Build a Beautiful Kitchen Island

Learn how to combine pre-made cabinets to create storage and work space.

Flip through any kitchen-remodeling magazine and you’ll likely see plenty of islands. These structures are popular because they provide extra storage as well as counter space for food preparation and dining. In addition, they create a central location for people to gather and socialize.

If you think islands are just for enormous “dream” kitchens, here’s the good news: An island can greatly improve the functionality of an average-size kitchen — and you don’t need an overhaul to accommodate one. My sister was recently hoping to add counter and cabinet space to her 1920s-era bungalow kitchen without tackling a major remodel. She had no available wall space, but she had 100 sq. ft. of open floor space — perfect for an island.

The island we designed was easy to build and relatively inexpensive. The total cost was $500 for materials, and construction didn’t require any stationary power tools.

The secret to the design is using stock or ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets for the island’s base. These cabinets are sized to fit in a variety of spaces, so they’re easy to mix and match into different configurations. We covered the unfinished sides with 1/4-in. bead board, added a simple laminate countertop and installed casters to make the island mobile.

The beauty of this island is its design flexibility. You can easily modify it to suit any kitchen’s size or style.

Determine Island Size
An island doesn’t have to be big to be useful. In many cases adding a small island to a kitchen that has limited counter space makes a bigger impact than adding a large island to a spacious kitchen.

Although your kitchen doesn’t have to be large to accommodate an island, you’ll need at least 50 sq. ft. of open floor space (see “Kitchen Island Basics,” below). An island that’s forced into a tight space will prove to be a hindrance.

If your space is limited, consider incorporating a drop-leaf countertop extension that folds down when not in use. This is a great space-saving feature, but it limits your material choices: To prevent the drop leaf from being too heavy, you shouldn’t use tile or natural stone.

Kitchen Island Basics

The most useful islands are large enough to accommodate guests and food preparation at the same time. Consider both the size of the island and the clearance around the island when determining dimensions.

Large kitchens pose their own challenges. Big islands are not necessarily better — they can hamper traffic flow. You should be able to reach the center of the island from at least two sides.

On the other hand, you don’t want to make the island too small. To integrate well with the rest of the kitchen, the island should be no more than 60 in. from the existing cabinets. Otherwise it may seem too inconvenient for daily use.

Once you have determined the size of the island, tape a paper or cardboard template onto the kitchen floor. This way you can envision how the island will function and make sure it will fit the space. Don’t worry about minor measurement changes at this point; you may need to slightly modify the size to fit the dimensions of the cabinets you choose.

Select Cabinets
With the island’s size and placement in mind, the next step is to select cabinets that will serve as the base. Unless you live in a new house or have recently replaced your cabinets, you probably won’t find an exact match for your existing cabinets. Instead, look for cabinets that complement the kitchen’s design. A different material or finish makes the island stand out as an accent piece.

Stock cabinet choices at home centers will likely be limited to two or three styles, including white, a light or dark finished wood and possibly an unfinished wood (typically oak). Most cabinet retailers also offer a variety of RTA cabinet styles that you can order.

Once you have selected a cabinet style, make a list of the wall and base cabinet sizes that the retailer stocks. Then create a combination of cabinets that closely matches your intended island size. Don’t worry about the height difference between the base cabinets and the wall cabinets; you’ll cut off the base cabinets’ 4-1/2-in. toe kick before assembly.

Creating a configuration that fits your dimensions might be easier than you think (see “Cabinet Combinations,” below, for examples). But keep in mind that you may have to add or subtract a few inches from your intended island dimensions.

Cabinet Combinations

Manufactured cabinets are typically sized in increments of 6 and 12 in., making them easy to combine into a variety of island-base layouts. Use a single base to create a small island or combine base and wall cabinets to create a larger island.

Choose a Countertop
The countertop offers another opportunity for creativity. Any material you would use as a kitchen countertop will work well on an island. To provide contrast, consider using a different color or material from that of your existing countertops.

