Kitchen Remodeling on the Cheap: Proven Ideas for Creating Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget
So, you're tired of your old kitchen. Well, you are not alone.
According to the annual survey by, Kitchen & Bath Business, the trade journal of kitchen and bath remodeling professionals, so are over 5 million other homeowners who plan to remodel their kitchens this year.
But, at a price tag of $7,000 to for a facelift and up to $50,000 or even more for a complete tear-out and redo, kitchen remodeling on a limited budget can be a real challenge – but not an impossible one.
And, the effort can pay big dividends. According to Remodeling Magazine's latest "Cost vs. Value Report", even modest kitchen remodeling provides a higher return on investment than almost any other remodeling project – meaning that you can enjoy your kitchen for years to come, plus reap a nice return on your investment if you decide to sell your home down the road.
Staying on budget does not have to mean doing without either essentials or some very nice refinements. You just have to choose wisely and use common sense.
We build dozens of kitchens each year, and over the years have learned a few things about how to build beautiful, functional kitchens that are at the same time affordable.
Here are some ideas that we have found work well.
Your cabinets will make the most visual impact in your new kitchen and will probably be the single most costly part of your makeover – as much as 40%. But that doesn't mean they have to break the bank or look cheap.
Here are some tried and true ways to get cabinets that look like a million bucks but cost a whole lot less.
Don't automatically assume that factory cabinets from your lumber yard or big box home center are going to be cheaper than locally-made custom cabinets. This was probably true 20 years ago but not any longer.
New technologies such as affordable computer-controlled CNC milling machines have allowed local and regional cabinetmakers to duplicate the cost-lowering efficiencies of large-scale manufacturing. So, odds are that the local guy's prices are very competitive.
In fact, considering the enormous overhead of the major cabinet manufacturers, and the retail markup of the design studios and lumber stores that sell them, local cabinetmakers are often considerably less expensive because you are, in effect, buying them directly from the "factory", with no middleman.
Plus, from the local guy, you can get precisely sized and fitted cabinets. You are not stuck with a cabinet manufacturer's stock sizes.
In checking cabinet prices, make sure you are not comparing persimmons to pineapples.
Factory cabinets need to be installed and installation is not included in the price of the cabinets. Installation is "in addition to", and is often a costly addition to the price of the cabinets.
Local cabinets are usually priced installation included. Unless you are going to install the cabinets yourself, make sure your cabinet price quote includes installation.
Also, be mindful of the other costs typically added to the base price of factory cabinets. These may include delivery, assembly, and set up as well as installation. All of these "extras" can easily double the cost of a factory cabinet.
Stick to Stock
Instead of splurging on full custom cabinets with special doors designed by Cousin Nell (you know, the – ahem – artiste), use your cabinet maker's stock sizes, standard doors, and regular finishes.
Most shops have a catalog of dozens, if not hundreds of designs and finishes already available. One of them should suit you. Use true custom cabinets only in the one or two places where a stock cabinet will absolutely not work.
Fake It 'Til You Make It (Cheaper)
Gussy up a budget wood to look like something pricier.
Cherry finish on alder or soft maple looks as much like cherrywood as cherrywood does, and costs less than half what cherrywood costs. (Bet you can't say that fast).
Often even experts cannot tell absent a very close examination. Beech, maple, and birch can emulate a host of pricier hardwoods like walnut and mahogany.
Ask your cabinet maker for advice. It's usually free, and well worth listening to.
Drawer and cabinet organizers are very useful but the cost of built-in custom organizers can add up fast. If you can make them work, use after-market lazy susans, spice racks, and other organizers rather than custom-built items.
But first, make sure the add-ons are actually cheaper. Sometimes they are not, or the added cost of installing them in already-built cabinets exceeds the savings on the aftermarket item.
Sweat Some Savings
Any work the cabinet maker does not have to do, you won't have to pay for, and there are some fairly easy but time-consuming cabinetmaking tasks you can probably do yourself.
- Knobs & Pulls: If you are at all handy, install door and drawer knobs or pulls that you buy yourself.
- Door & Drawer Hardware: You can almost certainly install the door hinges, and possibly the drawer runner hardware – saving about a half day of the cabinet maker's time.
- Stain & Varnish: You can probably stain and finish if the finish is not too complex. However, if it ivolves techniques such as overglazing or color washing, leave it to the pros (or pick a simpler finish).
Efficient Economical Appliances
Your new appliances will do lots of work, and use a lot of electricity. They deserve careful selection and a good balance between initial cost and lifetime operating expense.
(Energy) Star Power
Don't buy an inefficient appliance just because it is cheaper. If the price difference is not too great (and maybe even if it is) buy Energy Star® appliances.
The Energy Star® Program
With a little research and careful shopping, an energy efficient appliance may actually end up costing the same as or less than its energy-hog cousin.
Many communities offer tax credits or tax deductions to encourage the purchase of these high-efficiency appliances.
Also, see what your local utilities are doing. They usually have some kind of rebate or buying club program in place.
Watch for sales.
Manufacturers off-load last year's appliances (except refrigerators) in September and October. Then come the Christmas sales starting in November, and the super discounts in January when stores need to get rid of the remaining last year's models. Selection may be poorer but if you can find an appliance you like, the savings may be substantial.
In May look for deals on refrigerators. Most factories roll out their new refrigerators during the summer, so April and May are the months to look for discounts on last year's refrigerators.
In every case compare the FTC Energy Guide label information and pick the most energy-efficient appliance that meets your requirements.
Gadgets, Gizmos, and Gimmicks
Shy away from "bells and whistles" unless they will make a real difference in your day-to-day life. Most don't.
Of course, one man's gimmick is another's feature. Somebody must be buying this stuff or the appliance companies would not keep making it.
Carefully consider, however, if you will actually use features that are not necessary to the basic function of the appliance. A cooktop with a drop-in deep fryer or griddle is neat but what does it do that a couple of new pans cannot do just as well? And, for a lot less money.
