Upgrading Builder Grade Cabinets | i should be mopping the floor
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Upgrading Builder Grade Cabinets

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Giving builder grade cabinets a custom look with crown molding, hardware and paint is a project that's worth tackling to transform your kitchen. We're really happy with the new look of our old builder grade cabinets. See the complete tutorial below.

Builder Grade Cabinets
This post originally appeared over on my friend, Allison's blog, House of Hepworths in July of 2013. Since I've been sharing lots of posts regarding our kitchen makeover lately, I thought this would be a fun one to include over here, as well. You can see it on House of Hepworths here, too.

Upgrading Builder Grade Cabinets

While our kitchen makeovers tend to wear me out (both mentally and physically), I am happy with the direction this one is heading. Here's a tutorial on one of the very first things we transformed...the original builder grade cabinets.
Upgrading Builder Grade Cabinets
While we love this home, we know it's not our forever place. We wanted to make it more custom while we do live here, but not completely blow out the budget. So, instead of new cabinetry or a full-on kitchen makeover by a team of professionals, we've done lots of little projects over time that we could manage ourselves. This route has taken a bit of time, but given us a space we're really happy with...and one that I love cooking in!

How We Transformed Our Builder Grade Cabinets

Standard Builder Grade Cabinets
Pictured above is the before version of our cabinets. We had smaller molding on the cabinet tops, oak stain (that had drastically lost its sheen over the six years we've lived here) and no hardware. It was fine and functional, but we wanted to just take it a step further.

This tutorial of sorts, is basically what we did in this project. Each kitchen/space will require different skills, measurements, materials, and time. But, you can see our overview below.


  • crown molding of your choice for your space's measurements (Buy a bit extra because nobody gets their cuts correctly every time on crown moulding...I'm not even a little bit joking.)
  • compound miter saw
  • nails/brads
  • spackling putty (just a tip: if you don't use this regularly, buy a smaller container; the larger containers will dry out when not used up in a short amount of time)
  • Liquid Nails (construction adhesive)
    • If you're doing several cabinets, like we did, you'll want the bigger tube, in which case, you'll also need a caulk gun to use it.
  • painters' tape


Removing Crown Moulding
  • We started by ripping off the old molding...which, literally, ripped right off. Not much effort needed in our particular kitchen.
  • If you have issues in your kitchen, gently place an old towel against the cabinets and use a crow bar on top of the towel to pry off the moulding (the towel is to prevent damage to your cabinetry). 
  • Carefully remove extra nails or brads with needle-nosed pliers.

How to Cut Crown Moulding

Making the Cuts

Let me preface this by saying it took us three entire eight-foot lengths of crown to figure out what we were doing (like I said, buy extra!). But, once we finally got it...we got it. Cutting crown can vary from project to project and I by no means feel qualified to give an entire tutorial on it. But, I'll let you know a few tips that really helped us. I'm also listing out several YouTube videos we found helpful in our own project.

Ideas to keep in mind when cutting cabinet crown molding:

  • You'll be making outside cuts only, for the most part (we had one weird angle where we had to make an inside cut, but the other several dozen cuts were all outside angle cuts).
  • As referenced in the photo above, adding tape guides to your saw for cutting is the only way to do this...it took us three lengths of molding to finally figure that one out. Some compound miter saws come with crown molding guides, but ours didn't. You want tape on both ends to ensure that you line your molding the exact same way every time. Even being off by a millimeter can make a big difference.
  • Crown molding is cut upside down on the saw. 
  • Crown molding is also cut "standing up" on the saw. 

Helpful Crown Molding Cutting Videos:

How to Assemble Crown Moulding
  • This next step we did a bit out of the norm (but there's always several ways to attack a project, in my opinion). We assembled this one "on the ground" before mounting. We did this step differently on every single cabinet. But this particular method seemed to work great for us. I liked "on the ground" assembly because it was easier to match up corners. 
  • We connected it all with liquid nails, added painters' tape on the corners to ensure nothing slipped or wiggled, and let it dry overnight.
  • We then took it up to the cabinet tops (which, to me, was the scary part).

Adding Crown Moulding to Cabinets
  • A lot of folks recommend an additional board for mounting your molding to. Since our original molding wasn't on a board, we attached ours directly to the tops of the cabinets. 
  • We used small finishing nails to attach the molding in place. 

Crown Moulding Corners
  • Then fill, fill, fill. We used DryDex to fill in all corners, nail holes and gaps. I feel like DryDex covers a multitude of mess ups and mistakes. And, I am one of those that applies it with my fingers...I feel like I have more control this way
  • Once it was dry, it got a good sanding. Then I wiped it with tackcloth to remove any dust.
Painting Kitchen Cabinets
Then I primed and painted everything. My basic approach is to use a primer that adheres to any surface (to prevent a ton of sanding), two coats of that; two coats of satin latex paint; and polyurethane (be super careful on the polyurethane, it can turn white cabinets yellow if it's the wrong kind). I use a water-based polyurethane and always test it beforehand. 

