Skip to main content
Advice for HomeownersEvery man should read this one

Ask Maria: How to Coordinate Finishes with Oak Cabinets

By 02/18/2013February 20th, 201771 Comments

Ask Maria

Dear Maria, We have those dreaded honey oak cabinets in our kitchen.  We are not interested at this point in changing or painting them.  I just want to choose a laminate countertop and a backsplash and a wall colour that will look reasonably good together.  I prefer lighter colours for the counter and backsplash.  Could you give me any suggestions?  I know now to avoid beige-pink.  Any little tips would be manna from heaven!  

I think I’ve been living under a rock because I had come to the conclusion that honey oak cabinets were an 80s trend, because they are mostly not being installed in kitchens in Vancouver anymore. However honey oak is still being installed all around the country as we speak. How I know this, is I keep getting images with questions showing newly installed oak cabinets.

So, if you have them, and are not prepared to paint them white, what should you do?

Thermally treated oak cabinets

Not a traditional honey oak kitchen but this has a nice creamy countertop.

My first choice would be an off-white or cream countertop and coordinating subway tiled backsplash. This way, your options for wall colour still remain relatively open. Bright white would look just a little too modern with the countrified look of standard oak cabinets and I would definitely not choose anything that resembled Carrara marble.

I find black to be harsh looking with oak. If you select black for the countertops I would not repeat it on the backsplash.

Oak cabinets

I found this image which I thought was interesting. The floors and and the walls are bright white and not a stitch of white is repeated in the backsplash tile but it relates so well to the countrified oak cabinets and black countertops it works. This is definitely the exception. Notice the great layout, pretty windows, also the abundant light which is what makes the white in this room look wonderful instead of dingy. The average tract home with newly installed oak cabinets probably doesn’t look like this.

Gray would be okay but keep it solid and light. This way you have options for wall colours again. I always resist installing finishes that are so bossy, you end up stuck to only two colour options (for example) until the day it comes out.


Wood floors are still the classic way to go and if you have oak cabinets I would still install oak flooring. If you want to update the look, you could consider a hand scraped look and go lighter or darker than your existing honey oak cabinets.

Since honey oak cabinets are NOT trendy, I would not install maple (too contemporary) or grey or espresso brown. That will simply look like yesterday and today all in the same room.

oak cabinets


In the second image (above) the backsplash has golden yellow tones that relate to the cabinets. If you want a multi-coloured backsplash, make sure it picks up on your countertops and flooring.

If you have solid coloured countertops in cream or grey then your backsplash should be the same colour. Then the only colours you need to avoid is pinks and pink beige’s.

Sam's Boathouse


I saw Sleepless in Seattle recently with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This movie was made in 1993 and Sam’s boathouse (above) had maple cabinets with matching woodwork and floors throughout, gray walls, countertops and backsplash. It was the 90s when gray was trendy but the grey created a nice balance of warm and cool combined with the yellow cabinets and floors.

Not oak, but the look is not far from what you could create if you were looking for a more classic feel even if it’s not a trendy look right now.

Hope this helps, I know a lot of you have oak kitchens and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon!

If you have a question for an Ask Maria post, email me here.

Related posts:

Which Tile is Best for Multiple Rooms?

Which Flooring is the Best for your Kitchen? Tile or Hardwood

When Should you Rip out Brand New Tile?

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, become a client

Download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones to get my complete step-by-step system on how to get colour to do what you want.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert. April in Toronto and Vancouver in May.

579 pins


  • Maggie S says:

    I love your new “Ask Maria” feature!
    It is very interesting to see how you work through a problem.
    Even though I don’t have oak cabinets the process of thinking of the different finishes is something I could use when I move and have “whatever” from the last owner

  • Terry says:

    I was so glad to see this post today. I just saw a very similar question on another blog, and wondered what you would say about it. Now I know. 🙂 We are currently deciding on a new floor to go with our oak cabinets, so this information is timely! Thanks.

  • colleen says:


    I am working with a designer who suggested I paint my oak cabinets fieldstone gray. I opted to keep my oak cabinets. Advice is to paint walls BM dove white and ordering silestone in yukon and glossy white backsplash in arabasque with soft gray grout and while appliances. sink is bianco in metallic gray – any thoughta?

  • Mary says:

    So timely. I have black appliances and have been thinking gray countertops (black is too stark) and you just gave me your blessing! Thank you. And bless you for writing posts on Oak.
    Any ideas about leather colors that go with oak and are not too…um will not be passee in three years?
    One more unrelated question..with gray, cream or white?

  • Beth Scott says:

    This is interesting. My cabinets and floor are very similar to the 2nd image – I am leaning toward a bluegreen paint for the cabinets, and a creamy counter top. Slight distressing around pulls and knobs and edges – (husband a great cook, not so great at grabbing the pulls and knobs) I am over trends, but will take note of them – and just want my kitchen to be pleasing to me – not out to impress anyone – over that, also!