The big thing today are smart refrigerators with LED screens that connect to the internet. They can display the family calendar, look up recipes, and let you leave notes for other family members. They know if the freezer door has been left open, the icemaker is empty, or you are running out of milk.
Messages sent to your smartphone keep informed up-to-the-minute of the goings-on in your refrigerator and connectivity to Alexa, Google Assistant, and IFTTT allow you to tell your refrigerator to make more ice or start thawing the chicken for dinner from your smartphone.
Someday smart refrigerators may be the centerpiece of a modern kitchen and we will wonder how we ever got along without them. But the technology is not there just yet. Refrigerators have been around for 100 years and have somehow managed to function just fine all that time without being particularly smart.
The other biggy is a built-in coffee service. Not only are these expensive to buy and install but they usually require you to use the appliance maker's specialized coffee packs.
The packs are expensive, and we don't think appliance companies have the know-how required to guarantee better quality coffee for the higher price. (We also don't think coffee bean farmers should be manufacturing appliances. But, hey, that's just us.)
Stainless steel is the new "must-have" appliance finish. We have no clue why.
Stainless ain't stainless. In fact, it's a maintenance nightmare. It shows the print of every finger that touches it and requires nearly daily cleaning to keep its good looks.
In restaurants, where stainless appliances originated, daily cleaning is a chore required by law but in your home kitchen, why pay more to get added work?
Appliance makers recognize the problem and have come up with stainless finishes that resist fingerprints, at an even greater cost of course. But, we think the best course for a budget-minded kitchen remodeler is just to stay away from the more costly and more troublesome stainless finish and go with something less maintenance-intensive.
Stick with white. It's cheaper, never goes out of style, and is everyone's second if not first choice of appliance color, so it's easy to resell.
Put your fab color scheme in something easy and cheap to change, like paint, wallpaper, and curtains. That way you won't be replacing your new "teal blue" appliances in 5 years because the color is so incredibly out of date. (If you are old enough to remember Avocado and Harvest Gold, you know exactly what we mean.)
The refrigerator is the big power hog in your kitchen, so buy the most efficient refrigerator you can afford. It will more than pay off in the long run.
As a general rule, the tried and true freezer on top models are going to cost less than side-by-sides which are less costly than newer freezer-on-bottom and French door models.
Don't buy the model the manufacturer is advertising heavily. That's the most expensive model. Absolutely shun the so-called "professional" appliances. They are hugely expensive for what you get which is essentially a home appliance wrapped up in a restaurant-looking cabinet.
The current design trend is toward built-in refrigerators. These are just shallow refrigerators, often called cabinet-depth refrigerators, designed to be wrapped in cabinet wood to look like they are part of the cabinetry. Often they can be fitted with a wood door cover to look like a tall cabinet with big doors.
Figure on doubling your refrigerator budget to buy a cabinet-depth refrigerator which actually holds 30% less than its full-depth cousin. And add a few hundred dollars for your carpenter to build it in. If this is the look you want, fine. But expect to pay for it.
A much better choice, if you have the room (and most kitchens do), is to increase the depth of your base cabinets to match the depth of your normal refrigerator then wrap the refrigerator in a wood panel. The refrigerator looks built-in and you get a lot more countertop space and some extra drawer storage.
To learn more about the other advantages of opting for deeper base cabinets, see our article Off the Wall Kitchens: Living Without Upper Cabinets.
Home (Cooking) on the Range
A separate cooktop and wall oven are going to cost about twice as much as a good quality range with a built-in oven.
Unless you are or aspire to be a daily or near-daily baker, forget the wall oven. You won't use it enough to make it worth the price.
Wall ovens are also hard to design into small kitchens because of their sheer size and mass. They always seem to be in the way of other essential kitchen functions.
Range ovens are too low to the floor to be comfortable enough for frequent use but if you use it only once in a while, it's a bargain.
Many of us don't use the oven at all – substituting countertop toaster-ovens and microwaves, and most home cooks use it only once in a while.
Kitchen Myths and Fables
Refacing cabinets saves 50-75% over replacing the cabinets.
If your kitchen layout is good, and your cabinet arrangement works with your style of cooking, refacing is definitely an option. It will save something but probably closer to 15-20% over the cost of new cabinets.
Refacing cabinets requires that new doors and drawers and the entire exposed part of the cabinet box be repainted or veneered with new wood.
But, it is precisely the doors and drawers that are the expensive parts of the cabinet. The box itself is cheap.
What you really save is the installation cost. Since your cabinets are already installed, they do not have to be reinstalled.
The savings, however, will be nowhere near 50%.
Also, keep in mind that by keeping your old cabinets, you give up many of the nicer features of today's cabinets, including better hardware and door and drawer organizers not available 20-30 years ago.
Factory cabinets from big box stores cost a lot less than cabinet shop cabinets.
At one time, this was true. Thirty years ago the big cabinet manufacturers were so much more efficient than regional and local cabinetmakers that the price difference was significant.
Local shops have gotten a lot more efficient. Locally manufactured cabinets are now about the same price as equivalent factory cabinets when you consider that:
- Factory cabinets have to be shipped, often from far away, and this cost is added to the price.
- The cabinets have to be installed. With local cabinets, the installation is part of the package. The cost of installing factory cabinets is separate and in addition to the cost of the cabinets. We used to install for a major lumber-store chain, so we know what they charge, and it is not inconsiderable.
- Cabinets have to be designed. You cannot just order a handful of cabinets and expect them to fit your kitchen. Factory cabinets ordered through box stores are "designed" by a salesperson who has had only rudimentary training in kitchen design – usually about 3 days in a classroom. Local cabinets are designed by an experienced cabinet maker to precisely fit your kitchen.
- If a cabinet is damaged, missing or just the wrong size, a local cabinet maker can produce a replacement cabinet in a matter of days. A factory cabinet takes weeks. So the price goes up considerably if there is an error because the whole job has to wait until the replacement is delivered.
Of course, having said all that, there are exceptions.
