Skip to main content

Updating a kitchen or bathroom with stained wood cabinets? Here’s the best countertop colour to work with your stained wood cabinets for a fresh look.

When I received this Ask Maria question asked slightly different two times recently, I thought it deserved a stand-alone post even though my regular readers will have already ready my post about the key to design is contrast.

Okay so here’s the question:

We are doing a complete gut job on our kitchen and starting over with high end shaker cherry cabinets.  I want to balance the dark with a lighter counter, and surprised myself with falling in love with a beautiful quartz countertop, I always assumed it would be granite.  Granite can be too busy for me, I prefer clean simple lines.  Is it a mistake to not go with granite?  Thanks, Laura

A little over two years ago when I was writing one of my webinars, I was looking for images to illustrate the best countertop for a stained wood cabinet. After searching high and low, I found TWO.


{via pinterest}

Which image was I looking for, you might be wondering?

A stained wood kitchen with a plain white or cream countertop.

They did not exist.

What is the best countertop for stained wood cabinets?

I’m happy to say that today there are many more images that illustrate this obvious, but simple solution, for a timeless countertop choice in a wood stained kitchen.

White or cream. The end.

Why? Because it looks more like a designer has been there if your kitchen has contrast… that is, alternating contrast to be more specific.


{via Carriage Lane Designs}

So, that means if your cabinets are dark your floor and countertop should be lighter.


Country Living

 Anything else is a totally personal choice and should be considered ONLY if you are building or renovating your forever house.

And, even thought it’s a personal choice, I have talked to many clients who confessed that if they had found my site in the beginning of their renovation or new build project, they would have been happier with their house in the end.

You need a guide for choosing finishes in your home.

Without a guide, either in the form of a designer or a website where you can get the ‘why this works or not’ you are choosing colours individually and inside a vacuum — without taking the entire picture into consideration.

An experienced designer can simply look at your finishes and pretty much know what the result will be.

I was in a client’s home last week who said, “I have tons of wonderful images pinned on my boards but I have no idea which ones to choose?”

How do you make that personal choice? Because magazine-worthy kitchens cannot be easily copied. It helps to follow the advice of a professional you trust, and in this case, if you’re reading this, that’s me ; )


via pinterest

And if you’re still wondering if your kitchen is the exception to the rule, read this DIY Guide to Getting Your Dream Kitchen.


{via pinterest}

 If you are not a kitchen designer AND your aren’t working with a professional to help design your dream kitchen…this post is for you. 

Choose White or Cream Countertops for a Wood Cabinet Kitchen

So, please take my advice. Opt for the safe choice. Choose white or cream, or if you have a dark finish on your cabinets, a pale grey countertop, which will look creamy installed inside a dark kitchen (because of the contrast). And I promise, you will love your kitchen for years to come.

I’m leaving for Houston on Sunday to lead my sold-out Specify Colour with Confidence™ training to 25 new True Colour Experts! Then I’ll be in Austin on the weekend until Monday to meet with my mastermind group.

Have a great weekend everyone! xoxo Maria

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness when you walk in the door contact me.


Related posts:

Ask Maria: Help! I Don’t Want the Same Kitchen as Everyone Else! 

Ask Maria: How to Coordinate Finishes with Oak Cabinets

Grey Kitchen Cabinets: How to Know if you should Follow the Trend

1226 pins


  • StagerLinda says:

    I SO agree! I have dark kitchen cabinets (on renovation purpose, folks!). I chose an almond colored Corian for my countertops. It has been many years and I still love it. AS a designer, people assumed I would get granite. My reply, “I don’t like granite It’s too busy for me.” My countertops are attractive, timeless and easy maintenance. On Halloween night, I had new neighbors stop by, “I LOVE YOUR COUNTERTOPS! What are they? I hate my granite.” Enjoy teaching and learning the next couple of weeks. XXX L.

  • Dolores says:

    I usually agree with you, Maria- but not this time. I have medium cherry cabinets, and recently installed soapstone counters replacing my 20 year old cream tiles. The cream tiles looked good with the cherry for sure- but the soapstone brings such amazing contrast with the warm wood, and just makes it glow..

    • Lauren Tyson says:

      What color is soapstone?

