Designing and Building Kitchen Islands

Designing and Building Kitchen Islands


Kitchen islands are more popular today as kitchens tend to be built larger. They are a unique and useful design feature in any kitchen. Island workcenters are functional because you have access to the countertop space from all sides. They can be used to define a space, divide a room or add informal seating areas.

In the planning stage, decide whether or not you want the island to be a workcenter or a combination workcenter and seating area. This decision is necessary because you have to alter the depth of the cabinets based on the maximum width of the countertop. If you have 32″ available as your maximum allowable space and you want seating incorporated into the island, you must build your base cabinets 18″ deep. This will leave about 12″ to 14″ of free space for comfortable seating. Remember that an 18″ base cabinet has an additional 3/4″ added depth with the doors installed, and you’ll need about 1″ overhang on your countertop. Finishing the back of the island base cabinets with veneer plywood and oak trim will add another 1/2″ in depth. A 3 2″-wide countertop will leave you with approximately 12″ of free space for stools.

Islands without seating can be standard- or increased-depth base cabinets. However, always calculate the total depth, adding the doors, overhangs and finish trim on the rear of the cabinets. The ends of the island are finished as they are exposed, so remember to account for the extra width when determining your countertop measurements.

Kitchen islands may be true freestanding units or placed against a wall, more properly called a peninsula, and often define traffic patterns in the room. For this reason, countertop edges should be designed and constructed to minimize accidents, particularly with small children. Order your island countertops with radius edges, or build the custom countertop style in this book with mitered corners. Always account for the loss in length because of these eased or radius ends when calculating your requirements.


1 Build the Base

I normally don’t use the adjustable legs for island cabinet bases because the cabinets are anchored to the floor. Construct a base platform of 2 x 4s faced with 1″ x 4″ hardwood as the finished kick plate, set back so there is a 31/2″ space in from the cabinet edges on all sides. Anchor the cabinets through the base board to the platform.

2 Modify the Face Frame

Build the cabinet with VA”-wide stiles on the face frame, in place of the standard 1″-wide stiles, so you can install veneer plywood and doorstop
molding as the finish trim. The back of the cabinet can be finished in the same manner.

3 Change Base Cabinet Depth

Changing the depth of base cabinets for an island workcenter is not a difficult process. The only carcass components that are altered are the depths of the sides and bottom board. All other dimensions remain constant in the standard cabinet. If possible, use the standard-width base cabinets and the changes will be easily accomplished.

In the following example, a 30″-wide standard base is reduced to 18″ deep from the normal 23 1/2″ depth.

As illustrated, the only dimensions changed are the sides and bottom. The same holds true for increased-depth cabinets. These minor changes to meet custom requirements show the flexibility of this building system. You should be able to make minor changes to any of the standard cabinet dimensions to meet all of your needs.


Kitchen islands that can be moved, sometimes called portable workcenters, also increase the functionality of a kitchen. Additional workspace is often required to meet meal preparation demands. One example is when many people are using the kitchen to help prepare a meal for guests. The ability to arrange temporary work areas helps make the process easier.

Any base cabinet can be adapted for use as a mobile island. For instance, if you want a movable island, construct a standard base unit without the legs. To strengthen the bottom board, attach a piece of 3/4″ plywood to the underside of the cabinet. Make certain that the plywood fully covers the bottom of the cabinet. The front edge of the plywood will be hidden by the overhang of the face frame. The sides and back will have 1/4″ plywood veneer installed, covering the sides and back edges.

Attach four good-quality wheel assemblies to the bottom of the cabinet. The vs” base board plus the added 3/4″ plywood will provide a very solid mounting surface for the wheels.

Buy or build a countertop that overhangs the cabinet on all edges. Angle brackets will secure the countertop to the cabinet. You can also install one of the latest solid-surface countertop materials or even a granite slab.

The interior of the portable island cabinet can be designed in many ways.

A standard drawer-over-door base will give you a place to put utensils and other equipment, while a full-door standard cabinet can be fitted with multiple adjustable shelves for cutting boards or equipment storage. Vertical fixed shelving can be used for cutting boards and large trays.

Kitchen islands, whether fixed, peninsula or movable, give you an opportunity to design unique and useful features. They can increase the counter space in a small kitchen and add a bit of flair to a large area. Often, as stated earlier, I use the island and peninsula concepts as area dividers to help define the kitchen space while maintaining the open feeling that most people want in today’s kitchens.


This portable island design is a great addition in your workshop. It can be used as a movable workcenter or tool stand. Build this island with inexpensive 3/4″ plywood or particle core board and give it a coat of paint.

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