-lived affliction 😂). 

Note: The kitchen project is not quite over yet. First, I need to add handles to the two drawers on either side of the stove, and I need to fix and hang up the door on the spice cabinet above the stove (yeah, I put the handle on the wrong side…oops). Next up is the backsplash which will be a white subway tile with black grout. We also intend to upgrade to butcher block countertops, a deeper sink, and a taller faucet. 


Ryobi Sander

Milwaukee Sander

Paint (Upper Cabinets)

Paint (Bottom Cabinets)

TSP Spray

Door Handles

Puck Lights

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