Kitchen design tips

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(Imported from the FAQ: Written by Charles (Joe) Stahelin  [Pronounced "Stay-lin"!])

These notes are based on experience in military and educational establishments as the manager responsible for overseeing catering, including the planning and oversight of major and minor kitchen modifications, the complete refurbishment of one kitchen and, finally, the d-i-y installation of a domestic kitchen. Cost has always forced compromise.

The kitchen (arguably in competition with the bathroom) is the most functional room in the house. The first consideration should, therefore, be suitability for the tasks to be performed and not appearance as so often seems to be the case. Time should be spent working out, in detail, the way in which the room and the facilities contained or to be installed in it will be used in the face of the constraints imposed by the locations of entrances and exits, water and drainage, gas, electrics, lighting, ventilation, and such like.  Some will be adjustable, some may be too difficult or too costly to adjust.  All will be affected, and the whole matter is likely to be complicated, avoidably, by the modern modular cabinet.

Safety must be a prime consideration, particular attention being given to the activities and antics of children of all ages, the top of the hob and items that might be on it, and to the conflicting uses of space in proximity to exits and entrances.

No design decision should be made without careful consideration of its impact on both day-to-day (which really means moment-to-moment) and long term care and maintenance. Kitchen cleaning is an ongoing and essential task which can be made more bearable by thoughtful design and furnishing.

The final arrangement must be generally acceptable to reasonable people so that, in the longer term, potential buyers of the property are not discouraged.

Buy or Build ?

Except in the ultra-expensive world, buying means acceptance of the currently fashionable modular 'cabinet' system which is probably the easiest solution but is rarely entirely satisfactory because of the limitations imposed by the building, and because of personal preferences. The cabinets are one part of the deal and the fronts are another. A view, not based on research, and perhaps rather jaundiced, is that there are two or three manufacturers of cabinets, all of similar quality, which are taken up by kitchen retailers who design their own range of fronts and pile on the price to make what profit they can having due regard to the fashion of the moment. A major disadvantage of this modular 'cabinet' system is inadequate drawer capacity; even purpose designed cutlery drawers tending to be too small and, in particular too shallow, for their intended purpose. The resultant concentration on cabinets rather than drawers results in some drawbacks in use. When mother (or house-father) is at home and in the kitchen, children may be more conveniently supervised or educated, or both, whilst 'helping' mother: ask the willing child to get something out of a cabinet and the result in early years is that, whilst the child grasps the required item in its hand, it clears the shelf with the elbow it has not yet learned to control. Pregnant mum needs to avoid the often complicated contortions involved in extracting this and that, including heavy stacks of plates, from the back of the low shelf in the cupboard. The author, in common with most older people, is not at his best scrabbling in the bottom of a cupboard.

Consider the changed situation if easy-running drawers are used instead of cabinets: a child can see and extract the required article; both pregnant mum and grandmother can lift heavy items directly to the worktop without undue stretching and twisting.

Building from scratch offers a greater degree freedom in design and layout, and allows the inclusion of some tricks that may not be done as easily with standard modular cabinets. It is probably cheaper as, apart from timber and board, the items to be purchased are drawer slides, possibly a pull-out larder unit, a carousel fitting if a corner is involved, and material for the worktop itself.

Floor Considerations

Common problems are wood rot at floor level or the intrusion of wet and dirt along the line where the cabinet fronts and sides join the floor.  This can be prevented by laying on the floor a concrete plinth just sufficient in height to hold back the depth of water that may be expected to lie on the floor during cleaning - say half an inch, with other dimensions to suit the structure which is to stand upon it. This will avoid both wood rot and the need for any floor cleaning within the area covered by the cabinets. Ideally a similar plinth will be provided for all stationary items standing on the kitchen floor, e.g. refrigerator, washing machine. If conditions permit (which is not often the case), the continuation of this low plinth across doorways will isolate the kitchen floor from the rest of the house and will ease wet cleaning of the kitchen floor. An alternative to a plinth would be to fit waterproof coving to the floor so that equipment could be stood within it; but this might turn out in use to be rather fragile.

A better solution is to start off by laying the kitchen floor with a fall to a drain so that all water poured on the floor makes its way to the drain and the whole character of floor cleaning is changed. The amount of water used in cleaning will be greater and a higher plinth is required to ensure no overflow and doorways need special consideration (easy if all are on the high sides of the floor). This plinth should be about 1.75in above the floor at its closest point to the floor in order to leave space for a brush to get under edges and into the corners during washing down..

The floor covering can be either square edged tiles laid tight together as in swimming pools with coving tiles along the edges, or good quality synthetic floor-sheeting, coved at the edges, and welded at all joints.

The Worktop Corner

If the worktop extends on both sides of a corner the space is usually best utilised by fitting a "Carousel" which has two circular shelves and which can be revolved under the worktop to bring the required portion of the shelf out into the corner opening.

Wall and Worktop Considerations

It is essential that wall surfaces adjacent to working areas are 'easy-clean'. Ceramic tiling is probably the easiest and most common solution. Stainless steel sheet is a sound solution if its appearance is acceptable.

The joint between worktops and adjacent walls must be watertight. Steel sink tops usually have integral upstands along their back edge but not along the sides. If the sink edge butts onto a wall the best solution is an integral upstand along that edge of the sink: this may be difficult to find although, cost permitting, it should be possible to arrange for one to be added (Try your friendly local Steel Fabricator if the supplier is unable to help - the friendly one might even build a sink for you to suit, exactly, your design need in every respect. The source of these friends is Yellow Pages or pub gossip and the like).