    • Kay says:

      I can imagine how beautiful that must look. I love soapstone (which is, for those unfamiliar with it, varying shades of gray or greenish gray, with veining, when untreated and black when oiled, which is what most people do). I thought about it for my kitchen but didn’t want black counters with white cabs so went with Carrara. My sister just bought a house in Lexington with wood kitchen cabs and absolute black granite counters. Soapstone would have been a better choice, but the black looks great, and white–on cabs or counters–would just not look right in their arts and crafts house.

  • Marla says:

    We had our kitchen renovated 7 years ago and wanted and still love the dark cabinets we chose. Dark cabinets have been around for eons and are a classic look. Anyway, we were not working with a kitchen designer, but my husband and I knew we wanted Carrara marble counters. Again, another timeless look. We didn’t do a white backsplash – the husband was totally against it. Instead we chose a hand-made glass tile that is an iridescent blue/green and we love it. The gentleman who owns the tile store helped us with that choice, and it picks-up the veining in the marble. 7 years later I still love our kitchen. Ultimately though, people need to choose what makes them happy and what they think looks good. Sure, if it’s not your forever home you may want to think about resale, but you need to be happy in your home.

    • Holly says:

      Marla! Is there anyway you are still on here??? I would love to know more about your tile. Can you add a picture or the name of where you bought it? We are redoing our kitchen now and it sounds like we have similar tastes in colors.

  • annie thaler says:

    Hello Maria,
    Love the colour boards and use them all the time.
    Would you consider adding to the Benjamin Moore collection – reds particularly. Pink is another colour that is hard to pull off without making the room look like double bubble gum. Perhaps a collection of the colours that are a bit more unusual but classic nevertheless. I’ve had several clients asking for orange [Hermes inspired] and another for a Tiffany Blue powder room.
    Love reading your blog every morning.
    Best regards,

  • Lisa says:

    I definitely agree with your recommendation, Maria. Where I start to run into problems is knowing which of the cream and white countertops to select (particularly for Caesarstone and Corian). Maybe it’s an undertone or busy-ness challenge…not sure exactly. Do you have any specific no fail cream or white recommendations from these two companies? Would love to hear your suggestions ( as I will be pairing the countertops with a traditional cream subway tile and stained wood shaker cabinets)

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Great advice, Maria. You would be amazed at how many of my friends still love granite.
    Oh well…as long as they’re happy I guess.

  • Beth B. says:

    I always thought cream was the better choice for stained cabinets, creates the contrast needed, and that white is too stark? No?

    • Maria Killam says:

      HI Beth, not always, if the cabinets are light wood or really dark white works. . . and that’s what I’m saying in the last paragraph of this post 🙂 If the cabinets are mid-toned and earthy looking then cream or a greige that looks like cream is better. Having said that, there’s an example in this very post with carrara and it looks great. It really depends on everything else that’s going to go with it.

      Thanks for your comment! Maria

  • Pat H. says:

    What a relief! I totally agree with the granite being too busy. Seems like everybody’s “newly renovated” kitchens all look the same!

  • Claire B says:

    I love the look of stained wood with a soft/ off white or cream subway tile. I think the combination works with either a dark counter such as soapstone or a lighte, creamy quartz. I’m planning to update two bathrooms and rather than paint the oak cabinets, I plan to refresh the stain, update the hardware to a dark bronze or black and use an off white subway tile, while maintaining the off white counters. I have a new appreciation for stained wood, soft whites, black accents and green plants. It’s a look that I can imagine living with for a while. I say this even though I love the kitchen and bathrooms which have painted cabinets.

  • Whitney says:

    I love the contrast of the white countertop with the dark cabinets, but now I’m confused. Why do you prefer the white on white kitchen? Theres no contrast that way. I’m so torn between the white or black countertop with the white kitchen cabinets, I can’t decide which I like better!

    • Maria Killam says:

      White on white is the ONLY exception to this rule because you can create contrast using colour. Once you’ve chosen dark finishes (depending on which colour they are) it’s harder to do that. Maria

  • Johanna says:

    Thank you, Maria! I hope you will continue to share advice on decorating around wood stained cabinetry or furniture or molding. I’m an “earthy” kind of gal – I love your blog but sometimes feel a little out of place because I would never feel at home in a lot of modern finishes and white/gray/black/color trend. Somehow I end up blending “earthy” with your advice, and I’m pleased with my results. But they certainly don’t fit the mold!

