Kitchen quandaries

December 2, 2008

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about our house, mostly because I’ve been preoccupied with the election, our Thanksgiving trip, and a lot of work deadlines. But now that things are settling down again, it’s time to get to work on the kitchen, one of our few remaining short-term projects. I’m really stuck on this one, though, and thought some help might be in order.

Our kitchen, while not original to the house, is a vintage 1939 remodel, complete with the trendy 30s arched doorways, (some of) the original Art Deco cabinet hinges and a 1950s O’Keefe and Merritt stove. It’s a little muddled, though—the previous owner added granite countertops, a new sink, and a floral backdrop that just look odd. We’re not fixing that right now, though, because we’re not doing a real kitchen remodel. (I have to keep repeating that to myself!) I’ve described the project to potential carpenters as a “five-year fix,” which is to say that in five years we’ll likely redo the whole kitchen and fix things like cabinet placement, room connections, etc. So that’s not this year’s project.

What would you do with this space?

Our kitchen

Our kitchen

Primary goals:

  • Install a dishwasher.
  • Do something to make the kitchen look less pink.
  • Organize things and make drawers and doors more functional.
  • Create a more consistent “look” for the space.
  • Insulate cabinets where possible. (The drawers banks back up to the outside stucco, so you get a huge draft when a drawer is open—important, as our kitchen isn’t heated.)

Not too complex. And on the organization front, we actually have a remarkable number of cabinets for a room this size, so there’s a lot to work with: six lowers with three banks of drawers, plus another eight uppers, a broom cabinet, and a California cooler. Not to mention the built-in in the breakfast room, which has another bank of drawers, two more cabinets, and some funky triangular shelves.

Rules of the game:

  • No moving walls, plumbing, chimney, or electrical outlets (all too expensive; dishwasher wiring is already done).
  • Getting rid of small drawers is okay as long as they are replaced with comparably sized drawers elsewhere. Getting rid of large drawers is okay even if they’re not replaced. Cabinets can be sacrificed as needed, since we have a lot of them.
  • California cooler and ironing cabinet must stay.
  • We’re trying to be green wherever possible—salvaged parts, non-toxic paints (a challenge since we will be painting over oil-based), etc.
  • Cheap cheap cheap! (There’s a recession on now, y’know!) I’m not quite sure what “cheap” means yet, but basically, the dishwasher should be the only major materials cost, and most of what’s left should be carpentry, paint, salvage finds, etc.—DIY stuff, with the possible exception of the carpentry.
  • Constraints: counters are only 22″ deep and cabinet doors all have half-inch partial offset hinges, which it turns out are no longer made.

One big decision: do we get an 18″ dishwasher? It requires much less carpentry work to fit it in, and Miele makes a schmancy (and insanely priced) model that some people claim holds as much as a standard 24″ model. It also has the big plus of being the right size for our family, so we could run it more regularly. But it’s expensive and non-standard….someday when the house is sold, will people frown on such a small model, even if it does win points on the efficiency front?

And here’s a photo of our current color scheme:

Kitchen colors

Kitchen colors

Do we go for a 1930s/1940s look, or try to bring it back to the Arts & Crafts feel of the rest of the house? (All of the fixtures are currently oil-rubbed bronze, though we might be able to trade for some other options at Ohmega.) So many decisions….any and all ideas are welcome!



  1. Regarding the dishwasher, some questions: (1) how long do you plan to be in the house? Dishwashers (even Miele) don’t last forever, so consider if the dishwasher may be ready for replacement by the time you move. (2) You mentioned maybe doing a bigger remodel somewhere down the line. If that’s the case, would you be putting in full depth counters then?

    The drafty drawers sounds like our house before I built the addition. There was no insulation in the walls, and the wall behind the cabinet was open. Drafts into the basement, etc. came right up through the wall and out an open drawer.

  2. Good questions—I imagine we will be in the house at least seven years, and possibly longer. The challenge with the dishwasher is that we don’t want to *have* to replace it if/when we remodel. (There may be a way to do a modular design at that point that would accommodate either size, of course.) In the short term, the carpentry work can only accommodate one or the other—the 18″ is a cheaper job only because the 24″ requires also reworking adjacent drawers and cabinets that will be blocked. We’re just hoping to avoid repeating this work in the future.

    And yes, that’s exactly the deal with our drafty drawers. (Was Oakland warmer back then?!?) When we do a full remodel we’ll remove the cabinets and insulate the wall, but I’m hoping to find a short-term fix for now….it was cold in there this morning!!

  3. Yeah, I think insulation was a foreign concept in California home-building for a long time. The only insulation in our house (c. 1948) when I bought it (1994) was some weird cellulose stuff around the toilet vent stack, and some (incorrectly installed) batts under part of the living room. Oh, and some odd bits under the front porch(!).

    If there’s an opening behind the drawers, pull them all out, and cut a piece of insulating foil (4’x50′ is ~$100 at Orchard Supply Hardware; they also sell it by the foot) over the back to cover the hole. Then staple it in place.

