Build a Custom Kitchen Island
Skill level 3
Building your own furniture is the perfect way to get exactly what you want for your home. From the size and shape to design and materials, custom-built items put the maker in control of every detail. Those many details, however, require a great deal of forethought and planning. We offer some basic tips to get you started on your custom build, using this customized kitchen island as an example.
Style and Design
The basic design of the rustic-style island shown here came from a photo my wife found at an online retailer. You’ll also find islands for sell that are more ornately trimmed and painted, islands made of metal, islands finished with tile, etc. No matter what design you choose, I recommend finding a photo that resembles your idea as closely as possible. Although I didn’t even have my first measurement, simply having a photo of the basic idea provided a simple design blueprint that I could adjust to suit my project.
As you flesh out your design, factor in all the components that will be used with the island, including any chairs, hardware or special amenities. Will your island be used for storage, seating, or both? For a simple, stationary island meant for storage, you might consider beginning with a ready-made cabinet base, then topping and trimming it to your preference. In that case, half the work will have been done for you.
My wife Shanna wanted to incorporate some bar-stools and wood crates that she’d already purchased. By selecting these items ahead of time, we were able to design an island to fit them, rather than face a more limited selection of bar-stools or crates to complement the look and size of an island that’s already been built.
To incorporate both storage and seating, our design needed to be partitioned beneath the tabletop to separate the seats from the shelving. After perusing ready-made kitchen islands online, Shanna came across the photo she liked, which I roughly traced on paper so I could apply my own measurements and adjustments (such as adding caster wheels, etc.).
*Note that if you plan for a stationary cabinet-grade island that integrates a faucet and sink and/or a stove, then you’re no longer talking about a piece of furniture but rather a kitchen remodel which will involve several skilled trades and a building inspection.
The island shown is built primarily of SPF dimensional lumber I picked up at Lowe’s—the same stuff used to build houses. As a wood lover, I like the deep swirls and high grain contrast of the Southern yellow pine and wanted to accentuate this look with a rich wood stain. However, ours is a very bulky and heavy island that won’t be to everyone’s taste—and that’s okay because you’ll be customizing your own.
If you use dimensional lumber, I highly recommend hand-selecting your boards at
the supplier, otherwise you’ll likely end up with a number of bowed or twisted boards that will be difficult or impossible to use.
A smaller, more ornate island might utilize a higher grade of 1x boards to reduce weight and bulk. You can also save money by constructing with finish-grade plywood, although you should plan to add edge-banding or trim strips anywhere the plywood edges will be exposed.
If you’re using wood to build the island base, you might prefer to build with hardwood rather than a softer material like pine. Whereas I fully expect our rustic island to get dented and dinged in my rough-and-tumble household, a “finer” piece of furniture should be constructed of oak or a similar durable hardwood that will better withstand scratches and impact damage.
The island’s focal point will be the tabletop, and there you have a ton of options. The simplest choice would be to use a single piece of plywood cut to size, sanded and finished. For low maintenance, you can choose a natural stone such as a polished granite slab, or choose a colorful solid-surface material from brands such as Corian, Avonite, Formica, etc. Alternatively, you can find a wide range of naturalistic and artistic patterns in plastic sheet laminate, which you can cut to size and apply to a plywood surface with a roller and contact cement. Tile is another island-top option, popular for the design flexibility possible with all the sizes, shapes, colors and patterns.
On this project, we went with an edge-glued wood top, but even with wood you have a number of options. This top was sanded, stained and coated with polyurethane. It could have been engraved, or surface-burned with artwork, or maybe even inlaid with decorative accents and then encased in a deep-pour epoxy. If you’re going for a unique look, the top is a prime place to show off your customization.
First thing to consider is what size island will fit the living space, and this will vary
greatly from home to home. An island usually needs plenty of walkway and working space around all sides within the room, so determine the shape of the island’s footprint
(often rectangular) and its measurements of width and length. It might help to tape the shape onto the floor as a visual guide while you make adjustments to decide the island’s maximum allowable size. Do you plan to incorporate pre-built drawers (or crates, like
we did)? If so, factor in the space required to house the drawers or doors, and the space
to use them while they’re open.