- If you stay with stock cabinets in standard finishes, avoid high-markup fancy trim, moldings, and accessories; and look for sales, you can get a real deal on store cabinets.
- But before you order, make sure of the layout. We puzzle over why store designers do things like specify drawers that cannot open because another cabinet is in the way.
- Have the store measure your kitchen. That way if the cabinets don't fit because of a mismeasure, it is the store's problem to fix. There may be a small charge for this service, but it's worth it.
- Rather than contracting with the store to install the cabinets, hire a local carpenter, and have him double-check the design and measurements.
- It will almost always be cheaper. If the store installs the cabinets, it piles its overhead and profit onto the cost of installation. Also, you will often get better workmanship from the guy who depends on your satisfaction for his paycheck.
For more information on how cabinets are actually made in the 21st century, see Distributed Manufacturing: Today's Cabinetmaking Revolution.
For a detailed discussion of kitchen and bath cabinetry, visit Cabinet Basics. For peek at how cabinets are made and the differences between custom small-shop cabinets and factory cabinets, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.
Tall Tile Tales:
Porcelain is better than ceramic tile
Porcelain is just one type of ceramic tile. Historically the only difference has been that porcelain tiles were made of light clays while other ceramics were made of red and darker brown clays.
What makes the real difference in tile quality is how long and how hot tile is fired. Tiles fired longer at higher temperatures are denser, harder, and more impervious to water. This applies to any ceramic tile whether made of red clay or light clay.
Our recommendation, ignore the term "porcelain". Look for the tile that's the right size, durability, color, and luster. It does not matter whether a tile is porcelain or ceramic as long as it is graded for how it is to be used.
Learn more about how tiles are graded and the difference between grades at Porcelain or Ceramic: Is There a Difference?.
Tile grout stains and is nearly impossible to clean
There was a time when stain was a major worry when using grouted tile on a floor, countertop, or backsplash. The grout at the time was cement grout. It was inexpensive and came in a rainbow of colors. But cement is porous and has to be regularly sealed with silicon to remain looking fresh. Even with sealant, it would eventually get grungy.
The new grouts are very different. They are epoxy and urethane-based. You know urethane, the stuff used to make nearly indestructible polyurethane varnish.
Urethanes cure to a flexible, self-sealing, semi-elastic, hard finish that lasts for years and years without staining. Anti-microbial formulations for baths and kitchens also inhibit mold and mildew.
Epoxy, more expensive and more difficult to apply, is usually reserved for special situations. For most ordinary applications, urethane is more than adequate.
Hand-washing dishes rather than running the dishwasher saves water and electricity
This is one of our all-time favorite misconceptions. Many homeowners believe they're helping the environment and reducing their water bill by washing dishes the old-fashioned way rather than using a dishwasher. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Modern dishwashers use, on average, 1-1.5 kilowatt-hours of energy and 3.7 gallons of water (an amount equal to one full kitchen sink). Take into consideration how many full sinks you use to wash a pile of dishes and the amount of water you use for rinsing the dishes and it's easy to see how wrong this myth is.
Washing by hand consumes much more water than using your dishwasher, especially when you consider that washing dishes by hand is a daily affair whereas you may only run your dishwasher only every 2 or 3 days. A modern dishwasher is one of the most efficient appliances. In most localities (excluding the cost of detergent) it costs between 14¢ and 22¢ to wash a load of dishes.
So if you are going "Green" and thinking about leaving the dishwasher out of your new kitchen to help the environment, forget it. Buy the most efficient dishwasher you can afford. Stop washing by hand, just load dirty dishes as they are used into the dishwasher until it is full, then push the magic button.
For more information on saving water, read our article Saving Household Water.
Dishes should be "pre-rinsed" before being washed in a dishwasher.
Many thousands of people seem devoted to removing every spec of food from their dinnerware before putting it in the dishwasher. You can eliminate this "pre-rinse" for any dishwasher newer than 20 years old because it does not help your dishwasher get your dishes any cleaner.
Moreover, re-rinsing may actually harm your dishes because pre-rinsing causes the concentration of alkaline in dishwasher detergent to rise to high levels. Dishwasher detergents are made to clean stuck-on grease and grime. With no grease and grime to attack, the alkaline in the detergent attacks your dishes instead, making them appear cloudy, scratched, and in some cases, actually etching the surface.
Scrape away large bits of food but don't pre-rinse. By not pre-rinsing, you will save about 14,000 gallons of water each year. That 14,000-gallon figure is not a typo.
So here is an opportunity to save big by avoiding that expensive cooktop + wall-oven combination.
If you have natural gas in your home, choose gas to operate your range. Gas ranges are a little more expensive to buy but less expensive to operate and, as most professional chefs will agree, better to cook on.
But, keep in mind that efficiency is relative. Cooking on gas for a year saves just $18.00 in our hometown, Lincoln, Nebraska, overcooking with electricity. Of course, publicly-owned Lincoln Electric System's electricity is some of the cheapest in the country, so the difference may be much greater where you are.
Don't Buy the Brand
Just because you've bought GE appliances all your life, as your father and grandfather did before you, does not mean you should buy GE today.
Brand name is a lot less important than it was just a decade ago.
There are only a handful of large appliance manufacturers left in the world, and the number keeps shrinking. All of the smaller companies have been gobbled up by the big brands, and most of the big brands have been absorbed into the monster appliance companies: Whirlpool and Sweden's Electrolux.
Whirlpool, for example, now owns Admiral, Amana, Brastemp (Spain), Consul (Brazil), Estate, Gibson, Hoover, Indesit (Italy), Inglis (Canada), Jenn Air, KitchenAid, Maytag, Norge, Roper and Whirlpool.
If you bought an appliance in the past ten years, odds are you bought a whirlpool, whether you knew it or not. But, if you didn't, then you most likely bought an Electrolux.
AG Electrolux, a Swedish company, has moved on from its clunky vacuum cleaners (introduced to the U.S. in 1933) to manufacturing a variety of appliances under its own name but also as Eureka, Frigidaire, Kelvinator, Tappen, Westinghouse, and White-Westinghouse.
