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Kitchen Island Buying Guide

An island can take your kitchen to the next level of functionality, helping you get more from the space you have. Let’s talk about purpose, island types, design considerations and other important topics.

Kitchen in luxury home with large island

Your Kitchen Island’s Purpose

What do you want from your kitchen island? The list of possibilities available is quite long. How many of these you incorporate into your kitchen island design will depend on your personal preferences balanced with your budget and the space you have to create your ideal island.

  • More space: Countertop space for food preparation or for small appliances, eating space or desk space
  • More storage: Enclosed or open storage space for pots, pans, gadgets and cookbooks
  • More functionality: A prep sink or location for your main sink that creates more efficient movement between the sink, refrigerator and range or cooktop
  • More appliances: The inclusion of a cooktop, under-counter refrigerator or beverage cooler, built-in dishwasher, bread warmer, additional oven, etc.

Kitchen Island Types

Here’s an overview of your island options. Perhaps it will help solidify what you want in an island. The list will be useful too as you discuss the project with a kitchen remodeling contractor.

Work: If your greatest need is more workspace, a table-like work island with open sides is an affordable and attractive choice. Most have wood countertops, but custom designs can include tile, laminate, granite or any material you prefer. A lower level can be included to create open storage space. Work islands of this type are not anchored to the floor, so they are moveable.

Storage: This type includes a work top with closed storage cabinets and/or shelving. If you want to use electric appliances on the worktop, it will have to be a stationary island with its own power supply.

Prep and wash: These islands include a sink of the size you select and faucet as well as the necessary plumbing. A worktop and storage are usually part of the design. Since they are stationary, most also have electrical outlets.

Eating: A 42-inch bar with stools or a 30-inch tabletop with chairs are two options for creating eating space as part of the island.

Cooking: Stationary islands can be customized with a built-in cooktop, oven or microwave oven to create a primary or secondary cook location.

Combination: Larger islands may incorporate several of these elements into the design to maximize functionality.

Moveable/Cart: Moveable kitchen islands are small and light enough for one or two people to lift and relocate. Storage cart islands have wheels with locks to allow or prevent rolling. They are available in many designs.

Things to Think About in Kitchen Island Design

Giving thought to these factors will help you design an island that adds maximum value to your kitchen without being “in the way.”

The space available: An island should look proportional to the rest of the room. It shouldn’t block paths connecting the refrigerator, sink and range. The traffic paths around the structure shouldn’t be cramped.

The shape of the island: In addition to rectangles, islands are built in L-shapes and T-shapes to maximize their usefulness within the space allowed for them. The T’s and L’s often include eating space attached to the main island.

The moveable island option: A moveable island cart on wheels is ideal where kitchen space is limited. Ready-to-assemble islands on wheels are available, or you can have a custom island cart made that includes the elements you most want. Keep in mind that moveable islands won’t have electrical or plumbing, and running an appliance cord from the island to a wall or countertop outlet presents safety risks. If you need more counter space with access to electricity, perhaps including a peninsula in the design of the cabinetry and countertop is a better choice.

The cost of electrical, plumbing and ventilation: Electrical wiring will cost a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000. Water and drain line installation begins at about $500 and can cost $1,500 or more in complex situations. A gas line will cost $250 on the low end to more than $1,000. A vent hood or canopy to remove cooking odors and steam will cost a minimum of $1,500 for the equipment and installation. Our full guide to kitchen island prices will provide more information.

The height of the countertop: Standard is 36 inches, but a 42 inch countertop works well for a breakfast bar with stools, if that’s part of the design. A lower countertop, perhaps 30 inches, makes chopping vegetables, kneading dough and rolling it out easier. It’s a better height for kids preparing food. A lower tier on the island countertop should also be considered if you are short in stature. After all, this is your dream kitchen, and it should be a custom fit for you, not for someone you might sell the home to in 15 years.

Overhead lighting: Good lighting complements good island design. Because it is work space, the island should be lit brightly but pleasantly. Hanging lighting is one way to bring bright, focused light to where it is needed.

Kitchen Island FAQ

Additional important issues are covered in this kitchen island Q&A.

Is an island a DIY project?

It depends on the complexity of the island and your skills. Consider these skill levels and possibilities:

Inexperienced: It’s probably best to stick with a premade island that simply needs to be assembled. Most are also finished, but some can be finished or painted as you wish. If you want something more, discuss the project with a kitchen remodeling contractor.

Moderate: Your options expand here. Consider a simple design such as two base cabinets installed on top of the kitchen flooring. Shim then to make them level, screw them together, add end caps and kick plates and install a premade countertop on them.

If your skills include basic wiring ability, you can outfit the island with one or more electrical outlets. However, if a circuit must be installed in the electrical panel for the island, rather than branching off of an existing run, we recommend calling an electrician. If you do install power, the building code will probably require you to permanently anchor the island to the floor.

Advanced: If you’re a very handy homeowner with good experience, then you likely know what your capabilities and limitations are. Keep in mind that running 240-volt electrical power and a natural gas connection are potentially hazardous projects best left to professionals. Even water lines, while not posing the same immediate risk, can do a lot of costly damage if they leak or come apart. You’ll earn the money you save by doing it yourself, and if you don’t do it properly, the cost can be very high.

Do I need a permit to install a kitchen island?

If you’re running power or water to it, you probably need to pull a permit. Contact your building codes office for details. If you hire a contractor to build your island, he or she should get a permit, if required. Make sure that they obtain it. While adding a small amount to your cost, the permit protects you because the work will be inspected to ensure that it is done safely and properly.

Do you have care and maintenance tips for kitchen island tops?

Sure. See our Maintenance and Care Guide for the type of countertop material you select. Our guides cover granite, marble, quartz, laminate, tile, stainless steel, solid surface and much more.

How much do kitchen islands cost?

In short, a cart that you assemble may cost $200 or less. Built-in islands with electrical power but no plumbing or cooking equipment can be built for less than $1,000, but often cost more than $2,000. Custom islands with power and water start at about $2,000 but typically cost quite a bit more. Of course, when eating space, cooking appliances, ventilation and cabinetry are included, an island exceeding $10,000 in price is quite possible. For more details, see our guide to kitchen island costs.

Who should I hire to build an island, and how do I get the best prices?

Kitchen remodeling contractors build custom islands. Some handymen do too, but you often get the quality of work you pay for. In addition, many handymen are not licensed and insured while most kitchen contractors are.

You’ll find the most experienced installer and save money if you request written estimates from at least three contractors in your area. Let the companies know that they are competing for the work, and they’ll give you the lowest estimates they can.