Tiled tops can be coved at the edges and the tiling can be continued up the wall. Coving pieces are usually available to match worktops made out of wood products. Metal joining strips are available for use when joining pieces of worktop and their use will ensure that joints are sound.

Relationship of Vertical Faces

To take full advantage of the easy clean floor the worktop should overhang the front of the cabinet, and then the cabinet should overhang the front of the plinth, so that anything falling off the worktop falls directly to the floor without making a mess on the front of the cabinets.

The Kitchen Sink

The component which perhaps has the greatest influence over the final design is the sink unit. However, once the self-build decision has been taken many of the constraints disappear as the builder is free to choose its precise position in the run.  Draining boards do not affect the nature of the cabinets below them, but space must be provided under the worktop for the sink bowl(s).

Decisions have to be made: one or two bowls; the size of the bowl(s); one or two draining boards; the overall size of the sink unit; and whether or not to fit a destructor unit under an outlet (drain hole).

Some degree of choice is available regarding the depth of the sink bowl: the advantage of having a deeper than normal sink should be considered provided that it will not conflict with the installation of a waste disposal unit if this is intended. There should not be any problem but the dimensions of disposal units may vary and attention needs to be paid to the vertical dimensions of the disposal unit and the relative positions of the sink outlet and the connection to the drain. An additional item that may be appreciated is a small pump action soap dispenser which can be fitted into the sink unit close to the tap base.  Taps come as separate items.

It is best to find a sink specialist by searching the internet and asking friendly plumbers or or plumbers merchants, and so on. In Leeds there is such a firm going under the name Northern Sinks Ltd. It is their business to know in detail just what is available on the market, they have manufacturers catalogues to refer to, and know all the little wrinkles about disposal units (which need enlarged drain holes in the sink base), soap pumps and the like. They are trade outlets and may be expected to discount the retail price.

Think five times before selecting one of those pretty little multi-bowl sinks that currently seem so popular, and then think again about large Sunday lunches and defective washing machines.   Once the sink has been selected the remainder of the design can be completed allowing for drawers, cupboards, ovens, hobs or whatever.

The Structure

It was not thought necessary to fit wall panels between the compartments and they remain that way. At the time of construction it was thought that there might be advantages in fitting a false floor flush with the tops of the base timbers and preparation for this was made by fitting cross timbers between the long timbers on the plinth and by cutting rebates suitable for 4mm ply on the inner edges of the squares.   Plywood has since been fitted in order to improve appearance.

If the run includes a corner care should be taken to set the long timbers at an exact right angle in order to avoid the complication of peculiar angles within the individual compartments. Any deviation from a right angle is taken up by packing the timbers out from the wall itself, where necessary, and by shaping (scribing) the work top to fit snug to the wall.

Drawers and Doors

The drawers were solidly made with dovetails at the four corners and a piece of 9mm ply grooved in all round as the base. The slides used provided for the fitting of independent drawer fronts which were made of medium density fibre board (MDF) edged with a standard hockey-stick moulding to provide some relief on the fronts themselves. 0.75in MDF was used but 0.5in would probably do as well. Strips of the same MDF were fitted to the frame timber with sufficient left clear to be overlapped by the drawer fronts and to provide something for them to close onto.  In order to keep the general appearance tidy, in some cases inner drawers without fronts were set above the main drawers. This works well: as an instance, the cutlery drawer has been treated in this way so that day-to-day stuff is seen when the main drawer is opened, that for high days and holidays being kept in the upper inner drawer which can be pulled out over the lower drawer whenever necessary. The height of the whole thing provides room for three good sized drawers to be set one above each other: the only limit on width is the need to stay within sensible load limits. It really is a return to good old fashioned kitchen drawers - but drawers which can be opened with one finger !

There are no cupboards in the set-up but the doors for the carousel and the pull-out larder follow the style of the drawers and are fronted with the same material.  Two sizeable pull-out slides have been fitted immediately below the work top and above the drawers. They take up little space and are much used on busy occasions.


The fronts were dyed with Colron wood dye and finished with BourneSeal Natural which is an oleo-resinous seal much used as a seal for wooden floors. In nine years these have required no attention beyond a one-coat 'wipe over' with a much thinned-out coat of BourneSeal.  There have been no breakdowns or problems.

Items to be Thought About

  • Broom and utility cupboards. Should be well ventilated to cope with drying mops, etc..
  • Storage of non-food items - cleaning materials, etc, etc.
  • Under-worktop sockets for gas igniter and waste disposal unit, if any.
  • Over-worktop sockets for mixers and other power tools including kettles.
  • Cooker hood with or without fan.
  • Kitchen extractor fan(s)
  • Kitchen waste bin. ? give it a drawer of its own - it works well if there is space for it. It has got to stand somewhere so why not tuck it away in a convenient place - like beside the sink.
  • Magnetic knife racks - 2 set parallel one above the other will be safe for large and small knives.
  • High level cupboards and shelves
  • Wall or ceiling hooks. Wall hooks are an easy and very convenient way of providing easy access to frequently used equipment such as long spoons and ladles, tongs, scissors, this, that and the other, but not forgetting the steel which should be used frequently.
  • Changing the back door of the kitchen into a stable door so that the top half can be opened independently for ventilation whilst the bottom controls both infants and pets merits consideration. It is good for cleaning on whilst looking at the view or chatting-up the milkman - or for seeing what the children are doing in the garden. It does provide a more friendly touch than a wholly closed door whilst still demarcating the inside and the outside of the house.
  • Is there space for a lavatory ? There is something in the regulations about loo doors not opening into food handling areas.
  • Telephone extension for mum ?
  • Etc.