  • Christine says:

    Maria… Great article as always. But I’m torn. I have nice cherry cabinets right now, with terrible laminate countertops and blotchy tile floors. I can keep the wood stained cabinets and replace the tile and laminate as you specify here… or paint the cabinets white, continue my medium brown wood floors into the kitchen, and resurface the laminate (my preference is solid black). Any advice on deciding whether to keep the wood cabinets or paint? I have a feeling I know your answer already, but… is there ever a time it’s better not to paint wood cabinets?

    • Maria Killam says:

      If your existing cabinets look 2015. If they don’t and you want to update them, then they need to paint them. Maria

      • Jacquelyn says:

        I would say if you like your cabinets do not paint over a factory finish. painted cabinets will never be a great finish compared to what comes out of a factory. What does 2015 look like anyways???

      • Veronica D says:

        I agree!! I have cherry cabinets but they are to me very nice looking, as much as I love white on everything I wouldn’t paint them. Now changing the backsplash and my formica countertops would be nice to do what Maria exactly says.
        Hope Houston treated you nicely Maria!!

  • Kathi Steele says:

    I really love most of your design ideas. Your kitchens make me say AHHHHH!! For me they are a relaxing breath of air in a crazy place!!!
    I just read the post script…”And if you’re still wondering if your kitchen is the exception to the rule, read this post first.” I too looked at the kitchen in the picture and it took my breath away.
    We just remodeled our kitchen. I did not use a color expert except your ideas!!! I used the same footprint. I had a contractor and cabinet maker that “listened” to what I wanted, “looked” at the pictures I had and executed my perfect kitchen!!!
    And no, it is not exactly like the picture, but it IS the IDEA of the picture. I have white cabinets, backsplash, floor and Cambria Bellingham quartz countertops.
    So when a client says they LOVE that and want that, maybe they want the idea of that as best as can be accomplished??

  • Hello, these rooms are gorgeous. Personally I always like a darker counter than cabinets whatever the tone or material. To me the counters act as a frame or edge. When lighter than the cabinets they just seem to float incomplete. It’s like a face without eyebrows.

  • Mary says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I had a gorgeous granite sample on my white Formica counter. The colors look great with our stained cabinets but something kept pulling me back. Now I get it-all that granite would just be too busy.

  • Debra says:

    Not a big fan of granite …too busy for me. I do love the timeless look of white cabinets but find they are not very practical because I have to wipe them down every time my husband cooks. That means several times a day for me. Wood tone cabinets don’t show dirt as much so I don’t have to wipe them down as often …big plus. Does anyone else find white cabinets a constant cleaning chore ? I have tried to encourage the chef in the house to wipe his hands often and still feel the need to wipe them down when I do the cleanup because everything shows on white.

  • Stacy says:

    I love the images and I also prefer white kitchens, however, I’m slightly confused by this post and another that emphasizes good design depends on contrast. How is this case with an all white kitchen? And by that I mean, white counters and cabinets? Other than the plants and green roman shade, where is the contrast? I’m not saying this to be condescending, but I’m very curious. Yes, I LOVE your kitchen, just trying to figure out the contrast point…I also know that black counters would be your second option and that would definitely be dramatic. I’m redoing my kitchen now (down to studs), and am trying to figure out where my “wow” feature will be with so much white?? White cabinets check, Ocean Foam quartz check, white subway check, stainless appliances check, white/satin nickel fixtures check, chrome faucet check, now where is the contrast?

  • Stacy says:

    Wood cabinets have never appealed to me until I saw this post! I love the light countertops with these, especially the last two photos.

  • Robin says:

