Kitchen Remodeling on the Cheap
Simple, Practical, Proven Ideas for Creating
Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget

So, you're tired of your old kitchen. You are not alone. According to an 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 $100,000 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. This means 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.
At StarCraft we build about 20 kitchens each year in Nebraska, and over the years have learned a few things about how to build beautiful, functional kitchens that are at the same time affordable. This is the Nebraska where we routinely make a buck work very hard. Here are some ideas that we have found work well.

Creative Cabinetry

Your cabinets will make the most visual impact in your 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 specific tried and true ways to get cabinets that look like a million bucks, but cost a whole lot less.

Look Local

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. 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 direct from the "factory", with no middlemen.
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. Plus, from the local guy you can get precisely sized and fitted cabinets. You are not stuck with a cabinet manufacturer's stock sizes. for more information, see our article: Cabinet Basics Part 4 — Distributed Cabinet Manufacturing: Today's Cabinet­making Revolution.

Include Installation

In checking cabinet prices, make sure you are not comparing persimmons to pepperoni.
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. Cabinetmaker 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, including delivery, assembly, and setup 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 cabinetmaker's stock sizes, standard doors and regular finishes. Most shops have a catalog or hundreds, if not thousands 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 poplar 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 cabinetmaker for advice. It's usually free, and well worth listening to.
Enhance basic cabinetry with glass doors and compatible mouldings. But don't overdo it. Mouldings per linear foot are expensive no matter where you get them, so less is best. Use plain glass in some doors now with the idea of replacing it later with stained or art glass. In Nebraska, almost everyone knows someone who dabbles in art glass, and that's probably true wherever you are.

Optimize Organizers

Drawer and cabinet organizers are very useful, but the cost of 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 after market item.

Sweat Some Savings

There are some routine cabinetmaking tasks you can probably do. If you are at all handy, install your own door and drawer hardware that you buy yourself. You can install the door hinge and drawer runner hardware — something that saves about 3-4 hours of the cabinetmaker's time, and you can probably stain and finish if the finish is not too complex. Any work the cabinetmaker does not have to do, you won't have to pay for.

Abstemious Appliances

Your new appliances will do lots or 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.
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. So, a more efficient appliance may actually end up costing the same as or less than its energy hog cousin.
Watch for sales. Manufacturers off-load last year's appliances (except regrigerators) in September and October. The 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 efficient appliance.

No Gadgets, Gizmos or Gimmicks

Shy away from "bells and whistles" unless they'll will make a real difference in your day-to-day life. Most don't.
That gotta-have pop-up, self-cleaning, touch-pad, illuminated, LED display in five vibrant, sparkling colors may not be really gotta-have if it adds $400.00 to the sticker price.
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. But, carefully consider if you will actually use features that are not necessary to the basic functions 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 as well? And, for a lot less money.

The Energy Star® Program

Learn more about Energy Star®
The Energy Star program administered jointly by the EPA and Department of Energy is almost 20 years old. Many consumer groups think it is past time to update the program to apply even stricter standards for being rated an Energy Star.
Consumer Reports, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Consumer Federation of America have come out in support of stricter testing that would make Energy Star appliances even more energy efficient than they are today.
The FTC Energy Guide
Energy Guide Label - <img class='noborder' src='images/Enlarge.gif'>Click to Enlarge
Click to enlarge and for an explanation of the ratings.
Manufacturers, who have spent millions of dollars complying with current Energy Star requirements, are opposed to stricter standards that would required the investment of more millions of dollars. No doubt, in today's Green social climate, the consumer groups will eventually win.
In the meantime, when considering an appliance, don't rely exclusively on the Energy Star sticker. Read the yellow Federal Trade Commission's Energy Guide label that by law must be attached to every large appliance. This shows the appliance's estimated annual electricity use and average operating cost compared to similar models. A great many manufacturers provide Energy Guide labels for their appliances on line, so you can do your initial comparisons in front of your computer. No driving or walking required.
The big thing today are refrigerators with LED "television" displays that connect to the internet and allow you to store your recipes in memory and connect to your home security system. OK, someday these may be the centerpiece of a modern kitchen, but not yet.
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. These are also expensive, and we don't think appliance companies have the necessary experience with coffee that guarantees better quality coffee for the higher price. (We also don't think coffee bean growers should be making appliances. But that's just us.)

