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Ask the Builder: Islands can work in smaller kitchens, too

This kitchen island is small but mighty.  (Tim Carter/Tribune News Service)
This kitchen island is small but mighty. (Tim Carter/Tribune News Service)
By Tim Carter Tribune News Service

Q: Tim, I’m about to embark on a kitchen remodeling adventure and don’t want to get shipwrecked on the island of kitchen mistakes. I’ve never had an island in my kitchen, and I don’t have lots of space. Can you help me decide if one will work? What, in your opinion, is the smallest island you can have in a kitchen? What about appliances and electricity in the island? What happens if you get a stone top and want to change it later? How would you get the stone top off? – Mary Chris F., Cincinnati

A: A lot of homeowners are flummoxed when it comes to kitchen remodeling challenges. I’ve come to respect Europeans’ skills at making the most of the least when it comes to space in kitchens, bathrooms and other living spaces. If you need inspiration about how to work with small spaces, look on the internet for images of how they do it across the Atlantic Ocean.

I didn’t build the house I live in. My goal is to build one more house for myself, and, believe me, it will have as near a perfect kitchen layout as possible. My current house had a horrible kitchen layout when I bought the home. I don’t know what the architect or homeowner was thinking, but it had virtually no countertop space. All of the tops were short sections, the longest being about 30 inches.

The overall size of my kitchen is only 14 feet 7 inches by 13 feet 3 inches. Believe it or not, with some ingenious planning and relocating the entry, we doubled the area of the kitchen’s countertops and included two new islands to boot.

The primary island cabinet in my kitchen measures 25 by 48 inches. It’s got a stone top that overhangs 1 inch on all sides. When planning a kitchen layout, it’s important to leave enough space around the island so two people can pass each other with ease while one person is working at the island. I can tell you from past jobs that at 40 inches of clearance, you really don’t need more than this.

Most professional kitchen designers will tell you that 36 inches is the minimum clearance you need. I agree, but I will say I violated this standard by an inch between my island countertop edge and the front of my giant range. In 10 years, this has not caused any problems.

I have a wonderful drawer-type microwave oven in my island, and it has worked well for more than 10 years. All of my plates, bowls and saucers are in slide-out drawers in a cabinet next to the microwave. The silverware is in a standard drawer next to the oven. Below the oven is a medium-sized drawer that lots of platters, large cooking pans and so forth fit into with ease. In other words, lots of stuff is stored in this tiny island.

Electric is easy to incorporate into a kitchen island, and there are many ways to do it. The easiest way is to have standard duplex outlets in the sides or rear of the island. The National Electrical Code permits this as long as the electrician installs the cables within the cabinet so they can’t get damaged. Remember: You can often do better than the code, and I prefer to have these cables run in metal conduit so there’s no chance a cable can be damaged by moving anything around in the island cabinet.

You can also install hidden outlets in an island where the actual receptacle is inside a drawer of all places. My daughter did this in her new home, but I’m not yet sold on this method for a host of reasons. It’s a safe installation, but I just don’t know if I want a drawer partially open while I use an appliance up on top of the island.

Mary Chris was smart to think about how to remove a stone top from a cabinet without damaging the actual cabinet. I’ve installed countless granite and marble tops, and I can tell you they weigh hundreds of pounds. Gravity alone can keep a stone top on a cabinet, but you do need something to help keep a stone top from sliding.

I’ve found that just a few dollops of clear silicone caulk at the four corners of an island cabinet are plenty to keep the top secure. The dollops only need to be the size of a dime.

If you discover you need to replace the top, you can easily cut through the silicone using a 4-foot-long piece of very thin braided picture-hanging wire that’s tied to two pieces of broomstick handle. Two people use this wire saw much like lumberjacks use a two-man bucksaw on a log. It only takes seconds to cut through the caulk.

Subscribe to Tim Carter’s free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts at askthebuilder.com.

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