Brand is no longer a reliable indicator of quality. Electrolux, for eample, uses the same compressors in all of its refrigerators, so whether you buy an upscale Maytag or downscale Estate, you are getting the same basic refrigerator.
The Maytag may have more features but it does not actually refrigerate any better than its economy cousin.
Whether a particular refrigerator is called a Whirlpool, Admiral or Maytag has very little to do with quality. It mostly depends on which brand name management thinks will sell the best.
The only place where brand name does make a difference is price. A Roper refrigerator is generally cheaper than the same Amana or Maytag refrigerator.
The car companies have been doing this for years, A Plymouth Voyager is cheaper than a Dodge Caravan which is cheaper than a Chrysler Town and County – although they are exactly the same mini-van.
The appliance makers have adopted the same pricing strategy – and we keep falling for it.
Whirlpool, Electrolux, and GE brands jointly account for nearly half of the U.S. appliance market, followed at a distant fourth by Korea's LG Corp.
The rest of the market is split among Robert Bosch, GmbH (Germany), owner of the upscale Bosch, Gaggenau, and Thermador brands; Samsung Group (Korea); Sharp and Pansonic Corporations (Japan) and a few dozen niche companies.
Many of the niche players, however, do not build their own appliances but rely on the Bigs for actual manufacturing.
Ikea's (Sweden) refrigerators are, for example, made by Whirlpool which also manufactures for Kenmore (US) and some refrigerators for the up-scale appliance brand, Thermador (US).
So, even if you did not buy one of the Whirlpool-owned appliance brands, there is a good chance you unknowingly bought a Whirlpool disguised as an Ikea or Kenmore.
Kenmore, the name given by Sears to its store-brand appliances since 1927 and owned by Transformco, an affiliate of ESL Investments since the Sears bankruptcy, makes exactly none of its own products, it never has.
Electrolux (Frigidaire) and LG Corp., as well as Whirlpool and Samsung, make Kenmore's full-size refrigerators. The giant Chinese appliance maker, Haier, provides most of Kenmore's compact refrigerators, Danby, an Ohio-based mini-fridge pioneer, makes its wine coolers and Sanyo Electric Co. of Japan builds most of its freezers.
Other Kenmore appliances are made by Electrolux (Sweden), Panasonic (Japan), Bosch (Germany-Poland-Turkey), and Mabe (Mexico).
Viking, based in Greenwood Mass. (no, it's not Scandinavian) manufactures most of its own appliances but Whirlpool (Amana) makes its freestanding refrigerators, Sharp its microwaves, and Marvel (Now owned by the UK's AGA Rangemaster Group and renamed AGA Marvel) its under-counter refrigerators.
The fact is, to find out who makes what for whom requires a complex and constantly changing scorecard.
General Electric, for example, which has been manufacturing home appliances since 1905, has left the appliance business to focus on its high-margin industrial manufacturing.
GE sold its small appliance division (toasters, coffeemakers, etc.) to Black & Decker in 1984, and in 2016 sold its large appliance division (refrigerators, washing machines, etc.) to the giant Chinese appliance manufacturer, Haier after the FTC blocked its sale to Electrolux.
The sale ended an era for the pioneering American appliance brand that introduced the first affordable home refrigerator (The Monitor Top) to the country in 1925.
Haier, which barely has a presence in North America (1.1% of the market in 2016), sees the acquisition as a ready-built gateway into the U.S. and Canadian markets.
According to Zhang Ruimin, company chairman and delegate to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, it is now in the process of "fixing" the division to improve profits by consolidating management and production.
Haier is mounting a challenge to the Whirlpool/Electrolux worldwide large appliance hegemony. It is already the dominant appliance manufacturer in China and is rapidly expanding outside of its home country through strategic acquisitions. It bought Japan's Sanyo Electric washing machine and refrigerator units in 2011 and New Zealand's Fisher & Paykel Appliance Holdings in 2012.
Haier stands to inherit GE's 900-acre Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky, and state-of-the-art appliance factories in LaFayette, Georgia, and Bloomington, Indiana. And, in a major departure for GE which has always been very protective of its historic brand name, Haier will continue to use the widely recognized "GE" brand name (but not "General Electric") and logo on its appliances for 40 years.
So, while GE appliances will look the same on the showroom floor, with the familiar GE logo on the front, they will no longer actually be made by GE, or necessarily in the U.S. by American workers. How much of GE's 12,000-person American workforce will remain after the takeover is still very much up in the air. But, odds are that a lot of the manufacturing will eventually be relocated to Asia.
So, the lesson for today, kids, is forget about brand. Look for features, warranty, and efficiency, not brand name. Brand name no longer tells you much. Inside the pretty cabinet, a Maytag or Ikea is likely to be a Whirlpool, a Kenmore is quite likely a Frigidaire, and GE is actually a Haier. You can no longer tell from the brand name who makes the appliance.
After cabinets and appliances, countertops are the most expensive item in your new kitchen and savings here can be substantial with no sacrifice in function or quality. It must be durable, stain-resistant, and easy to clean. It takes a lot of abuse. You cut on it, scrape and scratch at it, scour it, pound it, and spill hot liquids on it. Yet after years of use, it is still expected to look as good as ever, and most do.
Fake it 'Til You Make It (Cheaper), Part 2
Here is a little trick to make inexpensive laminate look like something much more costly.
Laminates are usually fabricated with a 1-1/2" thick edge. This is a "tell" that just screams "laminate" to any but the most obtuse observer. But there is no structural reason for this dimension. It just happens to be what you get when two 3/4" MDF sheets are glued together. Stone countertops are usually 3 centimeters thick – about 1-3/16".
Any laminate fabricator can make a countertop with a 1-3/16" edge rather than the standard 1-1/2". Oh, he'll hem and haw, tell you it can't be done, your sink won't fit, special jigs will have to be used, it will take more time, and so on. But if you stand your ground, hands on hips with a steely glare and practiced snarl, and show him a copy of this article, you'll get 1-3/16" countertops at a very modest additional charge, if any.
