Optimism + White Paint

February 21, 2012

There’s been an ongoing debate in our home for over a year about painting some dark wood cabinets in our casa.  We have dark wood cabinets in our master bathroom and dining room, dark wood countertops in our kitchen and dark wood treads on our staircase too – all of them I love and would never paint.

I love dark wood, especially juxtaposed next to crisp or warm whites – the contrast is divine.  The debate in our home has to do with the dark wood built-ins in our windowless family room, which feels like a cave much of the day. I am so drawn to the look of white built-ins in a living or family room space, especially flanking a fireplace.

See how nice they look?

white built ins bella mancini

Bella Mancini Design


white shelves living room

Globe and Mail


susan marinello interiors white built ins

Susan Marinello


white cabinets flanking mantel

Better Homes & Gardens


white built in bhg

Better Homes & Gardens


new england home mag white built ins

New England Homes Magazine


White built-ins are so clean, so fresh, so timeless – there’s something so beautiful about a clean white backdrop to showcase art or other accents. I’ve begged the mister to agree to paint our family room’s built-ins white, like the ones above, remaining eternally optimistic for over a year that he’d cave and say yes.

elsie de wolfe optimism and white paint

The good news is he finally agreed.  So the plan is to paint these family room built-ins a warm white, and I’m thinking of removing the doors too.  It will expose the television, which I hesitate to do, but also provide a great opportunity to display photographs and collectibles too.  And no, I’m not painting the wood bench seat along the bottom, just the cabinets – I think it will be a nice rich contrast and brighten this windowless room.

dark wood family room cabinets


Raise your hand if this same debate about painting dark wood cabinets is one going on in your home too?   How have you convinced (or maybe not yet convinced) your mate to paint your dark wood cabinets white?



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147 Responses to “Optimism + White Paint”

  1. Sandra says:

    I agree with everyone above. I think its a wonderful idea and will give such warmth to the space.

  2. yesyesyes! paint ’em out! :) I really do not understand why men (in general) don’t want to paint wood. It’s the same thing w/murals & color on walls. The mrs. always wants some color and interest and I always see the mr. nearly backing up out of the room!

    Here’s the funny part (and this will happen in your casa too, I bet) once they see the transformation, they want to do more, more, more, ha ha. Some of my best ‘repeat’ customers are because the mr. wants some more wall art.

    It always makes my heart smile :)

  3. Becky says:

    Love the white. Have been trying to convince hubby to let me paint the little bit of staircase we have in our little foyer white. He’s not convinced yet. But several years ago when he was on a business trip I painted the brick wall surrounding the fireplace because I couldn’t stand the aged country looking red ones. He loved it. It opened the room up instead of overpowering it. Guess I’ll be waiting for another business trip for the stair railings :)

  4. While I can understand the hesitation (that wood is beautiful!), I absolutely agree that painting the built-ins in this case is needed. It will brighten the space so much that it will be like a whole new room! I am so glad that you are leaving the “bench” natural though. It will really be a beautiful contrast! I can’t wait to see how you accessorize the new open shelves!

  5. Clare says:

    Yes! Paint!! Paint!!!

  6. I agree that white is the way to go! I’m a white-loving gal, so unless its vintage or weathered wood, it usually gets painted. I usually justify it by leaving a piece of wood, like your bench that you will leave alone. The white shelving will only make it pop even better and show off the wood. Good luck!

  7. We had a similar “discussion” at our house…we had some 80’s oak built-in cabinets in our family room and I could not get past the orange hue. Many people said, “You can’t paint wood.”

    Oh, but you can!

    I didn’t do white – it doesn’t go with my decor – but I did paint the insides of the cabinets (there are no doors) an olive green and the exterior black. It made such a HUGE impact on the room and tied it all together. Wondering why I didn’t do it years ago!

    I say go for it!


  8. Laura says:

    I agree….paint em! I think they will look awesome in white. I love dark woods too, but have started to add a few painted pieces in my house and love the effect. I think it’s going to look great…can’t wait to see the after!

  9. Jody says:

    Ok, I love most anything white and I do agree it looks better MOST of the time. However, I love the dark color of your cabinets in that space. It gives it such a rich, custom, look. I am not feeling white in that space.

  10. Sara says:

    I like the idea of painting them white! We don’t have a lot of natural wood colors in our house…but the stuff that we DO have is that nasty warm-orangey retro wood color, so there’s not much of a debate over whether to paint them or not! Plus the hubby doesn’t really care, so I can pretty much do what I want as long as I don’t expect extensive help from him ;)

  11. Ann V. says:

    Built our home in 1990. Custom built, solid oak cabinets! Incredible artistry. The PRIDE of our home. FFWD ten years later, the itch begins to paint them white. NO ONE is on board. “crazy to paint wood” ” way too difficult to do yourself” “hire a professional. Now I am ready to take the plunge and DIY! Seriously think my husband is SO hesitant because he hates the inconvenience and mess!

