Can you talk me into keeping my original 1931 kitchen cabinets?
September 2, 2016 8:39 PM   Subscribe

We are (hopefully) moving into a house with an updated kitchen with what looks like the original 1931 kitchen cabinets. The wooden doors open heavily and bang closed, the wooden drawers do not slide easily despite repeated applications of beeswax. I'm thinking about yanking them out and replacing them with Ikea cabinets. My husband like originals. Is there anything I can do to make them more functional?

The countertop is quartz with a nice tile backsplash - I like both! The cabinets just are hard to use and I don't like the hardware (with the exception of the brass handles on the drawers to the left of the dishwasher, I like those!).

Would you keep or would you go for new cabinets? I was wondering if I could make the cabinets more functional by installing soft close cabinet door dampers, and add slides to the drawers (not sure if this is even possible - if so, please advise!) and new cabinets and either strip and stain the cabinets or give them a fresh coat of paint and new/vintage hardware.

We're feeling a little overwhelmed, and could use a few external sets of eyes (and advice on paint/not paint, modernizing 1930s cabinets, and good hardware) Thanks!
posted by arnicae to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There are artisan carpenters that can restore those and update the bits and bobs and make them look fancier and work better than new.... And I don't know who that might be in your area, but you should ask around and contact other customers + review their portfolio before contracting the job out.

Your pic - those are gorgeous and worth it if you can get it done right.
posted by jbenben at 8:57 PM on September 2, 2016 [28 favorites]

If you have old solid wood cabinets and you like the kitchen layout, you should really try to keep them. Solid wood cabinet boxes and the rest of the details are really solid and age well. There are a few things that can be updated, like hinges, doors, hardware, paint color etc. that will really change the feel of the kitchen just by updating the finishes.

There are a ton of things you can do. Any soft close drawers or cabinets will need Blum hardware, either the draw glides or new hinges. The adapters can be okay if installed properly with care. One possibility is to talk to a local woodworking or cabinet shop and have them do new cabinet doors and new drawers knowing what specific features you are looking for on the new door. Let them know you want soft close hinges and specifically mention Blum. With the new drawers, they can size the drawers to fit the existing opening and mount all of the proper hardware to be a perfect fit and match whatever style you want with the white paint or new colors if you want to repaint the cabinets. Blumotion is what you are looking for to have the self closing soft close features.

For the doors, if they are still good and can be modified, there are a ton of new hinge options that will give you what you want. It would just be a matter of filling in the old holes and repainting over them once new hinges are in place and the doors are all set. If the doors are not in great shape, you can replace them with new doors only and keep the cabinet boxes. Since everything is already painted, I would focus on sanding smooth and repainting rather than fully stripping down to bare wood to stain and finish.

I updated a kitchen for a friend that was moving with new cabinet doors, new drawers, new hardware, and upgraded the formica countertops to stone. Even with the layout and original cabinet boxes, it was basically a new kitchen for a fraction of the price. I think it ran around $1,000 to $2,000 when it was all said and done, but I did the cabinet doors and drawers for free with them providing the materials. The buyers thought they were getting a new kitchen when all was said and done just from those basic updates.

This is one of those things where it might be helpful to hire a kitchen designer for an hour or two to get ides and see what they think would work best for your kitchen. There are options to add pull our drawers in lower cabinets that have doors which make them a million times more useful or remove the doors since they are inset and replace them with inset deep drawers. Based on your picture, I have about 12 different ideas of things I could do at different cost levels depending on how much work or change you want. Feel free to me mail me with any detailed questions.
posted by Nackt at 8:58 PM on September 2, 2016 [12 favorites]

I think you are on the right track with retrofitting. I can think of a couple of ways that new drawer runners could be fitted without too much modification, soft closers should also be quite possible. A cabinetmaker should be able to sort you out with both of them without too much trouble, if you are reasonably handy you could perhaps do it yourself. Same goes for new drawerpulls etc. A good clean and durable paint inside and you should be able to get cleanability as good as plastic covered Ikea cabinets.