Also, keep in mind the size of any doorways the island will need to pass through. The top of our island is too large to fit through a standard doorway, but we constructed it to detach from the base with a few screws should we ever need to move it to a new location.
Next, determine the height, and make it your own. Are you a tall person? Maybe you should build your island to match. A decorative island that is meant primarily for display and/or storage might only be as large as a bathroom vanity and the same height as your kitchen counter or table. If so, just measure your table and build the island to match.
Any island that will incorporate seating will need enough height to accommodate the seats, and this is when it’s nice to have those items on hand, because chairs and bar-stools vary
in size. For example, the seat of Shanna’s bar-stools measured 30 inches from the floor.
I decided to leave 8-1/2 in. of space between the seat and the bottom of the tabletop so
people could comfortably fit their legs beneath it. I also had to factor in the thickness of my 2x4 top (3-1/2 inches). So, I determined my island height by adding 30 + 8.5 + 3.5 = 42 inches. You can plug in your own figures and follow the same formula.
Seating will also affect the overall length of the island, because you’ll need to leave
adequate elbow room between side-by-side seats. Furthermore, if your island will incorporate a partition beneath the top, then you have to leave room for ample knee space in front of the seats.
Sketch a rough diagram of your island design and label the measurements and materials as you determine them. Once you know your limitations (maximum height, width and depth) and factor in your requirements (knee space, storage space), you can “reverse-engineer” the design to finalize your plan. As a simplistic example, an island 42 in. high and supported by four table-style legs will require four boards roughly 4 feet long. If you want to build the legs of 4x4 material, which is sold in 8-ft. lengths, then you’ll require two 8-ft. 4x4s to make the four legs. Examine all the island’s building components and apply your own measurements to determine your cut list and necessary materials.
Use a Building Template
My design included 2x4 trim which framed the outer edge of the island. I screwed together the rectangular frame and used it as a building template, which guided the size and positioning of many of the components within. It also helped to square up the pieces and provide a clamping surface during assembly.
Although your design might not include such a frame, I found it to be so useful during construction that you might want to cobble together your own from scrap lumber to match the outside dimensions of your island base. (Smaller boards than 2x lumber could be used to reduce the template’s weight.)
Another bonus from using the template: It provides a real-world representation of your island. This was particularly useful when I moved the frame into the kitchen, where I
realized it was too large to my liking. By discovering this prior to final assembly, I was able to take the frame apart, cut it shorter by nearly 4 inches, then rebuild it in order to “shrink”
my island design.
I assembled the 2x4 frame that wraps the island top and used it as a template. I moved it with the leg assemblies into the kitchen where I realized the island was too long. I shortened the template, reassembled it, then used it as a clamping surface to square up the legs and take final measurements for the rest of the island components.
Pre-finish the Pieces
This suggestion may not to pertain to all designs, but I recommend you pre-finish the building components before final assembly. To that end, I first cut all the dimensional
lumber lengthwise on a table saw to rip off the rounded edges and provide a crisper,
more “furniture-grade” look to the boards. I then thoroughly sanded all sides in the
direction of the woodgrain using progressively finer abrasives. After removing all dust with
a tack cloth, I applied a dark Jacobian-toned wood stained, which I let sit for a few minutes before wiping away with lint-free rags.
There is no point in wasting time or product on surfaces that won’t be visible after the island’s completion. However, for stain-grade projects, I do recommend applying colorant along the inside edges of miters, butt joints, and other mating surfaces, which will help
conceal the seam between the wood pieces.
Pre-applying the stain makes it easier to access all the edges and surfaces that need to be treated. Even for paint-grade projects, you might find it easier to apply primer or a first paint coat before assembly, then follow up with a touchup coat after the island has been built. This preparatory step also reduces the likelihood of runs and product buildup in tight corners,
which can detract from the overall appearance of the island.
Although options abound for your island’s design, wood is the most widely used material for the base of the island, and wood joints must be strong to withstand daily wear and tear. To arrest movement and add durability, use a high-quality wood glue in addition to mechanical fastening at all joints throughout the leg and/or support assemblies, including the connections where the legs meet the island top. Any weight placed on the island as well as any movement from people preparing food or leaning against the edge will stress the joints, and the connections will separate over time if not built properly.