    Oh Maria! This post saved my laundryroom. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart. Your advice and caption and perfect photo examples made me see so clearly what exactly I had to do to update my decent sized laundry room. I have a bank of darker finished cherry cabinets. I googled laundryrooms, combed through Pinterest, ( finding the room of my dreams–but it of course had white cabinets.). My dilemma was this: getting new white cabinets was out of the question as mine are in great shape. The question I was wrestling with was to paint or not to paint? I am a white trim off white trim/door/cabinet girl. Period. It sings to my soul and always has. if I painted them– would they hold up to the men in my family who would be slamming and handling these painted cabs everyday with their dirty hands and laundry? My answer, sadly enough was a BIG FAT NO. (Lol). I knew I would love them to be white or offwhite but in the long run the painted surface would not hold up to my satisfaction and I would be miserable. Interject sad face here. Then your email came through…TA DA!! Brilliance. Perfection. Love at first glance. The advice to go with white or offwhite countertops and a lighter floor to add contrast was my knight in shining armor. Those cabinets in your post with the quartz counters spoke to me. BINGO! So I ran out with a purpose and found my counter and flooring. Lg housys viatera quartz countertop in cirrus. White with subtle gray like the marble shown. Perrrfeccttttt!! It was installed two days ago. Oh how I love it! Flooring to follow…soon. Porcelain Tile on back order. Again–lighter (but practical as is a heavily trafficked room). The grout is not a worry anymore because I’m choosing one impervious to staining. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to you for helping me create an updated, beautiful, classic laundryroom. I was on a mission with this, showing your post and pics to my friends and family for backup lol. The cherry cabinets look fresh and updated and classic with the new countertop. We are adding a few more cabinets on another wall but those will be dove white (like my trim) and factory finished. You don’t know how badly I wanted to reface those cherry cabinets lol. But with your guidance and heaven sent post back in November, I was able to pull it all together and get the look that makes me go “Ahhhhh……..” every time I see that room. So…..THANK YOU for an amazing post. I now feel as if I didn’t just “settle” with my choices. I LOVE MY CHOICES thanks to you. I really really love what that Quartz countertop did for my cherry cabinets. Can’t wait for the floor! I sincerely hope you read this as I know it’s an older post. But for anyone out there with my same dilemma–my advice to you is to go for it. I now have a timeless, practical and beautiful laundryroom–thanks to Maria. Thank you so much Maria.

  • Megan says:

    Hi Maria- Thanks so much for this great advice. I’d been balking at granite for our kitchen and couldn’t figure out why! Now we are looking at quartz instead. One question I have about your “boring=timeless” comment, which I think is so important, is this: does this also apply to accents and accessories, or only to the big pieces of the kitchen (cabinets, counters, floors)? Because of a number of lighting challenges with our sloped, vaulted ceiling that has beams (in kitchen) we are considering wall-mounted barn style gooseneck lights along the periphery of the kitchen. This is definitely a “look” and likely not boring and timeless! I think it will go well with the beams and other aspects of the feel of the house, but I don’t know if we would be making a mistake by choosing something this stylized. Any feedback would be welcome!

  • Sally says:

    I love these pictures! Could you talk about how to pick trim colors in this situation? I’m going to have natural cherry cabinets (just oiled, not stained) and a white (or just off-white) with grey veins quartz countertop.

    • Sally says:

      Just to clarify – I know you can’t pick a color for me from that description! I’m wondering because I believe I read in one of your ebooks that if you have unpainted wood, that means you’re in the brown mode and the trim (if white, which I want) has to be in the cream mode, which wouldn’t harmonize with the countertop. I’d rather not go in the cream direction, if I can avoid it. And one other thing — does natural cherry necessarily mean I’m in the realm of “dirty” colors? Thanks!

  • Brenda Schmidt says:

    Maria, I’m curious why solid surface countertops are never mentioned?
    I’ve painted my oak cabinets Cloud White, back splash is an off white subway tile with off white grout and stainless appliances. The floors throughout the open living space and kitchen are a medium wood. I’ve purchased both of your ebooks on undertones and whites and have since realized I’ve done this bit-by bit remodeling backwards but that’s the way it is. I’ve now saved enough money for countertops and feel that for my residential area, solid surface would be an appropriate choice. I don’t like the busy-ness of granite and can’t afford quartz. Laminate is out because I don’t want corner seams in a u-shaped kitchen. I’ve had solid surface counters before and liked them. I’ve narrowed down my choices to HI MACS Milky Way, Moon Haze and Ripe Cotton (which is reading a blue undertone to me) I think I will go with Milky Way. The rest of my living space is White Duck with vaulted ceilings.
    I am really curious why it is you don’t refer to Solid Surface counters???

  • Julie says:

    I have 90s maple cabinets (but a more contemporary yellow stained maple, not the typical 90s orange maple you talk about). It came with black cabinets and counter and I spent about 5 years thinking about the replacement counter before taking the plunge! In the end I decided AGAINST high contrast because I felt it would highlight the age of the cabinets. My whole 102 year old house is and will always be ‘old vs new’ so it’s a matter of embracing that and doing it gracefully. I went with stainless appliances and a warm, mid grey corian counter with a subtle pattern. White subway tile was absolute your influence, grout is also medium grey. Overall it’s a medium contrast look which I think flatters the existing maple cabinets.

Leave a Reply