  • Jann Newton says:

    Great post! I like the “Ask Maria” feature too. Here in the mid west there are a lot of oak cabinets. I think we are going to paint ours soon. Even my husband agrees!

    • Doris says:

      I am a “midwestern” girl also! There are alot of Oak Cabinets in this area. Being a professional paint applicator; I have been busy painting Oak cabinets. In part due to the economy; 8 years ago clients where replacing their oak with new cabinets (not oak) Now they are saving their existing cabinets and painting with a paint treatment to update the area! It’s amazing the transformation I am seeing with this budget friendly option.

      • Kris says:

        I am having a painter do my light oak cabinets..I have a gray coriane counter & am thinking of a very light gray (almost reads white) with charcoal glaze or to step-up the base color a notch with a light gray (that def reads gray) & charcoal gray glaze. Live in KS….also thinking of painting all woodwork white or do a glaze to help woodwork read more brown. Any thoughts?? Is it worth doing all that??

  • Eliza says:

    Thank you very much for taking this question seriously even though honey oak cabinets are OUT of style and dated. You have given me some good ideas and I really appreciate it! I am wondering what look will replace the all-white kitchen that is now IN, when it passes its “peak”. Any ideas?

    • mairi says:

      As Maria has written many times in her posts, the white kitchen is ‘classic’, ie will always be on trend. I can never recall a time when there were no white kitchens. When we moved into our vintage house nearly twenty years ago, there was still a 1930’s era kitchen intact, untouched by modern decor and it’s cabinets and woodwork were white. The home I grew up in had a white kitchen (as did most at the time), and with the exception of my home in the 80’s with light maple cabinets, we’ve had white since. The flexibility is endless and that’s what’s so timeless. And they can be finished in many ways and still read white- distressed, ‘barely there’ patinas, glossy, whatever.. to suit the house. White has been and will remain a constant as the decades have shown, while others have come and gone. Enjoyed your post Maria!

    • Lorena says:

      Oak is timeless. Wood is never outdated, the style of cabinets may be but never the wood.

    • Lorena says:

      Here is an idea, go with classic and timeless and forget about chasing trends. Either one, white or wood is timeless.

  • Coleen says:

    thank you. I think oak will still happen as long as men are building houses, and husbands will not let their wives replace them. So you mentioned not to get expresso floors. Does that go for furniture as well? It’s hard to find anything else nowadays so what would go with an Oak house wood furniture wise?

    • Maria Killam says:

      It’s true because of the very fact that it is dated, I guess you could always ignore your kitchen. Not sure if I would start getting oak furniture custom made if it was my kitchen. Maria

      • Lorena says:

        Funny how fickle the industry is when now in 2023, oak is back. I am glad I kept mine and they look gorgeous.

    • Brad says:

      I’m pretty sure it’s not men who have been picking out honey oak cabinetry.

    • Lorena says:

      Oak is timeless and can look gorgeous with the right decor and color on walls.

  • SandyCGC says:

    I love the “Ask Maria” feature too! So often we have just one question at the moment and nowhere to go for the answer. We could pose our Design Dilemma on HOUZZ but six months later we’d still be getting posts with conflicting and completely overwhelming advice on everything related to the kitchen, for example, when we just wanted to know what wall color to pick and positively no blues. This is a lovely gift of yourself and your expertise to us, Maria, and a great extension of your posts. I also appreciate how you always list 3 related past posts at the end of the current one to guide us further if we need it.

  • Paula Van Hoogen says:

    Hi Maria–I think you’re onto something with this question/answer format! How does it work—questions go to your regular email address????
    I do appreciate that you made an effort to work with an existing finish and “clean it up”! Not easy with older oak cabinets. Another possible fix would be to really wash the cabinets with a recommended wood cleaner–wood cabinets have a way of hiding the grime, but it still darkens them.

  • anon says:

    Most of my relatives in the South have oak cabinets. They think the cabinets are truely timeless because everybody else they know has oak cabinets. It is hard to find white cabinets even in new houses. They usually get cherry, maple or oak.

  • Victoria says:

    I have this situation right now Maria with a client.
    They have honey oak cabinets and dark mahogany
    which is dark grey with pinky coral splashes. Such
    a nightmare so I am installing a charcoal subway
    tile and using fabric, pewter hardware and stainless
    appliances to make it work. Wish me luck.

  • Suemi says:

    Calcutta marble has honey colored veins and looks great with honey oak cabinets!

  • TracyB says:

    Great post, Maria! We refaced our oak cabinets last fall with white doors, etc. I love it so much! The kitchen is so much brighter. My only wish is that I wish I can done it years ago.

