Background: What, How & Why of Split-level, Bi-level and Raised Ranch Homes
A fresh approach to today's home
Split-Level or 3-Level Primer
Bi-Level or 2-Level Primer
Raised Ranch Primer
Exterior Design Ideas
Landscaping Philosophy
Additions and Subtraction
5 Quick Ways to Differentiate Your Home
Sources for Traditional Materials
5 Quick Ways to Differentiate Your Home
Converting Kitchen Cabinets to Glass-Panel Doors
Selecting a Kitchen Countertop


Custom Door and Drawer Front Program
Custom Door and Drawer Front Program


Beveled Leaded Glass Panels
Beveled Leaded Glass Panels


Arts and Crafts Style Hardware
Arts and Crafts Style Hardware


main graphic for splitlevel net

Remodeling the Kitchen in Your Split-Level Home

Understand the Process Start to Finish

In any "split-level" home, whether it's a sprawling California split or a compact bi-level in Buffalo, the steps involved in remodeling the kitchen are the same. Depending on the degree of remodeling, some of the steps listed may not apply to you.

Below this list is a brief explanation of each, why they are done in this order, etc.

  1. Identify your needs
  2. Figure out the financing
  3. Design the kitchen
  4. Select Cabinets/Countertops/Fixtures
  5. Determine the budget
  6. Order the cabinets; possibly order countertops
  7. Determine start date
  8. Demolition
  9. Rebuild/Relocate walls, windows, doors
  10. Rough-in mechanical work (electric, plumbing)
  11. Insulation
  12. Ceiling & Walls
  13. Paint ceiling & walls
  14. Flooring
  15. Install Cabinetry
  16. Final order/install of countertops & backsplash
  17. Finish mechanical work
  18. Install appliances
  19. Cabinet hardware
  20. Trim & final paint touch-up, or wallpapering

Notice that local permitting, building inspection, etc. are not shown on this list. Because these requirements vary from community to community, they will not be addressed here.

Naturally, a few other steps have been left out, such as "wash dishes in bathtub every night between demolition and final install" and "contractor accidentally destroys family keepsake" and "argue with spouse" and that sort of thing. All kidding aside, kitchens top the stress list when it comes to remodeling, so be prepared for disruption. The three ingredients to a successful new kitchen are imagination, expendable cash, and patience. If you have at least two of those -- any two -- you can make it happen. Here's how it goes...

1. Identify your needs FIRST

Once most people decide to remodel their kitchen, the first thing they do is go to a kitchen store to look at cabinets and countertops. Although it's exciting to look at new stuff, it's really a waste of time at this point. The right place to start your new kitchen is in your old one, with tape measure, pencil, paper, an observant eye, and plenty of imagination. Let's proceed...

What sort of kitchen do you need, how "much" kitchen do you need? Is expansion required, or simply moving doors and possibly walls around to create a better traffic flow? Would you be better served by moving the sink to a new location? Should you remove the wall between kitchen and dining room? Should those soffets be removed to make way for taller cabinets?

Addition vs. Redesign vs. Refurbishing The most basic decision here is whether or not your home requires a full-fledged "addition." While all of us would like to have more elbow room, sometimes it just isn't feasible, nor affordable. Consider that the average kitchen in the average 1700 sq. ft. bilevel measures 12' x 13'. That is downright tiny compared to some of the "McMansions" being built today. But by the same token, it's almost double the size of a modest bungalow kitchen built in 1910. Now, step into the tiny 1910 kitchen, and it just seems to have better traffic flow, more efficiencies, more charm, better everything. I'm not suggesting that you cut your kitchen in half, but rather to apply sensible workspace design to a space that could likely be sufficient for your needs in lieu of a full-fledged addition.

The alternatives to a full-fledged addition are 1. To redesign your kitchen completely -- tearing everything down to studs and plywood and starting over, and 2. To simply refurbish a little or a lot of what you already have.

The main thrust of this article is for homeowners who have elected to do a Redesign/Remodeling. If you are doing an addition, much of what follows will apply, but is far from complete for your circumstances.

2. Figure out your Financing

This is not the step where you determine your budget, but rather, where the money is going to come from, how it will come in, when it will come in. This is essential to knowing how to proceed. If you have just refinanced your mortgage with leftover capital for improvements, obviously your situation and your scheduling will be different from someone who intends to use a portion of their paycheck each week to pay as they go. Certainly it is far less disruptive to have the money saved and get the job done as quickly possible, versus doing things as you can afford them over the course of six months or a year. But the old adage "it is what it is" applies, and you just need to deal with whatever your circumstances are.

If the money is in the bank, you'll simply arrange things with a contractor and go hell-bent-for-leather. If you need to save and pay and save and pay, you'll need to arrange things step by step. Many people find themselves in a sort of middle ground, with monies saved, but eventually realize that more is needed.

