I Painted My Built-Ins

March 11, 2012

My sister came to visit this past weekend and she only comes to visit a few times a year but when she does, great things happen.  Mostly she makes me do what I need to do more of these days and that is take a break from the computer to watch movies and eat cookies on the couch – she’s a good influence.  My sister and I love to watch television or movies together and to the program we always add our commentary based on our strange sense of humor. We are known to bust out in random monologues about things that are completely nonsensical to others but make perfect sense in our little world.

This information is irrelevant to today’s post but I thought I’d share anyway because what’s true is if I hadn’t finished painting the family room built-in cabinets I wrote about a few weeks ago then I’d have absolutely nothing to say to you today other than the marathon session of Downton Abbey Season Two spent with my sister this past weekend was as the kids say “epic” and as the Crawleys might say “splendid” and I’m counting the minutes until Season Three. 

Back to those cabinets. You may recall I desperately wanted to paint the built-ins white because there are no windows in this room and it felt like a cave but a certain person I’m married to was hesitant to do so. Then you faithful readers came rallying to my defense and I was emboldened and so I went ahead, trusting my instincts, and painted them white.  And here’s the best part – my mate who didn’t want to paint them at all at first, actually likes them much better now. I think you will too.

Here’s a glance at the behemoths before I pulled off the doors and painted them.

family room cabinets before

And today.

cg family room white built ins

Much improved I must say.  The cabinets were primed with Zinsser oil based Cover Stain last week.


zinsser cover stain


Then I painted them with two coats of a warm white – Benjamin Moore’s Advance formula in ‘Linen White’ to be exact.

ben moore linen white


Just the paint wasn’t enough – the two inner shelves looked disproportionate to the top shelf so I cut two pieces of pre primed 2 ½” trim (the same we used on these bookshelves) and attached them with a brad nailer to create the illusion of thicker shelves. This is an easy trick for giving your shelving units greater thickness and the shelves are still moveable since the trim is only attached to the front.

brad nailer


You can see the difference below…

thin to thick shelves

I was sad to see the cabinet doors go because I could hide all sorts of games and photo albums behind them, but taking them off forced me to weed through everything we didn’t use and find new places for what was left.  Now I’m loving all that white space surrounding the objects on the shelf – I feel like I can relax and breathe in here now.

cg white built ins left side


And yes those picture frames are empty for now, soon to be filled with family favorites.  I’m also adjusting to the television out in the open too.  I know I was among the minority who hid their TV behind closed doors, but then I realized an exposed TV is more common than not these days so I’ve adjusted to the difference. 

cg family room


Meanwhile, it’s just nice to relax in a calm space that feels a bit more coastal in style and less like the cave it felt like before the cabinets were painted and the doors removed.   

cg family room kids on sofa


Slipcovered sofas are Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams from the Pottery Barn Basic collection (blue slate slipcovers no longer available) – we’ve had them for several years and they are extremely comfortable.  The three Grand Palais mirrors are from Ballard Designs (I painted them white a few years ago); the striped chair was a floor sample on clearance from Macy’s furniture store last year, Silsila pillows from Z Gallerie, baskets from the Container Store, bronze bicycle from Pier One, glass bottles and other collectibles from various sources.

It never ceases to amaze me what a fresh coat or two of white paint can do!



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211 Responses to “I Painted My Built-Ins”

  1. Kim says:


    I Just did the exact same thing in my living room.. Right down to adding those strips to the thin plywood shelves. I finished it last night! I had to trim out my built ins and I added corbels to the fireplace mantle, but i swear it looks almost EXACTLY like yours. TV on one side, shelves on the other, fireplace in the middle. Mine were horrific oak! (You actually had a nicer starting point.)

    I had a brass fireplace surround I had to paint as well. I only have a teaser on my blog so far.. but I can’t wait to post my reveal, since yours is evidence of how much better they can look!


  2. Rebecca says:

    Again, you amaze me! Your decorative touch is awesome!!

  3. Cheri says:

    Love the new shelves! Painting them really gave the whole wall a nice look!

    The Curtain Lady

    P.S. Our family does the same thing- about the weird sense of humor and how we relate everything to weird things no one else thinks of- but makes perfect sense to us- oh and laughing till you are crying! lol!