  • pat says:

    Thank you so much for addressing this issue. I too have maple cabinets, which my husband refuses to let me paint. My counter top is a cream color and I have wood floors. My kitchen opens up to the dining room. I’m at a loss as to paint colors.

    • Kris says:

      Have you thought about a brown glaze over them to change them up a bit, but yet still remain wood cabinets for your hubby??

  • debbi @ Texas says:

    I love my oak cabinets and we will have oak installed in our new Craftsman inspired custom home. It would be nice not to be slammed if we like oak or anything other than white.

  • Doris says:

    Wonderful post Maria! You have great ideas and these will come in handy! It’s so refreshing to know that you can work with out dated design instead of suggesting the oak be replaced!

  • Genny says:

    What do I do with a our builder home that has espressos brown floors, oak cabinets and black countertops? I have a budget to change the backsplash and paint. It seems I have yesterday and today in the same room 🙁

  • Agnes P says:

    Hello Maria! Great post! I have a question re. my daughter’s room with existing medium (yellow-orange) oak furniture. We cannot replace them for at least year or so, but we want to change wall colour (something more current that wion’t make oak cabinets look old). Right now, wall colour is sort of creamy, baseboards are oak (could be repainted warm white?) and warm sandy crown molding (also can be painted). I was planning to coordinate two paint colours: stone 2112-40 or smoke gray 2120-40 and strawberry shortcake 2000-40 (one wall half and half to add character and other walls just gray)… my daughter loves pink, dark gray, she also likes blue and red… You mentioned in your posts that pinks should be avoided with oak cabinets, I totally agree with you on that (I saw images).. That’s why I have a dilemma with a pink, should I omit it completly… how about blue (contrast) or red? Which gray you suggest would work best? Thank you so much for the answer.

  • Laura Weidner says:

    I have honey oak cabinets and a black granite countertop. What would you recommend for a laminate floor color and am I better off with a wood or tile look as far as resale ?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Unless you paint your cabinets I would not install laminate unless it looked exactly like oak. Maria

  • AJ says:

    I also have honey oak cabinets with white appliances (stove and dishwasher) and silver fridge, black countertops and dark hardwood floors. What changes can I make so that the kitchen doesn’t look so country and outdated? Also I was thinking about painting kitchen burnt orange. Do you have any recommendations?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi AJ, I would not paint your kitchen burnt orange with orange oak cabinets and your existing black countertops, I think that’s too halloween. The only thing you can do is paint the cabinets white if you want to lose the countrified look. Maria

  • AlsoTracy says:

    Our 2 story generic looking home was built in 1997 and has medium oak cabinets (darker than honey oak) and also a medium oak finish on the woodwork throughout the home (baseboards, interior doors, stair banister, sink vanities, laundry room cabinets). A few years ago, I painted the previously cool off-white walls downstairs a pale gold which coordinates in a subtle way with the brickwork the family room and warms up the cold-looking, north facing rooms. I like European-country and craftsman style influences, rather than colonial, kitschy American country ones.

    I have been saving up money for a renovation. My fear is that if I replace the worn looking oak cabinets, I will have to replace or paint all the oak colored woodwork. (I do prefer the look of natural woodwork over painted.) What do I do? Thanks in advance!!!

    • Maria Killam says:

      You’re right, painting all the trim will be the next project if the oak kitchen is gone! Maria

  • psr says:

    I’m a fan of oak. My house was built in 1956 and has a very small u-shaped kitchen. My original cabinets had a maple finish. I painted them white and yes it brightened things up but I tired of it. They’re shot and its time to gut. I plan custom-made oak cabinets, stainless appliances, and my husband wants black granite with crystal-like sparkles. Guess this idea shows our age since it’s not trendy. I have a stone looking tile floor and world like a stone backsplash that ties in the floor. I’m hoping it’ll work.

  • Hari says:

    Hi Maria,
    how does dustry silver laminate floor go with maple brown cabinets

  • Batsy says:

    We have new grey kitchen cabinets in aluminum with black galaxy granite countertop and cannot figure out the color of the backsplash and flooring.

  • Vidya says:


    We have bought an old apartment and it was built in the 80s. The place has good bones, but most of the appliances, woodwork, flooring etc, is still from the 80s. One of the first steps for us is to do some kitchen renovations. The kitchen has oak cabinets and orange tiles for floors. What would be the best way to convert this kind of kitchen into a modern kitchen without changing out the oak? Can it be painted? Will it still look modern if I get it painted dark and change out the handles?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Definitely not dark, paint them white. Dark will just make your kitchen look like “New Trendy paint colour, old cabinets”. Maria

  • psr says:

    I’m moving forward with the custom oak cabinets, black granite countertops, and stainless appliances. What can I use for a paint color for the walls? My floor is a light beige, stone looking tile. I’ll try to tie my back splash in with the floors. I ‘d appreciate some input on wall color. Thank you.