We discuss the pros and cons of most of the countertop options available for your remodeled kitchen in our two-part article New and Traditional Countertop Materials and strongly urge you to increase your countertop IQ by reading it. But, here is our take on price vs. value after working with countertops for nearly half a century.
Paper, Plastic & Pressure: High-Density Laminates
Since " high-density laminate" is quite a mouthful, most kitchen people shorten it to just "laminate", while most non-kitchen people call it "formica". We can't do that without risking a "cordial" note from Formica Corporation's lawyers reminding us not to misuse the Formica® registered trade name.
Laminate is the no-question winner in the price/value countertop category. Unless there is a very good reason for using another material, stick with a good quality laminate countertop.
Sure, granite, Corian® and Silestone®, stainless steel and concrete countertops are beautiful and will certainly make your friends and neighbors do the "ooh" and "aah" thing. But, at a price.
The price, in an average size kitchen, is about $2,000 for the "ooh" and another $2,000 for the "aah". And, with upscale countertops becoming more commonplace, the oohs and ahs just ain't what they once were.
We have heard all the same talk about how the pricier materials are so much better than laminates. Well, they can be better, not always but often enough. But, they are absolutely not four to ten times better. They are, however, four to ten times more expensive.
It's hard to believe now but at one time, in the 1920s and '30s, Formica® was an upscale luxury material used for the high-end countertops on the ocean liner Queen Mary and in pricier and more stylish hotels, restaurants, clubs, and bars (or speakeasies).
Even after it became a commonplace household material in the 1950s suburban housing boom, it was still regarded as a modern engineering marvel: tough, rugged, sanitary, and long-lasting with almost no maintenance required.
Today its august beginnings have been forgotten. But, it is still the miracle countertop material. Its layers of paper and plastic bonded under high pressure form a countertop surface rivaling the durability of stone.
Manufacturers are adding more sophisticated features like textured surfaces, translucent wear layers (to give the material visual depth), and design printing that is more realistic than ever.
Formica's stone-look laminates are now so realistic that you have to touch the material to confirm that it is not stone.
So, stick with a good quality laminate. If you like the look of granite, buy a laminate that looks like granite. If you want a different look, try soapstone, slate, limestone, marble/travertine, sandstone, linen, burlap, paper, steel, bronze, copper, or zinc, to mention just a very few of the thousands of colors, designs, and textures available.
For a heritage kitchen, try one of the many retro patterns available, like "boomerang" from Formica.
Completing the illusion are the widely available laminated edge moldings that make laminate tops almost impossible to distinguish from stone. These applied edgings are constructed of the same laminate used on the countertop itself and are available in several profiles emulating standard stone edges. They work better with small format laminate patterns but if properly done, the only way to tell the countertop is not stone is to touch it.
In about 20 years you and your neighbor with the granite countertop are both going to be tired of your countertops and want to change them. She's going to throw away a $6,000 piece of rock, while you are going to junk $1,000 worth of paper and plastic. Who was smarter? Here's a clue: she's going to look pretty lame.
There's a reason this stuff has outsold every other countertop material combined for the past 70 years. It is by far – by far – the best countertop value.
Ceramic Tile: Like Stone, But Better
Our clear second choice for the value-conscious countertop buyer is ceramic, porcelain, or stone tile.
Tile is, if anything, even more versatile than laminates, comes in many more colors, patterns, and textures (and that's saying something since there are over 1,000 laminates to choose from), and can actually cost less. It can also cost a great deal more. Tile is both the least expensive and most expensive countertop option. You can easily spend just pennies per square foot for good-quality ceramic tile on sale. You can also spend many thousand dollars per square foot for hand-fired, hand-painted art tiles.
No doubt you have heard those horror stories about tile countertops. Tile stains, cracks, and so on. Actually, it is less susceptible to cracking than granite, soapstone, or concrete. Stone tile is porous and needs to be sealed periodically but so does a stone slab. Stone, after all, is stone no matter what its shape or size.
Look for tile that is rated for countertop use – which is generally tile that is suitable for semi-wet areas. Most ceramic tile meets this criterion easily. On sale, it is possible to find suitable tiles that cost $1.00 per square foot, or less. Quite the bargain. And to sweeten the deal, ceramic tile is literally made out of dirt – clay and silica (sand) – requires no nasty petrochemicals and is, therefore, a reasonably green material – much greener than even the "greenest" engineered countertop, which is chock full of eco-unfriendly petrochemicals.
If you use good judgment and common sense, you can create a countertop that will easily last as long as stone for the price of a quality laminate.
Still longing for that granite look? Use granite or granite-look tiles instead at one-quarter the cost. And, if you want that "Wow" factor, it's hard to beat the color, patterns, texture, and flexibility of tile. Mix and match to your heart's content. Play with patterns and colors. Add a few art tiles for interest. Just go crazy! It's fun.
Ceramic tile, then, is definitely our second choice for high quality, durable, budget countertops
Solid Surfacing Countertops
Now we get into an area where there is much disagreement among our professional countertop guys and gals. But a solid plurality of us prefers solid surfacing to all of the remaining options.
Solid surfacing, like Corian®, has the twin advantages of being cheaper than most of the rest of the pack, and at least as durable. Some of us don't care for the matte appearance of the material but this is an aesthetic, not a value choice. Tough, durable, almost impossible to stain, reparable if it is damaged, and relatively inexpensive, solid surfacing is a solid (pun intended) third choice for the value-conscious.
Then there are all of the rest – all of which are excellent materials: durable, long-lasting, nearly indestructible. They will outlast you, your house, your city, and probably the United States.
You will grow tired of your countertop many, many years before it wears out. If you just have to have these premium materials, we will install them for you. Now all you have to do is figure out where to save the money to pay for them.
Mixing It Up
Have you heard of some rule that says all of your countertops have to be the same?
