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From Basic to Beautiful: How to Transform Your IKEA Cabinets into Custom High-End Cabinets

From Basic to Beautiful: How to Transform Your IKEA Cabinets into Custom High-End Cabinets

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of IKEA kitchen cabinets. I’ve used them in three of my own houses and specified them for several clients over the years. When it comes to renovating their kitchen, many  homeowners often dream of achieving a high-end, custom look but are deterred by the cost of custom cabinetry. However, with a little creativity and ingenuity, it’s certainly possible to achieve a luxurious and personalized kitchen without breaking the bank. One cost-effective option is to use IKEA cabinets for your kitchen remodel instead of custom or semi-custom cabinetry. With a careful planning, and attention to detail, you can create a custom high-end looking kitchen for a fraction of the cost. In this blog post, I share my tried and true tips and tricks for successfully using IKEA cabinets to achieve that custom cabinetry look on a budget.

Tip #1 – Add Legs to your Island

IKEA SEKTION kitchen remodel Fells Point Baltimore Maryland

Many of my clients request a “furniture” look for their island. I interpret that to mean they want legs, base molding, or panels – or a combination of all three. In my Fells Point IKEA Kitchen Remodel, we used custom island legs and base molding to create a custom look on the large island.

Legs can anchor the countertop overhang, avoiding the floating look and providing balance. They also allow you to create a deeper overhang. The max countertop overhang without legs is 12″, but with legs you can easily extend that to 15″ or deeper. It’s best to check with your stone fabricator on what they recommend.

IKEA doesn’t sell furniture style legs for their islands, but it’s pretty easy to order them online in a variety of styles. You can buy them in person at Lowes or Home Depot or even make your own out of stock plywood and molding pieces. They are available in a variety of woods, and a good painter should be able to finish them to match your doors.

Tip #2 – Incorporate Custom Moldings

IKEA SEKTION kitchen remodel Fells Point Baltimore Maryland
We used a two-part crown in the Fells Point IKEA kitchen remodel.

If you are considering a traditional or transitional style IKEA kitchen, you can make it look more polished and finished by adding stock molding like crown molding, light rail, and baseboard from your local big box store.

Crown or cove molding can help build your cabinetry up to the ceiling for a fully built-in look. It’s important to understand a frameless cabinet box like IKEA SEKTION doesn’t have a place to attach the crown molding, so you actually need a two-part crown. This sounds more complicated than it is.

The first part is a straight or L-shaped piece that is attached to the top of the cabinet, which gives you a vertical surface to attached your angled crown. It also helps when trying to close the gap to the ceiling because ceilings are rarely level. The straight piece allows you to manipulate the crown if needed and avoid unsightly gaps.

Light rail molding is attached to the bottom of the wall cabinet to conceal any under-cabinet lighting. The height will be determined by the style of lighting you choose. I prefer to specify the LED tape lights because they have a very small profile. IKEA sells matching deco strips for their cabinet doors that are meant to be used as light rail molding.

Base molding builds up the base of the island to create that furniture look. You can also wrap it around the bottom of the cabinet at the end of a run and return it into the toe kick. You generally want your base molding to be shorter than the height of the toe kick (the recess at the bottom of a base cabinet) so that you can make that return if necessary. IKEA toe kicks are designed to be 4.5″ tall (the 30″ high box plus 4.5″ to bring you to the 34.5″ standard height), which gives you some nice options for molding styles.

If you are doing a “painted” IKEA door like BODBYN, you can bring a drawer front to the paint counter and have it color matched to a semi-gloss paint. Stains are a little trickier, especially if this is a DIY project.

A good painter should be able to stain moldings to match. Be aware that stain grade moldings will be more expensive than paint grade.

Tip #3 – Get Creative With Cover Panels

IKEA Kitchen Semihandmade Refrigerator
Kitchen Remodel with IKEA Cabinets & Semihandmade Doors

Cover panels are a must when designing with IKEA cabinets. The boxes are unfinished – white or dark brown – and don’t match the door finish. Cover panels match the door finish and are attached to the side of the cabinet box so everything appears seamless. There are a few ways I use cover panels to make my IKEA kitchens look more expensive.

First, I always cut or purchase my panels at a size so that they will extend past the edge of the box to cover the thickness of the door. The doors are 3/4″ thick (7/8″ when you add the little bumper dot). So, if a wall cabinet is 15″ deep, I specify the panel at 15.75″ wide so that it will hide the door from the side. This little trick instantly gives a more finished, custom look.

Unfortunately, IKEA cover panels only extend 5/8″ so they won’t fully cover the door thickness. I usually instruct my clients to purchase several of the large refrigerator panels and have them cut to size on site instead of purchasing the stock panels.

You can also use cover panels to simulate a cabinet “leg” by adding them to your base and tall cabinets in certain locations. I sometimes add a full-height panel (meaning it touches the ground vs. stopping at the toe kick) to the sides of base cabinets at the end of a run or an island. I almost always add them to full-height pantries on both sides. Sometimes I will use them to define a specific cabinet, like on either side of a sink base.

In the photo above, I designed the kitchen to look more like an inset style cabinetry by wrapping the wall cabinets in cover panels on all four sides. The cabinets are frameless but they look inset because the panels are flush with the doors.