As you go through the process of figuring out where the money is going to come from, you'll also answer the question of what the upper limits of your budget are.

3. Design the Kitchen

Many people assume we're talking about cabinets and countertops at this point. Eventually. But in the majority of split-level kitchens, the floors, walls and ceilings are as old as the cabinetry; quite tired and in dire need of a facelift. So we start with an overall design, or plan. Will paint and new linoleum suffice? Again, perhaps it will. Many of the people we've consulted with have later reported that they wished they had taken our advice and "done it all" when they had the chance. Too often they find that new cabinets in an old kitchen is kind of like dressing grandma in a short skirt and pumps. If you can do a complete tear down, do it. Start with a clean slate, and now you're ready to really re-design...

Most split-level home kitchens -- including bi-levels, raised ranches, and any other permutation -- suffer from being "too accessible." The kitchen is frequently positioned along the back wall of the house, with an entry from the living room or common area, another entry from the dining room, and a rear exit door. Having three doors in a room with only four walls is not necessarily a problem, however, it will generate significant foot traffic. Furthermore, the abundance of entry ways limits wall space for cabinetry and furnishings.

Start from scratch: Short of an addition to your home, the easiest way to ease the problem is to completely redesign using the space you have. Look at the space you have as a blank slate, imagining that you can move around anything you want. Could the entry to the dining room be repositioned such that it serves equal duty for dining room and living room entry? Or perhaps just the opposite is true; maybe you have only one entry from the dining room and could benefit from a second inside entry. Could the exit door to the deck or backyard be moved to another room? Perhaps you have a large sliding door that could be replaced by a standard door to add three feet of wall space for cabinets? More windows? Move the sink to the back wall, or from the back wall to an island? Remember that adding "corners" adds counterspace, and too many bi-level kitchens suffer from having too few corners.

small kitchen in a bi-level at the very initial stage of remodelingHere's a typical small split-level kitchen (this one is in a bi-level) at the very beginning of the remodeling stage. Originally constructed in the mid-1970s, virtually an entire wall is consumed by the sliding door. The island counter makes movement difficult, forcing all traffic to pass directly through the cooking area, which is not shown but on the left side of this photo. See how wholesale changes affect this kitchen, below.

Look at everything inside the box that is your kitchen space, and then think outside the box. Is one corner lost to a closet cutting in from another room? Is that entryway too wide? Too narrow? Do you need more windows on the outside wall? How about a counter and overhead cabinets between kitchen and dining room instead of a wall? Should appliances be located differently? Would my kitchen benefit from a skylight? We could go on and on...these questions are raised here to make you think. Forget what the cabinets are going to look like, just figure out where cabinets should be.

In many split-level kitchens, the entry from the living room/main house area looks straight into the kitchen at cabinetry. This is fine, but perhaps you'd prefer to have them look at something other? The conundrum is that the wall location of the sink and cabinetry is in the "wet zone" of the house, i.e., easiest access to water and drain, and moving the counters and sink will create plumbing issues. The answer to that is, yes it will cost more, but if you're tearing down to studs it certainly can be done. Your plumber may frown, but it isn't rocket science to relocate the kitchen sink.

Perhaps you'd be better served by putting an island in the kitchen, and do all your sit-down eating in the dining room? Or perhaps the island you already have just collects junk, and you'd be better served by a small breakfast bench. Think, collect ideas, visit your library, look at home design magazines.

What we're referring to as the "kitchen design" at this point isn't the same thing as what your kitchen "designer" is going to create. Perhaps "preliminary plan" is a better description. This is kind of like the engineering phase of the project. Back to work...

Look up. What's overhead? Yes, of course it's the ceiling, but what's above the ceiling? In many bi-levels and raised ranches it's just some low attic space. How about raising the ceiling? How about a cathedral ceiling? In some cases your contractor may advise against it, citing the necessity of the joists for structural integrity. Question that opinion, because there's often a way to re-brace higher, and 12' of missing or compromised joists will not be enough to make a 50' long house fall down. How about removing every other joist, and using mitered facings to create an "exposed beam" look?

One of the best ways to "dig" for ideas is to look at things that others have done, then apply those ideas to your own kitchen. One book that is extremely helpful to this end is Kitchens That Work: The Practical Guide to Creating a Great Kitchen by Martin and Richard Edic. (That link goes to Amazon.com, where you can pick up a used copy for a couple of dollars, and return it if you don't find it helpful. But you will; it's a great book to expand your design-thinking, yet keep all the details in line that you might overlook otherwise).

small kitchen in a bi-level during remodelingHere's the same kitchen during reconstruction. The slider and island counter have been removed, freeing up most of the back wall for additional counterspace. The sink will be placed in front of the new window, and the work area will form an L-shape, gaining infinitely more counterspace. The door is just as functional as the slider, but now all exit traffic will keep to the right of the work area. And that's just the beginning...here the ceiling was raised to create an expansive feel, and a skylight added to brighten the room. This will be a completely new kitchen, roomier...easier to move in...and no addition to the main structure was required.