Laminate and tile are the most affordable and DIY-friendly countertop options (see “Tile Countertop Option,” below). You can also make a concrete countertop. Solid-surface and natural stone countertops are more expensive than concrete and usually require a professional fabricator.

Determine the countertop dimensions by adding 1 to 2 in. (for overhang) to the cabinet dimensions. If you are building a drop leaf, don’t forget to include its dimensions when ordering materials.

Tile Countertop Option

As an alternative, its not difficult to build a tile countertop with wood edging. Use large (12-in. or greater) ceramic, stone or granite wall or floor tiles to limit the number of grout lines. Keep the grout lines narrow (about 1/8 in. wide) to give the top a smoother appearance.

The tile rests on a substrate made from 3/4-in. plywood and 1/2-in. tile backer board. Determine the substrate size by subtracting 1-1/2 in. from the final countertop length and width. Cut the substrate pieces to size and lay out the tiles, including grout spacing, on the substrate. Cut oversize tiles to fit using a diamond-blade tile saw.

The tile is bordered by wood edging. Miter 3/4 x 1-1/2-in. wood strips to fit around all sides of the countertop. Sand the surfaces and ease the top edge. Coat all faces of the edging with primer before attaching it.

Fasten the plywood substrate to the island base with 1-1/4-in. screws. Next, apply a bed of thinset mortar to the plywood with a 1/4-in. square-notched trowel, and fasten the tile backer board to the plywood using 1-1/4-in. backer board screws.

Apply a bed of thinset mortar over the backer board using a 1/4-in. square-notched trowel. Place the tiles in the mortar, leaving 1/8 in. between tiles.

When the mortar is dry, attach the primed wood edging to the plywood substrate with glue and 1-1/2-in. finish nails. Keep the top of the edging flush with the top of the tiles. Apply sanded grout with a grout float. Work the float diagonally across the grout lines to completely fill them with grout.

Clean off excess grout with a damp sponge. Wipe the sponge diagonally across the grout lines to avoid pulling out the grout. Rinse the sponge frequently. Let the grout cure overnight; then buff off the remaining residue with a cloth. Apply a grout sealer to protect the grout from stains.

Choose Hardware
Depending on your design, you may need casters, door and drawer pulls, drop-leaf hinges and supports and accessories such as a towel bar. Buy only good-quality casters; they’ll make the island easy to move and won’t squeak. Select casters that are 4-1/2 in. tall and have at least a 200-pound load rating.

There are two options for supporting a drop leaf. We used a manufactured drop-leaf support, but you can also make wood support brackets. You’ll need to attach the brackets to the cabinet with hinges so that they fold out to hold up the leaf and fold in next to the cabinet when not in use.

Build the Base
Start by assembling the cabinets (if necessary). Most RTA cabinets require only a screwdriver, a hammer and glue to assemble.

Once the cabinets are assembled, cut the toe kicks off of the base cabinets (photo 1). Next, position the cabinets in the island configuration you have designed. Cover any exposed unfinished edges with heat-activated edge banding (photo 2), or paint or stain them to match the cabinets.

Cut the 4-1/2-in.-wide toe kick off of the base cabinets using a circular saw and straightedge guide. Apply masking tape over the cut line to help prevent chipping the cabinet finish.

Cover any unfinished cabinet edges that will remain exposed with heat-activated edge banding. Heat the tape with a household iron, and use a small roller to press the tape down. After the tape has cooled, trim the excess with an edge banding trimmer (available where edge banding is sold), a sharp knife or a chisel.

Fasten the cabinets together with 1/4-in.-dia. bolts. I used connector bolts, available at most home centers, because they have a cleaner finished appearance (photo 3).

Connect the cabinets with 1/4-in.-dia. connector bolts. Clamp the cabinets together and drill 5/16-in.-dia. pilot holes through the cabinets. Tighten the bolts with a set of allen wrenches.

