Design a New Kitchen Island for a Budget-Friendly Update

Replacing your kitchen island is a great way to give your whole kitchen an updated look. Design a new kitchen island for maximum function and new storage.

Rethinking the kitchen layout

We recently replaced our kitchen island, but we reused the existing island. Let me explain. Our 90s kitchen came with a kitchen desk. The kitchen is not large, and the desk was located smack dab in the middle of prime food prep real estate—in between the fridge and stove. We lived with it like this for 20 years. Our kids sometimes (okay, rarely) used the desk to do homework. My husband and I used it from time to time for bill paying and other household tasks—making a grocery list, writing a thank you note, etc. When hosting parties, we removed the chair, and turned it into a nice drink station. But, mostly, it served as a dumping ground for mail, Amazon packages, purses and other miscellaneous items that needed a home. And the desk chair was always a tripping hazard in the narrow space between the island and the desk.

A new design desk space

My husband is pretty handy, and we made several budget-friendly updates to our kitchen over the years. You can read about those here. The kitchen desk came up in discussions over the years, but because it was a different height than the main kitchen countertops (you can see this in the photo, below), we knew removing it would require the installation of new kitchen counters. That had never been in the budget, so we lived with the desk. There was also the problem of what to put in place of the desk. All new cabinets were not in the budget, either. Enter the kitchen island.

A kitchen desk with cabinets above it
The “before” of our kitchen with the kitchen desk

Reconfigure existing kitchen cabinets

While staring at the island cabinet, and the desk just beyond it one day, it occurred to me that they were the same size. A quick measure revealed that my mental measuring tape is pretty accurate—the island was only an inch shorter than the desk. Why not move the island cabinetry into the kitchen desk space and replace the island? A simple, innovative idea, right? Now to convince my husband of the simplicity of this plan.

Kitchen with green painted cabinets and bulkheads replaced with open cabinets
The “before” of the kitchen island. The desk space, where it moved, is to the left and not visible.

One update leads to another

As it turned out, he was on board with the plan, but he pointed out to me that it would not be just a simple switcheroo. Disrupting the desk area would necessitate the installation of a new kitchen countertop and a new backsplash. Our white formica countertops were original to our 30-year-old house. They were actually in pretty good shape—I think formica is underrated—but they were requiring more and more maintenance to keep them looking clean. I loved our existing backsplash. It had been part of an earlier kitchen refresh. But the one-inch squares were getting dated, and I was craving something a little bit lighter and brighter. We had waited a long time and were ready to take on this kitchen project. BUT, there was the issue of what to put in place of the kitchen island once we moved the existing island cabinets to the desk area.

Determining how a new island could add function to the kitchen

Once we decided to move forward with our plan, the hunt was on for a new island. We started by looking around the kitchen and determining what storage solutions we might be able to solve. The old island was just two double-door cabinets with pull-out shelves and four drawers. It held baking dishes, mixing bowls, storage containers, silverware, cooking utensils and some odds and ends. But we were not losing any of that storage—it was just moving to the kitchen desk space. So, we could actually create extra storage.

Identifying the problem spots

We looked at the problem points in the kitchen—the spots we were constantly complaining about and trying to rearrange. The kitchen trash can was always one of those items that caused a dilemma. It had moved many times during our time in this house. It started at a spot by the back door where it fit perfectly but covered the only heat vent in the kitchen. Then, we moved it to the bottom of the pantry, but it took up much-needed dog food storage space. Next, we found a decorative trash can cabinet to place at the end of the island. It was pretty, but it jutted out and caused a traffic bottleneck. Finally, we installed a slide-out trash can unit in a cabinet by the stove. We missed the cabinet space, and it was not in the best location for a trash can.

Another area of contention was the spice cabinet. I had tried many in-cabinet spice storage units. I scoured Pinterest for the perfect solution, but nothing that I tried ever worked to keep my spices organized and handy in the small cabinet that was available for this purpose.

Finally, we always complained about the namby-pamby vent fan that was built into our over-the-range microwave. Any slight cooking mishap that caused the least bit of smoke or steam caused the smoke alarm to scream incessantly until we opened the front and back doors of the house for ventilation. All of this happened while that vent fan ran constantly (and loudly) but, apparently, achieved nothing.

Designing the new kitchen island

With our problem points identified, we set to work designing the best way to add function to the new island. We knew that it would include a trash receptacle (possible space for two cans), a spice rack and an opening for a microwave. Once we knew what we wanted to include, we did a deeper dive into the function of the island and determined placement of the storage units that would comprise the island. We decided that the trash receptacle would work best at the end of the island that was away from the main kitchen work surfaces, making it more convenient for guests to access during parties. The other end of the island is right next to the stove, so this seemed like the perfect spot for the spice cabinet. That left the middle for the microwave.

Consider changing the size of the island

The island that we were removing was 48 inches long. We always thought we could go a little bit longer with the island and used painter’s tape to mark the extra length available on the floor. The maximum distance came to 55 inches.

Meet with the kitchen design team

With a plan for the function of the island and the dimensions in hand, we started visiting various kitchen showrooms. We started with the big-box stores. There is a Lowe’s right down the street, so that was our first stop. We immediately ran into a problem when we were told that the various cabinet units that would be put together to make our island all came in six-inch increments. We would have to reduce the length by an inch to 54 inches. Not a big deal, but something to consider. The second issue was the placement of the microwave. We were advised that it would work best to put the outlet in an end of the cabinet rather than in the middle. This meant swapping the spice cabinet with the microwave. Again, not a big deal, but something to consider if you’re designing an island. Lowe’s carries three lines of cabinets at different price points. Each line has multiple finishes and door styles. Since we were keeping our existing cabinets, we considered the raised-panel styles that matched most closely. Nothing was an exact match, but we chose a style and a finish that worked best. The designer at Lowe’s was very helpful, and we left with a computer-generated drawing and a price for our island. We repeated this process at Home Depot and three kitchen design showrooms.

