Getting a dishwasher: Act I of an ongoing saga

January 6, 2009

See, the dishwasher was supposed to be one of our very first projects when we moved into our house in the fall of 2007. In fact, a contractor friend of ours had even offered to install it as a housewarming gift. So a month or so after we move in, we call him up. He heads over and looks at our kitchen cabinets. He looks inside them and under them. Then he looks at us and slowly shakes his head. “Umm. I think you need to call someone on this one.” Our cabinets are built-in-place wood cabinets from the late 1930s, and they currently have a granite slab on top, which apparently makes them frustrating to work with on multiple counts.

Conversations with contractors
So I start calling carpenters and cabinetmakers to see just how much this little project is going to run us.

Contractor #1: So, you’re keeping this kitchen, huh.
Me: Umm, yeah.
Contractor #1: Because if this were my house, I’d just take that out right there. [Gestures to the sink wall. The wall to the outside. The wall that is holding up one side of our house.] Yeah. I’d take that right out, because then it’d be real easy to get the dishwasher in. [Because it‘s difficult to bring a 24″ dishwasher in through a 36″ doorway???]
Me: Umm.
Contractor #1: Yeah, and then you could open this place right up. [Gestures to the other two walls in the kitchen.] No problem.
Me: . . .

I guess he had me figured out, since he never even sent us an estimate. So we tried Contractor #2, a young woodworker who seemed cool but more into furniture building than cabinetry.

Contractor #2: Wow.
Me: Wow?
Contractor #2: Yeah, I think I could do this. I could totally do this. I’ve never really tried one of these before, but I could do it.
Me: Umm, okay. Great.

I was actually getting vaguely excited about him, but when his bid arrived, it was for a LOT of money, and I was uneasy paying that much for a first-time effort, since we already knew there were a lot of potential pitfalls that required some cabinetmaking savvy. Enter Contractor #3 (who, in all fairness, came out mainly to give an estimate on the retaining wall, but was a whole house contractor so we stopped in the kitchen too).

Contractor #3: That? [Stares at me.]
Me: Yeah. We want to—
Contractor #3: Four fifty.
Me: Four fifty? Because the counters are actually narrower than usual, and there’s no plumbing for it yet, and then there’s the outside wall, and….
Contractor #3: Four fifty. Dishwasher installations are four fifty.

Now, there’s an argument that says for $450, I should have signed on the spot. But a voice in the back of my head kept saying “this guy doesn’t know what he’s getting into, and down the road when we have to fix it, we’ll be sorry!” Which may or may not have been true. Maybe he knew exactly what he was getting into. But his company is pretty exclusively new construction and down-to-the-studs remodels, and after having a barrage of contractors of all ilk come out, we didn’t get any other bid below $2,000. Most were significantly above that. So I’m still suspect.

In the end, we did actually find someone who seemed like he’d be a good fit, but by that point I’d started doing some hardcore cost-benefit analyses, and we were optimistically looking at $2500 to get a dishwasher but not fix any of the other major kitchen issues. And virtually every bid came with a big caveat: it’s an old house, and you never know what lurks behind the walls, so the number could go up if there’s any funny business back there. (Which is, of course, fair and true, as any owner of an old house can attest to!)

Preserving our vintage cabinets
In the process of investigating our options, I also photographed our cabinets and posted questions on some online woodworking bulletin boards, hoping for some advice from craftsmen themselves. See, I’ve grown to really like our old cabinets. Some of them still have cool art deco hinges exposed at the sides. Do the generic Ikea cabinets in everyone else’s kitchen have that? Nope! And they have pullout cutting boards and all-wood drawer boxes. Can Ikea make that claim? Didn’t think so! I figured woodworkers would back me up. Restore, don’t replace, right? Surely cabinetmakers would appreciate that!

Huh. Apparently not. To put it kindly, they patted me on the head and sent me back to the playground. Turns out my cabinets are not nice at all. They’re crappy, and were probably someone’s weekend project back in 1939. As one carpenter tactfully put it, “Your cabinets have mismatched hardware that isn’t made anymore, and they’re not deep enough, and the drawers are falling apart, and the frames have pieces gouged out of them. What is it that you’re looking to preserve about them, exactly?”

