Q&A / 

Kitchen Island Design Tips

DEAR TIM: For years I've wanted a kitchen island. After looking through many magazines and websites, my head is swimming with possibilities. Can you share any kitchen island design tips you've discovered in all your years dealing with them? How about a list of what works and what doesn't? I also need some help on the top for the island. What do you feel works best and why? If there's room, how about some installation tips? Donna P., Waltham, MA

DEAR DONNA: You make me out to be an old goat that's seen more kitchen islands than a lifeguard's seen swimmers on a summer weekend. The truth be told, I've seen and installed more islands than I care to remember.

This kitchen island is one of two in the same room and sports furniture-like touches to make it very distinctive. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

This kitchen island is one of two in the same room and sports furniture-like touches to make it very distinctive. PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Carter

I think the biggest mistake homeowners make when planning and designing an island is they think bigger is better. That's not the case. Some of the most functional kitchen islands are ones that are as small as 42-inches long. Small kitchen islands that are 2 feet wide by 4 feet long work really well.

The clearance around an island is usually what constrains the size. At the very least you want 36-inches of space between the edges of the island top and any other solid object like another countertop, appliances, or walls. Thirty-nine inches is better and 42-inches would be ideal.

Most islands are created using a standard kitchen cabinet that's 2-feet deep. I've seen tremendous innovation from semi-custom kitchen cabinet manufacturers when it comes to islands. With a little effort, you'll be able to design an island with features that make it look like a fine piece of furniture instead of a ho-hum base cabinet box with some matching plywood on the back.

Ball feet, inset doors, twisted rope columns, raised bars for sitting, etc. are all possible. If you choose the right cabinet company, custom islands that look like furniture will come completely assembled from the factory. I just installed one of these in my own home about six months ago. What used to take a day to assemble, I had done in 20 minutes and was moving on to the next cabinet.

One mistake I see made all the time is an island that resembles an aircraft carrier. I've seen islands that are 5-feet wide or more. You can't even reach the center with your arms to clean it. Remember, less is often better.

Think about what cooking and baking tasks you can relegate to the island. This can put a helper in another part of the kitchen without causing a log jam on a regular countertop. When you design with function in mind, all sorts of good things happen. Take a deep breath and think about what tasks you can relegate to the island and design for that purpose.

For example, you may decide to make the island the headquarters for baking and desserts. Think of putting your commercial mixer on a spring-loaded tray that folds up out of the island and lowers back down out of sight when not needed. Pullout drawers in the other cabinet can be loaded with all of the other accessories you need while preparing these specialty foods.

The back of a kitchen island is a perfect space if you have lots of cookbooks to store. This allows you to make the top deeper, 38 inches total tip to tip, in case you want more surface room to work.

Marble is the preferred surface for an island top for bakers. The cool stone is very friendly to rolling out dough. I'm partial to granite for its durability and the deep and varied colors that are available. Traditional plastic laminate will do a great job on an island if it's cared for.

Be sure to plan for electrical outlets in the island. I'd be sure to put one at each end. If you have the room, microwaves work great in kitchen islands, especially the ones that have a drawer design instead of a swinging door. We love ours here at the Carter Goat Farm.

Kitchen island installation varies in complexity. It all depends if the island comes pre-assembled from the factory. The common thread with all islands is they need to be secured to the floor so they don't slide across the floor when someone leans into it.

You can easily lock an island into position using blocks of wood that are screwed to the floor. If you locate these with extreme precision, you can often lift the island and drop it down on the blocking just like a tight-fitting box lid fits over the outer edges of a box.

This method can be used on any island, but must be used for the islands that look like furniture. You don't want to have unsightly screws that go through the sides of the island into the hidden blocking if you can avoid it.

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