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3 creative alternatives to buying new cabinets

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | April 21, 2016

Updated white kitchenIf you've been looking for alternatives to buying new cabinets, you're probably aware of some of the typical ways you can spruce up your old ones -- paint, faux finishes, new hardware, moldings, doors, or complete cabinet refacing. These are all great ways to keep your present cabinets, especially if the cabinet boxes are solid wood and in good condition, but some cabinets may be beyond hope. What can you do if your cabinets really need replacing but your budget says "no can do"?

Here are a few cheap and creative remodel ideas for replacing your old cabinets in the kitchen, bath, laundry room, mudroom, or for adding storage anywhere else it's needed.

Go with open shelving instead of cabinets

If you were thinking of creating open shelving to save money instead of replacing wall cabinets, sourcing salvaged barn wood might be tempting but probably won't be cheap. In recent years, using reclaimed wood from centuries-old barns for new building and remodeling has increased in popularity. Coupled with this demand and the cost of salvaging and trucking reclaimed wood, it's become less budget-friendly as a remodeling resource. Here are some less costly open shelving solutions that may be easier to find:

  • New wood that looks like old. If you want the look of old barn wood, your can "rough up" new lumber by using a variety of objects to give it a random distressed appearance. Then, lightly brush on primer. Paint the boards in the desired color and shades to match your decorating vision of weather-beaten siding, leaving each previous coat of paint partially visible to achieve that well-worn look.
  • Old or new crates. Sturdy crates securely attached to the wall with the openings facing out create rustic storage options. You can leave the wood raw, stain or paint it. If you don't like that look for the kitchen, crates are great on the walls of the laundry, mudroom, finished basement bar area, or the guest bathroom. Purchased new at Home Depot, they cost only about $11 each.
  • Used windows and doors. Windows make interesting glass cabinet doors. Doors can be used for the sides of DIY-built, freestanding cabinets or as countertops for cabinetry in a family room.
  • Schoolhouse lockers. Equip mudrooms, kitchens and playrooms with a set of school lockers. You can refurbish them with a fresh coat of paint or leave them as-is to show off their vintage character.
  • Repurposed fence slats. Depending on the width and condition of the slats, you can use them for narrow shelves to hold small items such as spice bottles, tchotchkes, and small toiletries or to create bead board for cabinet doors.
  • Wood pallets. A very popular material for all types of DIY projects, pallets are getting harder to source, and you may even have to pay for them. They make very interesting shelving, but depending on where they originate, they could have been treated with dangerous pesticides -- not something you necessarily want indoors.

Repurpose freestanding furniture

With an empty expanse of wall space, you can use repurposed vintage furniture as additional cabinetry or to replace a section of wall and base cabinets. Armoires, china cupboards, chests of drawers, and sideboards -- to name a few possibilities -- can all be converted into suitable storage that matches, complements, or contrasts with the style of existing cabinetry.

For the best deals, source pieces at flea markets, garage sales, Craigslist, furniture consignment, and thrift shops -- or best yet, free from another room in your own home. One couple repurposed a home entertainment center that was too '90s to stay in their family room and turned it into kitchen wall cabinets with a couple of coats of primer and paint. They built a bench out of small cabinets to bridge the empty floor space between the two towers of cabinetry where the TV once lived. By pushing the dining table over to meet it, they created stationary seating against the wall, which takes up less space than chairs that have to be pulled out at mealtimes.

Repurposing an old china cabinet by separating the hutch from the base offers possibilities as both wall and base cabinets, either together or separated and used in two different areas of your home. You can refinish the hutch and hang it on a wall over the kitchen counter or laundry machines. Use the bottom half as a vanity in the bathroom or as a set of base cabinets or island in the kitchen.

Similarly, you can transform a dresser or sidebar, with some adjustments and additions, into a kitchen island or bathroom vanity.

Score bargain remodeling materials

A more budget-friendly resource than reclaimed wood dealers, Habitat for Humanity Re-Stores sell used building materials typically donated by professional and DIY remodelers. New items show up every day, so if you don't find what you're looking for right away, keep trying. You may even be able to source wood cabinets, cabinet components such as hinges and pulls, doors, and windows. The cabinets that typically fit between the top of the microwave or refrigerator and the bulkhead make great mudroom or entryway benches to hold shoes, boots, or school backpacks.

If you decide to keep your old kitchen cabinets or you buy sturdy, used cabinets -- and want to give them a facelift with paint or other finishes -- get creative with the doors. Give them a unique look with the addition of inexpensive moldings, mosaics or chicken wire inlays, and mismatched door and drawer pulls. Take off the doors altogether; cover the interior back wall of the cabinets with removable wallpaper. You might even want to add some LED lighting under, above, or in the cabinets from a bit of drama.

If your heart is set on brand new cabinets and shelving or you want a more contemporary look, turn to IKEA. With some simple DIY skills, a limited budget, and a little imagination -- or inspiration from online posts of IKEA "hacks" -- you can turn their basic cabinets and shelves into storage that's not only fresh but praiseworthy.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.