Or not.
So. New cabinets. I have a vision for what the new cabinets should look like: they’re nice all-wood (fir, or maybe oak?) cabinets with simple Arts and Crafts doors and maybe some leaded glass for show, though that wouldn’t have been there originally. They probably have some clever built-in features like tilt-out bins and plate racks to help the 1915 housewife organize her kitchen. Unfortunately, while I have a vision, I don’t have the $60 grand that buys you a kitchen like that, at least in the Bay Area.

So where does that leave us? Yeah, that would be back at…Ikea. I know, I know, Ikea cabinets don’t belong in our vintage kitchen by any stretch of the imagination, but right now, that seems to be where our budget lands us. Also, we live two miles from Ikea and belong to City Carshare, which has pickup trucks, so it really is pretty damn cheap.  Here’s option #1: we pull out the counter and base cabinets by the sink, insulate the wall, take out our furnace chimney, and put in new Ikea base frames. The upper cabinets stay, as do all the 1939 cabinets on the opposite wall. We get custom doors like this kitchen has, ideally made by a local carpenter. (Why custom doors? A couple of reasons: first, it will keep our kitchen from looking too Ikea—I’d like it to be a little more unique. More importantly, though, custom doors allow us to reface our existing cabinets to match, or potentially replace them down the road without having to worry about the same Ikea door design being available in five or ten years’ time.) We get some sort of new counter, ideally of a green material if we can find a workable/affordable one. We add a hood for the stove, which will make D. happy. We pull up the tile and refinish the floor. And we do it all for…..??? Okay, so we don’t exactly have a budget yet, and we don’t even have a very good idea of how much some of these things (especially the HVAC work) will cost—that could be a dealbreaker. In general, though, we do the cabinets and counters cheaply enough that someday the whole thing can be replaced and redone properly and it won’t have been a waste of money in the interim.

It’s also worth noting that I haven’t totally given up on our old cabinets yet—in the back of my mind, there’s still option #2, where we install the dishwasher where the drawers are, build new drawers where the chimney used to be, fix the gouges with some Bondo, repaint the whole thing, and slap new counters on. It’s just that we can’t seem to find a carpenter who thinks it’s worthwhile to do all this for a reasonable amount of money. And don’t forget about option #3, where we find a cabinetmaker who can build us custom cabinets but doesn’t want our first-born child. (Really, we’re going for simple here, and we’re talking 12 linear feet of cabinets, with no uppers! You’d think this would be feasible…) Finally, there’s option #4, where vintage cabinets that fit our kitchen miraculously appear at Ohmega or ReStore. In theory, we could wait that one out, and just delay the remodel until they do….but in this economy, not much is happening on the home improvement front, and it could be a very long wait. On the upside, by the time we actually make any decisions about any of this, maybe we’ll have saved up enough money to actually do the work….

And so it begins.


  1. Your “Conversations with contractors” was hilarious! I felt like I was “there”.

  2. A funny interview.


  3. I am a licensed general contractor, (889269) & I was anti Ikea kitchens for a long time, but I have changed my mind. I have seen all the Ikea cabinetry perform as well as any other brand, & better than quite a few brands. I wouldn’t buy any of that outfit’s furniture, though. I am no Ikea fan, but credit where credit is due.

  4. I just read the rest of the article. ReStore & the re-use people usually have good stuff. I recently did some built ins using used drawers from a salvage place. I made the slides from the lumber of the old cabinets. Saved hundreds in plywood & labor. I refaced a ’70’s kitchen & made into a ’20’s kitchen. It looks great. Generally, contractors mark up everything, so in the interest of profit, these guys will rip everything out, just to gouge you on replacing the perfectly good stuff they destroy. I guess that’s good business to some people.

  5. I prefer to stick with old art deco cabinets, they are just inspiring, new cabinets hardly have any style or decorations to them, old cabinets in contrary often have something interesting that can attract your attention.

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