Custom kitchen islands—the very expensive kinds built by carpenters or cabinetmakers—are often simpler than you might think. Many consist of little more than a couple of cabinets, a custom-size countertop, some trim and maybe some shelves. With just a few simplifications (and a lot less money), you can build a completely legit kitchen island with two stock cabinets, a countertop and some basic lumber. The key to keeping it simple is to choose the right type of cabinets and a countertop material that you can either cut to size or fabricate yourself without too much trouble.
Designing Your Kitchen Island
The simplest design for a DIY island features two kitchen base cabinets set back to back and topped with a continuous, or single-piece, countertop. But before you jump out and buy the cabinets, think about the countertop material you'd like and research the sizes available.
Stock base cabinets are 24 inches deep and come in widths of 12 to 48 inches. Placing them back to back gives you an island that's 48 inches long by whatever cabinet width you chose. To simplify the project, choose cabinets that are "exposed end" on both sides, meaning they have finished side panels. If your cabinets have any unfinished sides (not counting the backs), you'll have to cover them with thin plywood that matches the cabinet wood.
As an example, if you have two 30-inch-wide cabinets, the island base would measure 30 by 48 inches. Countertops always overhang cabinets by at least 1/2 inch on the sides and about 3/4 inch at the front (where the doors or drawers are). In this case, you'll need a 3/4-inch overhang on two fronts. Therefore, you'll need a countertop that's at least 31 x 49 1/2 inches. You can have more overhang, if desired, but as a minimum the counter should overhang beyond the cabinet doors by 1/2 inch so that drips fall to the floor rather than onto the door faces. Also, the actual sizes of cabinets vary, so be sure to measure the cabinets (or get accurate dimensions from the manufacturer) before planning the countertop size.
One of the best countertop materials for an island is butcher block, which is commonly available in widths up to 36 inches and a variety of lengths—more than enough for a sizeable DIY island. You simply cut the butcher block to the size you need. If you want to fabricate your own countertop, plastic laminate and solid-surface (such as Corian) are relatively DIY-friendly and can be built with a particleboard base topped with the countertop material. Both laminate and solid-surface can be cut with standard woodworking tools, and if you build your top in one piece, you won't have to do the tricky work of fusing or seaming countertop sections.
Things You'll Need
Two kitchen base cabinets
Drill-driver and screwdriver bits
Drill bits for pilot holes
8-foot-long 2x4 board
Trim-head wood screws
Butcher block countertop slab
Sandpaper—80-, 100-, 150-, and 220-grit (as needed)
How to Build a Kitchen Island
Step 1: Join the Cabinets
Fasten the cabinets together back to back so you can get accurate dimensions for the base cleats you will install on the floor.
- Set the cabinets on a flat surface.
- Apply a bead of wood glue along the top, bottom and side edges on the backside of one cabinet.
- Fit the cabinets together so their sides and tops are perfectly aligned.
- Clamp the cabinets together at the top.
- Drill pilot holes and fasten the cabinets together with wood screws about 3/4 inch below their top edges.
- Carefully tip the assembly onto one side, make sure the sides are perfectly aligned and clamp the cabinets together, then screw them together about 1 to 2 inches from the bottom edges. Let the glue dry overnight.
Step 2: Install the Floor Cleats
The floor cleats are two 2 x 4 boards that are attached to the floor. The base cabinets will fit over the cleats and be screwed to them in order to anchor the island to the floor. Be sure to use a straight board for the cleats, and take your time installing them so they're accurate positioned.
- Measure the width of each cabinet, inside its base; this is the length of the cleats.
- Cut two cleats to length from 2 x 4 lumber, using a circular saw or miter saw.
- Measure the thickness of the side walls and toe-kicks of the cabinets.
- Place the cabinet assembly (the island base) right side up on the kitchen floor, and position the island precisely where you will install it. Trace along the four corners of the island onto the floor with a pencil. Remove the island.
- Measure in from the traced lines, using the side and toe-kick thickness dimensions, and mark the floor.
- Position each cleat on the marked placement lines.
- Drill pilot holes, and fasten the cleats to the floor with wood screws, driving through the finish flooring and into the subfloor.
Make sure there are no pipes or wiring in the floor cavities where the cleat screws will come through. To be safe, use screws that will just penetrate the subfloor.
Step 3: Set the Island Base
The island slips right over the cleats and installs with a few trim-head screws, which have small heads that are less visible than those of standard wood screws.
- Fit the island over the two cleats so the cabinets are flush with the floor.
- Confirm that the island is positioned on the original traced lines at each corner.
- Drill pilot holes, and fasten through the toe-kick of each cabinet and into the cleat behind, using trim-head screws. Drive the screws slightly below the surface of the wood.
Step 4: Prepare the Countertop
You get to decide how much overhang the countertop will have, keeping in mind that an overhang is for looks as well as for function, and that overhangs don't have to be the same on all sides. You might want to experiment with different depths of overhang using a scrap piece of countertop material or the countertop blank before it is cut.
- Measure the outside dimensions of the top of the island base, and add the desired overhang for the width and length of the countertop.
- Cut the countertop to the desired dimensions, using a circular saw.
- Sand the cut edge to remove any saw marks and to smooth and round the edges and corners as desired. Start with coarse sandpaper and switch to finer grits as needed to achieve the desired smoothness.
- Sand the top surface of the countertop, if desired.
Clamp a straightedge or a straight board to the countertop blank to use as a guide for the base of your circular saw. This helps ensure a straight cut and minimize splintering along the cut edge.
Step 5: Install the Countertop
Wood or wood-base countertops typically are installed with screws and are not glued to the cabinets. Be sure to use screws of the right length: they should get sufficient grip into the wood but not be so long that there's a risk of them poking up through the countertop surface. Cabinets have wood blocks or plastic fittings at their top corners and edges for screwing through to secure the countertop.
- Place the countertop onto the island and position it according to your plan.
- Measure from the outside edges of the countertop to the faces of the cabinets to make sure the countertop is parallel to the sides and front/back of the island.
- From inside the base cabinets, drill pilot holes and drive wood screws (not trim-head screws) up through the cabinet mounting blocks and into the bottom of the countertop.
Philip Schmidt is author of Install Your Own Solar Panels, The Complete Guide to Treehouses, and 18 other home-related how-to books. A former carpenter, he has been a full-time writer and editor for over two decades, teaching DIYers about houses and everything we do with them.