Shun Stainless

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, for 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 color in something that is easy and cheap to change, like paint, wallpaper or 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.
Based on the manufacturers' displays at a recent Kitchen & Bath Industry Show, stainless may even be on its way out, and white back in. Not in 20 years have so many manufacturers shown their appliances in plain old white, or variations thereof. Of course, they don't call it white. It's "Ice" or "frost" or some other nonsense, but, frankly, we don't have a lot of problem recognizing white when we see it.

Restrained Refrigeration

The refrigerator is the big power hog in your kitchen. Buy the most efficient refrigerator you can afford. 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. 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 built-in oven. Unless you are 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 be comfortable enough to use regularly, 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. So here is an opportunity to save big by avoiding that expensive cooktop/wall-oven combination.

Kitchen Remodeling Myths and Fables

Like every enterprise, kitchen remodeling is awash in myths and half-truths that an cause a lot of confusion and wasted effort and money. Here are a few of our all-time favorites.

Facelift Fictions

Refacing cabinets saves 50-75% over replacing the cabinets.

If your kitchen layout is good, and your cabinets are working for you, refacing is definitely an option. It will save something, but probably clo­ser to 20-25% over the cost of new cabinets. Refacing cabinets requires that new doors and drawers be made, 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 will nowhere near 50%. Also, keep in mind also 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 the big box stores cost a lot less than cabinet shop cabinets.

This used to be true. Twenty years ago the big cabinet manufacturers were so much more efficient than regional and local cabinetmakers that the price difference was significant. No longer. 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 sales person who has had only rudimentary training in kitchen design — usually about 3 days in a classroom. Local cabinets are designed by an experienced cabinetmaker to precisely fit your kitchen.
  • If a cabinet is damaged, missing or just the wrong size, a local cabinetmaker 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, mouldings and accessories; and look for sales, you can really get a 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. Rather than contracting with the store to install the cabinets, hire a local carpenter, and have him double check the design. It will almost certainly be cheaper because the store does not pile on its overhead and profit, and you 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 cabinetmaker cabinets and factory cabinets, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.

Tall Tile Tales

Porcelain is better than ceramic tile

They are actually pretty much the same thing. 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 temperature 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: What is the 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 a silicon sealant to remain looking fresh. Even with sealant, it would eventually get grungy.
The new grouts are very different. Rather than being cement based, 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 also inhibit mold and mildew.
Epoxy, more expensive and more difficult to apply, is usually reserved for special situational. For most ordinary applications, urethane is more than adequate.

Dishwasher Delusions

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. Your dishwasher is one of your most efficient appliances. In most localities (excluding the cost of detergent) it costs between 12˘ and 20˘ 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, and if you are one of the fortunate few to have a disposer built into your dishwasher, don't even bother to scrape. By not pre-rinsing, you will save about 14,000 gallons of water each year. That 14,000 gallon figure is not a typo.
If you have natural gas in your home, go for gas. Gas ranges are a little more expensive to buy, but also 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 home town, Lincoln, Nebraska, over cooking with electricity. Of course consumer-owned Lincoln Electric System's electricity is the third 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)
  • Estate
  • Hoover
  • Indesit (Italy)
  • Jenn Air
  • KitchenAid
  • Maytag
  • Norge
  • Acros (Mexico)
  • Bauknecht (Europe)
  • Consul (Brazil)
  • Gibson
  • Inglis (Whirlpool Canada)
  • Roper
  • Whirlpool
If you bought an appliance in the past ten years, odds are you bought a whirlpool, whether you knew it or nor. 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, into manufacturing a variety of appliances under its own name, but also under…
  • Eureka
  • Frigidaire
  • Kelvinator
  • Tappen
  • Westinghouse
  • White-Westinghouse.
Brand is no longer a reliable indicator of quality. Whirlpool, for example, 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 mostly depends on which brand name management thinks will sell the best.
The only place where brand does made a different 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 marketing 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. Whirlpool also manufactures Sears-Kenmore (US) and some refrigerators for the up-scale appliance brand, Thermadore (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, makes exactly none of its own products, it never has. Electrolux (Frigidaire) and LG Corp. as well as Whirlpool 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. builds most of its freezers in Japan. 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) manufacturers most of its own appliances, but Whirlpool (Amana) makes its freestanding refrigerator, Sharp its microwaves and Marvel (Now owned by the UK's AGA Rangemaster Group and renamed AGA Marvel) its undercounter refrigerators.
The fact is, to find out who makes what for whom requires an complex and constantly changing scorecard. GE, for example, which has been manufacturing home appliances since 1905, is on its way out of the appliance business. Seeking to focus on its high-margin industrial manufacturing, GE has already sold its small appliance division (toasters, coffeemakers, etc.) to Black & Decker in 1984, and is in negotiations with the giant Chinese appliance manufacturer, Haier to sell its large appliance division. The sale will end 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, sees the acquisition as a ready-built gateway into the U.S. and Canadian markets. A previous attempt by GE to sell the division to Electrolux was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice on anti-competition grounds, and was abandoned by the parties in December, 2015.

