News & Politics

Dream Kitchens: Quick Fixes

Not ready to take on a renovation? Here are simple things you can do to give your kitchen a fresh look.

Want to give your kitchen a facelift without spending a lot? Contractors, designers, and others have suggestions for do-it-yourselfers that can create a new look without a big investment of money.

New Life for Old Cabinets

Knobs and hinges: One of the easiest ways to update cupboards is to change the knobs, says DC contractor Jean Wye. You can find knobs at any hardware store, but for more variety and interesting styles, try Restoration Hardware (Georgetown, 202-625-2771; Alexandria, 703-299-6220; Tysons Corner Center, 703-821-9655; the Mall in Columbia, 410-772-8070) or shop online at Van Dyke Restorers (

Similarly, if your cabinets have exposed hinges, you can replace them with newer ones. “Many of the older ones were a bronze color,” Wye says. “You could upgrade them with a pewter look.”

It’s best to replace a hinge with one of a similar style so you won’t have to drill new holes and because not all doors are made the same; some overlap the base cupboard more than others. If you’re shopping for new hinges in a store, Wye suggests taking an old hinge with you to compare.

Painting cabinets: You can spruce up cabinets with paint whether they’re solid wood or laminated particleboard, says Carl Langhorn, assistant manager in the paint department at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda. But the right supplies are crucial.

Langhorn recommends oil-based paint rather than latex, which is water-based, for several reasons: It creates a more durable finish, lasting ten years as opposed to three or four. If you splash something on cabinets painted with latex, the paint might soften when you wipe the spot off. And latex cabinets are more prone to becoming sticky if there’s a lot of humidity in the kitchen; when that happens, the doors could stick to the cabinet front and pull off the paint.

Plus you can’t beat oil paints for a smooth finish. Latex starts to dry as soon as it’s brushed on, leaving visible brush strokes. “Oil paint stays wet so long that it has time to even itself out,” Langhorn says.

Use a satin finish, which gives a nice appearance but isn’t shiny enough to highlight every imperfection.

For both primer and paint, go with the best quality, Langhorn says. His favorite paint is Benjamin Moore Satin Impervo.

An oil-based primer is the best choice, but if you go with a latex primer, use a high-quality one. Slow-drying oil paint will soften a cheap water-based primer. In addition, latex primer can make the grain stand up, even if you’ve sanded the wood smooth. If that happens, just lightly sand it again, then prime it a second time.

The best oil-based primers, Langhorn says, are Kilz Original and Zinsser Cover-Stain. They dry fairly quickly, in about 11⁄2 hours. His choices for latex primers are Benjamin Moore Fresh Start and Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3 for wood cabinets and XIM for hard-to-bond materials such as metal or plastic.

For latex paints and primers, use a nylon or polyester brush; natural bristles soak up moisture from the latex paint. For oil, use one with natural bristles, sometimes called China bristles; oil-based paint doesn’t stick well to polyester or nylon brushes.

To get started, remove cabinet doors and hardware. Most cabinets don’t need smoothing down, Langhorn says, but if yours do, you can take several steps:

■ Sand the wood with a coarse sandpaper, such as an 80-grit, then continue to go over it with increasingly fine sandpaper till you get to a 100- or 110-grit. (The higher the number, the finer the grit.)

■ To fill in dents and chips, sand the area lightly with fine sandpaper, brush on a coat of primer, then apply a coat of Ready Patch, a strong solvent-based wood filler. Sand it again, then prime again to seal it.

■ To fix laminate that’s chipped at the edge, you can use a melamine edging applied with an ordinary iron.

■ When cabinets are smooth, lightly sand all surfaces to be painted, using a 110- or 120-grit paper. Says Langhorn: “That abrades the surface so the primer will hold onto it, and it opens up the pores and gets rid of spills—even some you don’t see. Your cabinets might appear to be clean, but they might have oil or grease on them that won’t allow your paint to go on smoothly.”

When you’re done, use a tack cloth to remove sawdust—including some that might have fallen into the grain and could resurface when you prime the wood.

Paint all sides of the doors, the cabinet fronts, and the facings. Painting the insides is optional. Start with the backs of the doors and paint the edges while you’re at it. Allow 24 to 48 hours for an oil-based coat to dry, and finish all coats before flipping them over to paint the fronts. Use one coat of primer. Use one or two coats of paint on the insides of the doors, three coats on door edges, and two coats everywhere else. It takes seven days for the paint to cure, or fully harden.

Crowning Touch

Adding crown molding to walls can give your kitchen a more sophisticated appearance. A company called Focal Point makes moldings in many designs out of polyurethane that are indistinguishable from wood once they’re installed and painted, says Don Sever of Sever Construction in Oakton. Available at some lumberyards and hardware stores, these moldings are preprimed and simple to attach with glue rather than nails. They’re light and easy to work with and can be cut with a handsaw.

For curved areas such as archways, you can get flexible molding—also easy to work with, Sever says.

Once the molding is up, caulk the edges where they meet the wall, then paint them.

Do-It-Yourself Wainscoting

Beadboard and a chair rail are relatively easy to install, contractor Jean Wye says. If you buy the beadboard in strips about a quarter inch thick, you can just glue them to the wall—either drywall or plaster, as long as it’s not crumbling—using Liquid Nails glue. But it’s easier for a novice to use panels of beadboard, affixing them with Liquid Nails and then nailing them to the studs.