Think outside the box. You may think of a few things you would like, and you'll probably have a lot of questions. Now, armed with these -- plus some measurements and rough sketches -- you're ready to talk to a designer, and come up with a design.

Whether you use a glorified contractor, a home center designer with an orange apron, or a pricey kitchen design store, you need someone to filter your plans. Talk to them about moving the location of the door, or the window, or whatever, and they can advise you if there are any pitfalls for your particular kitchen. "Perhaps the refrigerator would be nicer over there, but that will leave room for just 9" of cabinetry on the other side" or "by making the window that large, you won't have any room for trim using our standard sized cabinets" etc.

If you do use an experienced, custom kitchen design firm or individual, you will find that they will offer a lot more input in terms of an overall redesign of the entire structure. A chain-store "consultant" will focus more on the stuff that they can sell you, offering little or no insights on wholesale construction improvements.

Remember to collect estimates as you go. You'll need them when it comes time to finalize the budget. Doors, windows, ceilings, walls, floors, electrical, plumbing.

Once you've determined whether or not you are making wholesale construction changes, and then worked out the specifics of those changes, you're ready to select cabinetry...

4. Selecting Cabinets, Countertops & Fixtures

4.A. Selecting Your Cabinets

Here's the fun part. Essentially, there are three grades of cabinetry. Contractor grade, custom, and hybrid. Contractor grade tends to be the least expensive; custom is obviously the most expensive. Hybrid describes a standard line of cabinetry that can be customized. As you delve into each type, it just gets more and more confusing.

One manufacturer's "contractor" grade cabinet can actually be superior to another manufacturer's "custom" cabinet. It all depends on the construction quality and the materials used...but not always. Solid wood fronts are better than veneer -- usually. Here again, one manufacturer may construct outstanding cabinetry and happen to favor veneer on some of their particular lines.

Comparing cabinetry among a variety of suppliers will soon have your head spinning. What you can do is look for some of the quality benchmarks to use as a basis of comparison:

  • Are drawers simply glued together, fastened, or do they use dovetail construction? Nothing wrong with any of these techniques; dovetail is generally the longest-lasting and most rigid.
  • Do the drawers have plastic sides, particle board sides, plywood sides, or solid wood sides? Each has their place; obviously solid wood will be much more costly than plastic.
  • Are the front panels of the cabinets solid, or veneer? Again, either is fine; solid wood is more costly and lasts longer.
  • Are drawer slides side mount or bottom mount? Bottom mount is a more sensible design, but be aware that some discount manufacturers use this to fool you into believing the drawer you're looking at is better than it actually is.
  • How far do the drawers open? Full-extension is another indication of quality, but it's also used as a gimmick.
  • Brakes? If the drawer automatically slows to a smooth stop when you try to slam it, you've got a better drawer...usually.
  • Feel...assessing how everything feels after a few months as a display unit will give you a pretty good idea of how well a particular brand or model will hold up. If things are loose, everything has a lot of play, that's what you can expect after a few years in your home. If a drawer is broken and the kitchen consultant blames an errant child, you can pretty much expect to eventually have errant children in your home, so what you see is what you'll ultimately get.
  • Straight, strong shelving. If the shelving in the display model is bowed, imagine how it will look once you load all your stuff on it.
  • Talk to a contractor. Maybe at work, at church, your civic group, the corner deli, somewhere you must know somebody who has installed cabinets sold by such-and-such dealer. Ask him what he thinks of this or that brand.
  • Do your due dilligence. Talk to people. Check out online forums about certain brands, do searches on "problems with BrandName cabinets" on Google.

Keep in mind that you are limited by what you can afford. And let's face it, most of us in bi-levels and raised ranches have at least some kind of budget constraint. Our tastes may be toward custom or hybrids, but our wallet demands contractor grade. Following is a special list of tests and things to look for if you're shopping for lower-cost cabinetry:

  • Feel the surface of the cabinet. Rub your hand over the cabinet box, doors, drawer faces...is the grain raised and rough feeling? Feeling some grain is normal, but a rough surface will get dirty faster and the finish will tend to break down more rapidly.
  • Avoid particle board (MDF, engineered wood, etc.) if at all possible. This is made from saw dust or flake material, and does not hold a fastener as well as solid wood or plywood. Particle board also adds unnecessary weight to the cabinet; heavy materials are not necessarily a sign of good cabinetry.
  • "All wood" construction or plywood sides doesn't automatically mean it's better than particle board. The sides should be at least 1/2" thick grade "A" furniture plywood. Look at the edge of the plywood for solid, strong materials. If the middle of the plywood looks like a sponge, has patches, or has lots of voids, it is cheap plywood and won't hold up well.
  • Many cabinets are finished with a combination of wood grained vinyls and real wood. Vinyl usually ages to a different color than the wood, and you'll ultimately have 2-tone cabinets.
  • Look all around the exterior of the cabinet box. If you see evidence of hotmelt glue, avoid that brand.
  • Shelves should be removable and adjustable. Remove a shelf and inspect the edges to see how well it is made. Avoid plastic shelf clips. Avoid particle board shelves if possible.
  • Remove the drawer and look inside. If you can't, ask a sales person to do so. Look at the drawer slide and how it is attached. If it has a plastic mounting bracket, the drawer slide will eventually come off. Also, the slide must be screwed to the cabinet. Ensure that it isn't just screwed into a thin cabinet back. If it is, avoid it.
  • Make sure the drawer bottom is not vinyl.
  • Check for sound, solid hanging rails on the backs of the cabinets. Wall cabinets should have horizontal hanging rails running across the top and bottom of the cabinet. Base cabinets should have one rail across the back of the cabinet located at the top. The hanging rail must have a strong joint with the sides of the cabinet. Look here for gobs of hotmelt glue, and if you find it, look elsewhere.
  • Never, ever purchase "assemble it yourself" or "KD" (knocked-down) cabinets. You are better off buying a table saw and building your own.

Now if the cabinetry passes these tests, you'll probably be ok. Remember, lower priced cabinets can't afford to be made using the highest quality methods or materials. Lower priced hardware wears out faster. The finish wears down, shelves sag, drawers disintegrate. If you buy discount cabinetry, you are warned that it will have issues after just five years. Often less.

Is your head spinning? We've only covered construction. Now we'll get into aesthetics. Here are some things to consider when selecting cabinet design and color:

  • Keep in mind that "trendy" is exactly that...trendy. During the 1980s, Scandinavian style white laminate doors with wood handles were the rage. It's now hopelessly out of date. One current trend has been to "mix" high and low wall cabinets, creating a "stepped" effect. Virtually every designer is pushing this as of 2005, but it's safe to expect that by 2015 it will do nothing but "date" the kitchen as being ten years old.
  • Trendy also extends to cabinet finishes. In the early 1990s, pickled woods and a "washed" look were popular. Today it just looks old. Some of the special effects, patinas, etc. popular today will be "out" in just a few years. "Glaze" is currently in vogue, and cabinet manufacturers are charging a small fortune for this specialized varnish. Will it still be in style in 5 years? 10 years? Consider this when picking out cabinets. Styles and trends change; timeless design is...timeless.
  • Colors/tones can be tough to pick when dealing with cabinets. A lot of people gravitate toward mid tones, and that's fine. But then don't go for a mid tone wall, mid tone countertop, mid tone flooring...unless you are a design genius, you won't be able to pull it all together. The easiest way to design a room is to work from one palette, using a dark tone, a mid tone, and a light tone. Want mid tone cabinetry? Plan on a dark countertop, and light walls to flesh it all out. Dark cabinets? look for a mid tone or light countertop. Or, work with mid and light tones for everything, then accessorize with darks. Again, this isn't a hard and fast rule; it's just one of the little decorator tricks you can use to keep you from making design mistakes.
  • Work with natural wood colors for style longevity. If you want a light wood, look to pine or poplar. A light "natural" look, move into oak or maple. If you want a reddish kitchen, opt for cherry or birch, or maple as a possibility. If you want a darker cabinet, shell out the bucks for birch, walnut or dark cherry. Work with the wood, not against it. There was a time when oak with dark stain was quite popular, however, it's not a "natural" look for oak, and its popularity has since passed.
  • Stick with wood types that work with your personal style. If you have formal furnishings in the living room and dining room, knotty pine or the expressive grain of oak will look out of place in your home. On the other hand, if you favor a homey, country atmosphere, knotty pine or oak will be just perfect.
  • Stick with door styles that work with your personal style. While slab doors work with anything, consider that many of the raised panel doors will work better with a more formal home. Likewise, an ultra-modern theme demands the clean lines of a slab door. If you have a very narrow design theme, such as Shaker or Mission, a flat panel or "framed" door is more appropriate. It's just common sense.

Don't let cabinet selection become stressful...it should be the most enjoyable step in the process. Once you've picked out a cabinet, the anticipation begins to build. That sparkling new kitchen can't be far off...

4.B. Select Your Countertops

Countertops can essentially be divided into five basic types:

  1. Metal
  2. Stone
  3. Synthetic
  4. Laminate
  5. Tile/Wood/Other

If you would like to read up on specific pros and cons and a basic primer on each type of countertop, please click here for our Countertops page

The thing to remember about countertop selection is that you can generally wait until a month or a few weeks before cabinet installation to order it, particularly if you select a popular stone type or laminate surface. Some of the solid (synthetic or natural) types, commonly called "quartz type" or "Corian" or "Silestone" have longer lead times. The advantage to this is that if your cabinets have a three month production time, you might buy yourself two months to set aside additional funds for a better countertop.