  4. ange says:

    I love how open and clean and just over all lovely it looks! Great job on these!!! I am also jealous that you are through season 2 of Downton Abbey! We debated downloading the entire season to itunes tonight cause we are holding out for netflix but I’m afraid we can’t wait very long.

  5. Man! You do not mess around with those big projects!! I need to get myself in gear and finish the painting I’ve been needing to do for over a year now. You are always an inspiration–this space looked great before but now it is magazine worthy. I LOVE this room and the color scheme. I have peacock blues, aquas, greys and whites all over my house now thanks to you.

  6. Amanda says:

    Wow! What a HUGE difference, they look beautiful. I, too, have a “cave”. We have windows but it never seems to be bright enough. I have been treating to paint our fireplace white and this was the inspiration I needed…..so have you ever painted brick? Also, I love the slip cover. I’ve never actually used one and my couch (and our living room) would benefit from one. Is it difficult to get one to fit? My couch is enormous and having it done professionally would be too costly. Thanks for any tips or ideas….Again, you shelves look gorgeous!

  7. They look amazing Kate! What a dramatic difference! People are often so afraid to paint over wood tones but you make such a strong (and beautiful!) case for it, who could resist after seeing this?! :) So inspired!

  8. Arica says:

    Such a nice update! Love it. :)

  9. Debora says:

    Look at that tile work! Stands out so much more now. Good job!

  10. Andrea says:

    This looks awesome!! It really brightens it up… so fresh. Love it!!

  11. Melissa says:

    It’s really beautiful! It made a world of difference, so glad to see you followed your vision:0) Looks so awesome!

  12. The tv cabinet I am sure was open most of the time anyways right? So what does it matter if you don’t have an open cabinet door all the time now. Looks fantastic Kate, it really does feel more fresh and bright and welcoming {well at least from my point of view in front of the computer} Sisters are the BEST! I just used mine to help me with some of my DIY as well LOL “used” sounds funny, but you know what I mean. Great job you two.

  13. cheryl says:

    what an amazing change! looks fabulous – and adding the extra trim on the shelves was a billiant idea.
    love the changes.
    cheryl xox.

  14. Traci says:

    I have a similar set up with built-ins flanking my fireplace, yours looks so good now I want to do mine. I’ll just add it to the list.
    Thanks for sharing,

  15. Did you add that tile to your fireplace,if so where did you get it? The room looks great!

  16. rita says:

    It looks amazing!! So much better white

  17. Oh my gosh amazing! Oh the power of white. The room looks like a breath of fresh air.

  18. GawgusThings says:

    What a difference! Looks great :)
    Emma x

  19. Vefasart says:

    Really beatiful!! I love white furnitures!

  20. Jean Nelson says:

    Amazing transformation. Love the “new” look!

  21. Wow, the white makes the room look so much brighter and love how you removed the doors. The white makes the fireplace surround really stand out :) Nicely done!

  22. andi says:

    I can understand the hesitation. It’s a huge area to get wrong – but you didn’t get it wrong and it looks GREAT. What a difference! I have two pine cabinets either side of my fireplace in my breakfast room that I’ve wanted to paint white/cream but have been putting it off. You may have encouraged me to go ahead. xx

  23. Marlo says:

    Lovely! I did the same thing this week — except for our builtins were just built. I’ve been dreaming of a wall of white shelves for quite a while, and I’m in love. Yours look terrific!!

  24. Pamela says:

    Well now, you’ve finally let those babies become what they were destined to be! :) Beautiful reno job! Like I’m taking 500% step up in appearance, warmth it adds to the room, and functionality (even tho you removed the doors and limited “storage space” I think it adds so much more!

    Love it!

  25. Megan says:

    What a wonderful job you did! I think they look wonderful. Megan

  26. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    A nice side-effect of adding the strip to the shelves is that it is less likely to sag.

  27. Jen Migonis says:

    I am in love with the white cabinets… You are right, what a wonderful coastal feeling! Great job, Kate!

  28. Cheryl says:

    Ok, you’ve totally inspired me! I’ve been “saying” that I’m going to paint my bookshelves/cabinets white for over a year now. It’s that or remove them all together and add windows to lighten up the room. After seeing your makeover, I think just painting will give me what I’m looking for! Thank you!