  12. Rachel says:

    I can see why Mr.CG hesitated for so long, the wood is beautiful, but I agree that the room will seem so much brighter and even bigger with them white. At the end of the day you are equally capable of restoring them later (if you wanted) as you are of painting them out now! looking forward to seeing the results!

  13. Karen says:

    Yes, you must paint those things-you will not regret it!! We just recently did this in our familyroom, and what a difference it made! Our wood was yellowy oak, along with the baseboards and crown moulding and it was yucky-1990’s yucky!
    We recently did a kitchen remodel and have cream cabinets with a brown glaze and the painter matched that color exactly to do our familyroom. It is so awsome looking!
    We have 2 windows in our fr-but a huge tree behind the fr, so we were not getting a lot of light in the room, but now it seems so light and airy. I had to convince my husband with pictures, because he was in the same camp as yours. Good Luck!

  14. Twyla Hajdukiewicz says:

    If you do not sand all the polyurethane off, but merely scuff it up and prime well, it could be returned to wood someday by someone else if they have that itch. I think the main reason men don’t like to paint wood is that if the wood isn’t sealed against the paint it soaks in and makes it all but impossible to refinish the wood to wood colored. I, too, tend to not want to paint nice wood, but in the setting it definitely needs to go white.
    Doors: to keep or not to keep. Is it possible to either cut them down or replace them with shorter doors that could still conceal the television but open up more of the shelves? I’m with you on not having the tv out there, but those are very large doors and I can see why you might want to remove (or reduce them). Either way, I know it will look lovely painted. Glad your hubby decided to go with painting!

  15. Ilene says:

    I’ve been struggling with this same dilemma. I have 1990’s oak built-ins in my family room. The rest of the furniture is more French country. To make matters worse the previous owners painted the adjoining brick fireplace white. Budget constraints prevent a full renovation, but white fireplace and white built-ins might be too much white. Thinking about painting the front of built in white and the backs of the shelves a brighter color for contrast.

  16. Karin says:

    Haha! Hubby and I just had this conversation (disagreement) about painting wood a couple of days ago. He just doesn’t get why anyone would be crazy enough to paint anything wood. I am in your camp Kate, I think there are certain pieces of furniture/cabinets that should be left alone, but oh, the fresh, clean look of white/light paint, especially built-ins like you have…love it. I say go for it. As for me, at least I know I am not alone in this!

  17. Ami Ponzo says:

    Thank you for this! Couldn’t have a come at a better time for me. I have ALWAYS wanted white cabinets but when we built we chose dark wood b/c they were beautiful and that was the trend for the area. (See here: http://www.asierrahome.blogspot.com/2011/03/bright-white-kitchen.html). But now that they are showing wear I am having been nonstop trying to convince my husband to go white and think I am ALMOST there. I know seeing your before and after will go a long way in convincing him, so get on that would ya? :) Can’t wait to see it either way!

  18. Kate says:

    I would definitely paint the cabinets white, but leave the natural wood color for the hearth for a contrast.

  19. Diana says:

    If I wanted to convince my husband of this, I would simply remove the doors from one side and paint the back white, leaving the shelves wood. See how it feels. Then if you still want to try the white shelves, paint them next. If he hated it in comparison to the other side, put the doors back on. :)
    In actuality, I would probably paint the backs the same wall color, whether I left the shelves in their wood tone or painted them white. The top crowning should absolutely be white to be cohesive with the other trim in the room.

  20. CentsationalGirl says:

    Will do Ami!

  21. Lynne says:

    Oh, man, this has been a constant struggle for me this year. When we build our house almost 23 years ago, we loved all of the honey oak cabinets, bookshelves, mantle and trim. Now, however, I wish it wasn’t such nice wood and wonderful stain, as then I could, without hesitation, paint it white. But, alas, it is beautiful wood and my hubby is shocked and appalled that I would even consider painting it. Oh, and all of our windows are the same oak stain. So we continue to have warm, honey trim and wood throughout the house. I make up for it by adding a large silver framed mirror to the mantle, white and bright things to the bookshelves, etc, etc.
    I think your built-ins will look wonderful white! And I love that you are leaving the bench wood. Lovely contrast.

  22. Will look beautiful. The white will contact and be gorgeous.

  23. diane says:

    Love the white paint idea and even exposing the tv and electronics doesnt seem to be a design sin any longer. Also, do you get permission from BHG to use pics or do they have a policy that it is OK? As a blogger struggling with this.