In terms of painting, it depends what is under the paint. You potentially have quite nice timber under there that you might choose to show off. You may be able to check this by stripping a small area inside the cabinets. Failing that you can repaint as you like.

The only caveat I would add to all of this is that it is good practice on old furniture to only make changes that are as reversible as possible. It's possible, for example, that new drawer runners only last say 10 years and you don't want modifications you make now to snooker you then.

They've made it 85 years in fairly good condition, my preference, if they were mine, would be to restore them and be proud of them.
posted by deadwax at 8:59 PM on September 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

DO keep the cabinets!

We've recently renovated four apartments with 1923 cabinets (which are not quite as nice as yours) and they look great.

If you keep the cabinets, unless the beautiful old fittings are damaged please keep the original hinges and other hardware rather than replacing them. You can improve the way things fit by removing all old paint -there are probably multiple old paint layers which make things stick and snag and squeak- and repaint however you want. You can take doors to specialist cabinet painters for a superfine finish, or leave the wood bare with a clear finish for protection.

However, don't make the mistake we did: our hinges were partially handmade, and yours probably are too, so every hinge differs slightly from the others. You must keep track of which hinge goes where, otherwise nothing will fit properly when reassembled without a huge amount of trial and error shuffling hinges around.
posted by anadem at 9:18 PM on September 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Oh my goodness how could you even think of taking those out . They're beautiful.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:27 PM on September 2, 2016 [26 favorites]

Nthing keeping those cabinets, however you can. They are gorgeous (if you do decide to take them out, you can resell them -- people will pay good money to have those in their kitchens).
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:30 PM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

For whatever you might pay at Ikea (plus the time-value of tearing out and installation) I definitely think a cabinet maker would be able to do so much more with what's there, and thank you for keeping those beautiful old cabinets in place.

I'd be more inclined to sand/repaint than strip bare and stain, but you'll get a better sense if you can determine what's underneath. (Photos don't tell everything, but I suspect the white finish reflects a lot of the light coming in from that window.)

For the hardware: well, it's a kitchen, not a museum exhibit, so I'm less fussy about retaining old pulls or hinges or sticking to the drawer configuration if they simply don't work for you (re-sell them or keep them around) but the core structure is something to cherish.
posted by holgate at 9:37 PM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you keep them you'll spend a bit of money and work and have great old cabinets. If you replace them you'll spend a lot of money and work and have new cheap cabinets.
posted by bongo_x at 10:51 PM on September 2, 2016 [21 favorites]

Sorry, they're gorgeous. Keep them. Get them refurbished.

Imagine your house in twenty years. Do you want amazing refurbished 100 year old cabinets or cheap Ikea cabinets that look outdated?

I LOVE Ikea. I LOVE Ikea kitchens. If your cabinets were falling apart or damaged then that would be one thing. Those are great. The idea of swapping them for Ikea hurts my soul.

Get someone to make them function better. They're too awesome.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:55 PM on September 2, 2016 [14 favorites]

I live in a 1930s house that was flipped before we moved in. I love the new windows and roof and the old weird front door and the original woodwork in the living room and how they made the attic into a usable floor without sacrificing the architectural interest and shape and the ancient fruit trees in my backyard.

I hate hate HATE the fresh out of the box Ikea kitchen that in only four years has broken, sagged, never fit my stuff right, doesn't fit *me* right (I'm short, I can't use half my storage without endangering myself) and makes it so I can't fit a butcher block island in and everything's placed all wrong and aaargh!!!! I saw some photos of the house pre-flip that showed the kitchen was full of weird dusty fabric valances and pink-painted wood that had absolutely seen better days. But having the experience now of my kitchen I wish the flippers had stripped the original kitchen but preserved the cabinetry. I'd have lived with pink if they'd kept the paint, at least for a while.