Tip #4 – Upgrade to Custom Doors

Modern kitchen, marble backsplash, brass hardware, IKEA kitchen
Semihandmade doors by Sarah Sherman Samuel for Design Milk

I so wish this option existed when I installed my own IKEA kitchens in 2006 and 2008. Today there are several companies providing gorgeous custom doors that you can install on your IKEA cabinets.

IKEA cabinets are completely modular, meaning every piece is purchased separately. You do not have to purchase the IKEA doors, drawer fronts, panels, and toe-kicks.

Instead, you can order your doors, drawer fronts, panels, and toe kicks from another company like Semihandmade for a truly custom look. If you choose this route, no one will ever know that your kitchen is from IKEA. Of course, there will be an up-charge over the standard IKEA doors, but I think it’s worth the cost if it fits in your budget.

Modern IKEA kitchen, custom drawers by Reform, modern kitchen island, colorful kitchen
This modern style by Reform has gold edges, revealed only when the cabinet is open.

Another benefit of using a custom door company is that you can request your cover panels at the right sizes vs. having to cut them down yourself.

IKEA Kitchen Semihandmade Beaded Door
IKEA Kitchen with Semi-Handmade Doors

Tip #5 – Don’t Forget Overlay Fillers

You might be wondering what a filler is let alone an overlay filler. Stock cabinets come in specific widths that are usually in 3″ increments. For example, 12″, 15″, 18″, etc.

Fillers are needed in certain instances:

  • When a run of cabinetry is not exactly divisible by 3″.
  • When a frameless style cabinet (like IKEA) is being placed next to a wall.
  • When a frameless style cabinet (like IKEA) is being placed next to another cabinet or panel that is significantly deeper. For example, a wall cabinet next to a refrigerator panel or a pantry.

IKEA boxes are a little weird in that they don’t sell a 27″ or a 33″ cabinet box, jumping from 24″ to 30″ and 30″ to 36″. Don’t ask me why, but it complicates things even further and requires a little extra creativity when planning your layout.

Fillers help us solve certain problems, but why do we need the overlay filler and what the heck is it anyway? A filler is just a flat strip of material painted or stained to match the cabinetry doors. When it is installed, it is placed in between the box and the wall or the box and the adjacent cabinet creating a seamless transition.

BUT…frameless cabinet doors sit proud (ie. on top of) the cabinet box and are usually 3/4″ thick (7/8″ when you add those little bumper dots). When they are all installed properly, you should not see the front of the cabinet boxes at all.

The overlay filler is installed on top of the filler piece and sits almost flush with the face of the cabinet doors and drawers. Then the fillers aren’t as noticeable because you have a smooth transition from door to wall (or cabinet) and no change in depth, which can create a shadow effect and distracts the eye.

Whew! I feel like I should write a whole post just on fillers and how to deal with them now.

As you now know, you can achieve a high-end, custom look for your kitchen remodel using IKEA cabinets as long as you pay close attention to these important details. Check out my post on 12 Things You Need to Know Before Planning Your IKEA Kitchen for more tips on using IKEA cabinets.

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Abby Wilson

Tuesday 9th of May 2023

Great information, Jillian. to compensate for the difference in the IKEA Veddinge trim vs doors and drawers (slight color variations and thickness) we used doors and drawer fronts for the filler. They match perfectly in color, and are flush with the doors on the cabinets.


Thursday 9th of February 2023

Now if only there were IKEA friend contractors who could do all this for me cause it’s so far beyond my ability!

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Thursday 4th of May 2023

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Wednesday 25th of January 2023

Ah....look expensive is the goal.

Do you also sew small crocodiles on your t-shirts from Walmart?

This article just makes me sad for so many reasons.


Saturday 18th of February 2023

Maybe "expensive" isn't the best word. I think my general point was how you can get a custom look with IKEA cabinets. IKEA cabinets are awesome because of the price point and functionality, but they do skew modern. Some people would prefer a more traditional look or one with more detail to it. And oftentimes, those details are more costly.


Friday 18th of November 2022

Hi Jillian, I love your posts about IKEA. I have read each one several times to figure out how to make my current IKEA kitchen reno look custom! I would love to know your advice about the following: I'm doing IKEA boxes and custom painted doors from Scherr's. Scherr's is also provided cover panels/filler pieces that they will paint the same custom color. The doors and cover panels/filler will arrive quite a bit later than the IKEA boxes. Do you recommend waiting until I have all the cover panels/fillers before fully securing the IKEA boxes to the rails and having my countertop measured/installed? Thank you!!


Thursday 24th of November 2022

Sara - I think you can template without the panels and fillers, and I think you would hang the boxes first anyway. With the template, you just want to account for the thickness of the panels, which should be 3/4". So, you would want to tell the fabricators that you want an overhang of 1.75" from the box so you end up with 1" (or whatever you prefer). A typical overhang from the box is 1.25" - 1.5".


Thursday 3rd of November 2022

When you must combine more than one cover panel for a large island, how do you hide the seam?


Saturday 12th of November 2022

If it’s larger than the 96” refrigerator panel, then you need to plan out a design for the seams. You could break it into thirds, for example. Or you could use door panels instead of cover panels.

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