1970s Vintage Pantry Gets a Makeover

Note: this article is written by Renee Matt, editor of EverythingPantry.com and covers the highlights of a 70s kitchen pantry makeover.  If you want an in-depth look at how she organized her deep pantry shelves, what containers she used, lighting, and cost of the makeover visit "Winning Organizers for Deep Pantry Shelves."

Do you want to know to update an old pantry? An old pantry can be renewed with brand new shelving or use surface treatments to transform the old pantry with paint, wall paper, and a new floor.

An outdated small pantry needs a new look

In my Iowa farmhouse, my 1970s outdated kitchen pantry was in great need of an update. The small step-in pantry saw signs of age: battered plywood shelving, old contact paper, and bright 70s green linoleum. The small space lived a previous life as a clothes closet, hence the deep shelves.

Replacing the shelving would have been a good choice, but I took a different path.  I wanted to see if I could transform a plywood pantry. Could surface treatments alone turn an ugly duckling into a swan? Let's find out!

1970s pantry makeover before and after.

1970s pantry makeover before and after.

1970s after pantry makeover

1970s "after" pantry makeover.

1970s "before" pantry makeover.

1970s "before" pantry makeover.

One word about pantries from the 70s. Back then, there were no wire shelving pantry systems. There was also not many shopping options in the way of home improvement stores.  Wood was still the material of choice, and often contact paper was the most available interior design go-to tool.  I will also add that the time period had no Pinterest or other online platforms for pantry design ideas.  Anyone with a diy pantry like this would have felt lucky!

Outdated step-in pantry has deep shelves and narrow walkway

The picture above shows the before image of the pantry. The shelf "holes" were quite cavernous, it was difficult to retrieve items from the back, especially on the lower section, and it just wasn't inspiring to be in.  When in a hurry (when am I not?) big items were set on the floor to be dealt with later. For a step-in pantry, the floor needs to be clear at all times.  That was one of the problems that bothered me the most.

Look for ideas to inspire you before you start a pantry makeover

I looked around for some design inspiration and ways to style a pantry. A picture of a herbal wallcovering caught my eye. It was paired with classic built-in cabinets painted sage green. Overstock.com had a close pattern called "Nami Olive Floral Wallpaper" (this pattern was readily available on multiple websites). From the Overstock.com product page: "Beautiful olive flowers blossom in this textured design creating a timeless and delicate look." Yes, that was what I was going for!

Prepare pantry shelves for painting

These are the steps I had to take prior to painting my pantry shelves. I wished I could have jumped right to painting, but there was repair work on walls and shelves, besides priming everything. If I was going to put the effort in to painting my pantry, I wanted to lay a good foundation first.

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Removing contact paper from old wood shelves

The part I thought would be the most challenging was no problem: removing the decades-old contact paper from plywood. To remove old contact paper from wood selves, use a hair dryer on high heat and direct at the contact paper and carefully pull to remove. Within minutes I had peeled off the retro contact paper by aiming the blow dryer at a peeled up area with one hand, while pulling up with my other hand.

how to remove old contact paper from wood

These photos show the condition of the 1970s contact paper, the removal from plywood with a hair dryer, and another example showing painting over the contact paper.

Clean plywood before painting pantry shelves

I cleaned and prepped the plywood shelves and surfaces using Krud Kleaner.  It's important to clean plywood and other surfaces prior to painting to remove any grease or debris. Everything must be squeaky clean for new paint to stick well!  

Make plywood look nice

Applying an edge band to plywood pantry shelves or covering the edges with contact paper conceals the rough edges, helping them to look smoother and more attractive.  I didn't want to do either.  I felt spackling the grain and edge smooth would give the pantry a more solid wood feel. I only put in the effort on the parts that could be seen.  Staying within budget meant not wasting materials.  

Ways to make plywood look smooth

I was very concerned that the plywood would continue to look like... plywood.   A neat tip I found online to get a smooth finish on plywood was to fill in the plywood shelf edges and grain with spackle (drywall compound) so it looked like smooth, solid wood. It's important to repeat the spackling step as necessary, what you see is what you get for the finished product (be sure to sand between applications). Once you prime over the dried spackle, touch-ups really aren't possible.  

repairing wall damage in pantry closet

Repairing wall damage in pantry closet and fixing brown stains coming through paint.

