How to Make Old Built-ins and Shelves Look More Modern

If you’re staring at your old built-in bookshelves, feeling like they’re stuck in a time warp, don’t freak out. Today I’m going share with you how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern. 

A built-in needing a refresh

When we purchased our current home, the living room had some built-in shelving. Although they may have been custom built-ins at one point in time, now they looked tired and boring. Plus everything was off center and strange. It wasn’t much of a focal point anymore.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern before pic

Buying an older home always presents its mysteries, but you don’t have to live with things the way they were. You can make everything more your style, without the hassle of ripping out what probably is a functional extra storage space.

With a little creativity, and some handy DIY tools, you can breathe new life into that wall of built-ins. I’d love to show you what I did, then we can discuss more ideas to update built-in cabinets and ways to make those shelves look smart again.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern overall look

Let’s make these shelves look more modern

My current own home was built in 1957. Although at the time it was a custom build by a renowned local developer, it no longer had that custom feel. It was definitely ready for an update.

Our large living space, sits in the center of the house. With the kitchen and a family room to one side, and bedrooms down the hall, it is the center hub of our living space. The house had great bones but not much character. It wasn’t currently living its best life.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern

In order to make it look like a great thing again, that entire back wall needed a face lift. This was the DIY project plan:

  • Cover the current shelving with 1/4″ oak veneer
  • Add oak 1 x 2 on the ends of shelves 
  • Remove old dentil moulding on fireplace mantle
  • Add oak floating mantle to accommodate size of space better
  • Extend tile face to balance out mantle size
  • Hang flat screen TV above new mantle
  • Update cabinet hardware

Most projects to update can be quite easy

This was not a big project, but it sure made a difference. The lower cabinets of the built ins were kept as they were, (the cabinet fronts still were design relevant) and the whole thing got a facelift. By simply refacing the shelves and their fronts, the space feels modern and fresh. 

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern oak edging

The oak details now looked great with the rest of the room and the new oak flooring. The entire room came alive. Best of all, we were able to repurpose the built-in cabinetry and bring it more up to date.

The wider band on the shelves is a feature repeated in other rooms, along with the oak detail. It makes these shelves look more substantial and almost floating.

Note: we resurfaced both sides of the shelves with the oak veneer. When you are sitting on the couch, you can see the underside of the upper shelves so this was an important detail.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern with mantle

How to make your old built-ins and shelves look more modern and up to date

Let’s chat about a few ways you can make any built-ins, bookcases, and old shelves look more modern. There are many ways to make this update, simply see what will work best for your space and room built-ins. 

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern small built-in

The power of paint

The easiest way to refresh old built-ins and shelves is with a new paint color. Whether it be the same color as your trim, or a whole new dramatic look, a fresh coat of paint can work wonders.

Updating the look and color of your space can provide a focal point and give it a modern vibe with the right shade. Opting for a dark color can add drama and sophistication, while a lighter shade can create a clean, contemporary feel.

Base cabinets can also be painted a different color than the upper shelves. And don’t forget a pop of color on the back of the shelves is always a good look.

Give some love to the back wall

If you love layers in a room, adding a wallpaper pattern on the back wall of a built-in can really step up your design game. Wallpaper can add interest and pattern for a real designer touch. This would be best visible when the shelves display decorative items instead of books.

Wall mirrors or a textured treatment would be another option to add light reflection or textural interest to the back wall. Little details like this are not hard to add, but do add a lot of visual appeal in a room.

Update the moulding

While crown molding may have been all the rage in decades past, it can sometimes make built-ins and shelves feel dated. Removing or changing the moulding can make a big difference.

If your own built-ins stop short of the ceiling, remove the crown and continue the line of the bookshelves all the way up to the ceiling. Adding a flat surface header can extend the eye up and create a modern silhouette. Use clean lines to trim out the built-ins and make each space seem more special.

This would also be a great place to add some stunning scones that can highlight all the items displayed within your built-in.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern hardware update

Upgrade Your Hardware

Sometimes, it’s the little details that make the biggest difference. Swapping out old, outdated hardware for sleek, modern knobs and pulls can instantly elevate the look of your built-ins.

Plan this before painting, especially if you want to exchange your hardware for a totally different look and size. Fill all existing holes with paintable wood filler, sand, and prep before doing any repainting.

Create Visual Interest with Open Shelving

If your built-ins are feeling a bit too bulky or closed-off, consider incorporating some open shelving above to break up the space and add visual interest. Open shelving not only creates a modern feel but also gives you the perfect opportunity to display your favorite decorative objects and books.

This is a great project choice if your base cabinets are still intact and useful. Simply remove the top part of the built-in and prep to hang floating shelves. For small spaces, this could visually open the area and breathe life into an otherwise crowded area, without compromising storage space.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern

Spacing and removing shelves

Another ‘no project’ way to update your built-in and shelves to look more modern is simply to remove some of the shelves. Spreading the shelves out and creating a higher visual space for larger objects can make your old built-in see new again!

Doing this simply requires a bit of styling, and your built-in can look freshened up quickly. With larger height on the shelves, it can provide a great space to prop up art against the back wall. Propping items on a shelf leaves you open to easily switch things around seasonally, with no worries of nail holes.

Look at the space as a whole

In our first empty nest home, we had a spacious upstairs hallway. There were two built-in cabinets and drawers flanking a window, which provided much light for the upper hallway. But the cabinets felt dated.

A simple solution to make them work better for us was to add moulding on the outside of the existing cabinet doors and drawer fronts to create a shaker style door. This was a door profile that would be seen throughout the house.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern window seat

We then, made the space feel like a well thought out area by adding a built-in window seat, visually connecting the two cabinets. This created a little reading nook and made the space feel more intentional.

Look at the space as a whole, and make the changes that will provide your desired vibe, along with making the most sense. Function is always top in my book, and there are always stylish ways to update areas to feel more modern while making them work for how you live.

My weird little built-in

Another weird little area in our current home is in the primary bedroom. A small built-in bookcase that just seemed lonely and sad, and a bit too deep, as it was built with dead space over a fireplace.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern before in bedroom

It’s strange how some of these were originally built, since back when they were, entertainment centers weren’t really a thing. This built-in was even too deep effectively for books, and it just seemed awkward. It really didn’t provide much space in the way of storage.

Once I was re-doing the space as a whole, it finally looked less out of place. I had put up board and batten in the room on the walls to give it architectural interest, and the little built-in finally looked better.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern redone with board and batten

I did not alter anything with the built-in (the shelves are stationary). But when it became part of the whole look of the room, it ceased looking like the awkward built-in from a bygone era.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern look

Whatever you do, make it work for you

At the end of the day, modernizing old built-ins and shelves is all about making them work for your personal style and storage needs. Whether you’re painting, swapping out hardware, or adding open shelving, the key is to make it your own.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern styled

And remember, with all the different ways that you can make built-in and shelves look more modern, you don’t even have to do an entire project. Choosing even a small detail, like adding the front trim, or removing upper shelves, can be an improvement and make your space more modern very quickly.

how to make old built-ins and shelves look more modern

I love it when you can get an improved more modern look without having to do a big hairy project. Sometimes simply rethinking and restyling can get you closer to your home decorating goals.

For more ideas and inspiration, follow me on Pinterest.


  1. Christine says:

    I love this look so much! Those built-ins give such interest and character!

  2. Yes! And sometimes, just the simple act of removing a shelf or two and spacing them out, makes a huge difference!

  3. What a difference! I have thought about painting, my built-ins before, but I have never thought about changing out the shelving! That really made a difference in yours.

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