Traditional wood joints range from half-lap joints and mortise-and-tenons to dadoes and dovetails. A DIY’er might find it easier to use quality wood screws or even carriage bolts
in conjunction with a strong adhesive at the joints.
Consider the look of the fasteners when planning your project. To hide screws or nails, plan to drive them from inside the island into the back sides of the visible boards. Finish
nails can be set and concealed with wood putty for paint-grade projects. To hide fastener heads on stain-grade projects, consider countersinking them then covering with wood plugs.
You can also strengthen wood joints by using dowels or biscuits for a mechanical connection that is completely concealed inside the joint. Pocket screws might present an easier option for less experienced woodworkers, because they can be driven at an angle across the joints using an inexpensive pocket-hole jig to create strong, glue-strengthened connections.
For visile fasteners, you might prefer painted screws or bolts to match decorative hardware on your project. On stained wood, black-painted hardware is a popular option
which you can order factory-finished, or paint the pieces yourself.
Plan how you’ll make the wood joints, because you have many options. I made leg assemblies using 2x4 cross-rails notched into 4x4 legs and fastened with wood glue and 3-in. screws driven from the non-visible side of the boards (once assembled). A strong wood glue such as Titebond will arrest any movement of the joints and should be used at all critical connections.
The 2x6 shelves were screwed in place to bridge the leg assemblies.
I then turned the entire assembly upside-down, which allowed me to align the top of the plywood partition with the tops of the leg assemblies (on the floor). I screwed the partition to the backs of the shelves.
Support the Horizontal Spans
A common downfall of a kitchen island is a poorly supported shelf that bows or sags beneath the weight of whatever it carries. This problem is typical of cheaply built
store-bought islands, which are often made of fiberboard then overloaded with stuff
by the homeowner.
Flat surfaces such as shelves and island tops must be built to support the weight of
anything they carry, and the more area the surface spans, the stronger the shelf must
be to avoid sagging.
Several factors are at play when designing support for these surfaces. For flat, horizontal surfaces, I recommend material at least 3/4 inch thick. The thicker the material, the greater length it can span without support.
A 32-in. span for a 3/4-in. plywood shelf is pushing the limits for heavier objects, however you have several options to strengthen a shelf to handle the span. One solution might be
to laminate two layers of 3/4-in. ply and add 1-1/2-in. shelf nosing. Another option is the addition of cleats supporting the bottom edges of the shelf, which can add rigidity.
Anywhere you can add structural support from below, such as a right-angle shelf bracket, will divide the span and transfer its load, in effect strengthening the shelf.
On our project, the island had a span of about 78 inches, and I utilized three methods
to support the flat surfaces:
Middle shelf—I supported the middle shelf with two metal shelf brackets screwed
into the plywood partition, which was in turn fastened to the leg assemblies to transfer
the load to the floor.
Bottom shelf—Hidden beneath the center of the bottom shelf is a fifth caster
wheel on a 4x4 cross-brace, which halves the span and transfers the load to the floor.
Island top—Since the top was made of edge-joined 1x boards, I strengthened it by
laminating 3/4-in. plywood beneath it and also used the top edge of the island’s vertical plywood partition to provide additional support.
I flipped the island back upright and attached 2x4 trim blocks to the partition to hide the plywood edges. Here's what it looks like before adding the top.
I made the top from edge-glued 1x6 fastened with pocket screws. To strengthen the top, I laminated 3/4” plywood blocking on the underside to bridge the edge-joints. I also fastened 3/4” strips beneath the edges of the top. The top was screwed in place from beneath the plywood strips. Finally, I stained and finished the 2x4 template and fastened it as trim around the top.
I applied several coats of polyurethane to the top for a glossy, protective surface. The
end result was a big, handsome, mobile island custom-built to my wife’s specifications.
She was happy, so I was too.
Explore the Countless Options
You’ll find a million ways to build a kitchen island. To save yourself some work, consider buying a pre-built cabinet base (or two) and adding your own top and trim package to complete the project.
If you’re more into interior décor than heavy-duty construction, you might even prefer a pre-made island (even a used antique) which you simply decorate with artistic patterns, paint, or ornamental trim.