Are White Kitchen Cabinets Boring or Contemporary?

Get White Cabinets in Your Kitchen Without Emptying Your Bank Account

New Custom kitchen with white cabinets and solid surface island.
David Papazian/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

White cabinets are true full-spectrum kitchen improvements: they can help your kitchen achieve either a look of cool modernity or of boring cheapness. Some benefits of white cabinets:

  • Neutral: Provide a neutral canvas for fancy, interesting cabinet fixtures. Because they do not overwhelm the kitchen, they let you dress up the space in other ways—fun and interesting countertops, for example.
  • Sanitary Feeling: The color white is not more hygienic than black. But it does psychologically convey a sanitary feeling.
  • Light, Not Heavy: Avoid the heavy, ponderous feeling of darker woods.
  • Controls Costs: Thermofoil/MDF white cabinets are relatively inexpensive. Painting kitchen cabinets is even cheaper.

There Are 3 Primary Ways to Get White Kitchen Cabinets Into Your Kitchen:

1. With Thermofoil

If thermofoil was invented for anything, it apparently was invented for the sheer purpose of creating white kitchen cabinetry. Thermofoil is a very thin melamine coating that is adhered to the fiberboard core material of kitchen cabinets.

Thermofoil serves two purposes:

  • It seals that particleboard material because particleboard cannot tolerate any kind of moisture. Even small amounts of moisture will cause particle board to swell up, warp, and fall apart.
  • It gives you a consistent color coat. Because particleboard is porous, it does not take paint well.  Laying a "skin" on the particleboard is the best way to cover it.

    Be forewarned, though, because when thermofoil chips, it’s chipped—and for good. You can't paint it, you can’t patch it very well. So the main thing you can do is try to avoid ever chipping or scratching thermofoil. On the plus side, white kitchen cabinets that are coated in thermofoil are abundantly available and extremely cheap.

    While thermofoil is often mentioned as the epitome of dull and boring, I think it's all about how you choose to interpret it.  If you introduce thermofoil to your kitchen just to save money--and the thermofoil look has nothing in common with the rest of the kitchen--then you are verging towards the cheap-and-dull end of the spectrum.  

    But if the thermofoil is incorporated in a kitchen that honestly aims for other contemporary aspects--sleek appliances, stainless steel hoods, swanky primary-color countertops--then it can be not only non-offensive but stylistically effective.

    2. By Refacing

    Refacing is another popular way to turn existing kitchen cabinets into those highly-desired white kitchen cabinets. A refacing company comes into your home (sorry, no DIY on this one), removes the doors and fixtures, faces them with a thin veneer, and then faces the exposed parts of the cabinet “boxes” with veneer, too.

    Note:  it's the rare homeowner who chooses thermofoil for refacing, most opting for luxe-looking hardwood veneers.  This is the rare chance for homeowners to get the look of hardwood without its skyrocket-high price.

    While refacing is not as cheap as those junk-mail ad circulars might have you believe, it is vastly cheaper than new cabinets.

    3. By Painting

    If your kitchen cabinets are a real wood surface (not melamine), they will take paint. The only question is whether you can condition the wood to sufficiently take the paint.

    Kitchen cabinets near the stove area are notorious for having layers of kitchen grease that is nearly impossible to wipe down. Sanding and/or chemical solvents will be needed to prepare the wood. The good news is that clean areas probably will need little more than a light sanding to roughen up the wood for your initial primer coat.