We haven't either. A good way to get an interesting look is to mix and match countertop materials. Use laminates for most of the countertop but perhaps hard maple at the prep counter and granite on both sides of the range. We have seen this technique used to wonderful effect by decorators and creative homeowners. It works, and it's cheaper than all-premium countertops – a whole lot cheaper.
(Back)Splashes of Color
If you really want to jazz up your kitchen, consider the artful ways backsplashes can be used.
The days of automatically matching the backsplash to the counter are long gone. Glass, stone, tile, and even wood can be used as a dramatic and inexpensive kitchen accent. Ceramic, stone, glass, or metal tiles are available in tile shops and kitchen showrooms, or we can buy them for a little less at home improvement stores. Here is where you can get creative at a very modest price.
Any material that cannot be damaged by water is suitable for a backsplash. The old standbys are laminates and tile. But, we have also used glass, wood, both stained and painted, nonferrous metals of all kinds, even cork.
The possibilities are virtually endless.
Fiscally Friendly Faucetry
There is no appreciable quality difference between a good mid-range faucet and an expensive designer faucet. The difference is only the cachet of the mark.
If you buy a it's because you appreciate the artistry of a Waterstone or Lacava. A Delta faucet will give just as good service, it just does not have the Italian pizzaz of a Lacava or the hand-made reputation of a Waterstone faucet.
If you must have high design, expect to pay for it. But for most of us, the thousands of excellent mid-range faucets have so many design choices that looking any further for a faucet is just not necessary. Concentrate on getting good functionality and a durable finish.
The ins and outs of selecting an excellent faucet that does not break the bank are discussed at length in our multi-part article Faucet Basics. But here are the highlights:
The key to a reliable faucet that will give years of service is a good quality valve. The valve is what makes a faucet work. It controls the volume and temperature of the water flowing through the faucet. If the valve stops working, then you no longer have a faucet, you have a chunk of pretty metal sitting uselessly on top of your sink.
There are several reliable valve types on the market but for most homeowners, the valve to look for is a ceramic disk valve.
For your faucet finish, stick with heavy chrome. Faucets are available in everything from gold to "hand rubbed bronze" (which was never hand-rubbed, and today is often not even bronze) but these premium finishes can easily double the price of the faucet.
Our second choice for easy maintenance and great looks: brushed stainless. If you have a few more dollars to spend, opt for a PVD finish. This is a finish created by vaporizing metallic ions in a vacuum and depositing the resulting vapor in a very dense coating on the faucet. By some accounts, PVD finishes are some 20 times harder than the standard electroplated chrome finish.
PVD finishes can emulate a lot of premium finishes that are much more expensive: gold, silver, copper, bronze, polished brass, steel, even black iron. And, one of the bonus features of PVD finishes is that unlike many other premium finishes, they require almost no maintenance other than a wipe-down every once in a while.
Stylish But Stinting Sinks
A kitchen sink is a lifetime investment, so some thought should be given to getting the right one: a sink that fits your particular style and is durable enough to last for many, many years, yet does not cost a fortune.
Undermount and Tile-in Sinks
Sinks attach to your countertop in four ways: drop-in, tile-in, undermount, and integrated.
Undermount sinks, as you would expect, are mounted under the countertop. Tile-in sinks are used with tile countertops and designed so the top edge of the sink is flush with the countertop tile.
Tile-in and undermount kitchen sinks are preferred by most homeowners over drop-in sinks because they seamlessly flow into the countertop, eliminating the grunge-collecting lip of drop-in sinks.
Until recently, however, undermount sinks could be installed only beneath pricey stone or solid surfacing countertops. There was no good way to undermount a sink in a laminate countertop that would last more than a few years.
That has all changed.
Karran Products has introduced acrylic and stainless undermount sinks that bond seamlessly to a laminated countertop. In fact, "undermount" may not be the right word. These sinks are essentially integrated into the countertop. The sink selection is still rather limited, and there are just a few countertop fabricators familiar with the product (we happen to be one of them) but the list of both is growing.
At about $600 installed, the Karran sink is no more expensive than a premium drop-in sink and is a whole lot less expensive than any undermount alternative.
We started installing these sinks about 12 years ago. At the time the concern was that the exposed edge of the laminate around the sink would get wet frequently and do something awful like delaminate.
A very patient Formica engineer explained to us regular English (not engineer-speak) that the resins in the laminate and the high pressure used to bond the layers together make that completely impossible.
Still not entirely convinced, we cut some 1" squares of various laminates and submerged them in a jar of water (with a little alcohol to inhibit algae). There they still are, after over a decade, obstinately refusing to show any evidence of delamination.
Laminate is not the only material that will support integrated sinks. Sinks can also be integrated into solid surfacings, like Corian® and some engineered stones like Silestone®. They can also be integrated into stainless steel, copper, and zinc countertops. As you might expect, the cost of these premium products can be a little budget-busting.
Drop-in or Overmount Sinks
If integrated sinks are not for you, then the choice is a drop-in sink, the most common type of sink in the U.S. offering more style and color choices than all other mounting types combined, and the largest variety of materials.
Drop-in sinks also have the advantage for the budget-conscious of being the least expensive sink option.
Sinks can be made of any material that holds water, including, stone, wood, bamboo, copper, zinc, and solid surfacing material but most are made of enameled cast iron, stainless steel, and plastic. Of course, makers of plastic sinks don't call them plastic. They are a "polymer", "acrylic", or a "composite" sink. Plastic sinks are an economy sink that doesn't really economize, simply because they scratch and stain readily and need to be replaced often.
Our favorite sink, money being no object, is an enameled cast iron sink. Cast iron is heavy and usually pricey but almost guaranteed to be a lifetime sink with reasonable care. In fact, one sink company, Kohler, is so confident of the durability of its cast-iron sinks that if you manage to chip it, the company will replace it at no charge.
Those of you with horrid memories of your grandmother's old, tired, scratched, and stained cast iron sink, may shy away from the material because you don't want that haunting image recreated in your sparkling new kitchen. Relax! Your grandmother's sink was probably 50+ years old and scrubbed daily with an abrasive cleaner.