Sticking points that designers were unable to address

Every showroom that we visited had helpful kitchen designers who were able to put together an island that would house the units that we desired in our kitchen. But, there were a few items that they were not able to address simply because they were limited to the standard size of the units and the door styles and cabinet finishes that were available. Here is a list of the sticking points for us:

Door style: I think it would be fine to go with a completely different door style, especially since we had decided to do a wood cabinetry on the island to complement our painted cabinets, but Dave really wanted to match the doors. Nobody had an exact match–even the shop that carried our brand of cabinets.

Exterior finishes: Our island is the focal point in our kitchen, and the back and sides show prominently. The options for finishing these spaces ranged from a solid piece of plywood covered in a laminate to match the doors to matching faux doors covering a plywood back and sides. Since it takes center stage, I really wanted the cabinet to look more like a piece of furniture, and neither of these options would achieve this look.

The configuration of the cabinet units: The standard two-receptacle trash can unit was 18 inches and the standard spice rack was 6 inches. We didn’t want the microwave section to be wider than 24 inches. This gave us 48 inches, and we really wanted to use as much of the 55 inches of space available.

Kitchen island stained a warm brown in the center of a kitchen with green painted cabinets

The decision to consider custom

The quotes for our island ranged from $4,000 to $6,500. We were probably naive going into this, but that was more than we expected. Since none of the options provided exactly what we wanted, we decided it would be a good idea to check into a custom option. We thought it would come in at a higher price than the other quotes, but since it looked like we were going to exceed our budget anyway, we figured it couldn’t hurt to check into it. There is fairly new custom cabinet shop close to our house, so we stopped in with our requests. They told us they could match our existing cabinets exactly, build the cabinet to our 55-inch specifications and provide a custom exterior with that furniture look I was hoping for. And they promised the island in a shorter timeframe than any of the other options. The price came in at $5,000–still lower than several of the non-custom options.

This view shows the new island. The view beyond the island is where the desk used to be and where the old island now currently resides.

The final updated kitchen island

We couldn’t be happier with our new kitchen island. The side-by-side trash receptacle cabinet is 22 inches wide. It allows space for a cubby at the back where I store cleaning supplies. The standard cabinet would have been 18 inches wide with the trash cans placed front to back. Side-by-side is super convenient. The drawer above the trash receptacle holds our silverware. The spice rack is 8 inches wide–two inches wider than the standard size. It holds spices plus some other baking supplies. The microwave cabinet is the 24 inches that we wanted, fitting our microwave in a way that looks almost built-in. Built-in microwaves are the current trend, but that option was not in our budget. There was space for a large drawer below the microwave opening that is useful for housing small appliances. I placed a basket in the small amount of space above the microwave that is handy for stashing mail. One of the finishing touches was to add black cabinet hardware to the island. The drawer pulls are the same design as the brass hardware on the green perimeter cabinets. I think that this gives the island its own unique look and the appearance of a stand-alone piece of furniture.

A pull-out spice rack in a kitchen island
The pull-out spice rack holds all of our spices, and it’s in the island where food is prepared and only a few steps from the stove.
A kitchen island with a microwave opening and a large pull-out drawer
The microwave opening allowed space for a large drawer below it. The drawer is handy for housing
small kitchen appliances.
Kitchen island trash receptacle cabinet
The custom island allows for side-by-side trash cans.
Kitchen island trash receptacle cabinet showing storage behind trash cans
The extra space behind the trash cans offers great storage for cleaning supplies.

Final thoughts on updating the kitchen island

By keeping the existing cabinetry, but replacing the kitchen island, we gave our kitchen a budget-friendly update. We improved the function of the kitchen by designing the island to solve problem storage areas, and we gained counter space by extending the size of the island.

Things to consider when designing a new kitchen island

If you are thinking about replacing your old kitchen island with a new one, there are several things to consider. I’ve compiled the process that we used in the list, below.

A list of items to consider when designing a kitchen island

    Hi! I’m Erin. As life evolves, so does a home. Join me as I share DIY projects to update, renovate, decorate and improve my home to complement my empty-nest lifestyle.

    8 Responses

    1. I love reading about your kitchen renovation, Erin. and I think your kitchen island is a dream! Isn’t it funny how pricing can surprise you? So much great information here! Thanks for a great post!

      1. Thank you, Missy! It shows that you shouldn’t discount anything and make assumptions about costs. Thanks for reading!

    2. What a smart kitchen update! I love that you recycled the old island and made it a more functional space. The new island is beautiful. I love everything you did.

      1. Thank you, Lynn! It was a fun project and definitely more budget friendly to keep the existing cabinets and recycle the island.

    3. You two make a terrific team, Erin. Very methodical and focused! The time it took talking with five different vendors before the custom shop—wow! But how it paid off in the end is remarkable! Brilliant job, you two!👏👏🍃

      1. Thank you so much, Beverly! Even a small kitchen remodel takes time. I’m glad we didn’t rush into the first option.

      2. I was wondering if you’d consider doing an update as to how your painted cabinets are holding up? We want to do the same in our kitchen (right down to the boxes above) buf I’m nervous to pull thd trigger!

        1. I’ll do kitchen cabinet update soon. My new year’s resolution is to write more blog posts! The update will be first on my list. Thank you for reading.

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