Vintage Cabinet Hardware
  • I also added some vintage reproduction hardware to give the cabinets a special touch.

DIY Cabinet Makeover
Really enjoying the brightness these upgraded builder grade cabinets have added to the kitchen. 

And I have to be completely up front with all of you...the above photo is staged beyond belief. My husband walked in and said..."oh, we're doing fake kitchen today, huh?" 
I won't lie...my goal is to have this kind of pretty-pretty all over the kitchen and maybe when all this mayhem is said and done, it may happen. But right now, the above is how I do "fake kitchen".

Kitchen Shelf Over Stove

Want to See More of this Space?

  • Check out how I created (faux) Varied Height Cabinets over my stove (pictured above) on these same builder grade cabinets. It really took the space to the next level.
  • And our DIY Chalkboard Backpack Station has become an absolute workhorse in this space. Our kids use it constantly and I love adding new chalk designs to it.
  • We also created a complete Kitchen Island Transformation by expanding the original builder grade island and adding seating at each end. Now, our kids eat their breakfast at the island on barstools every morning.

Other Great Cabinet Upgrade Ideas:


  1. Kristi I totally do fake kitchen too! And fake living room, fake powder room...pretty much fake in every room, which is why so many of my smaller projects are photographed on the stairs! Which, now that I think about it, isn't all that great either, what with the gross carpet and blah lighting.

    Can't wait for your tute!

  2. It looks great, Kristi! Can't wait for the full tutorial and pictures :)

  3. Fake kitchen?! That is too funny. It sounds just like my Honey. I can't wait to see the rest of your redo!

    Ashley @ 3littlegreenwoods

  4. Your cabinets look great!! Amazing what paint and new hardware can do! And I love the idea of adding the thicker molding to the top! It just gave it so much character!

  5. Great idea! Looking forward to your cabinet painting post! :)

  6. Love the "fake" Kitchen- will pass this project onto hubby-lop

  7. Your cabinets look great!! What a transformation!!

  8. Amazing before and after Kristi, Pinning!!

    xo, Tanya

  9. Your cabinets look sooo much better - what a fantastic job you've done!!

  10. Love your honesty about your "fake" kitchen. I do the same and it lasts about a minute or so! We can at least dream, right? Great job!

  11. Kristy, we painted our builder grade cabinets as well. Your's look great and I love the molding.


  12. Kristi, your cabinets look amazing! I really want to paint our cabinets and this is good inspiration for me! Thanks so much for sharing!

  13. Fake kitchens are the new black - this looks amazing!!! Cheers to a fabulous kitchen

  14. Oh wow, what a difference. This is amazing. Thanks for the tutorial. I would love for you to link up to my Inspire Me party that is ongoing.http://www.astrollthrulife.net/2013/08/177th-inspire-me-tuesday.html Hugs, Marty

  15. I love, love, love the white!!! You are giving me ideas!!! Wonder if my hubby would go for it? :)

  16. It's unbelievable what a difference this makes. You guys make a great team. I love your curtains too Kristi! :)

  17. I can't believe the difference a coat of paint and some trim makes! We put crown molding around our cabinets and I bet my hubby would have liked it more if he had known to put it together on the ground. It was a very long day for him! And fake kitchen pics? Hahahah! I had to laugh because all my pics are like that.

  18. Your kitchen is really coming along Kristi beautifully! I bet you are exhausted! :) Keep up the great work girl!

  19. Oh wow! Can you come over and redo my cabinets! I have all the ambition in the world...not as much skill tho :)
    These cabinets look amazing!

  20. This is so great!!! It's such a huge change. Love it!!!!

  21. Wow what a difference!! I love the hardware - looks perfect!

  22. Oh Kristi, your white cabinets are going to be dreamy!! What an awesome job you guys are doing, and I can't wait to see the final product! That hardware you chose is gorgeous!

  23. Great idea!!!!!
    thanks for sharing this wonderful tutorial of making your own custom cabinets with custom color. The design of your cabinet is perfect and it look very pretty after adding additional board on top of it. you have done your work creatively that's why the end pics look perfect.........Thank you so much for this stunning tutorial.....
    walk-in closet

  24. Kristi, I am so much impressed with the way you used cabinets and painted them. I have recently bought a custom cabinet and want to modify it. Thanks for the share.

  25. This looks gorgeous...I do have a question though: once the crown molding was attached did you also "sand" the main part of the cabinet and door or did you just paint/prime it directly??