Poor choices in cleaning products are what does in most enameled iron sinks. Never use an abrasive on an enameled sink. If you can just follow this rule, your sink will still look new 100 years from now. For heavy cleaning we suggest diatomaceous earth powder mixed with a little dishwashing liquid or automobile polish (not the abrasive kind). For daily cleaning, a sponge and some dishwashing liquid are all you will ever need.
You can buy specialty cleaners for enamel sinks, like Kohler's Cast Iron Sink Cleaner but the cleaner is just diatomaceous earth powder mixed with a little polishing compount at about $1.00 per fluid ounce – rather expensive stuff.
Care & Cleaning of Your New Stainless Sink
- Most soaps and detergents contain chlorides that can dull your sink's finish. Rinse the sink thoroughly after each use of soap or detergent.
- Clean your sink weekly with a non-abrasive cleaner like Bar Keepers Friend. While most stainless sink manufacturers praise the ability of their stainless sinks to stand up to even coarse abrasive cleansers, all abrasives scratch, and all scratches can harbor dirt and germs and dull the like-new shine of polished sinks. Rinse well and dry with a towel or soft cloth. Regularly drying your sink works wonders to prevent hard water deposits.
- For added sparkle, pour some club soda into your sink and rub with a soft cloth until you reach your desired level of shine. Rinse thoroughly.
- Never use a steel wool pad on your sink. They scratch, and the tiny steel particles left behind can lead to rust.
- Never allow soap, detergent or hand lotion dry on your sink. The chlorides and other chemicals in these products can dull your finish and, in some instances, actually discolor your sink.
- Never leave iron or steel pans to soak in your sink. The result can be rust spots on your sink that are difficult to remove.
- Never line your sink with a rubber dish mat. These can trap water beneath the mat.
- Never use the bottom of your sink as a cutting board. Knives are tougher than the stainless steel used in sinks and can mar the sink.
- Water spots form when hard water is allowed to air dry in your sink. To avoid them, always wipe your sink with a clean soft cloth.
- To remove water spots, mix a paste of baking soda and water. Rub the paste into the spots using a soft damp cloth to apply the paste until the spot is gone. Rinse thoroughly with clear water, wipe dry.
- Never use CLR, Lime-Away or other commercial lime-removing cleansers unless you first test it on the exposed underside of your sink to prove that it will do no harm.
So, if you find a deal on a cast iron sink, snap it up. It would be almost impossible to go wrong. Cast iron would be our first choice of sink material if it were not for the hefty price of this emperor of sinks.
But, since price is always a consideration in a budget kitchen, our first choice of material for a sink for the economy-minded is good quality stainless steel.
Stainless steel is durable, easy to clean, heat resistant, tarnish-free, less likely to break dishes than cast iron, blends well with just about every decor, and, best of all, is the most affordable sink.
But don't grab the first sale sink you find at Lowes or The Home Depot. Do a little research first.
There are grades of stainless steel, some are much better than others.
The steel alloy you want is Type 304 (also known as 18/8 for its composition that includes 18% chromium and 8% nickel), the most common stainless used in sinks.
Less often used but still a good choice is type 302, the stainless alloy used to clad the top of the Chrysler Building in New York or 316 "marine grade" stainless
There is a slight difference in the composition the steels. The 316 alloy, for example, contains a dollop of molybdenum for extra malleability, making it easier to form of a sink in a press without tearing.
But any of the three is very suitable for sinks. They are fairly "soft" (for steel, that is), form easily, and have a little "give", reducing the chance of dish breakage.
The thicker the steel, the less susceptible it is to denting, bowing and noise transmission from pots and pans hitting the metal surface. The thickness, called "gauge" , can be determined by its number. The lower the number, the thicker the steel
Most sinks come in 18 or 20 gauge steel. The 18 gauge is the thicker of the two and is more than adequate for residential sinks. If you can find a 16 gauge sink on sale, then buy it, you cannot possibly go wrong with this commercial-grade sink.
Look at the finish. Some manufacturers have started selling highly polished stainless sinks. These glistening wonders look great in the showroom but not so great after a few years of use.
Steel scratches. Polished steel shows every scratch, brushed stainless steel does not. And, brushed steel is almost always cheaper.
The layout of your new sink is important.
In the era before dishwashers, two-basin sinks allowed washing to be done on one side, rinsing on the other. With a dishwasher, a deep single-basin sink is usually best for hand washing those big pots and roasters that will not fit in the dishwasher. If you must have a two-basin sink, choose an asymmetrical design: one that has one big basin and one small basin.Mount the disposal in the small basin.
Also, pay attention to the shape of the bowl.
The most recent fad in stainless sinks is the "zero radius" sink that has sharp 90 degree corners instead of rounded (or radius) corners. These are intended to look like handmade sinks which are usually bent out of sheet metal and welded or soldered in the corners rather than stamped out as a seamless unit on high-pressure presses.
Obviously, these sharp corners are very hard to keep clean since you can get neither a sponge nor cloth all the way into the sharp corner. We can't imagine why anyone would pay more for the annoying chore of cleaning out the corners of their sink with a Q-tip®, so we suggest you avoid this trendy style – saving money, frustration and Q-tips®, for which the environment will be most grateful.
The least expensive floor option for kitchens is vinyl: either sheet vinyl or vinyl tile. But it's not a good value because it does not last.
Another floor to avoid is carpet. We don't see much kitchen carpet anymore but in the 1970s and '80s it was common, and there is still some of it around. There is no better way to collect germs than with a carpet installed in your kitchen or bath.
The best value is either ceramic tile, hardwood, or laminate flooring. The most eco-friendly is cork. You can find much more information on these flooring options in Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths, as well as information on less common floors: concrete, for example. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages.
Hardwood: The Warm Choice
If you live in a pre-1940 house you just might have a hardwood floor under those layers of tacky vinyl and linoleum. Before you budget for floor replacement, tear up some of the existing flooring and look. In the 1930s it was common for builders to lay an oak strip floor in the kitchen, then immediately overlay it with linoleum to protect it.