    If you’ve got access below (basement or crawlspace), stuff what insulation you can into any openings below or use expanding spray foam, and then put a layer of insulating foil across the underside. Ditto for above. These won’t be perfect, but should help cut down on the drafts until you can do proper insulation when you remodel.

    Given the price of the 18″ Miele dishwasher, I’d probably get a regular sized one, and get as water- and energy-efficient (which includes getting the dishes actually clean, of course ๐Ÿ™‚ as you can. The reports on how much the 18″ can hold are interesting.

  4. So…what’s going on with the kitchen? What did you decide?

  5. I’m chomping at the bit but feel I may be too late…

  6. The short answer is that we haven’t decided yet…. The long answer is worthy of another post, I think! I’ve literally swung back and forth from “gut the whole thing” to “just gut the window wall” to “just paint the damn cabinets” over the last month. As we started getting estimates, none of our “easy fixes” turned out to be as easy and cheap as we’d hoped, but we also don’t have the budget for a full overhaul (and we like our cabinets—just not their arrangement). Basically, trying to decide where it stops being worthwhile to put Band-Aids on and whether we should just bite the bullet and do the whole thing. Oy. I’ll keep you posted, though!

  7. I am lucky to have had the fun of renovating about 10 kitchens in my lifetime…it is always a 50/50 proposition as to whether doing a touch up or a complete redo is best. You’re lucky that you have a classic “triangle” arrangement for your work areas and, I envy you your range and California Cooler. A lot. Personally, I would do everything to save them.

    Is the kitchen as it was when you bought it? The color scheme is interesting: the walls, trim and backsplash tile all seem to match, the countertop, cabinet color, faucet and hardware all seem to match. And the floor is sort of in between. It may just be the picture but it looks like three different schemes.

    As you have made no decisions yet…here is my unsolicited two cents…

    If you’re not gung-ho about doing a complete remodel, don’t even think about it. They can become very expensive when you reveal problems you didn’t know you had. Plus, a complete remodel would require permits – and electrical and plumbing inspections. These things are all managable to people who are insistent on an entirely new kitchen, but sources of friction (and great cost) for people who aren’t. So, for a partial remodel…

    Rip out the granite. Unless you are in love with the color, of course, but based on your comments I would say you are not. Granite is wonderful in a kitchen as it is virtually indestructible. Unfortunately, granite dictates color choices and to some extent style…and in any decorating scheme I can imagine for your kitchen, granite does not appear in any of them.

    Once the granite is gone, you will be able to do two things easily:

    1. insulate the rear of the base cabinets and

    2. remove the cabinet to the left of the sink to create a space for your dishwasher. As your drawing is not scaled, I’m not sure but, if it fits, you could reuse this cabinet to the right of the range. You would have to have someone handy create new “sides” for it, but once finished, you’d have countertop space next to the range, and all those drawers to store the pans, utensils and spices you need while cooking.

    Next, I would remove all of the cabinet hardware, sand all painted surfaces, and prime and paint them white. You mentioned going with a 20s-30s-40s kitchen, and most of them were “sanitary”, which is to say white. It would also give you more opportunity to play with color elsewhere, and you can always easily touch up something that is painted white, which could be an issue with the somewhat lower durability of low VOC paint. The dark hardware, would look great on white and matches the grates on the range.

    Countertops…many choices…although the green choices are generally expensive or really not easy to work with. Although it is not green, I would probably suggest laminate with a metal banded edge. This is a 40s-50s touch, but would look great with all that chrome on your range. And laminate (originally linoleum) was typical in American homes from the 20s until, well until granite came along. And, you’d have a really wide range of colors…cobalt blue? Black? Bright red? A pattern? Hundreds of choices.

    Is the tile backsplash the floral you refer to? If you like it, keep it, if you don’t…why not replace it with 3×8 running bond glazed tiles from Dal-Tile (otherwise known as “subway” tile)? Perfectly in style with your home. And the cost to replace that tile is minimal, and could be done by handy spouse in 2 days. White butted against a darker countertop would be nice and you could use a contrasting bullnose tile that complemented the countertop.

    The floor could be left as is with this setup, as long as you chose your new paint and countertop colors with the floor in mind. Or, an area rug? More likely, once you have caught the “fever”, you could replace it with genuine linoleum! I’d get samples ahead of time just in case…that way it can direct your color choices elsewhere. But, your floors are perfectly serviceable and relatively neutral, so they do not have to be done right away, if at all.

    Well, anyway…I hope some of these ideas may be of inspiration/interest to you…I will be looking forward to seeing what you finally decide!

  8. Thanks Patrick—this is HUGELY useful! The agreement right now is that we’re going to sit down with finances after tax time and see where we stand, and figure out how much work is in the cards at that point. But I’ve already called for bids on the floor (we can rip it out ourselves, but I’d only trust the pros to refinish it properly) and re-venting the chimney, just to get an idea of what we’re looking at. The kitchen is indeed as we found it (bizarrely, they did everything but the floor in order to sell the house—?!?) My issue with the floors is mainly just that the tiles are old enough that the finish is gone, so they’re magnets for dirt and always look grungy. Problematic mostly because we have a big dog who’s constantly tracking dirt places, so it just always looks messy.