Your picture shows a kitchen that is a hundred times better than the weird pink one I'd have had in an alternate universe. Please save them and work with someone who can show them some love. It'll love you back.
posted by Mizu at 11:29 PM on September 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Agreed with everyone above - they are really gorgeous! I was coming in to say how much I do not miss the 1960's cabinets we left behind in our old place, and was going to raise TWO hands for going the Ikea route... then I clicked on the picture and saw what great shape they're in and how much character they have. ETA: We lived in a rental and had no control over the cabinets, but if it were my house, I'd absolutely pay someone to restore them! There's nothing like the character of a vintage kitchen.

Ripping those out to replace them with Ikea cabinets would be such a shame. They really are SO charming, and once you rip them out you can't get that character back.

Love the idea of putting sliders in and getting someone to restore them and make them more user-friendly. I'd do that in a heartbeat, if it was in my budget. I'd get the sliders installed, replace the handles, and have the cabinets sanded and painted (or stained, depending on the amount of light in the room and the natural color of the wood).

Congrats on the house!
posted by onecircleaday at 11:30 PM on September 2, 2016

I agree they're gorgeous and you should keep them. I just wanted to add, make sure you hire a cabinet maker, rather than a carpenter. And make sure it's a a cabinet *maker*, not just a cabinet installer. It's a whole different level of skills.
posted by MexicanYenta at 12:22 AM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the quality of wood and building quality from that era can't be beat. Never mind IKEA, everything goes downhill after the 70s, basically. Nowadays 2 x 4s aren't even 2 x 4. Look for a master carpenter, and make sure they've done other houses of your vintage. Probably some of the doors need to be reshaved or rehung. Sliders need to be put in under the drawers. You probably have pegs already, but if not see if you can have them jimmy the cabinets to change around shelf heights as needed. None of this is a big deal, or even very costly if someone knows what they're doing.

Then use the money you saved to buy new handles. Thirties era hardware can be beautiful. That's Deco! Or even Arts Nouveau if you want to get fancy. But anything from that general period is okay: Arts and Crafts, Mission; each movement was only a few years apart, and impurity is more common than strict adherence. Typically, you see the use of softly colored metals, clear or milk-colored glass knobs, and that's just to start. Restoration Hardware has made a whole business of knocking them off. What you've got now look like just so many black dots, which given the one panel-design of your cabinets (and lack of glass) suggests that you live in a slightly simpler, or maybe, later vintage house. There are benefits to that, too. Read up on the period of your house, and spend some time using that as a leitmotif for decorating. There's beauty and joy in something well-made, and when you're done your kitchen will be lovely, durable and unusually functional.
posted by Violet Blue at 1:40 AM on September 3, 2016

I would work with what you have. Those are beautiful cabinets and I'm so envious. You could cushion the banging doors and get a carpenter to make new rails (I think that's what they're called) for the sticking drawers. Just imagine them newly stained/painted to your specs?

I vote keep them!
posted by james33 at 4:40 AM on September 3, 2016

Keep them, fix them, they are gorgeous.
posted by slateyness at 5:29 AM on September 3, 2016

Ok, you talked me into it! If you have any specific recommendations for getting them fixed up in L.A.? (I'm guessing that means I'm looking for cabinet builder recommendations)

Also, anyone have a search term for the kind of brass handles on the drawers to the left of the dishwasher? I like those!
posted by arnicae at 6:40 AM on September 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

That style is called a "cup" style, so a search for "brass cup drawer pull" gets you a ton of results.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:32 AM on September 3, 2016

If you are in LA, you can always start with the Offerman Wood Shop. They do good work, not sure if this project is up their alley, but they should know someone who can do it. Otherwise, Angie's List and Yelp are great places to find someone local. Don't be confused with just a few good reviews, many times people never review the local cabinetmakers.
posted by Nackt at 7:59 AM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Give Liz's Antique Hardware a call or stop by and talk to them - they may have recommendations for local craftspeople. There used to be a yahoo group called LA Housenet that would share recommendations - check their archives as well.
posted by mogget at 8:25 AM on September 3, 2016

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