Cardboard Kitchen


In pregnancy week 28, late September by the calendar, we grabbed cardboard, an x-acto knife, some markers and headed over to the new house.

This was no art project.  I wanted to mock-up the kitchen and walk through the layout of cabinets and the island.  I wanted to see how it felt having several people in that space.  Better to make changes before they would cost us money.

Scale drawings had been made but what looks good on paper can be deceiving.  It paid off; we decided to increase by two inches the distance between the island and the range, and decrease slightly the width of the island – the island is planned at 37″ wide x 84″ long.    The island will be comfortably large, but that added floor space will pay dividends on crowded holiday meals.

Our farmhouse has four windows along the south wall, and the only logical place for the kitchen was in the south-west corner.  The window sills are 28″ above the floor while standard counter height is 36″.  There was no way I would let the counters span in front of the windows (as the previous tenant had done), but that meant I would have to build custom cabinets.


As an act of denial, my initial plan was to use some 2x4s and plywood.  Just toss them together and then later build lasting cabinets.  But that short term thinking gave way and I ended up using cabinet grade 3/4″ plywood for the carcases.  I still haven’t decided on, nor milled up, the face frames.  That can wait.


For counter tops my preference would be concrete but there was no way we could afford that.  I settled on clear spruce but the sawyer only had enough 8/4 (2″ thick) in stock for the sink counter.  Just as well.  My budget was getting strained.

I glued up the boards and then ran them through a wide belt sander at a local wood shop.  They charged $60 per hour, but it didn’t take very long; an added expense, yes, but worth it to ensure the counter top is absolutely smooth – especially important when putting a bullnose on the edge.



For the cabinets flanking the gas range – the 28″ high cabinets – I resorted to pine boards left over from a tree fort I built as part of my day job.  Chock full of knots, this wood is about two grades below #2 pine, but it was free and using it cleared up space in my shed.

For $30 I purchased a slab of white Italian marble from a local kitchen fabricator.  They are happy to discount their scrap, but it has an unfinished edge.  Not a problem for me.  I like to bake and marble is a first rate surface for kneading doughs.  Surprisingly, the lower cabinet height is easier on my back and shoulders when kneading.


Scrap evolved into a design theme of our kitchen.  But if you look in the right places, scrap can be as good as gold.  A pair a solid cherry shaker style cabinet doors came my way.  A friend had discarded them, without the panels.  By chance, at the big house I had some leftover 1/4″ cherry veneer plywood so I easily made the panels for the doors.  I will apply linseed oil.


The doors were designed to go overhead – the curved rail would go at the top – but in my application, under the sink, I will mount them upside down so the pulls are at the top.  What I am saving in cost and labor more than makes up for any oddity there.


To benefit from the full southern exposure of our windows, I cut two shelves from a leftover 1/4″ thick glass table top.  I screwed a cleat into the jambs and set the shelf where the two sashes meet.  It provides an ideal location for growing herbs and bulbs all winter long.  The remaining table top glass will make a nice cold frame for our gardens.

Our one splurge in the kitchen would be the two pendant lights that hang over the island.  In the back corner of the showroom at Fogg Lighting in Portland, I found a simple galvanized metal shade, part of the Milk-Man collection made by Hi-Lite Manufacturing.  They are available at Lowes and other distributers on the web.


The splurge was not so much the light – these were, after all, the least expensive pendant on the showroom floor – but the cord.  Black or white cord is free.  I would have chosen black, but I was persuaded to find a third option.

My Uncle Donald was a furniture buyer and spent his career traveling the world buying art and antiques.  For forty years he made an annual trek, circumnavigating the globe from east to west: Singapore was the best market for brass, Bombay for silks, Florence for furniture and art work, London for…just about anything.  His trained eye and sage counsel was “Don’t make the cord the focal point.  Black will stand out, white will distract the eye.  See if they have cream.”

(We had several long conversations with Donald about room colors.  His advice there: “Don’t paint the ceilings white.  Add 2 tablespoons of the wall color into the ceiling paint.  You won’t notice it, but it will tone down the ceilings just enough.  It will soften the room.  It will trick the eye.  Now, at the paint store they will laugh and say you can’t do that.  But tell them that is what you want to do.”  In fact, the clerk at the paint store refused to add the paint.  “Company regulations,” he said.  I had to add the 2 Tbsp myself and only then would he shake the can.  You do not notice the ceilings as tinted, but the room does look great.  )

But cream, for the light cord, was not an option.  They sell, at $6 per foot, a “grey mesh” cord, clear plastic with the silver wires visible.  It is very nice, very subtle and harmonizes perfectly with the galvanized metal.  $6 per foot is wicked exorbitant, but with ceilings only 7′ 9″ I needed three feet of wire.

I have heard the average kitchen remodel costs upwards of $40,000.  Hard to imagine but easy to believe.  Using scrap and creative re-use has put our costs far below that mark, but what we save in dollars we are paying for in time and patience.  It is a load of work to build a kitchen.  We are not done yet.  Far from it:  I need to build the island, mill the cabinet face frames and drawer faces (I will use barn wood), build several more drawers, make the drawer pulls using beach stones, do some tile work.

With a newborn the progress has slowed considerably.  Rightfully so.  But we are finding that going slowly allows us to incorporate design changes that reflect our actual patterns of use.  Cardboard and patience turn out to be great planning tools.

2 Comments on “Cardboard Kitchen”

  1. bam says:

    a work of art, in every imaginable way. your kitchen wraps around the heart, and soul, and lingers there ever after….

  2. Marcos says:

    Nice post. I’m checking constantly this site – and We are impressed!

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