A base panel supports the assembled cabinet grouping and provides a secure place to fasten the casters. Cut a piece of 3/4-in. interior-grade plywood for the base panel. Finish the edges with edge banding, paint or stain, and fasten the panel to the cabinets with 1-1/4-in. wood screws (photo 4).

Attach a plywood base panel to the cabinet bottoms. Apply construction adhesive; then clamp and secure the base panel with 1-1/4-in. screws.

To make the island look like unified piece, you’ll need to hide any seams that do not butt up against cabinet doors. Cover the seams and any unfinished cabinet faces with bead board paneling or 1/4-in. plywood that matches the cabinet finish (photo 5).

Cover unfinished panels and seams with 1/4-in. sheet stock. (We used bead board.) Apply paneling adhesive to the cabinets, and secure the panel with 3/4-in. finish nails.

Before attaching the countertop, fasten the casters to the base panel (photo 6).

Position the casters 1-1/2 in. from the cabinet edges, and fasten them to the base panel with 1-1/4-in. screws.

Make the Countertop
We chose to make a laminate countertop because it is the most affordable option and comes in a wide variety of styles. Construction was simple: We secured the laminate to a particleboard substrate with contact cement and trimmed the excess with a router.

Attach 3/4 x 3-in. particleboard buildup strips to the substrate with glue and 1-1/4-in. screws. The strips must be flush with the edges of the substrate.

Miter 3/4 x 1-1/2-in. solid wood strips for the top edging. The inside dimension of the edging should be the same as the particleboard substrate. Attach the edging with glue and 1-1/4-in. finish nails.

Use a short-nap roller to apply a thin, even coat of contact cement to the top of the substrate and to the back of the laminate. After the first coat is dry, apply a second coat of adhesive.

Applying the laminate is not difficult, but trimming it can be a little tricky. If you slip while trimming the top laminate, you can ruin the edge laminate. We simplified the process by laminating only the top surface and covering the edges with solid wood that we painted to match the laminate.

Use scrap sticks of wood to keep the laminate from making contact prematurely. Working from the center of the countertop, remove the sticks and press the laminate down with a roller.

Trim the laminate flush with the edges of the substrate. Use a router and bottom-bearing- piloted flush-trim bit. Ease the sharp laminate edges with a router and bevel-trim bit or a wood file.

If your island includes a leaf, connect the leaf to the countertop with hinges. The hinges we used are designed for use on drop-leaf tables. The hinge plate on the leaf side is longer than the hinge plate on the countertop side.

If your design includes a drop leaf, construct it in the same way that you build the countertop, and fasten it to the countertop with hinges before attaching the countertop to the base.

Attach the Countertop
Wood countertops or countertops with a wood substrate, such as laminate, tile or butcher block, are attached to the base with screws. Add L-brackets to create anchoring points where necessary, such as in the back corners of base cabinets (photo 13). Drive a screw near each corner and every 8 in. around the perimeter (photo 14).

Attach L-brackets to the cabinet where there is no means of attaching the top. The back corners of this cabinet needed L-brackets because there was no stretcher.

Attach the countertop. Drive 1-1/2- to 2-in. screws from inside the cabinet into the countertop. Be careful not to drive the screws through the laminate top.

Secure natural stone or solid-surface countertops with silicone-caulk adhesive. Run a continuous bead along the top edges of the base; then, with a helper, carefully place the countertop on the base. Allow the caulk to fully cure (about 24 hours) before moving the island.

If your design includes a drop leaf, attach the drop-leaf supports after the countertop and drop leaf are attached to the base (photo 15).

Attach the drop-leaf support hardware to the cabinet side and to the bottom of the leaf. Clamp a straight scrap of wood under the countertop edge and leaf to support the leaf and keep it flush with the top while you install the hardware.

The final step is to install accessories such as a towel bar, bottle opener or paper towel holder. After that, you can put the added storage space to use and encourage friends to gather at your new kitchen oasis.

Want more?
Learn how to build cabinet doors like a pro here.
Paint your cabinets and transform your kitchen here.