Buying a Kitchen Island, Complete Guide to Fixed and Portable Kitchen Islands

No kitchen is complete, where room allows, without the functionality of a kitchen island. Design your island to assist you in one or more of the five kitchen essentials: Prep space, storage, cooking, serving and cleanup.

This guide starts with costs and what you get for the money, since pricing is at the core of Kitchen Remodel Prices. It is what our readers rely on us to deliver. But there’s much more here.

Kitchen Island Cost and Factors

kitchen island prices

How much does a kitchen island cost? Kitchen island price averages about $3,700 for an island that is 12-18 square feet, built-in with cabinetry base, power and an appliance. Fixed islands like these start at about $1,250 for a small set of cabinets, countertop and electricity.

A large built-in kitchen island with power, water, cooktop, hood vent and breakfast bar can exceed $15,000 when high-end materials are used.

Average portable kitchen island cost is about $575. Small portable islands or carts start below $150. The largest and nicest exceed $1,500 for one with a few small cabinets, perhaps shelves and a quality countertop.

All these costs are explored in our Kitchen Island Cost guide.

Kitchen island cost factors are materials, features and size.

Materials

Portable islands, carts and worktables available from home improvement and kitchen stores range from cheap to quite nice. The most affordable are particle board with a vinyl woodgrain veneer and a laminate or cheap wood top.

Painted steel tables and carts are common too, and quality runs the gamut from shaky to quite sturdy.

Midrange and high-priced non-fixed islands are constructed of wood, wood and glass or wood and some steel. The nicest have granite or tile countertops.

Fixed islands are typically built from kitchen cabinets with standard countertops. There are three grades.

  1. Off-the shelf cabinets and countertops. Most home improvement stores and kitchen websites sell both. You can select the cabinets and countertop material you want and put them together at installation.
  2. Semi-custom cabinets are ordered. You have more options for wood species, hardware, design and countertops. Basically, you select the standard-sized cabinets or shelving that you want as the base. Choose the countertop material, and they are fitted together and appliances/plumbing/power are installed on site.
  3. Fully custom cabinets are typically only necessary when the kitchen size or design won’t allow for standard cabinet sizes. Your options are the same as for semi-custom, but the cabinet size is custom.

Countertop materials begin with affordable laminate and inexpensive butcherblock. Solid-surface, resin and tile countertops are mid-priced.

The most expensive countertops continue to be quartz, granite and other stone, stainless steel and specialty options like reclaimed wood, lava and recycled glass.

Feature Options and Buying Tips

You have so many choices! Of course, if you don’t have unlimited space, you’ll have to limit island size. And that will mean you’ll have to pick and choose.

Favorite kitchen island features are countertop workspace, extra storage, a cooktop or oven, prep sink, seating for at least two and a full-size sink. Other popular choices are room for a wine cooler or rack, ice machine and built-in dishwasher.

Of course, any functional island will also have power.

Here are main considerations when designing a kitchen island.

Workspace – Is your countertop space limited? Maybe it’s already “busy” with small appliances, a set of bulk food jars and oft-used items you don’t have a good place to store.

Do you cook most days and feel you don’t have room for mixing bowls, ingredients, spices and gadgets you typically use during food prep?

If these factors apply, then you’ll appreciate a spacious island where a small appliance or two can be relocated or where you’ll have the elbow room to gather your food prep items. Keep in mind, though, that you might have to choose between countertop space and a prep sink or full-size sink or a cooktop depending on the size of your kitchen.

Kitchen Island with Large Prep-Space / Countertop

Storage – Some kitchens are short on storage. They don’t have a pantry. Wall space is taken up with windows instead of wall cabinets. These factors contribute to the need for more storage, and an island can deliver it.

But again, you might have to make choices – an oven or beverage cooler vs. cabinets. A sink with a drain beneath it or a cabinet. A dishwasher or a cabinet. You get the idea.

A built-in appliance – An additional cooktop or oven is most popular for large families and cooks that take food preparation to the next level and host big gatherings. A microwave is essential for busy households.

Bread warmers and wine/beverage coolers are popular for homeowners that entertain often. Does your kitchen have a dishwasher? If not, that’s an important consideration.

Sinks – A small prep sink designed primarily for hand washing is useful for hands-on chefs, cleanup of raw meat and a place for kids to wash up for meals. A larger sink for the island is usually chosen when soaking large pots and pans is common.

Seating – The kitchen is the most popular gathering spot in many homes. Having a few seats at a breakfast bar or island peninsula encourages togetherness and convenience.

Island Size – How Large Should your Island be?

Most kitchen designers keep island square footage to 10-12 percent of kitchen area, possibly larger if the kitchen is large or wider than usual.

A 15×10 kitchen is 150 square feet. Islands 15 square feet, such as a 3×5 island, to about 18 square feet, such as 4×4.5, would work well.

Oversized: If your island is too large and difficult to get around or impedes normal flow like from the fridge to the oven, it will soon be a nuisance, regardless of its amazing features. Planning is essential to avoiding mixed feelings about your island.

Undersized: If it is too small, you’ll soon feel you wasted your money on an island that isn’t as functional as it might have been if properly sized for the space and your needs.

Giuseppe Castrucci, marketing VP of kitchen manufacturer Laurysen, has important advice on size. “If your kitchen is less than 13 feet wide, we don’t recommend adding an island at all. For a U-shaped kitchen, the opening should be at least 10 feet wide to accommodate an island without causing claustrophobia,” says Castrucci.