Either way, you have to select the "type" of countertop at this point, so that the cabinet dealer and your contractor can deal with any special requirements.

4.C. Select any Fixtures

Call this appliances, furniture, what have you. Everything, including the kitchen sink. Be it a small desk or a new oven, the measurements will be critical when it comes to ordering cabinetry, sizing windows, doors, etc. We're not going to delve into what to select or buy; that's determined by your budget and the condition of your existing appliances. Just be aware that if you are planning to replace your refrigerator, you want to do so before the final-final measurements are done for the cabinetry, or you will be limited to existing sizes should you choose to replace in the future.

5. Determine the Budget

Now that you've determined all your needs, done some shopping and figured out costs, you lay everything out on the table. Determine how much money you have, decide where you need to cut, and where you can afford to upgrade. Create a timetable for both funding and costs, and you'll know where you stand.

Be sure that the following elements are accounted for:

  • Demolition
  • Disposal
  • Construction
  • Doors & Windows
  • Insulation
  • Ceilings & Walls
  • Rough Electrical work
  • Rough Plumbing
  • Painting/Wallcovering
  • Flooring
  • Cabinetry
  • Cabinet Installation
  • Countertops
  • Sink & Faucet
  • Appliances
  • Lighting
  • Final Electrical
  • Final Plumbing

We stop here, because if you can pay for all this stuff, you'll wind up with a usable, working kitchen. The rest can be done as funds and time allow:

  • Cabinet Hardware (that's right, the knobs don't come with the cabinets -- of course you may pick something with handles/pulls integral to the cabinet design, such as a Euro modern, etc.)
  • Touch up painting
  • Under cabinet lighting or any other additional lighting
  • Switchplate and outlet covers
  • Trim/moldings
  • Window treatments
  • Rugs or mats

Depending on local codes, you may not get away with putting off some of these elements.

After you've determined what everything will cost, how much you have, and the budget is all set, you're ready to go spend it...

6. Ordering Cabinets & Countertops

Basically everything revolves around your cabinets. Delivery time may be anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months -- perhaps longer in some cases. It just doesn't make a lot of sense to tear apart your existing kitchen in May if your new cabinets won't be available until September.

When you sit down with your sales representative to actually hammer out the specifics, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don't let a cabinet manufacturer add features that you can add for a fraction of the cost. For example, you may want vertical tray dividers in a tall cabinet. If you have even mediocre woodworking skills, you can probably add your own at much lower cost. Know the upcharge on this type of thing, and consider that some of these add-ons aren't rocket science to do yourself.
  • Conversely, don't assume that the cabinet manufacturer's prices for add-on features will automatically be too high. Those tray dividers may be outrageous, but for some reason, the same manufacturer might offer a ridiculously low price on silverware or utensil dividers.
  • Order a little extra of the extras. Adding wood trim to the cabinet bases? Crown molding on top? Need spacers (filler wood)? Be sure to get more than you need. Better to pay a few dollars more and wind up with too much than to go cheap and have too little. Ordering extra after the fact can be fraught with problems, regardless of what the salesman says.
  • Note what parts are finished and what parts aren't. If you are going to see a lot of the underside of a particular cabinet, be sure to specify finished wood. Likewise, if you are ordering cabinetry with glass panel doors, be sure that the inside is finished. And finally, if you are ordering a pantry to store peanut butter, be sure that you aren't paying extra to have the inside of that cabinet finished.
  • Use common sense with extras. When you finally get down to ordering, your sales rep will want to tie up all the loose ends and unanswered questions, and will ask you about all sorts of options -- to make sure you don't leave out something you'll really want. Most of the options sound great, and they don't seem to cost very much...until you add it all up. By the same token, don't cheap/cheat yourself out of important options that will be difficult to add later.
  • Be prepared for surprises. Chances are that your sales rep will bring up something that you've overlooked. Sometimes this looks like a "hidden charge" or "surprise," but really, give him or her the benefit of the doubt. There are an infinite number of options and extras when ordering a kitchen, and what may seem like a standard item to you may not be standard at all. Lazy Susans in corner cabinets are not a standard item, yet one woman comes to mind who had never lived in a home without one. She insisted that "every kitchen has a Lazy Susan in the big corner cabinet!" because it was what she knew, and was terribly angry when the cabinet salesman told her it cost more.
  • Be prepared for mistakes. Your sales rep is a mere mortal and bound to make some mistakes. Lighten up, and the mistakes won't seem like such a big deal.
  • Be humble, not bossy -- but don't be a pushover either. It helps if we take a moment to remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be able to do these things, while half of the world's population has no indoor plumbing. A sparkling new kitchen is not your birthright. While you may have earned it through hard work and long hours, remember that in the grand scheme of things, it is only wood, metal, glass, and plastic. The person sitting across from you is giving of their time to help you -- they deserve a fair profit, as well as your respect. At the same time, you deserve to be treated with equal fairness and respect. If you don't have it from your sales rep, or if you feel that they are in any way giving you less than their full attention, go elsewhere. Even if you wind up paying a little more, service and attention-to-detail are key to successful remodeling.