  29. I can’t believe what a difference the white makes in that room! It looks amazing … you definitely made the right decision! Love it!

  30. Lisa says:

    wow. absolutely gorg!!

  31. Shelby says:

    Fan-flipping-tactic! I’ve been jonsing to paint our horrible oak built-ins but my mister is gun-shy. So did you sand at all? It just straight to the oil-based zinsser primer? It all that’s holding me back…thinking about how the heck to sand and not create a giant mess.

  32. Diane says:

    Sisters are good! Love the updated and fresh look it gives the room. Great job!

  33. Jenoside says:

    I just made some pillows out of essentially the same fabric. Well, same pattern, different color. Love them in my room and I love them in yours. Looks great.

  34. WOW, it’s amazing what a coat of paint can do! I love the look without the cabinet doors. And the extra piece of molding is genius!! Great transformation, Kate.

  35. nita says:

    Wow what a breath of fresh air just in time for Spring! It turned out just beautiful!

  36. Cathy says:

    I follow you faithfully and am dazzled by your transformations. I have a question for you:
    What is on the opposite side of the room from the fireplace? Could you “float” the couch in the center of the room facing the fireplace and the TV? Just wondering. Thank you!

  37. Kim says:

    Wow, it is gorgeous. You must be so pleased. It looks fresh and bright. You are right what a difference a little bit of paint makes. Enjoy.

    Letters from the Shore

  38. Kate says:

    They look fabulous!! What a little paint can do.


  39. The built ins look amazing. Great tip in the shelving. I have wanted to paint my ugly oak corner built in for years. I don’t think I could remove the top doors as the go way back to the corner. Maybe I could get an insert built just to make it look like a shelf and not a deep corner. I was thinking of the Annie Sloan paint, but now I am really liking what you did. Maybe I should rethink my plan.

  40. Cynthia says:

    You do a fantastic job. They look really great.

  41. Carolyn says:

    Great job Kate. So fresh and coastal looking. Do you know what your wall colour is please?

  42. Sandi says:

    Stunning! Truly a remarkable difference!! Thank you so much for the inspiration.

  43. Looks so much better! And I love that you took the doors off!

  44. kcostello24 says:

    Absolutely beautiful Kate! They came out awesome! I’ve taken a brief break from doing things around the house, but you and the 70 degree weather here today on the east coast just inspired me to get going again! Thank you!

  45. You are definitely “centsational”..beautiful transformation of the built-ins..It’s like a transformation from “winter” to “spring”….from “serious” to “happy”…

  46. Doreen says:

    awesome! you did a beautiful job! you should be very proud. what a great thing to do with your sister. I should call up mine. i am going to visit her for a week during easter, maybe she’s got something we could do? You go girl!

  47. Jenni says:

    They look really good! I was just wondering if you did any sanding before applying the primer? I have a built-in as well that could use a paint job–I am actually thinking of going with a mossy green to contrast against our caramel walls and I haven’t done it yet because I didn’t want to sand that huge amount of wood!

  48. funthreads says:

    Definitely a WOW! I’m always afraid to paint dark wood. It’s lovely.

  49. Kathy says:

    Those bookshelves are da bomb!!

  50. I really hate to see wood painted…but these turned out amazing! I think it looks awesome!

  51. Lesley says:

    I love it! I take doors off of rooms a lot and find that it really changes a space! It does the same thing in this case with your built-ins. The change in color brightens up the whole room. You have taken an otherwise closed in space and really opened it up and made it feel welcoming. I think sometimes even if you feel like things look fine you still have to make changes that work for your family. I need your help with my fireplace built-in re-do. It’s a whopper! Lesley

  52. Oh my goodness… it looks beautiful! I am so glad your husband is on board with it now. It really opens up the room and makes it gives it so much more light. I hope y’all enjoy your new set up.

  53. SheilaG says:

    Beautiful! The white allows your aqua accents to pop so nicely. If you get tired of the tv showing, you could maybe add a shorter door on that side to cover it.

  54. Cindy says:

    Nice job!! So, I’m guessing your hubby broke down and gave into your request to paint them. ;) Does he love them too? They look beautiful like they have always been white!!