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.
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, Haeir 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 Frididaire, and GE is actually an Electrolux. You can no longer tell from the brand name who actually makes the appliance.

Counter(top) Measures

Your countertop takes incredible abuse. You put hot pans on it, 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. We discuss the pros and cons of most of the countertop options available for your remodeled kitchen in our 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. Keep in mind, that 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.

High-Density Laminates: Paper, Plastic and Pressure

You have no doubt heard of Formica® countertops. What you may not know is that Formica® is a brand name for a high-density laminate material used widely to make countertops. Formica® was the inventor of the material, but now there are also other brands such as Wilsonart® and Nevermar®. 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 go "Ooh" and "Aah", 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 sometimes. 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 in all manner of high end applications like the 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, sanitary, rugged 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 rivalling 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' stone-look laminates are now so realistic that you have to touch the material to confirm that it is not stone.
Completing the illusion are the widely available laminated edge mouldings 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 feel it.
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.
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 out sold 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.
The more common glazed tile, on the other hand, never needs sealing and, because its surface is glass, will not stain. What used to stain was the grout. Not true any longer with the new urethane-based grouts (See the sidebar: "Myths and Fables"). These very new products are flexible, durable, last a very long time, never fade, and are as likely to stain as, well, polyurethane varnish. Nor will glazed tile scratch, or mar. It can chip, but it takes a serious effort. You can cut on it and put hot pans on it without risk. Before a pan can get hot enough to harm glazed tile, the pan will have melted — a sure sign to even the most inattentive cook that something has gone wrong.
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 criteria 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 petro-chemicals and is, therefore, a reasonably green material – much greener than even the "greenist" engineered countertop, which is chock full of eco-unfriendly petro-chemicals.
If you use good judgment and common sense, you can create a countertop that will probably 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 color. Add a few art tiles for interest. Just go crazy! It's fun.
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 prefer 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.

The Also Rans

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 show rooms, 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 Waterstone or Lacava faucet over a Moen or Delta faucet 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 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 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 a number of 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 metalic 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.

Stunning (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 attach into 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 counter top 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 counter top. 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 counter top 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. Wilsonart, the large laminate manufacturer has also recently introduced its own line of acrylic integrated sinks using the Karran technology.
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 words (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. There they still are, and after nearly a decade, show no evidence of degradation.
Laminate is not the only material that will support integrated sinks. Sinks can also be integrated into solid surfacing, 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 premiums products can be a little budget-stretching.

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.

Sink Materials

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. Cast iron is usually pricey, and heavy, 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. 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, price is a consideration in a budget kitchen, so, our first choice of material for a sink for the budget-minded is good quality stainless steel. It 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. 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), he 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. There is a tiny difference in the composition of 302 and 304 steels, but either is very suitable for sinks. These alloys have the best combination of chromium and nickel for superior corrosion resistance and durability. Also, they are fairly "soft" (for steel, that is), form easily, and have a little "give", reducing the chance of dish breakage. Look for Type 302 or 304 on the box. If the sink has one of these alloys the box will say so. If it does not, pass it by.
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"1, 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 Type 302 or 304 sink on sale, then buy it, you cannot possibly go wrong with this commercial-grade sink.

Care & Cleaning of Your
New Stainless Sink

The Do's

The Don'ts

Water Spots

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 and put 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 hand made 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 corners are very hard to keep clean since you can get neither a sponge nor cloth all the way into the the sharp corner. We can't image 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.

Frugal Flooring

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 any more, but in the 1970's and '80s it was common, and there is still some of it around.