  24. I think that’s the perfect cabinetry to paint because they really do stand alone. The bench will be a nice contrast. Can’t wait to see it, I bet it will be beautiful!

  25. Rx says:

    I like the white paint. I’m in the middle of a kitchen remodel. My cabinets are maple (frost). They’re not really dark, but we’re adding a bunch of built-ins to freshen up my 15 year old kitchen, & then painting the cabinets & all woodwork white, new granite & quartz countertops, refinishing the oak floor (dark), honed carerra marble backsplash, new brushed stainless faucets, & combo brushed stainless & polished chrome hardware & polished chrome & crystal lights for sparkle. I’m leaving the paint color as is. It’s going to be really nice. I’ll post pictures when finished. I’ve been taking ongoing progress pictures. I’d definitely paint your fireplace white & depending on how it looks, I’d do the seat in white also. I’d use my accessories for color. It’s going to look nice. Good luck. My kitchen is under construction right now & what a mess. But sawdust is clean dirt, & it’s loaded with fiber (LOL).

  26. Helen Peterson says:

    Well – I love the white in the pictures you included, and I know I’m in the minority here, but I was thinking that the cabinets would look pretty elegant if they were a fruitwood or pecan tone. That would mean stripping, and staining. I’m just fond of natural wood. I guess it’s all in what a person is brought up with. What would you do with the fireplace surround, are you painting it or tiling over it?

  27. Karen says:

    Very persuasive images! Yes, I’ve had this discussion with hubby and he’s always thrilled with the outcome…white is so fresh and allows so much more light.

  28. Tina says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes. I love white paint! What is not to love? Please post pics ASAP when done. Beautiful room, by-the-way!

  29. Zoe says:

    Love the idea – It will freshen-up the space. Bet you’ll both love it!

  30. nita says:

    Yes! Yes you have to paint them, they are just sitting there looking hidden next to that beautiful fireplace. Painting them will really make them pop out. I am not sure on the benches but you could do them later if you decide it would look better.
    We have been having this discussion about painting our kitchen cabinets. They are Honey oak and need help. I told my husband they aren’t top quality cabinets to begin with (except for solid oak) So why not paint them and have that for a few years until we can afford to replace them.
    I have him convinced! I am just holding back because I know it means alot of work! I am tempted to take the doors to local cabinet maker and have them sprayed.

  31. Shavonda says:

    Just successfully bribed, er, convinced my other half to let me, er, US paint our kitchen cabinets white. I’m so excited…our cabs looks quite similar to your wood actually. I can’t wait to give our kitchen a much needed dose of crisp modern refreshing!

  32. Shavonda says:

    I just successfully bribed, er, convinced my other half to let me, er, US paint our kitchen cabinets white. I’m so excited…our cabs looks quite similar to your wood actually. I can’t wait to give our kitchen a much needed dose of crisp modern refreshing!

  33. Chantel says:

    We have lived in our house for 23 years – the wood work is a fruitwood stain. Been having the debate about painting it out white for about 10 years now. But came to the conclusion it would change the feel and look way too much and since I couldn’t stain over paint and would have to replace it, well it is staying, even though I think a coat of white paint would brighten the space. Your family room however is a different story . . . your woodwork (crown molding) is white and I believe the cabinets painted out would look just beautiful especially with your fireplace! I LOVE the tile!!! I would go for it and I know it will bring the whole room together! The fireplace is your focal point it will stand out more with the cabinets painted. Can’t wait to see it when it’s done! :)

  34. Mindo says:

    Definitely paint them, it will lighten the appearance of the room and I can’t wait to see the “after” photos.

    I am sure that we got a great deal on our last home because no one else could see past the light PINK hue on the kitchen cabinets (limed oak gone wrong) which clashed with the green/gray slate flooring! We took one look, said “white painted cabinets” and now have a wonderful home with a light and airy kitchen.

  35. Last year I painted our beautiful mid 80s alder wood kitchen cabinets…whew! I painted them a pale blue. Now I’m itching to paint them white. I believe in white. It allows us the space to think about things.
    I also sprayed white paint mixed with three parts water on my red brick walls. There are no windows in our main living room either (we turned the living room into a master bedroom), so it’s important to me to have good energy and light…my next move is to add more ceiling recessed lighting (house built in 1970) and possibly raise the ceiling height or add a skylight tube.
    I’m very lucky that my hubs is happy with all my decorating moves…he knows in the end I’ll be right. Smart man!
    This summer we’re taking all the doors out and painting them white (entire house), just to add light and brightness. Wood is great in small doses right? (I painted all the wood moldings white too…hee hee).