  55. Jennifer says:

    It looks amazing! I have a Mitchell Gold /PB sectional too. I don’t love mine though :)

  56. Wow Kate! They look great! What a difference.

  57. Jennifer says:

    Wow! Huge improvement. Thanks for the tip about the trim on the front of the .

  58. Claudia says:

    It looks wonderful – everything looks seamless and cohesive.

  59. Linda says:

    Stunning!! Breathtaking difference.

  60. Fabulous transformation! I love how light and bright the space feels now and the white will serve as a great backdrop to add seasonal pops of color. I can already image the space during Christmas. Fabulous job.

  61. Julia Beebe says:

    Just started following your blog and love your DIYs! I actually just bought my very first property and am already planning some projects. I want to paint our honey-colored kitchen cabinets white and was wondering if the primer and paint you used on this project would be a good choice for cabinetry? I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommended process, thanks so much!

  62. Laura Putnam says:

    Looks so great – like a different room! The addition to the front of the shelf is great too. So love the Ballard mirrors in white also! I actually have that same bike (Pier 1 a bit ago?) that I pulled out yesterday and(I am actually attempting to paint it today, we will see how it goes!). But knowing the size of the bike puts the cabinet size in perspective – I am sure that was a lot of work, but so worth it!

    Take care, Laura

  63. Claire says:

    Looks awesome. I love your accents and pinned them on Pinterest. THank you for telling me where you got the little bicycle. I must go find one, pronto!

  64. Looks fantastic Kate! Glad to hear you take a break every once in a while too. I’m heading to California to visit my sister over Easter and I can’t wait to catch up. Sisters are the best!

  65. Jenn says:

    Ohh my! What a huge difference! It looks like something straight out of a model home! It went from a bit manly to coastal without screaming BEACH! I love it!!!!!!!!!!

  66. Peggy says:

    Excellent! I just did something similar in our LR, too. I have a question about your shelves not going to the ceiling. Does a lot of dust accumulate on the top of the shelves, or does being so close to the ceiling keep the dust out. That may be a solution for an issue I have with another remodel, so I’d be interested in hearing your reply. Thanks!

  67. Debbie W says:

    I love everything that you’ve done… but this I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE!!! Looks so amazing!! Yay to painting wood white!! And doesn’t it make your fireplace really stand out!! Great job as usual!!

  68. Looks fabulous Kate! I am with you on the “hide the TV” feeling. I like being able to close it up behind doors…but the open white shelves look so good now you dont have to!

  69. Amazing! Looks like the room must feel a whole bunch larger. Does it?

  70. Nancy says:

    I knew it! They look absolutely amazing! Great idea to “beef up” the shelves…and wow, taking off the doors! I think it looks amazing…..Great job!

  71. Cathy says:

    It looks great. We just bought a house on Cape Cod and it already has white built ins around the fireplace. We debated whether to put the tv over the mantel or in the space to the right – as yours is. We opted for the same arrangement that you have. My son didn’t agree. I think he wanted it to look like a sports bar with a HUGE tv, but he didn’t win.

    Thanks to your inspiration, I am busy painting furniture finds from Craigs list, etc. While we were finalizing our kitchen cabinet order this weekend, the designer said she would order a quart of paint for touch ups. Who knew. It never occurred to me that we could do that. I was so excited as I was worried about doing the kitchen chairs in just the right color. Now, they will be a match to the cabinets.

    Thanks for the inspiration and great information.

  72. I love these! They look wonderful, great job and Kudos for trusting your instincts!

  73. Susan says:

    It occurred to me to do this to my built ins a couple weeks ago. Did your have a varnish too? You just primed and didn’t need to sand? Looks like I’ll be doing this soon!!

  74. Amazing transformation! Love the white.

  75. Kimberly says:

    I love how they turned out!!! I especially love the aqua accents. That’s the color I’m doing in my girls room and I’m obsessed!!!

  76. Eileen says:

    Oh. My. Gosh. HUGE difference – way to go with your instincts!!

  77. That is a seriously amazing transformation! I can’t believe that room doesn’t have windows, it’s so bright now!

  78. Katie says:

    Beautiful! What a transformation!

  79. Amazing! At first I was a little disappointed you were painting them but I can see now it was definitely the right decision, I love them!