The best value is either ceramic tile, hardwood or laminate flooring. The most eco-friendly is cork or bamboo. 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

No material says "warm and homey" like a polished wood floor. Oak, which is now mostly harvested as a crop from managed forests, is the ultimate hardwood flooring deal — relatively inexpensive and extremely long lasting. In former years the wood finishes available did not protect well-enough to use hardwood in a potential wet area like a kitchen. But the new finishes protect wood from all but flooding. Avoid prefinished wood floors. These are often a hardwood veneer on a medium density fiberboard (MDF) backer. If it gets wet, MDF, swells like cardboard, ruining the floor. You will want solid unfinished hardwood sanded smooth and varnished with polyurethane by a local floor specialist. This seals the wood and the cracks between the planks so water cannot get in.
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 ten 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 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 greenest of green 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 a green material. We have a whole lot of doubt about that. Its basic 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 of 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. Quartz, although it is one of the most common minerals on earth, so abundant that we cannot possibly ever run out of it before the sun explodes, is not considered green. Beats the hell out of us. We think of bamboo flooring as sort of "greenish", definitely not actually 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 (Fluorescent or LED) 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. 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:

Fluorescent Lighting

Whatever style of light fixture you prefer, make sure it will handle a fluorescent bulb. This is the smart choice, not just for the budget, it's also the green choice and the low maintenance choice.
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 land fills, 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 use 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 ecological benefits of CFLs. Some CFLs use less mercury than others, and some last much longer than other CFLs. Its 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 undercounter 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?
Avoid halogen or xenon lights. These are not only more expensive to buy, but more expensive to operate, and they burn very hot so special care in installation is required. Halogen or xenon lights lights have no advantage whatsoever over fluorescent undercabinet fixtures.

Light Emitting Diodes (LED)

The only real challenge to fluorescent is the light emitting diode or 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.
The big objection to LEDs is initial cost. LEDs can be many times the cost of fluorescents for the same light output But, LEDs have come a long way in just a few years and the cost is coming down rapidly. In a few more years they will probably be roughly equivalent to fluorescents. Even with the higher initial cost, the lifetime cost of LEDs is lower because they last ten times longer then fluorescents (100,000 hours compared to 10,000 hours), and their operating cost is less than half that of fluorescents.
Available for several years as undercabinet light bars and pucks and as recessed ceiling lighting, LED bulbs that work in a standard light sockets are now coming on the market. So it won't be too long before LEDs take over the world. Good thing, too.

More Kitchen Lighting

For more than you probably want to know about lighting your kitchen, read our article Designing Efficient & Effective Kitchen Lighting .
Are you ready for your own dream kitchen?
We can build one just right for your budget. Contact usE-mail us at and let's get started.
1. The Manufacturer’s Standard Gauge is a traditional measure of the thickness of steel or iron in plates or sheets. It is calculated from the number of standard (1 foot square) sheets required to make up 41.82 lbs of metal by weight. Sixteen gauge means that 16 sheets are needed, 20 gauge requires 20 sheets, and so on. It is the general standard in most of North America. The measure runs to 38 gauge — a leaf just 0.0063 (0.15mm) thick. Any gauge lower than 11 is consider a plate. In its thinner gauges, a metal sheet is commonly referred to as a foil — aluminum foil, for example. If a sheet is thinner thhan a foil, then it's a leaf as in the gold leaf used in decoration which is often only a few atoms thick and so delicate it must be handled using special brushes. The standard sink gauges are 20 gauge (0.0359" or 0.95mm), 18 gauge, (0.0478" or 1.27mm) and 16 gauge (0.0598" or 1.79mm).

Gauge gets confusing because iron and steel use one gauge, while non-ferrous metals such as brass and aluminum use a different gauge (Brown and Sharpe Gauge), and zinc has its own special gauge in which higher numbers mean a thicker sheet, not thinner as with iron and steel. To add to the confusion, the Americal gauges and British gauges are quite different. Because of the opportunity for error that the different gauge schemes provide, most international standards organizations discourage the use of any gauge measure. For example, the American Society for Testing and Materials (now ASTM International) states in specification ASTM A480-10a: "The use of gauge number is discouraged as being an archaic term of limited usefulness not having general agreement on meaning."

Revised: 10/10/15

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