Why they did this idiot thing is anyone's guess. We have never heard a good explanation. But, it was done, and fairly often, so look for it. It's a lot cheaper to sand the linoleum adhesive off the oak and refinish it than it is to replace the floor. You will end up with what is essentially a pristine, never-walked-on, oak floor of first growth oak – better oak than most of the flooring you can buy today.
Ceramic, Porcelain, and Stone Tile: The Lifetime Choice
Glazed tile or stone is probably the ultimate kitchen flooring material, and with care in selection can also be the most affordable. Large-format tiles (12" x 12" or larger) are usually the best choices since they are faster to install (costing, therefore less money) and easiest to maintain.
In the past fifteen years or so, tile makers have figured out how to manufacture monster format tile, 36" x 36" and even larger without the old problems of cracking or uneven shrinkage. These eliminate most grout lines but are also expensive tiles.
Grout lines are less of a concern than they were just a few years ago.
The old cement-based grout stained and was difficult to keep looking nice. New stainless urethane ane epoxy grouts have all but eliminated this problem (See the sidebar: "Myths and Fables").
The creative options available with ceramic and porcelain tiles are endless. Patterns, solids, textured looks are just the baseline for designs. Add to that a myriad of size variations and specialty looks, and the combinations approach infinity. So if you want to get creative, a tile floor gives you every opportunity but keep in mind that tile is a permanent floor, so use care in your selection. You want something that you will still like 50 years from now because it will still be there: a hundred years from now, and 150 years...
Cork and Bamboo: The Green Choice?
For those concerned with protecting the environment while getting a great kitchen floor, bamboo and cork are considered the "green" flooring options.
Cork is a wholly green material – very possibly the very greenest of flooring materials. It is the bark of the Cork Oak and can be repeatedly harvested without harming the tree. It is minimally processed into a tile that is dense, stain-resistant, and very water-resistant.
Before plastic, it was the material used for fishing bobbers and life jackets. Ever see a cork fishing bobber sink? Neither have we. The closed-cell structure of cork defeats water penetration.
Still, it's best not to let water sit on a cork floor. The water will work itself around the cork and into the subfloor, which, if it gets wet enough, will buckle and warp, ruining the floor.
Cork does not seem like it would be durable enough for hard use in a kitchen. Yet, it is astoundingly rugged.
Cork floors installed almost 100 years ago in Federal buildings in Washington, D.C., that get lots of daily pounding, are still very much in use. But, there are a couple of things to consider. First, cork floors and spike heels do not mix very well. Second, cork expands and contracts a lot, so great care is required in its installation.
Bamboo is also considered by many a green material – and it is certainly widely promoted as an environmentally friendly option. We have a whole lot of doubt about that.
Its raw material is green enough for the most dedicated "greenie" – a renewable, sustainable grass stem from what may be the fastest-growing plant in the world. But, in its raw state, bamboo is useless for floors. Flooring is made not of bamboo but bamboo strips (best) or fibers (worse).
The processing the grass goes through to make flooring is anything but green, and often requires some very, very eco-unfriendly chemicals and a whole lot of power. In fact, bamboo flooring is really an engineered material with a bamboo filler, similar to Silestone® which uses quartz as a filler.
We think of bamboo flooring as sort of "green-washed", that is, made to look green but definitely not truly green.
Cork is probably, then, the truly green choice but bamboo is usually cheaper and has, generally, a longer guaranteed life cycle. Fifty-year bamboo warranties are common (always assuming that the Chinese companies that make the flooring are around in 50 years)
Let There be (Energy Efficient) Light
The major ongoing cost of your kitchen is electricity. After your heating and air-conditioning, your kitchen is the big energy-user in your house. Selecting low-energy appliances and developing energy-saving habits can go a long way to reducing energy consumption. So can proper lighting design.
The old king of economy lighting was fluorescent, several times more efficient than the standard incandescent bulb. It has not been largely supplanted by low-cost LED fixtures, but can still be a smart choice for the budget and the environment.
Fluorescent lighting produces much more light for the electricity used than any other form of lighting except LEDs (more below). Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL) can be used in almost any place a less efficient incandescent bulb can be used. The bulbs last a lot longer - up to 5 times longer, so they do not have to be replaced as often, which is nice for landfills, and they produce the same quality of light.
Their drawback is that they require minute amounts (4 milligrams) of mercury to operate, and mercury, as you know, can be an environmentally dangerous metal. The EPA maintains, however, that the amount of mercury used is so small that the total amount of mercury use in all the CFLs made has an insignificant impact on the environment compared to the enormous environmental benefits of CFLs.
Some CFLs last much longer than other CFLs. It's usually not possible to tell from the box which CFLs are stellar performers but the Environmental Working Group recently tested CFLs and identified the seven most efficient and eco-friendliest. See the study results here.
For under-counter lighting, use T-5 or T-8 fluorescent instant-on fixtures. You may not know what these are but your electrician does. These are not pretty fixtures but they are hidden under the cabinet, so what difference does it make?
Light Emitting Diodes (LED)
LEDs produce light from one of the simplest of electronic semiconductors: a diode. A diode is a semiconductor composed of two different materials bonded together. Electrons flow from one material to the other, producing a current. This current results in the release of photons, which are what we see as light.
Just a few years ago, the big objection to LEDs was the initial cost. But, LEDs have come a long way in just a few years and the cost is coming down rapidly. They are now roughly equivalent to fluorescents and the lifetime cost is significantly lower because their operating cost is less than half that of fluorescents and they last ten times longer than fluorescents (100,000 hours compared to 10,000 hours) so they need to be replaced less often.
Available for several years as under cabinet light bars and pucks and as recessed ceiling lighting, LED bulbs that work in standard Edison-style light sockets are now on the market, and a good thing because the incandescent light bulbs they replace have now been all but banned in North America.
There is a lot more information on choosing efficient lighting and using it effectively in our article Designing Efficient and Effective Kitchen Lighting. But here are the highlights: