Smart Kitchen Upgrades for the New Year

Learn how to redo your space to suit your taste — and your budget.

Few projects in life are as rewarding as turning a house into your home, especially when you put in the time and effort to do it yourself. But big jobs, such as a kitchen makeover, can seem more daunting than exciting when you first dive in — just ask HANDY’s former assistant art director, Tracy Walsh, a first-time homeowner who surrendered her outdated kitchen to us for the greater HANDY good. Her story shows that with some planning and a little creativity, you can give your ho-hum kitchen a timeless and affordable transformation.

Get a game plan
Before you rip out old flooring or choose new tiles, you must first identify attainable goals based on your budget. Figure out how much you want to spend; then research improvements that will fit within those parameters.

Next, make a list of the functional upgrades and cosmetic enhancements you’d like to implement, in order of importance. This way, even if you can’t complete everything at once, you can keep working toward your overall goal. Keep in mind, though, that it’s logical to group some projects together. For example, if you’re planning to replace the countertop, sink and faucet, it would make sense to do all of them at the same time, as they all involve work in the same area.

Also consider focal points. If you cut costs in areas that are less visible, you’ll have more money to splurge on eye-catching items such as cabinet doors, accent tiles or decorative hardware.

“Luckily, we didn’t need to replace the flooring or any large appliances, so we decided to focus our makeover budget on updating the cabinetry and countertop,” Tracy says. She and her husband also saved a bundle by tackling most of the demo and installation tasks — with the help of fellow HANDY staffers, of course.

Although Tracy allotted a large portion of her kitchen-makeover budget to cabinetry, there wasn’t enough for all-new cabinets. So rather than dip into her life savings, she sorted though options that would cost less yet still provide a dramatic change.

Because she kept the existing cabinets, Tracy was able to splurge on high-quality wood for the doors.

“It was a little overwhelming at first,” Tracy says. “There were so many choices, and we wanted to make the right decision.” But she quickly narrowed the field by choosing to keep the existing cabinets and replace the doors. This would allow for a fresh look without the expense or disruption of tearing out and installing new cabinets.

Her next challenge was to find a door style that would hide enough of the face frames so that she wouldn’t need to paint or refinish them. She consulted a local cabinetmaker, who helped her design classic shaker-style doors using solid and veneer rift-sawn red oak. (Unlike the large grain patterns in plain- and rotary-cut oak, which can create a visual distraction, the tight grain pattern of rift- and quarter-sawn oak is understated and complements an updated design.) The doors were made large enough to cover the face frames except for 1/8-in. gaps required for clearance. Hidden European hinges and a finish that closely matches the existing face frames helped to pull off the seamless transformation.

Hidden hinges are easy to install and allow for larger doors.

For Tracy, hiring a cabinetmaker and opting for high-quality wood was worth the splurge, but there are less-expensive cabinet-makeover options. For example, if you have woodworking tools and skills, you can make your own cabinet doors. (Find plans for how to build frame-and-panel doors similar to those in this kitchen here.) Other cost-effective options include painting or refinishing, adding glass panels or open shelving or simply replacing knobs and pulls.

Another area that Tracy chose to emphasize during her kitchen makeover was the countertop. To open up the space yet preserve the existing layout and work surface, she removed a short wall under the peninsula and built a new furniture-style support to match the cabinet doors. She completed this project before moving forward with the countertop, as the new peninsula slightly changed the countertop dimensions.

Instead of eliminating the peninsula, this new design opens up the space while preserving the work surface.

Next, Tracy and her husband combed through scads of countertop options. “We wanted something that was durable, looked natural and didn’t cost an arm and a leg,” she says. She found all of those qualities and more in Wilsonart’s HD High Definition Laminate countertop. According to the manufacturer, Wilsonart HD countertops feature three times more scuff- and wear-resistance than industry-standard high-pressure laminates. And the use of both matte and gloss finishes combined with natural patterns give the countertop a unique look and texture.

Wilsonart's under-mount sink option for its HD laminate countertops provides this high-end feature that was once only available with expensive solid-surface and stone products. The thermal-formed acrylic HD sinks seamlessly integrate into the countertop, providing a luxurious look that is both durable and affordable.

This Wilsonart HD laminate countertop features an innovative under-mount sink option. Also shown, this Eco-Performance faucet from Moen is the perfect compliment.

Though Tracy’s countertop required professional installation, she saved some dollars by removing the old countertop herself. If you’re up to the challenge of DIY demo, remember to remove all traces of glue along the cabinets, as it can interfere with smooth installation of the new surface.

The floor in Tracy’s kitchen was in good shape, so there was no need to replace it. However, as she implemented the new peninsula design, she discovered that the floor would need to be patched after the partial wall was removed. Luckily, the previous homeowners left behind a few flooring planks from the original installation. They were cut to staggered lengths and blended in with the existing floor.