I only put in the effort on the parts that could be seen.  Staying within budget meant not wasting materials. Note the repairs that I made prior to painting. Of special note is having to fight the old spilled refinishing stain, which kept bubbling up under the primer. I give more details on this struggle in the article, "Battling Brown Spots Coming Through Paint."

smoothing edge plywood pantry shelves

Smoothing plywood pantry shelves edge withs spackle and finished painted pantry.

Leaving no brush marks starts with proper prep work before painting pantry shelves

After the prepping came the sanding.  I joke in my "Lessons I Learned From Painting a Pantry Closet" that that the default answer to everything is PRIME, SAND, and USE A ROLLER! Oh, and dust between each step with a tack cloth for the smoothest finish.  

Proper prep work is essential to leave no brush marks when painting shelves. Priming paint can leave dried brushmarks that won't come out later. Sanding helps remove impurities from the surface, but it can't remove everything. Dusting removes the finer particles that can "pimple" the surface when painted.

Thank goodness I wasn't painting pantry or kitchen cabinets where "no brush marks" is a big deal.  Really, this whole thing was a practice run in case some day I thought it would be a good idea to paint kitchen cabinets. The painting part took surprisingly long.  It's not the same as painting a single wall, everything is multiplied with the extra surfaces of top and bottom shelves and left and right sides of the shelving.  Also, there was only one shelf I could remove, so I had to paint everything in place.

Painting my pantry

Once primed and dried, I started in with the selected sage-colored paint.  I matched up my Sherwin-Williams color swatch book, "Clary Sage" SW 6178, 213-C3 to a semi-gloss Rustoleum Studio Color paint. My original plan was to go with a latex satin, but at the last minute, my pantry paint plans changed.  The semi-gloss is fine, but next time I think I will do the satin.

What parts to paint in pantry

As with all of my projects, new ideas come to me while I'm working. I could tell it was going to take a ridiculous amount of time to paint if I kept the wall one color and the shelf uprights and shelving another color. I opted for the shortcut and painted the wall and plywood all the same color, and I'm glad I did.

By doing so, I created a faux built-in cabinet look.  Paint really can do miracles!  The pretty sage green paint pulled all the little mis-matched scraps of plywood of different thicknesses together, fooling the eye. Instant charm at a fraction of the cost.

"The pretty sage green paint pulled all the little mis-matched scraps of plywood of different thicknesses together, fooling the eye."

Decorating the pantry

Every pantry needs a little "surprise" decor touch, and mine was a small art print I picked up at the local thrift store.  Details matter and the folkart print of a hen by Diane Ulmer Pedersen compliments the "Nami Olive Floral Wallpaper" perfectly.

Another design choice was to add opaque shelf liners to the shelves.  This was an additionaal cost, but I thought it would add another shade of color and texture by putting it over the sage green shelf. I like it, but it probably was not a make-or-break choice.  

Diane Ulmer Pedersen print of hen

Diane Ulmer Pedersen print of hen

Escaping a 1970s decor style

I looked into a lot of different options to update my 70s green linoleum floor.  Honestly, the floor was in mint condition.  I've painted floors before and was never happy with the outcome and how easily the paint scratched, even though I covered it with a polyurethane. I see a lot of people online paint the linoleum a solid color, or top it off with stencil paint. Those ideas didn't appeal to me either (a floor needs some type of texture to hide the dirt).  In the end, I bought a cute little black and cream woven checkered pantry rug. The homespun feel felt it belonged with the rustic art print and wallpaper theme.  I have to catch a break somewhere, right?

All vintage pantries have their unique charm, nooks, and crannies.  Nothing is standardized, but that's what makes them unique and curious.  I spent a lot of time exploring what storage could make my deep shelves easier to work with.  I splurged and bought a few different pantry container solutions to try out, and was surprised at the outcome.  

Learn how the "layering" strategy helped me find the best container solution for my deep pantry shelves.  

I love my 1970s pantry makeover!  One day I will get a new pantry, but until then, it's fun to enjoy an update in at least one part of my farmhouse!

1970s pantry with deep shelves gets a makeover

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is a former kitchen designer, home remodeling enthusiast (having lived through several DIY projects), and an Iowa farmwife. Renee is passionate about preparedness, garden skills, and knowing where her food comes from. Years of being a stay-at-home mom and supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life.

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