Use the Force, Luke...

If you have any nagging doubts about any aspect, hold off. "Use the force..." Trust your instincts: If something feels wrong, it is wrong. Do NOT be bullied into leaving a "holding deposit" or "booking deposit to reserve time in the schedule at the factory." Hogwash. If somebody insists on a "holding deposit to reserve a slot at the factory" you'd best go elsewhere as rapidly as possible. If you are unsure about anything, hold off on everything...including your checkbook.

Once you have hammered out the details and have a positive impression about all aspects of the deal, place your order.

You may need to order your countertop at this point. It is generally best to wait until the cabinets are installed; the one thing you can do is "pick your rock(s)" and leave a deposit if you are opting for natural stone. In most cases, the countertop installer will need to wait to make a final-final template once your cabinetry is in place. Some "solid" material dealers (Corian, Silestone type materials) do prefer to order countertops with cabinetry. Ask questions, find out how they work, and go from there. Note that if a granite or other natural stone countertop fabricator wants to start before your cabinets are in place -- beyond selecting the stones -- something is fishy.

7. Determine the Start Date

Upon ordering your cabinets, the dealer will provide an approximate delivery date. This date, of course, is something akin to the due date of a library book. The library stamps in a due date, but very few people ever return it on that specific day. The library assumes that most will come in close to that date.

Same thing with your cabinets. You may get the standard "6 to 8 weeks" answer; the truthful answer is more likely "2 to 3 months." Push for specifics...you need to know when the whole thing can start. If your contractor is selling you the cabinets and doing everything for you, fine, you'll just kind of bump along until it happens. But if you are managing this project yourself -- as this web page presumes -- you need to know as close as possible so that you can plan a time to begin the next phase of the process...


At this point, this article will address "what" and "when" and will no longer address any "how to" aspects. At this point your kitchen deconstruction and reconstruction requires certain skills. It is assumed that you are qualified for the aspects you plan to do yourself, or that you will retain qualified personnel for these tasks.


8. Demolition

This is when everything that gets ripped out, gets ripped out. I guess that doesn't make a lot of sense; let's try again: Demolition is where you tear everything down so that you can begin anew. If you are going down to studs -- the best case scenario -- you'll be ripping out and disposing of trim, counters, cabinets, sheetrock on ceiling and walls, light fixtures, insulation, flooring and perhaps the subfloor. It all comes out.

If you're doing wholesale changes -- relocating doors and windows -- these will eventually be torn out as well. These elements, along with the kitchen sink and related cabinetry, are the last to go. Doors and windows should stay until the day you are prepared to replace and rebuild. The kitchen sink should stay as long as possible.

Remember there are always "two D's in Demolition: Demolition and Disposal. Your contractor may or may not handle disposal; know this in advance. If you are inclined to handle your own demolition, know that you will have a huge pile of junk to dispose of.

9. Rebuild/Replace Doors, Walls, Windows

These elements should be in place prior to installation of your new kitchen. As mentioned immediately above in the demolition section, you'll only tear these out when you are ready to replace. This is also the point at which you would install a skylight, raise the ceiling, or any other structural changes. These structural changes are the first "new thing" in your new kitchen.

This is not the final walls, sheetrock, etc., just the framing.

10. Rough-In Mechanical Work

After permanent walls, windows, ceilings, etc. are in place, new electrical wiring/outlet boxes/switchboxes/fixture boxes, etc. should be installed. The service boxes are put in, but the outlets and switches themselves are not -- not yet. This is called "roughed-in."

In many 1950s through 1970s era split level homes, increased wiring and lighting in your kitchen will require additional circuits and possibly a completely new service box. Consider yourself forewarned.

Relocating the sink? Adding an ice cube maker? The basic plumbing work should also be done at this time. Pipes are put in -- then capped. Again, this is called being "roughed-in."

11. Insulation

The mechanical work is obviously easier if you wait until after it is roughed-in to re-insulate your kitchen. The most frequently-asked question is, can the old insulation be re-used? The answer is certainly yes, as long as it is in good condition, clean, and hasn't been compressed.

If you have replaced doors and windows, or have other "tight" spaces or gaps that should be plugged, you'll most likely want to use a spray can of "foam" type insulation. This is extremely effective, and extremely difficult to work with. Note that there are various degrees of "swelling"; one type for large voids, one for filling holes, one for filling narrow cracks, etc. All of this foam stuff swells more than you might expect...get a cardboard box and test it out a little so that you can familiarize yourself before you use it.

