How to Replace Upper Cabinets With Open Shelving

Replacing bulky upper cabinets with bracketed wood shelves is an easy, affordable way to lighten up the look and feel of your kitchen.

By: Emily Farris
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Materials and Tools

  • spackle or joint compound
  • medium-grit sandpaper
  • paint
  • wood stain (optional)
  • heavy-duty wood shelving brackets (2-4 per shelf)
  • 1x12 x 8' boards
  • 2-1/2" construction screws
  • 1/2" wood screws
  • utility knife
  • drill and 7/64" bit
  • putty knife
  • paint roller and/or paintbrush
  • tape measure
  • pencil
  • miter or circular saw
  • stud finder
  • level
  • straightedge

Cost: $$
Time: three days
Difficulty: Intermediate

Before: Bulky Upper Cabinets

If you have plenty of storage in your kitchen already and want to freshen up the look of your kitchen, open shelving is your answer. You can replace upper cabinets with shelving in just a few days with a buddy.

Step 1: Remove Cabinets

After emptying the cabinets, use a utility knife or other blade to score any caulked seams between the cabinets and the walls, the cabinets and molding, and individual cabinets (Image 1). Remove any decorative molding, which should pop off by hand after scoring, but you may need to pry off with a hammer or crowbar (Image 2). If there is any hard-wired lighting or other electrical fixtures affixed to the cabinets, shut off the power to that location via the circuit breaker, then carefully remove the fixtures (Image 3) and cap off any wires with appropriate electrical caps. Note: If you’re not comfortable with electrical work, contact a qualified electrician for quick and safe removal.

While a helper supports the weight of the cabinets, use a drill or screwdriver to remove any screws holding the cabinets to the walls. These screws may be located on top of the cabinets as well as inside.

Step 2: Patch and Paint Walls

Fill the holes from the cabinet screws using a putty knife and spackle or joint compound. For small holes, spackle should do. If the walls are in bad shape, joint compound and a wall patch kit or fiberglass tape is the way to go. When the spackle or joint compound is completely dry, lightly sand it and paint the wall in the desired color. Let the paint dry completely.

Step 3: Measure and Cut Shelves

Determine the desired length of the shelves using a tape measure (Image 1). Measure and mark the 1x12 boards, (Image 2), and cut the shelves to length using a sliding miter saw or circular saw (Image 3). Lightly sand any rough edges, and paint or stain the shelves if desired. Allow them to dry completely. Tip: Save time by measuring and cutting the shelves before painting the walls, so the wall and shelves can dry at the same time.

Step 4: Locate the Studs

Locate the studs in the walls using a stud finder — this is where the shelf brackets will go. One bracket per stud will ensure sturdy shelving. Mark the studs at the desired height (14-inch vertical spacing is optimal if going three shelves high).

Step 5: Mark the Bracket Holes

Hold the brackets up to the wall where the stud marks are (a level will help ensure proper vertical alignment), and mark the holes for the screws. The number and placement of screw holes will depend on the bracket.

Step 6: Pre-Drill Screw Holes

Pre-drill screw holes using a 7/64" drill bit. When drilling, double check that you’ve drilled into a stud. If the bit goes in easily and produces only drywall dust, recheck your stud location and drill again. Apply spackle and paint to any incorrect holes. Note: Depending on the placement of your shelving, you may need to drill into your backsplash for the lower brackets. Use an appropriate drill bit for your backsplash material.

Step 7: Mount Brackets to the Wall

Affix the brackets to the wall with 2-1/2” construction screws and a drill outfitted with a Phillips-head. After you install a row of brackets, double check horizontal alignment with a level.

Step 8: Install the Shelves

Place the prepared boards on the brackets, and secure the shelves to the brackets from below with ½” wood screws.

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