  36. Stacey says:

    Kate, you are a girl after my own heart!! There isn’t an inch of my home that I haven’t been itching to paint, cover, re-do or rip out and change!! Luckily for me, most of the woodwork (including the awful 60’s wood paneling in the ENTIRE downstairs) was already painted with a lovely shade of puke green when we moved in, so I didn’t have to have that debate with the hubs. He is a lover of all things stained wood, so I would have had quite a fight on my hands!! Much easier to convince when it’s already painted a terrible shade (and yes, there was some debate about whether the paint could be stripped and the paneling re-stained. Ugghh!!) I think your cabinets will look fabulous, and I love that you’re keeping the bench seat the wood!! Great look!

  37. Laurel says:

    I love love love white built ins! I have white bookcases flanking my fireplace as well and I love it! I would do it if I were you, and I love dark wood too. But I mostly love the mix of them. I recently painted an armoire white that was a medium dark wood and everyone thought I was crazy and that I should go darker, but if it’s a big expanse of wood like that, I definitely think white is the way to go otherwise it can feel too heavy for a room.

    I kinda think if you’re gonna go for it though, you should also add a mantel. Did I just say that out loud? Yes I just told Centsational Girl to add a mantel. It would make that whole wall transform into a wall of white woodwork, dreamy.

  38. Andrea says:

    I live in a 1916 four square with original unpainted dark trim. When we bought the house we loved it but in the 13 years since the wood is dinged up and needs to be either stripped, restained and varnished or painted. I have refinished a lot of furniture and I know the amount of work that would be. I love the fresh, crisp look of white painted trim if it is done well. Also we have the original windows that are in great working order but because they aren’t efficient and we really need new. If I painted the woodwork I could buy the new Pella vinyl series and not spend more money on the Pella wood windows. I am almost ready to paint but I’m afraid of having remorse.

  39. Mendi says:

    I am actually considering doing this right now to ours next to our fireplace. What I am struggling with in is our fireplace is an off-white stone for the entire fireplace and I am having a hard time visualizing how it would look with the white on white.

    Thanks for the inspiration it has me thinking again.

  40. judy h. says:

    I finally convinced my husband to paint 2 rooms of dark wood built-ins white. After they were crisp and white, he told me he was SO glad HE had the idea to paint them… hmmm

  41. judy h. says:


  42. Susan P. says:

    We had stained bookshelves/cabinets in our last home and painted them white but left the main shelf stained…the one that separated the open shelving on the top from the closed storage below…the result was the crisp white/warm wood that you like. We also painted the backs of the open shelving a pale blue and it all looked great!

  43. Janice C says:

    We just went through this at our house and the wood won out and I can honestly say I am glad it did. When we bought 5 months ago, I envisioned a living room with pale greys, blues, greens, creams, and wisps of browns. We did it and love it! When it was time to do the den, I was hesitant on having it be a mirrored reflection of the living room. Especially when my husband utilizes this room the most. The color palette is the same but the wood tones are more pronounced. My room (the living room) is where we go to relax and drink our wine and entertain. The den is where we go to play games, drink our beer, kick back and socialize with family and friends. I guess it all depends on what you want the feeling of the room to capture. I actually like the woodsy tone now when I walk in there. It’s like the house is hugging me in it’s warmth.

  44. Cathy M~ says:

    this is so funny! i have gone room by room and painted all of that medium colored wood to a soft white and have never regretted it!! i told hubby tonite that i am painting the cherry (gasp, i know!) kitchen cabinets that i have hated for 9 years. {my bookshelves are white next to a white fireplace mantel and it is beautiful!!} can’t wait for your reveal!! hugs, cathy

  45. Desha P says:

    Judy H, SO like a man to claim our ideas as their own:)

    I LOVE white in pretty much any capacity. We bought our 1980s home in Naples, FL about 6 months ago and pulled up ALLLL the nasty carpet and replaced with wood laminate floors. Our next big project will be to completely renovate the kitchen, and I’m going with white white white and more white. Dining room is next: white chair rail and molding squares with blue and white big-print floral wallpaper (a bit nautical). I love white, BUT here’s my issue: my husband is an aircraft mechanic and I have a 5 month old baby boy who will likely take after his daddy with his grubby-fingered tendencies! Any suggestions for how to keep white WHITE? I’m afraid my white dreams will turn into a dingey distater!

    Thanks, as always, for the inspiration!

  46. Laura M says:

    We are currently having the same debate about our chestnut molding. We decided to paint just the molding in our bedroom as it felt like a cave. We love it more than anything, what a difference. I am still scared to do the rest of the house because we want to move and I am afraid people would appreciate the original wood more. I would definately paint your built ins. The wood takes away from your beautiful fireplace.

  47. I love the look of white cabinets, but I would be hard pressed to actually paint over real wood. I think it will look really nice, though, judging by the examples you showed.

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