If you have plumbing within an exterior wall -- regardless of where you live -- plan to use pipe insulation in addition to the regular fiberglass. It's probably not necessary to insulate drainpipe, but if you live in extreme temperature regions, say, Arizona or Minnesota, plan on insulating everything. The compressed fiberglass pipe insulation is double or triple the cost of the black foam sleeves, but provides a level of superior insulation that makes the added expense worthwhile.

Wear a protective mask and goggles if you do it yourself.

12. Ceilings and Walls

Obviously, this has to wait for the insulation, and because of the mess it creates, you'll want to do ceilings and walls prior to virtually anything else.

The most popular ceiling and wall material is gypsum board, such as the Sheetrock brand. This is certainly an area where you can save money by doing it yourself. If you don't have experience installing drywall, leave it to a professional. If you have any unusual angles, cathedral ceiling, unusual windows, etc., you'll want to think twice about tackling this as a weekend project.

Spackling and sanding follow installation.

13. Painting

Painting is the next step, and we say that grudgingly. Fact is that installation of floors, cabinets, countertops and everything else will scratch, gouge, and otherwise mar your beautiful paint job, and you'll then have to re-do most of it. We euphemistically call it "touch up" later on. Even if you plan to wallpaper, you still need to paint or otherwise put your finish material on the ceiling at this stage.

14. Flooring

You're getting there now. First order of business is the sub-floor -- usually plywood or particle board. The original subfloor is often fine to re-use. Popular kitchen floor materials are natural tile, vinyl tile, vinyl sheet (commonly referred to as linoleum), hardwood, plank wood, stone, wall-to-wall kitchen carpeting, and others. The material you select may require this step to follow the cabinet installation, particularly if you select linoleum or some tile types.

After taking a backseat to vinyl for half a century, natural materials such as wood and tile are making a comeback. Unfinished woods, such as redwood or douglas fir planking are the easiest to maintain; they are generally used in combination with a rustic overall style that is very forgiving of damage. Hardwood flooring is a much tougher proposition in a kitchen. If you are considering "parquet" or some other "pre-fab" flooring, here's your warning: You'll end up replacing it sooner than almost any other flooring material. Clearly the best material for a hardwood floor is the old-fashioned tongue-and-groove floorboard, starting with unfinished stock, pounded and nailed in the hard way. White oak offers the best combination of density, hardness, and value. Although red oak is currently more in vogue, white oak is the stronger wood and a better choice. Oil-based finish is a must in an active kitchen.

Stone and tile are extremely popular once again. But be warned that while the "look" is fantastic, the "feel" is not. Most people who opt for these materials complain that they spend less time in their kitchen because their feet hurt. This is not to say that you won't positively love a tile floor, just that you'll want to consider this aspect.

Kitchen carpeting has been out of favor with designers and decorators since the 1970s, which means that it is likely to make a comeback any day now. The drawbacks to kitchen carpeting are that it tends to stain, and in the event of a failed dishwasher or other plumbing catastrophe, it's virtually impossible to clean completely. If you have kitchen carpeting, you'll eventually be pulling it up. The upsides, however, are quite nice. It "feels" good to stand on. Routine cleaning is also very easy; just run a vacuum. It also has a rich look, and can be selected to complement virtually any decorating style. And finally, when you drop that wine bottle, it's a lot more likely to stay intact. Of course if it breaks, you'll wish you had good old linoleum.

Note that if you are installing vinyl flooring, natural tile, or wall-to-wall kitchen carpeting, your contractor may wait until the cabinetry is installed prior to laying the final floor covering.

15. Install Cabinetry

Walls, windows, doors, paint and flooring (at least the sub-floor) are now in place. Although it may seem like an eternity, your dealer (or contractor) will eventually call with the news that your cabinets have arrived, and he or she will want to arrange delivery. Huzzah! (It's about time, right?)

After the cabinets are delivered, your contractor will arrive with a couple of helpers to "lay things out." In the average bi-level or split, this process takes about an hour, and is sometimes done the evening prior to the planned installation.

What they do is rip open boxes, move cabinets more or less into position, do a lot of measuring, scratch their heads, shake their heads, and move things around some more. You'll hear things like "that's no good...oh, OK...yeah, we'll work around that...gonna have to square it off...didya find the spacers" and other stuff. Pay no attention. In fact, it's best to be in another room when the contractor is doing this preliminary inspection and fitting.

About half of the typical factory cabinet orders arrive with a minor problem or unexpected something. Perhaps a size is slightly off. Your contractor goes through this process to discover what it is, and figure out a way to deal with it. It's normal.

The remaining half of factory cabinet orders arrive with a major problem or unexpected something. The size of a cabinet or two might be so far off that it simply won't work. Perhaps one of the cabinets is horribly damaged, or shows up with the wrong materials. A door could be wrong, or might open the wrong way. In situations like these, your dealer will need to exchange/return/replace.