  80. Portia Allen says:

    I absolutely love this!! If we owned a house that had built ins I would probably paint them white too. Well once my youngest was a least four(he’s still has yet to make his debut. In about a month or so he’ll grace us with his presence). Dirty hands are hard to get rid of even after using soap and water. But I love your space. I love the brightness of the room. Right now my husband is building me all new furniture. I’m opting for a Red Mahogany color so that I can do everything else super light. I love contrast so much!! But again I think this room is divine!!

  81. Heidi Radaszewski says:

    These look absolutely amazing–what is it with husbands and the look of natural, unpainted wood!? My husband just finished building a few built in shelves for my kitchen desk space. I pieced together foam core to create a snug fit, wrapped them in fabric and placed them in the back of the shelves. No wallpaper, no commitment (plus I can always reuse the fabric to make pillows or curtain trim). It might be an idea to consider if you’re feeling like changing things up down the road. I love how ours turned out!!

  82. Charlie says:

    Only you could take something that’s already awesome and make it spectacular! Just beautiful!


  83. suzie dyer says:

    Wow, it looks beautiful!! But more importantly, can you believe we have to wait a YEAR to see season 3 of Downton Abbey!!!!! I don’t know what I will do????!!!

  84. cd says:

    Wow! I am really not a fan of painting woodwork, but these look amazing! Good call!

  85. sarah says:

    love it…looks great. i am a big fan of white painted shelves.

  86. Kyle says:

    OMG. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. What a difference. I have so much golden oak in my house that I would love to paint. DH is very hesitant. Well, I went ahead and did one small bath room cabinet and it turned out great, and he liked (note, I did not say loved) it. So, maybe I will tackle something else when I can find the time.

  87. Julie says:

    I freaking LOVE it! We recently bought a house built in 1980. The family room fireplace wall is ALL brick. While I can’t bring myself to paint the brick, it makes the room so very dark. Someday, when we redo our kitchen, we’re planning on having built-ins made on each side with open shelving on top to keep some of the brick but to lighten/brighten it and create some storage on the bottom with doors. I’m dying to do it!

  88. What a difference! It looks beautiful!

  89. Lauren says:

    I love the transformation! They look fabulous! Its hard to tell from the pictures, but does the linen white match the crown molding, etc. color in the rest of the room? I am wanting to paint some built ins and my living room and am wondering if the whites need to be the same as the other trim in the room? I would love your thoughts on this! Love, love, love what you have done with yours!

  90. Karen says:

    Splendid! The change is truly wonderful…you are so creative and have such talent. Thanks for sharing it with those of us that are never quite sure!

  91. Wow such a fresh change! White (or off white) paint works wonders on most anything.

  92. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Cathy, there is another loveseat there that faces the fireplace so the two sofas form and “L” shape – I should post a picture of it so you can see!

  93. Beatriz says:

    Thanks to you I discovered the Zinsser Primer and I LOVE IT! I had an ugly green laminate built-in in my living room but it is now white with espresso bean detailing and I no longer hate it :D

    Awesome job on the cabinets by the way :)

  94. D'Arcy M. says:

    I love it! You’re fireplace is now the star attraction and not the dark cabinets anymore. I love how the tile pops now, much more of a wow factor. Hubby’s should always listen to their wifey’s, we know what we’re doing. :)

  95. Courtney says:

    Looks incredible!! I love the paint color of the room as well! Do you know what color does it happens to be?

  96. Lara says:

    My family was horrified when I wanted to paint our kitchen cabinets and oak hutch white. However, they LOVE the new kitchen look and hopefully I can paint the hutch one of these days… I love how you also painted the tanish/greenish(?) colored wall between the cabinets, it really does connect everything and give the illusion of a bigger room.

  97. Elyse says:

    So pretty! Now aren’t you glad you decided to paint them white?!

  98. tracy a says:

    wow, serious improvement! love it!

  99. CentsationalGirl says:

    Hi Courtney, the paint on the opposite walls is Ben Moore’s ‘Camouflage’ – I like their Ben formula, blue can, covers in 1 coat!

  100. CentsationalGirl says:

    Yes Julia, I recommend both this primer and this paint for cabinetry, but grab some Penetrol (conditioner) for the primer for the smoothest finish, especially on kitchen cabinets.

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