A Partial Kitchen Renovation

When your kitchen is beyond outdated…

…but you have a tight budget, then sometimes jut a partial kitchen renovation can make a tremendous difference. That’s the problem these folks had. Their kitchen space was huge, but it was full of random old bits.

The cabinets were solid but not great -looking 1980s particle board veneer with some missing doors and drawers. The cooktop and sink were 70s vintage (in a not charming way). The 20-ft2 island was a plywood-topped creation from just before the millennial turn.

The benefits of huge kitchens? They’re awesome. The downsides of huge kitchens? They’re generally also awesomely expensive to completely redo. A conventional to the studs full kitchen reno for this space could have easily blown past $30,000 in materials alone with all new cabinetry and countertops for 20 linear feet of wraparound length (plus that huge island).

So, how to get the most renovation goodness for a lot less money? Simple. Just keep the existing cabinets. Some new cabinet doors and a few repair drawers budgets in the hundreds of dollars. And although it’s challenging to properly paint pressboard veneer cabinets, even experienced pro painters will cost a lot less than all new cabinetry, hardware, and installation.

The Problem

Seriously, refinishing cabinets with properly applied oil enamel will cost $5,000 or so. This is seriously cheaper than paying $20k for all new cabinets.

Replacing the countertops on a budget was a more difficult puzzle. These folks had been getting by using rough plywood topped with loose random surplus floor tiles, so demo would be easy. However, the clients wanted black countertops. Not cheap imitation marble black-ish prefab formica, but (ideally) true black quartz.

However, getting twenty linear feet of stone countertop (plus that huge island) ordered and installed would have cost $10k minimum. Solid stone custom black countertops are expensive. But these clients really absolutely completely did not want any kind of formica. They wanted something unique and very very dark.

The creative budget partial kitchen renovation compromise? Go IKEA hacking!

The Solution


While IKEA cabinets can be expensive, Swedish executives apparently inexplicably classify just about every other kitchen element as an inexpensive accessory. Or, countertops and sinks and other fixtures are simply loss leaders for their cabinets.

Either way, both 1-1/4″ pressboard plank laminate and 1″ solid wood butcher-block countertops from IKEA are incredibly good deals. Solid birch butcher-block counter slabs for $20 a linear foot? Yes please! Even a discount specialty lumberyard can’t beat that price.

Gel stain for ‘black birch’ effect

Now, how to make blonde birch butcher-block slabs black. That took some experimentation. Luckily, the clients had read about a hack involving gel stain and mineral oil. So, with that intel and a bit of testing — viola! The stained and oiled counter slabs were ready for install for less than $1,000 total (even including that huge island).

So, the total partial kitchen renovation plan:

  1. Remove the makeshift plywood and loose tile countertops
  2. Replace the missing cabinet doors and drawers
  3. Sand and paint the existing pressboard cabinet boxes and drawer/door fronts
  4. Re-install the “new” cabinet doors/drawers with genuinely new hinges and pulls
  5. Sand, stain, oil, custom cut, and install the butcher-block counter slabs
  6. Install a new drop-in stainless sink and gas cooktop
  7. Install a nice mosaic tile backsplash to complement the new countertops and stainless appliances

And deal with that huge island…

The Execution

Prep was the hardest part. Like life.

Sanding, staining, oiling, custom cutting, and then re-finishing 100-ft2 of solid wood is not a quick chore. Fortunately, there was a covered work area for that. And, wood is forgiving. And, for blending the slab seams in place after installation, if the first try at sanding and re-staining didn’t work then there was always the option for a second try. Or a third. Wood is forgiving like that.

The in-process pics tell the story pretty clearly. Again, not rocket science. Just patience and attention to detail:

The main advantage to working with wood counters (aside from the price discount vs granite or other stone materials) is the installation flexibility. Unlike stone, wood slab countertops can be test fitted and cut in place by just one person. Also, wood countertop seams can be blended with spot sanding and refinishing in place. And, cutting granite or quartz countertops for sink or cooktop openings takes specialized tooling and creates a ton of dust. Cutting openings in wood counters just makes a bit of sawdust, and only takes a spade bit and a $30 jiggsaw.

So, the counters took a bit of time to refinish but were pretty straightforward to install. The main challenge was dealing with the waviness and non-squareness of the walls.

The gaps between a countertop and wall can be too wide for backsplash tile to cover if the wall is not perfectly square and flat. You can fix this by marking the highest points in the wall, cutting a channel, and then burying the back of the counter slab into the wall a bit. This is a little annoying but not rocket science.

The real challenge was covering the massive kitchen island, a 5’x5′ box of base cabinets way too large to cover with a single slab of anything for a reasonable price. The creative solution? Simply use three slabs of refinished butcher block, tied together underneath with metal straps. Carefully leveling the base cabinet surface with shims and tying the slabs together with heavy-duty metal straps made a solid level counter surface.

All this installation work to correct out of plumb walls and unlevel floors just took some time, lots of test fitting, and some expletives.

The Results

The black stained countertops turned out really great. The stain left just enough wood grain showing through for a truly unique effect. And, a simple mineral oil finish left the surface food safe.

The multicolored glass and metal mosaic backsplash tile the clients chose perfectly complemented both the new counter and the new stainless sink and appliances. The painter did a great job on the cabinet refinishing. And, the whole entire (partial) reno budget for this partial kitchen renovation didn’t bust the $10k barrier. Not bad considering the national average for a full kitchen renovation is $40k.

Great design choices, creative execution, and happy clients. You can see the full client review here on Yelp:

Read the review