In many cases, the dealer will be required to return the cabinet in the original packaging. If you've been paying attention, you noticed three paragraphs ago that most contractors start by ripping open the boxes. Although it sounds rather silly, the whole "original packaging" thing can become a real sore spot in dealing with a return. Some dealers even spell out a re-packing fee in your original contract. It's a nuisance, but it's more common than you might think.

The only ways to prevent this problem are to either unpack the cabinets yourself, or obtain firm assurances from your contractor that the cartons won't be destroyed. Or, you may have that rare combination of dealer/manufacturer that doesn't insist on returns in original packaging, but this seems to only happen in fairy tales. Of course if you can afford to work directly with a custom cabinet fabricator, you are unlikely to face any of these situations.

Some homeowners are tempted to do all or part of the cabinet installation themselves. Screwing a cabinet to a wall requires no special degree or training, but unless you have the diploma of experience or have graduated from the school of hard knocks, you are probably going to do something wrong. At the very least you might be tempted to install the top mouldings, the hardware, or some other aspect of finishing the cabinets. Unless you are extremely confident and a "handyman" by nature, again, leave it to the professionals. You've come too far and invested too much...why have it be less than outstanding?

16. Final order/install of countertops & backsplash

With cabinets in place, the template can be made for your countertops. If you have opted for laminate countertops, they may even be installed immediately after the cabinets.

Sometimes unforeseen delays can occur with stone or any other materials. You'll feel as if you are so close, yet so far. Best course of action in this situation is to cover part of your open cabinetry with plywood or a similar sheet material -- don't tack it down -- and just use this temporary countertop and make the best of it. You'll have everything but the kitchen sink. (have been waiting through this entire essay to use that line)

17. Finish mechanical work

Once the cabinets and countertops are in, you're ready to install the sink, any other plumbing, plus any electrical outlets, switches, light fixtures, etc. Any under cabinet lighting or internal cabinet lighting is also installed at this point.

18. Install appliances

This is just as it sounds. Re-installing the old, or installing new. Watch those fingers...

19. Cabinet hardware

The end is near. Actually, you can install cabinet hardware -- knobs, drawer pulls, backing plates -- anytime after the cabinets are installed.

A couple of pointers on cabinet hardware. Pricing ranges anywhere from 89 to $89 and then some...per knob! Obviously it's a stretch to consider $89 knobs or pulls for the average modest split-level home; you certainly won't recoup that when you try to sell. Conversely, cheap hardware is just that: Cheap hardware. Styles change frequently at the entry price end of the scale. Not to mention that simply pulling on a cheap knob begins the process of stripping the internal female threads.

When you shop for hardware, get the best you can afford. That's one of the reasons it falls so late on this list; you may find it necessary to save up a few dollars. Good hardware will last a lifetime, and it will cost over $300 in the average 12 x 12 split level kitchen.

20. Trim & final paint touch-up, or wallpapering

This is it, the final touches. Trim molding around windows and doors, paint touch up, window treatments, wall hangings, etc. These final touches won't save a loser kitchen, but they can lift a mediocre kitchen up a few notches, and they can make a nice kitchen memorable.


Keep in mind that the information above varies from region to region, and from kitchen to kitchen. Even though there are thousands of identical split level, bi level, and raised ranch homes, no two kitchens are ever exactly alike. Best wishes with your project!


If you are in the process of searching for a contractor for a particular project, please know that you can use Angie's List to review, and ultimately obtain a quote from a local contractor in your area. We recommend this service because it enables you to find reliable carpenters, plumbers, electricians and remodelers based on reviews from your neighbors, rather than by picking the biggest advertisement in the phone book. Contractors can only be included in Angie's List if somebody else -- a customer -- thinks they should be in there. Most importantly, it tells you which contractors to avoid. (It's worth a click).

Some Concepts to Keep in Mind...

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

-- William Morris, circa 1870

We have planned houses from the first that are based on the big fundamental principles of honesty, simplicity, and usefulness -- the kind of houses that children will rejoice all their lives to remember as "home," and that give a sense of peace and comfort to the tired men who go back to them when the day's work is done.

-- Gustav Stickley, circa 1910

...of all reforms needed in the life of the home, that of the relation of the man to his family is most pressing. Modern materialism demands of far too many men an unworthy sacrifice...A simpler standard of living will give him more time for art and culture, more time for his family, more time to live.

-- Charles Keeler, circa 1905

Do not think that simplicity means something like the side of a barn, but rather something with a graceful sense of beauty in its utility from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated.

-- Frank Lloyd Wright, circa 1908

Our preoccupation with material success threatens to blind us to the value of the patient, honest cultivation of mind and character.

--David Saville Muzzey, Prof. of History, Columbia University, circa 1929

Please take a moment and visit our sister website, PopularSong.org, which has a number of terrific feature stories on American Popular Song past and present.

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