Making Red Oak Trim and Cabinets Feel Updated and Chic

This post is for everyone who loves their wood trim and doesn’t want to paint it!

It’s funny to me how the default it simply to paint everything white these days.  Right now we are seeing an insurgence of wood — particularly white oak — at the forefront of trends again.  We tend to cycle through wood trends just like we do neutral paint colour trends.

You know my motto:  if you love it, then it stays.  No matter what the current trend.

These clients (who are literally some of our favourite people in the world… omg they’re SO fun!) had a beautiful custom home that they’ve raised their daughter in.  It was built in the early 00’s.  The chocolate brown and beige era.  They had invested well into the things that matter like sturdy cabinetry and great quality hardwoods when they built, so they didn’t want to rip all of that up and start again because, frankly, they still really loved those elements of their home!

Here is what the living room looked like before we began:


We have a lot of different neutrals going on.  A green-beige on the walls, red oak with an orange stain, chocolate brown sofa, and a reddish-brown leather chair.  Add to that the black of the fireplace surround and the pink-beige tiles and that’s a lot of different neutrals!

There were some scale and proportion issues in the space also.  The artwork above the sofa was a truly stunning piece, but it was too small for where it was hung.  The sconces beside the artwork were too high, and the sofa was too small for how grand and large the area was, making the room feel a bit disjointed.

Everything was in great condition still – showing how well these clients had invested to begin with.  They raised their family on this furniture and you’d never know it!  That’s the power of quality.

Here is where we started in the kitchen:

The cabinetry was in perfect condition still, aside from some of the finish that had worn off.  The island design had seen its day, however, we knew we could give the kitchen an updated feeling without ripping it all out and starting from scratch.

And… without painting it white.

The truth is, red oak does NOT do well with paint.  The grain pattern is strong and deep and the wood in our climate tends to dry out as we move between seasons.

For this reason, no matter how great a job someone does at painting red oak cabinetry, in just a short number of years it will look cracked and weathered.

This means that if you want to freshen up your red oak kitchen, your choices are to keep the cabinetry as-is or, if you don’t like red oak, to rip it out and start over.  You could also do a very dark stain to cover the strong red undertones if you wanted to go that route.

Other wood types like Maple finish beautifully with paint.  But red oak is not one of them.

These clients loved the oak so we decided to freshen up the stain, change the island design, brighten things up with new countertops, and to install fresh lighting that was more “beefy”.

The plan.

 The list for this job was as follows:
– New paint
– New furniture for the living room, entry, bar stools, and breakfast nook
– Countertops
– Lighting
– A few updated in the kitchen like sinks and taps

The clients first told me that their style was traditional, however upon doing our proprietary Style Profile exercise, we discovered that it was really more a mix between Transitional and Contemporary.

You could see that style in their current space.  The contemporary glass tables and shaker-style doors on the cabinetry were a great reflection of how this family’s style had come together over the years.

One of the first things I like to consider is the overall colour direction for the space.

In this case, red oak is a bossy finish.  Meaning, you can’t pair just anything with red oak and make it look good – especially some other neutrals.

For example, pink-beige is the colour of many sandy beaches but next to red oak looks drab and worn.

Blue-greys and violet-greys will look baby blue or purple when added to the space.

And while stark white makes red oak feel dated, cream can also do the same.

In this case, we decided to treat the red oak as orange.

Now, when you’re building a colour story around orange, you want to really think about what you want that red oak to do.

Using colours close to orange on the colour wheel – like red-orange and yellow – will make the trim blend in and disappear to the eye.

On the other hand, going to the complimentary side of the colour wheel (the colour directly across from the orange), gives us blue which will make both colours stand out and sing.

Using colours that are not complementary (directly across) or analogous colours (directly beside) requires a lot more skill.  In this case, pairing the orange-stained oak with pink or green would be a more bold and energetic choice.

There are no wrong answers when it comes to choosing a colour scheme, however, it’s important to understand your goals.

In this case, because we loved the oak and wanted it to shine, we decided to use a complimentary colour scheme and bring in some marine blues.  In doing so, both the blue and the orange stain on the red oak would sing and complement each other really well.


Red oak is such a strong neutral that it basically becomes a colour.  If you want a neutral room, you need to stick to yellow, orange, or red undertones.  This means creams and yellow-beiges which is a very warm colour scheme.

When your style veers more Contemporary, we tend to want spaces that feel fresh and airy.  So, instead of doing a neutral scheme, we treat the red oak as a colour instead.

A “pop of colour” doesn’t work.  It’s VERY rare that anyone has pulled off just adding a pop of blue to a throw pillow and calling it a day.

Colour needs to be bounced around the room in order to create harmony and not be an alarming stopping point for the eye.

When you’re working with more than one colour – in our case orange and blue – it’s important not to treat both colours equally.

One needs to be dominant, and the other one secondary.

In this case, there was red oak on the cabinetry, floors, and trim.  So it’s safe to say that we can call orange our dominant colour.

Marine blue was our secondary colour.

And for our tertiary colour, we chose green to add a bit more excitement and liveliness into the space.

For our neutrals, we did a light greige with a neutral green undertone (Agreeable Grey by Sherwin Williams).  A green undertone was really the only choice for what we were going for in this space because had we gone with any other grey, the orange would have pulled out the blue or violet undertones so strongly and the beige side of the spectrum wouldn’t be as fresh as we wanted it to be.  White would make the red oak look dated and so would cream. 

