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How to Keep Oak Kitchen Cabinets Looking Stylish in a Modern Kitchen

Image: BM_27 / Shutterstock Oak kitchen cabinets have long been a favorite in traditional homes due to their elegant appearance and earthy tones. However, incorporating oak cabinets into a modern or contemporary kitchen design can...

Farmhouse style kitchen with open windows and shelving Image: BM_27 / Shutterstock

Oak kitchen cabinets have long been a favorite in traditional homes due to their elegant appearance and earthy tones. However, incorporating oak cabinets into a modern or contemporary kitchen design can be challenging. If you want to maintain the traditional oak cabinet look while adding a touch of modernity, we have some tips for you. Here's how you can dress up your kitchen to balance modern elements with the beauty of traditional oak cabinets.

Is Oak a Good Choice for Kitchen Cabinets?

Oak cabinets suffered from a bad reputation in the 1990s due to an influx of cheap and kitschy designs. However, traditional oak cabinets remain a reliable and high-quality choice. Oak is a dense wood with neutral colors that can complement any design. Its natural grain adds stunning detail to your kitchen. Moreover, oak is highly durable and resistant to warping caused by age or humidity. Red and white oak are the most popular options, offering warm undertones and rich colors, respectively.

Midcentury modern kitchen with wood cabinets and pendant lighting Image: Getty Images

Are Maple or Oak Kitchen Cabinets Better for Your Kitchen?

Maple and oak are both popular choices for kitchen cabinets, often leading to confusion among homeowners. To help you make an informed decision, let's explore the distinct differences between these woods.

Based on Appearance

Maple boasts light colors ranging from pale blondes to reddish cinnamon tints. Its gentle and refined appearance lends a subtle touch to any space. With a fine grain, maple offers a consistent and smooth overall look.

On the other hand, oak tends to be richer and darker than maple. Red oak features warm undertones that can be seen in sunlight, while white oak has a more robust hue and appearance. Oak often showcases minor imperfections and knotholes, which add character and a natural feel to your home.


Maple, being a lighter wood, is not as strong and hardy as oak. Oak cabinets are extremely durable and resistant to warping, making them an excellent choice for families.

Considering the Price

In terms of cost, oak is reasonably priced and offers good value. While not as expensive as some other woods used for kitchen cabinets, it still provides character and charm. On the other hand, maple leans toward the more expensive side due to its stunning appeal and even grain. If you're looking for affordability and character, oak is the way to go.

Modern black and white kitchen with oak cabinets Image: Paolo De Gasperis / Shutterstock

How to Make Oak Kitchen Cabinets Look Modern and Contemporary

One of the challenges with oak kitchen cabinets is blending their natural grain with a modern space. While oak cabinets are commonly associated with traditional or rustic designs, they can still look stunning in a modern kitchen. Here are some tips to achieve a modern and contemporary look with your oak cabinets.

Keep a Light, Bright Feel

To pull off a gorgeous modern oak cabinet look, focus on using light and bright colors in your palette. Emphasize white and cream shades and avoid darker hues like browns and blacks. Since oak cabinets typically have darker wood tones, pairing them with light wall colors or countertops creates a balanced and modern feel. Consider using white quartz countertops and a white backsplash to showcase your beautiful oak cabinets.

Opt for a Neutral Palette

If you don't want to limit yourself to a specific color palette, you can experiment with other neutrals. Muted grays or tans, when combined with a light and airy feel, can complement oak cabinets beautifully. Add some greenery and plants to enhance the natural appeal of the wood.

Paint Your Cabinets

If you're not a fan of the oak cabinet color but still want to keep them, consider staining or painting the cabinets to match your desired modern design. Popular paint shades for oak wood include black, gray, and white. Alternatively, opt for more neutral or subdued stains. For a bolder look, paint your upper cabinets while leaving the lower ones in their traditional oak hue. This creates a beautiful contrast in your kitchen. You can also add color to your wall cabinets if you have an island, leaving the oak cabinets as a centerpiece.

Pair Oak Cabinets with Open Shelving

To modernize oak cabinets, replace preexisting upper cabinets with beautiful open shelving. Open shelving is a unique aspect of modern home design that enhances the overall look of your kitchen. By removing the upper cabinets, you create a statement with the lower oak cabinets, drawing the eye naturally around the room and creating flow. This prevents the wood from overpowering the space and looking out of place in comparison to the rest of your modern-designed home.

Add the Right Finishing Touches

To make your oak kitchen cabinets look exceptionally modern, pay attention to the finishing touches. Choose a crisp, modern countertop such as quartz, white marble, or veined white quartz. These light and airy tones complement oak cabinets, allowing them to shine without overwhelming the space. Additionally, adding sleek and simple hardware in gold, bronze, or black enhances the grains and undertones of the wood. Avoid ornate hardware that can make your kitchen look outdated or tacky. Sleekness is key in a modern kitchen.

Choose a Modern Cabinet Style

If you love the look of oak wood but prefer modern aesthetics over traditional or rustic styles, consider installing modern oak cabinetry. Modern cabinetry focuses on straight lines, seamless surfaces, and minimal hardware. Black accents work particularly well with oak cabinet finishes. While modern cabinetry used to feature solid white or black options, the introduction of biophilic design in kitchens has brought back natural woods like oak. Lighter-toned oak cabinets with prominent grain patterns are especially popular in modern kitchen designs, especially when paired with classic black and white accents.

Oak kitchen cabinets are a beautiful addition to any home, regardless of the design style. If you already have these sturdy cabinets, try incorporating modern elements to create a sense of contrast in your space. Stick to light and bright colors, experiment with different neutrals, or consider open shelving. With the right choices, your oak cabinets can become a stunning focal point in your modern kitchen.