There was a certain look that defined kitchen cabinets, and to some extent, furniture in general in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of it had to do with the material. So what were 1990s kitchen cabinets made of?
That 1980s and 1990s look is red oak. When you try to stain it, Red oak has a slightly more red or pink tone than white oak does. When you just apply a clearcoat to it, it takes on a honey color. White oak takes stain more readily, which makes it more expensive, because it’s a bit more versatile.
Oak is durable and common In the United States, so using red oak for kitchen cabinets was a matter of practicality as much as anything. It wouldn’t break a middle class budget, and would go out of style before it wore out.
And that’s what happened. It’s not hard to find oak cabinets in good condition, languishing in a garage or basement today. Mostly because HGTV says it looks dated. Better in a garage or basement than a landfill, at least.
Why red oak went out of style
The zip code to the southeast of me boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, as the middle class left the cities and inner ring suburbs and moved further out. So you find an odd juxtaposition of Victorian houses interspersed between 1980s and 1990s subdivisions.
I know several realtors, and their standard advice for getting top dollar in that zip code is to rip out those original Red oak cabinets and replace them with something else.
Pretty much anything currently on the floor at the nearest big box home center will do, as long as it’s not red oak.
Red oak is still okay for floors, for whatever reason, but not for kitchen cabinets. And never mind that whatever you buy at that big box store is probably a veneer and won’t last as long as the red oak they are replacing.
What HGTV doesn’t tell you is whatever they’re recommending this year will look just as dated as red oak and bright brass in 10 years. If not more so.
Everything goes out of style eventually, and it eventually comes back
People seem to get tired of certain finishes. Bright brass was also popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and that fell out of fashion as well. The combination of red oak and bright brass very much defines the 1980s and 1990s.
Mid-century is back in style now, and that look was defined by walnut. It has a much darker tone than oak. And in the ’80s and ’90s, that was out of date. So today, it is not at all uncommon to find old furniture that had a walnut finish originally and someone painted it, either to conceal damage, or just to update the look.
If you are good at woodworking and well spoken and want a side business, you can do a lot worse than scavenging mid-century furniture, refinishing it so look somewhat original, and making YouTube videos about it.
And my favorite book on real estate recommended removing the varnish from cabinets and baseboards and painting them white as a cost effective way to update real estate. Of course the dated finishes he was recommending people cover up in the 1950s are treasured today, but that wasn’t helping him in the 1950s, so I understand why he was giving that advice.
Is red oak coming back?
I see claims that red oak is coming back. But those are, admittedly, paid content from cabinet makers. They have a vested interest in red oak coming back, so they don’t have an objective perspective. Personally, I like red oak. It’s practical. It’s durable, reasonably priced, and looks reasonable.
I expect that red oak will eventually come back into style, but the problem is, I don’t know which generation is going to take to it. Maybe it will be my kids. As best I can tell, Gen x and millennials like mid-century stuff. But there is a scene that every generation treasures the stuff their grandparents threw away. That would explain my generations fondness for all things mid-century, so maybe that means my kids will be totally 80s and 90s.
Time will tell. But the red oak cabinets my great great grandfather built a hundred years before I was born we’re still in usable condition during my lifetime. So I expect that whenever Red oak comes back into fashion, there will be plenty of salvageable red oak lingering under decades old paint for whichever generation deems it worthy of restoration.