Despite this, they tend to cycle in and out of fashion, with one approach often dominating for a few decades until it's swapped for the other. This cycle may finally be letting up, as savvy designers and homeowners have realized that there's room for both. These days, painting kitchen cabinets or staining them doesn't mean choosing sides in an all-out design battle. Rather, each of these looks frequently borrows elements from the other — and sometimes, both are used within the same kitchen.
Chances are, you'll still gravitate toward one or the other. To illuminate the world of possibility that exists within each category, we've provided a deep dive into painted vs stained cabinets:
If you prefer a smooth, uniform surface to the natural characteristics of wood grain, painted cabinets are sure to please. These have gone in and out of style for over a century but were especially popular during the 2000s and 2010s — when all-white was the standard for a contemporary kitchen.
Part of the appeal lies in the ease of application for medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which is one of the more affordable options for constructing modern cabinets.
Done right, painted cabinets can be timeless, but there's also plenty of room for creativity and even the ability to play with of-the-moment color trends. Right now, these styles are especially popular:
- All-white cabinets. As we mentioned, all-white was a big deal when painted cabinets first overtook their stained predecessors. While experts have continually predicted that this would change, white appears to have staying power above and beyond what anybody could have imagined. It has never gone away completely and, based on results from the 2023 U.S. Houzz Kitchen Trends Study, has actually returned in full force to become one of today's most sought-after designs. If you want a modern-looking kitchen that will remain relevant far into the future, white-painted cabinets are a safe choice.
- Earthy tones. White and gray will always be a hit, but today's painted kitchens are also more likely to incorporate earthy tones. These feel wonderfully warm and welcoming, blending the smooth and sleek appeal of paint with the on-trend beauty of dark stains. This is the perfect way to give a nod to the natural world while still keeping the visual prominence of grain to a minimum.
- Two-tone cabinets. Offering an instant visual pop, two-tone cabinets provide the perfect solution for anyone who struggles to choose among so many compelling colors. Often pairing dark with light — or neutrals with brighter hues — these cabinets draw on the simple power of contrast to make a statement.
- Contrasting islands. While two-tone cabinets typically involve a specific color for the upper cabinets and another for the lower, this concept can also extend to kitchen islands. Sometimes, these match the lower cabinets, but it's possible to build in even more contrast by simply giving the island its own special shade. This is an appealing option given the increased prominence islands play in both everyday kitchen functions and entertaining. According to the aforementioned Houzz survey, nearly half of today's homeowners ultimately opt for islands that contrast the colors of their main cabinets. When this approach is used, favored contrasting colors include blue, gray, and black.
For decades, painted cabinets were a critical component of contemporary design. Their dominance is slowly starting to give way, however, with an increasing share of homeowners opting for the rich look and visually intriguing variation of cabinet stains. Applied to cherry, red oak, or white oak, stains remind us that every cabinet has a story to tell.
Over time, stains are desirable because they are easy (and often inexpensive) to maintain. If you like the idea of a low-maintenance kitchen that remains beautiful even when you put in little effort, stained cabinets are definitely for you.
The recent rise of cabinet stains closely accompanies the growing preference for earthy tones. While this aesthetic can be captured, to some extent, by certain paint colors, it feels richer and more dynamic when it takes the form of a stain. While these aren't necessarily as versatile as bright paint colors, there is a far greater variety of stains than most people realize. Lighter stains work great in farmhouse-style kitchens, while deeper options bring warmth to any environment.
Chances are, when you picture stained cabinets, a highly traditional, reddish hue comes to mind. This look dominated kitchens through the 70s, 80s, and even much of the 90s before a sleeker, painted aesthetic took over.
Now, the hottest stains incorporate elements of both concepts to achieve a unique look that's just as gorgeous as traditional stains but also receives a modern edge. Light, dark, or somewhere in between, you can easily find a stain that satisfies your aesthetic preferences.
Other notable trends for staining kitchen cabinets include:
- High-contrast kitchens. Often, the chief appeal of painted cabinetry lies in the ability to instantly build contrast into the design. Two-tone cabinets, for example, are often painted in distinct colors to create a bold and bright impression. This wasn't the typical approach for the stained cabinets of yesteryear, but that shouldn't stop you from experimenting with the concept now. In reality, it's possible to build an impactful sense of contrast with today's updated stains.
- White stained cabinets. If you adore the look of a beautiful white kitchen but prefer stains to paints, you're in luck: light or white-stained cabinets deliver the best of both worlds. This is a lesser-known solution that visually expands interior spaces (much like white-painted styles) but also harnesses the unique advantages of staining kitchen cabinets. This has more of a rustic look than white paint but is downright gorgeous in a laid-back kitchen.
- Medium and dark tones. Echoing the aforementioned rise of earthy cabinets, darker stains are coming into vogue. According to 2023 data from Houzz, medium tones and dark wood have both seen significant increases in popularity in the last few years. These styles feel rich and often, downright sophisticated. This can feel risky if you're worried about making your kitchen look smaller, but don't worry: the right designer can help you develop clever strategies to maintain a spacious feel, no matter how dark of a tone you select.
- Sustainable design. Houzz survey results suggest that today's homeowners prioritize sustainable designs that allow them to live out their eco-friendly ideals. Currently, nearly half emphasize durable materials that allow their cabinets to last longer. While sustainability is certainly possible for painted cabinets, it's more easily achieved with the durable materials that so frequently accompany sophisticated stains. This approach is also in keeping with biophilic trends, which call attention to the natural world. With stains, this can be achieved by allowing the natural, organic features of hardwood to shine through.
There isn't necessarily any need for a debate between painted and stained cabinets; with the right approach, you can incorporate elements of both styles in your kitchen design. After all, mixed materials and finishes are trendy right now, with bold hardware and other elements adding eclectic appeal to familiar styles. This concept can be captured with strategic blends of stained and painted cabinets, which, when paired strategically, can bring a fresh feel to any space.
Like any bold design, incorporating both painted and stained cabinets can be a major risk. These distinct selections must complement each other spectacularly. Otherwise, they run the risk of looking not just haphazard, but also, downright odd.
This solution looks most purposeful when a highly distinctive finish is applied to the kitchen island. That being said, mixed finishes could also look gorgeous in certain two-tone arrangements — with light paint for the upper cabinets, for example, and a dark stain below.
DISCOVER THE BEST OF STAINED & PAINTED CABINETS AT PLAIN & FANCY
Do you love the sleek look of painted cabinetry? Or would you like to play with the latest trends in staining wood cabinets? No matter where you side in the enduring painted vs stained cabinets debate, you can count on the team at Plain & Fancy to provide excellent insight as you plan your dream kitchen. You'll be amazed at the sheer range of ideas on display at our design center in Schaefferstown. Contact us today to get started.
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