    Here’s my dream, though: subway tile over either a dark stone or marble countertop over the sink; move the chimney vent and continue counter around that corner to meet stove; dishwasher next to sink; rip out floor and refinish subfloor, with maybe an area rug over it (or linoleum if subfloor isn’t salvageable); and move cabinets so that fridge is flat against the corner wall, opening up space for a more accessible wood countertop (the breakfast room also has a wood countertop over the buffet). I actually measured this earlier today, and it fits; the bigger issue is how movable it actually is, since the cabinets are all built in place. We love our cooler and stove, so they’re definitely staying, as is the ironing board (which I don’t feel strongly about, but D. does….though he doesn’t like to show his love by using it! ๐Ÿ˜‰ D. also wants an apron-front sink if we’re going to open the countertop box, though I’m a little afraid that those may be the granite/stainless of this decade and will thus date the kitchen.

    So we’ll see! It seems that if we can stay away from replacing the cabinets, we might actually be able to keep it to a moderate budget, so that’s appealing. The challenge thus far has been finding a good carpenter who’s interested in tackling this type of project. The first couple who came out were strong advocates of gutting it (one even wanted to take the entire outside wall out….umm, no). *sigh*

  9. Hmm…the tile floors didn’t appear to be in poor shape but if they are…adios!

    Dark stone (black granite maybe?) would be great against white subway tile…I really like the contrast of black and white in kitchens…and it works off the look of the range. Whatever you do: don’t make the mistake of using marble! It is a nightmare; it stains easily, must be resealed at least every 6 months, and quickly becomes dull and hazy looking from regular cleaning. Just say no! Another completely different thought…what about a fabricated stainless steel countertop/running board/sink along that run of cabinets? It would look great with the range and also with the wooden countertops you are talking about for elsewhere in the room. You’d probably have to change the faucet and hardware out, though. A commercial, swing-out wall mounted faucet would be hot!

    Re: subfloor…were your cabinets built directly on the subfloor or on top of the previous flooring? You can adjust for the height difference with a toe kick, but you’d have to contend with the different floor heights at the transition between kitchen and dining room.

    I’ve ripped out a few wall rickety ironing boards in my day…I mean, if they’re not being used what is the point, take a picture already. It is not as if they are especially unique, in any event. Anyway, I usually turn ’em into spice racks by installing shelves. But as yours is not technically in the working portion of your kitchen, that would’nt make sense. What do you use that part of the kitchen for (aside from the dining aspect)?

    I love those farmhouse sinks…I don’t think it would, in and of itself, “date” the kitchen. After all, your range already intentionally does that! Personally, I think it would look “charming” and charming is always in style. Plus, it certainly would go well with the age of the house. Two thoughts: a farmhouse sink will dictate a more casual look for the rest of your kitchen. And, once you commit to a farmhouse sink and cut the cabinet…it is another farmhouse sink or new cabinets if anything should happen to the sink ’til the end of time. If you plan on staying in the house for a long time, this is not such an issue…but if you are planning on selling sometime in the forseeable future…the next potential buyer may hate that type of sink (my best friend thinks they look too “country”).

    As mentioned yesterday, gutting vs. not-gutting is a difficult decision. Unfortunately, it is often easier and less expensive to gut – though I think contractors prefer it because of the “easier” part! If you do end up “gutting”, make sure you get your contractor’s agreement IN WRITING that they will not harm the Cali Cooler. For some reason, contractors seem to like to put their sense of what is best into your kitchen, a la “oops it accidentally got ripped out. You didn’t really want that anyway, did you?”

  10. Thanks. Yes, one reason I want the tile out is that we actually already have the kitchen/dining room height difference—almost an inch higher in the kitchen, which sadly means our two-way swinging door only swings one way these days. The tile was put in in the mid-1990s and seems to be cut out around the cabinets, so the hope is that they go all the way down—but we have to replace the baseboard trim anyway (it was added when the floors were done, and isn’t even real wood oddly—some cardboard-y substance) so if we trim the cabinet toekick too that’s not so bad.

    The faucet is going no matter what, as it’s a cheap Home Depot fixture that’s already coming apart (and I really, really hate oil-rubbed bronze, even though I know it’s trendy!), so we could definitely explore a different look there altogether….hmm!

    And as far as the breakfast room, it doubles as an eating area and a mudroom, so I’ve been wrestling with what to do there. We have old laundry hookups sticking out of the wall that either need to be yanked and plastered over or (my newest thought) hidden with a built-in bench that could double as storage, so someone in the future could put the laundry back if they so desired. It’s a separate enough room that once we made the decision not to mess with those walls, it became Phase II (or III or IV….) [Our neighbor has the same house and tore his wall down to open up his kitchen; we like the effect, but we looooove our breakfast nook and just couldn’t give it up!) Decisions decisions decisions….

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