You’ll also see pops of off-white (which is between pure white and cream) and black to pull through the fireplace surround and help soften it a bit.

The first thing that you see when you walk up the stairs into the home is the fireplace.  The mantle itself felt disjointed due to the arched window above it.  We wanted to create a much grander statement to highlight the vaulted ceilings and the openness of the space.

The tile on the fireplace surround was the wrong undertone so we wanted to change it out to something a bit more contemporary also.

By bringing the fireplace all the way up and connecting it to the arched window we could achieve a stronger, more cohesive focal point.

I presented the clients two options: to keep the current mantle and add on, matching the stain, or to remove the mantle and do a plaster fireplace build with a chunky red oak mantle.

This was a tough decision for them!  They polled their friends and nearly everyone said the plaster, but it didn’t feel right for them. 

It’s the classic example of why asking friends and family for their opinion on YOUR space can be counterproductive.  You’ll get various strong opinions, but no one else can tell you what you like.

After a discussion on doing what THEY love, we decided on keeping the current mantle and using red oak.

We called on our friends at Level Custom Designs to do a stunning piece.

Originally we had wanted a bell-shape that tapered into the window, however, the mantle wasn’t really deep enough to do that and the cost was prohibitive due to all of the complex angles.

So, instead, we did a shaker-style panel and Level Custom Designs matched up the trim work perfectly to the existing mantle.  It looks like it had always been that way, doesn’t it?

Normally I would have gone larger on the artwork when styling this mantle, but you’ll see why I didn’t in the end.

The island was the other major architectural piece that we changed.  Before, it was angled and had a raised bar-height countertop on the living room side.  The countertops were dark, the backsplash was dark, and red oak tends to suck light so the cabinetry was also dark.

We decided to cut down the bar extension and square off the back of the island to modernize the design a bit.  We kept the angle on the working side because there is a prep sink on the angle that we didn’t want to lose and it helped keep separation for the chef when entertaining.

For the countertops, we decided on quartz.  Now, I find quartz to be really hit and miss.  Some quartz looks like fake stone.  I knew that I wanted to bring in a lot of nature-inspired elements to the decorating, so I wanted to do something that looks like real marble (but that was more affordable).

For this reason, we went with Cambria.  It’s a bit more expensive than most quartz, but their warranty is for a lifetime and, in my opinion, you can REALLY tell the difference looking at a Cambria slab versus most other quartz slabs.  It looks, feels, and just is more luxurious and they REALLY back up their product more than any other brand I’ve seen on the marketplace.

Here is what the island design looked like when we presented it:

The material for the countertop needed to incorporate the light green-greige tones for the walls and we wanted them to feel crisp like white, but knew that we needed to do a very creamy off-white to complement the cabinetry.

We chose the Ironsbridge pattern from Cambria which has STUNNING movement in it.  It looks almost like sand when the tide goes out.

If you’re thinking about Cambria to do a refresh of your countertops, give us a call.  We consult throughout Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent!

On the furniture side, we knew we wanted to use caramel leather to bring in more of the orange tones to the center of the room and complement that with a large marine-blue sectional.

We anchored the space with a stunning textural rug with the light greige tones and carried that neutral into the breakfast nook chairs.

We also introduced a secondary wood with a beautiful chocolate brown walnut.  This would help to balance the darks in the space like the backsplash and the fireplace surround.

Are you ready to see how it all came together?

Ohhhhhkay, we are going to NEED some side-by-sides!  Just look at how fresh it looks compared to before!

We didn’t go lighter on the walls, but did change the colour and undertone.  Yet it feels SO much lighter and brighter overall because we stripped out all of the competing neutral tones and really let the oak SHINE!

Also, look at how much higher the ceilings look because of that one small addition to the fireplace!

The original artwork found a new home in the dining room where it can be enjoyed in perfect scale with the buffet and we brought in more of our secondary colour – marine blue – with a small hint of fresh green on a much larger print.  This puppy is 55″ wide by 40″ tall and created a much better proportion in the space.

The sconces were moved down and replaced with a more contemporary fixture.

And the sofa is HUGE!  10-feet long.  During our install, both mom and daughter were laying out on the chaise and the whole rest of the sofa was empty.  It feels so much more inviting for a family who loves to entertain.

The Cambria countertops and the cut-down island feels more current, but also provides a lot more surface area for working in the kitchen.

And the breakfast nook feels so natural and cozy now with its Walnut table and chairs.  The oversized artwork and accent wall really helped to define this area and make it feel special.

Here are some of the sources used for this project:

The rug, sectional, armchairs, dining chairs, bar stools, and coffee table are all through the Comfortable Dwelling Boutique.

The dining table in the breakfast nook is from West Elm (since discontinued).

The artwork is from Juniper Print Shop with custom frames made by Level Custom Designs.

Countertops are by Cambria through the Comfortable Dwelling Boutique.

The island and fireplace additions were done by Level Custom Designs.

Taps were by Delta Faucet.

Sconces and island lighting were through Wayfair.

The stunning breakfast nook contemporary drum shade is by Hinkley via The Lighting Shoppe in Chatham.

The fireplace surround was sourced and installed by SacWal.

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