If replacing the floor is part of your kitchen-makeover to-do list, start by pulling up a corner of the old floor. You might find a hidden treasure that simply needs a few repairs. But if you’re not that lucky, there are plenty of practical options that will refresh your space and your feet.

Even if you don’t have enough in your budget to splurge on natural-stone tile or exotic hardwood, you can achieve a similar look with less-expensive materials such as laminate, ceramic tile, vinyl and linoleum. All are well-suited for the kitchen and easy to install yourself.

A couple of things to consider when making your selection are durability and cleanability, as a kitchen is usually a heavy-traffic area prone to spills. Also, when you’re laying out your flooring budget, remember to factor in the necessary substrate and underlayment required for the product you choose.

It’s no secret to a DIYer that a fresh coat of paint is an inexpensive way to change a room. For the kitchen, it’s important to use high-quality paint that will hold up to heat, humidity and stains. Eggshell and satin finishes are common choices, as they are durable and easy to clean. Satin features slightly more gloss, making it ideal for frequently scrubbed surfaces near stoves and sinks. Also, remember to thoroughly wash walls with trisodium phosphate (TSP) before painting to eliminate any oil residue.

Another simple way to update kitchen walls is to add or replace a backsplash. This is a popular place for homeowners to splurge, as it’s a small area to cover and can become a dramatic focal point.

Even if you don’t spring for soapstone or natural slate tiles, less-expensive ceramic tiles can still add color and character. And though some large or intricately detailed ceramic tiles can be expensive, you can create a unique design that incorporates only a few of those tiles as accents.

Sometimes all it takes to lighten up a kitchen is, well, light. And though Tracy’s space didn’t require any additional lighting that would require new wiring (and in her case, hiring an electrician), she did opt to replace a couple of outdated fixtures.

“We found a pendant that we really liked at a home store, but when we installed it above the sink, it didn’t look right,” Tracy says. The couple returned it and found a tract fixture that better suits the space and features four adjustable lamps for optimum lighting in the surrounding area.

This track fixture adds more light and a fresh look to the sink area.

Tracy’s under-cabinet lighting was already hardwired to a wall switch, which she liked, but it put off excess heat and wasted energy. Her solution was to simply replace the bulbs with low-voltage xenons that produce bright, white light but remain cool and last longer than traditional halogens. Other energy-efficient options include fluorescent bulbs, puck lights and LEDs. These options differ in heat output and light color, so if possible, test them in the store before buying.

Sink and faucet
Deciding on a new sink was easy for Tracy, as it was integrated into her new countertop. But when you’re only replacing a sink or when your countertop and sink are separate projects, there are more details to consider. If you’re not reconfiguring your countertop, you can simply rely on your existing sink’s shape and size to find a new one that fits the space. Changing the countertop, however, frees you to explore different sink options.

You’ll need to determine the number of bowls and bowl sizes as well as the shape you prefer. There’s also a wide variety of materials and styles to choose from. A couple of affordable options include stainless steel and acrylic. Both are durable and feature high heat-resistance.

Finally, there are three main sink-mounting choices, which greatly depend on the countertop. Top-mount sinks work well for most flat surfaces, flush-mount sinks are appropriate for tile counters, and under-mount sinks are usually only available for solid-surface or stone countertops.

When it comes to kitchen faucets, there seems to be a style and finish for every taste imaginable. For Tracy, efficiency was paramount. She selected the Dorsey Eco-Performance kitchen faucet from Moen, which features three spray options, two of which are low-flow and can add up to about 32 percent water savings. “It was nice to find a faucet that not only looks beautiful but also saves money,” Tracy says. When selecting a faucet, consider the other fixtures, appliances and hardware in your kitchen to maintain consistency in style and finishes.

Installing a new faucet is an easy project. It requires only a handful of common tools and materials and minimal skills. Many faucet manufacturers are also making more DIY-friendly products that feature twist- or click-together fittings, which simplify the process.

When Tracy moved in, all of the kitchen appliances matched. However, the placement of the refrigerator created an eyesore. To disguise the bulky appliance and employ the unused space above it, Tracy added a floor-to-ceiling wood panel and a deep cabinet. The two parts were built separately but installed as one piece to create a built-in look that matches the new cabinet doors and adds an impressive amount of storage.

This simple panel-and-cabinet project disguises the refrigerator while adding storage.

Other suggestions for hiding unattractive kitchen gadgets include appliance garages and pullout cabinet accessories. If you plan to replace any appliances, be sure to keep energy-efficiency in mind. Plenty of options offer significant savings compared with older models.

Completing a kitchen makeover takes time and money, but when you nail down your budget and understand your options, you can achieve a transformation that’s as easy on your wallet as it is on your eyes.