Top off the beadboard with a chair rail, attached with finish nails (nails that have no head) and using a nail set—a small tool with a dull point that allows you to tap the nail farther than a hammer would. Fill the holes over the nails with spackling, then—if the beadboard and chair rail came preprimed, as most do—paint the whole thing.


If you have no backsplash or if you want to replace yours, there is a variety of options.

For the area behind a stove, you can buy a ready-made back­splash in stone or ceramic tile manufactured by Broan ( These back­splashes, available at some hardware stores, come assembled in four styles and simply hang from a bracket on the wall.

Sever has made backsplashes out of metal panels designed for tin ceilings in bars. “You can buy them at Outwater Plastics,” he says. “They have about 30 designs, typically made of stainless steel, though you can also buy a copper finish. And they’re not that expensive—$60 to $70 apiece.”

They’re generally two by four feet and easy to attach with glue. The harder part is to cut them, because they’re relatively thick. If you own a jigsaw with a metal blade, you could use that, Sever says, or ask a contractor to do it. But a home­owner with a good pair of tin snips could probably do it, he says.

Interior designer Annie Elliott of DC’s Bossy Color suggests alternatives to back­splashes, such as hanging eight-by-ten-inch color photographs, small framed prints, or decorative plates between the counter and wall cabinets.

“Even a single object or picture over the sink can be lovely,” she says. “Just bear in mind that whatever you hang will get splattered, so avoid original artwork unprotected by glass.”

Illuminate Your Space

Replacing an old-fashioned single ceiling light with track lighting can update and brighten your kitchen. And as long as you’re attaching it in the same place as the old fixture, you don’t need an electrician, Sever says.

Some track lighting these days has a flexible plastic bar that can be twisted into an S shape, around a corner, or however you want. You can put the lights anywhere on the track and point them to shine in any direction. Track lights come in kits, which start at around $80 for a four- to five-foot track with three to five light heads and are available in an assortment of designs and colors.

Before you get started, turn off the electricity for the kitchen light at the circuit-breaker box. Unless the wiring in your home is very old, you should have three wires to disconnect the old fixture and reconnect the new one, Sever says. One is a black “hot wire,” another a white neutral wire, and the third a copper wire with no covering—that’s the ground wire. Your new light fixture should have equivalent wires, so all you have to do is connect the like colors. If the wires in your home don’t have those three colors, it’s best to call an electrician.

Renew Your Floors

Sprucing up old floors—or even replacing them with new ones—is a project many homeowners can tackle with relative ease, says Sprigg Lynn, president of DC’s Universal Floors.

If you have old waxed wood floors that have faded in a few spots, some shoe polish can even up the color. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used shoe polish on floors,” Lynn says. Like any finish, it will wear out eventually, “but it’s an easy way to doctor up the floor so it’s pleasing to the eye.”

Even putting in a new floor is easier than it used to be. Laminated wood floors and prefinished hardwood come in panels that click into place, so there’s no need for a nail gun or even glue. Called “floating” floors, they sit directly on the existing floor, so the new one will be a bit higher.

You will need a saw to cut the boards, and depending on the kitchen, there may be some tricky cuts, such as around a piece of trim or a door casing. For most of the cuts, you can use a handsaw, or you can rent a chop saw or a table saw.

Most important, Lynn says, is to follow the directions. For example, floating floors expand and contract with humidity and temperature changes, so they need room to breathe. That requires about a half-inch of open space around the entire floor, which can be covered with a piece of trim. If you don’t have that expansion space, the floors will tend to cup.

Presto—Stainless Steel

When Christina Lasky of Silver Spring bought a condo several years ago, it had a white refrigerator, a black dishwasher, and a stainless-steel oven. She replaced the refrigerator with one that matched the cabinets, but rather than getting a new dishwasher, she covered the front of the existing one with a sheet of stainless-steel contact paper.

“It’s so cool,” she says. “It has a brushed stainless-steel look and then a plastic film over it, so it’s really better than stainless because it doesn’t show fingerprints. And it doesn’t look tacky like the contact paper of the ’70s.”

Her dishwasher came with a removable front panel, making it easier to apply the adhesive. The paper (available at came on a roll, and Lasky enlisted her husband’s help to hold down one end while she smoothed the paper up to the top.

It isn’t an exact match for the stainless oven, she says, but the two appliances are far enough apart that the subtle difference isn’t obvious. “I don’t think anyone walking into the kitchen would look at it and think that it’s different,” she says, pointing out that different brands of stainless appliances can have a slightly different cast to them, too.

The contact paper was supposed to be a temporary solution, but two years later she’s still so pleased that she’s decided to keep it.

Splashes of Color

Designer Annie Elliott suggests inexpensive ways to brighten up a kitchen, such as a colorful nonskid rug. “Think of the rug as disposable,” she says. “Buy something washable or super-cheap with the idea that you’ll toss it in a year or so.”

Curtain rings with clips are popular these days: “Use them to hang vintage tea towels or antique-lace place mats from a rod mounted at the top or middle of the window.”

Or put small accent lamps in the eating area or on the countertop: “They’re always a surprise in a kitchen, and they really make the space cozy.”