  • Andrea says:


    Our house was built in 1994, we have honey oak cabinets, ‘black pearl’ granite countertop and I’m trying to pick a backsplash. Our walls are gray-beige and our flooring is light tile with pink tones (unfortunately). I don’t really like the ‘mosaic’ tile backsplash look and prefer a subway tile. What would your suggestion be for style and colour?

  • Jodi Freitag says:

    I am wanting to paint my golden oak cabinets a creamy white color. We refinished the hardwood floors to a medium to dark brown. My question is all of the rest of my trim & doors are golden oak will that still be ok or will it look weird??

    • Maria Killam says:

      Yes, all your trim needs to also be medium brown or it will look like “Old oak/new oak”. Maria

  • Maryann says:

    We are remodeling our kitchen. We have oak floors and I was wondering what cabinets and granite would go best with the oak floor. I like the gold tones.

  • Hi Maria – when I saw the movie still my first thought was that it was being renovated?? it was so dull and uninteresting/boring/tasteless definitely like a clueless guy. it made the stars look much, much better.

    thanks for being my continual ‘go to’ advice. hope your san francisco seminar went well?

  • do you have any opinion about the bm 2016 color of the year?

    • Maria Killam says:

      I think it’s a good colour of the year, white is what everyone wants these days for sure. Maria

  • dawn says:

    I have oak kitchen cabnets that are a dark honey and I am trying to pick out a laminant floor that will go into the liviing room and all first floor powder room and laundry. do i use oak grain and try to match the cabnets or go lighter or darker. Also have a ventless dark honey oak gas fireplace in the living room.
    .Please help me pick ouit the floor color and grain. It is a small house the first flor is 450 sq feet with good loght sun in kitchen in the am and in the living room in the pm. Please help and show a picture thanksso very much

  • Joann says:

    I’m in the process changing my countertops.
    I have honey oak cabinets and a white floor.
    Should I stay on the lighter side of granite or
    Black granite.

  • diana says:

    I have a piatra grey countertop and medallion oak with cashew finish cabinets. We have decided to paint the wall aloof grey but was unable to decide what color to choose on the backsplash. We are hoping for a modern or contemporary feel. Please let me know of you thoughts.

  • Dawn says:

    I have oak cabinets and oak table, my appliances are stainless steel and the ceramic tiled floor is cream. What would you suggest on the wall color? My light comes from a door wall and a small window.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Look at the largest soft elements in your living room or adjoining great room, sofa, carpet etc. That should dictate the paint colour in your kitchen! Hope that helps.

  • gloriann morelli says:

    I respect your advice, thank you! I want to put new countertops to match my old medium honey kitchen cabinets. Now I have laminate from the 80’s which I kept in good shape. I want to update. My floor is new and it is long length tile that looks like wood. Colors of my floor are grays, browns, and little of cream. Please help with colors for my countertops, backsplash and paint for all walls when done. Thank You, Gloriann

  • We have a silver gray tub and stool in our bathroom. We have a bit of mold over the shower in the corners. I have cleaned it properly. My question is -when I repaint could I use a darker blue on the wall where the vanity and stool is and a cream or silver ash on the larger wall facing it. Size of the room is 5 by 7 ft. or 5 by 10 including the tub. Or is it better to use one color?
    Thank you.

    Joanne Buege

  • Marcie says:

    Hi Maria,
    I have a question about choosing the color of hardware to update oak cabinets. You mentioned in your article that you find black countertops to be harsh with oak. Does this apply also to matte black hardware with oak? I’ll be keeping 90’s oak cabinets but updating with an off-white or cream countertop and matching subway tile. Also considering oil rubbed bronze. I tried silver but it didn’t seem to have a lot of contrast with oak. Any thoughts on choosing hardware for oak?

  • Diane Kipp says:

    Hello Maria,
    I have maple cabinets (dark orange beige undertones according to your Neutral Colors color wheel) with a similar look to the third interior photo above, right below the Flooring section. I’m wondering if your Flooring advice for a kitchen with wood cabinets in this tone would still be limited to oak floors? I am soon going to replace my kitchen floor and have not been planning to paint or replace my cabinets (budget issues), and I do love oak floors, but if I have orange tones in both my floor and my cabinets, I think I will feel like I am suffocating in a fiery orange furnace. Is there any other wood flooring tone I can go with? (I do want a wood look and will be using fake wood/luxury vinyl tile, most likely, if it makes a difference.) Thank you for all the knowledge and insights you share with your readers; I am so grateful to have found you online.

Leave a Reply