Having to say, “Our kitchen is too small for an island” is a bitter pill to swallow, but taking your medicine is preferred to wasting your money on an island that doesn’t work for you or hinders your work in the kitchen.

There are more tips for sizing your kitchen island in the next two sections.

Planning and Design

One of the most common design mistakes is not planning the purpose of the island. There are more mistakes discussed below.

But this one tops the list and for good reason. As noted, a kitchen serves five crucial purposes. Think them through and list them in importance for your kitchen.

Prep space – Do you often have to move items on the counter to have enough space for cutting vegetables, mixing batter or rolling out dough?

Storage – Are the countertops cluttered with gadgets and small appliances? Do you have to constantly move kitchen items in and out of the basement or a distant closet for lack of space in the kitchen?

Cooking – Do you often prepare more food dishes for a meal than you have oven and/or range top space to cook all at once? Would you make more elaborate meals if you had the cooking capacity?

Serving – Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “No matter where I serve my guests, they seem to like my kitchen best!” Do family and household members frequently gather in the kitchen? Do guests gravitate there for conversation, a place to set their glass and plate of snacks? Would a breakfast bar give you more family time as you prep food or get ready for the day?

Cleanup – Do you wish you had a sink nearer your food prep area to wash fruits and veggies? Clean up after handling raw meat? Would you like a handy place for kids to wash their hands on the way to the dinner table?

Which questions did you answer “yes” to? Those are your top design priorities. If you have or are planning a large kitchen, you might be able to fit your entire “wish list” into the island.

However, most homeowners have limited space.

  • If prep space is essential, then there might not be room for a sink or cooktop – or maybe space for one or the other.
  • If storage is most important, then cabinets might be more important to your design than a built-in dishwasher or beverage cooler.
  • If cooking capacity is vital, then you might have to select a cooktop over extra prep space or a sink. Or an oven beneath the countertop might take precedence over a dishwasher or cooler.
  • If serving is a high priority, then a breakfast bar or peninsula will get good use. That space can serve as prep room too, but might eliminate a cooktop or sink from your design.
  • If cleanup…you get the point by now. Where space is limited, choices like sink vs cooktop vs prep space have to be decided.

Retrofit Challenges

In new construction or when overhauling the kitchen in a complete remodel, planning kitchen island design is much easier.

It is rare that an existing kitchen without an island that has ample room to add one – at least one more than eight to ten square feet.

Does that make sense? Space is simply too valuable in most homes to have a lot of it sitting empty in the middle of the kitchen.

Therefore, clogging up what little space there is comes with risks – too big and it gets in the way or too small to really be of much use.

Savvy designers have a way to “try out” a kitchen island without installing one. Actually, there are two options.

1). Place a small table where you expect the island to go. If the table is smaller than the island plan you’re considering, “extend” it by taping cardboard to it to form the potential island’s size and shape.

Live with it for a few weeks. Is it hard to work around? Does it send you out of your way when retrieving something from the pantry? Or is its size comfortable?

You’ll soon learn whether the proposed island is a good size – or whether you really have room for one at all. Remember and heed Mr. Castrucci’s word to the wise about kitchen size.

2). Buy a portable island or cart to try out. You might decide you like it and don’t need a built-in island. You might decide it is too big or too small or just the right size, but you really would like a fixed island with your preferred amenities and features.

The idea here is that trying out an affordable – $300 to $400 – island is a good investment before plunking down three to four grand on a built-in unit. Besides, if you do decide to build an island, the temporary island can enjoy a second life as a craft table, workbench or “junk cabinet” in the basement or spare bedroom.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

We’ve covered the issue of not thinking through how you will use the island and putting in the “wrong” features for your purpose. The issue of too big and too small was addressed.

Here are a few more.

1). The island is too square. A square island gives you maximum surface space for the money. But maybe it hinders normal workflow in the kitchen whereas a narrower but longer island would not. On the other hand, if a narrow island protrudes into a dining area of the kitchen, maybe a smaller version of the square or narrow island will do.

Use the small table plus cardboard idea to try out islands of various shapes to see which fits your kitchen best.

2). Cramped seating at a breakfast bar. Allow 22 inches of width per small child. Big kids and adults prefer up to 30 inches each. Trying to fit 3 stools in a 48-inch bar isn’t going to work. Resize the bar or rethink the number of seats.

3). Poor lighting. By definition, an island is in the middle of space, not next to a window like a countertop might be. Therefore, adequate light from skylights or overhead lighting is crucial. You don’t want to be prepping food in poorly lit conditions. It creates eye strain and potential hazards.

4). Lighting that is too bright. What??? Let’s rephrase that to non-dimmable lighting. Bright lighting is a “must” for food prep, homework at the breakfast bar and dark winter evenings when a little bright light is good for the spirit. However, when people are relaxing in the kitchen, calmer lights will be appreciated. Choose dimmable lights or sets of lights that can be turned on/off individually.

Want a Little Free Advice?

Experienced contractors in your area, those that have helped design and install hundreds of kitchens, are available to answer your questions.

They will provide advice, help you eliminate costly mistakes and work with you to complete a kitchen island that will add beauty and functionality to your home. There is no cost for getting free advice and no-obligation written estimates on a kitchen island, complete remodel and any project in between.

Price Up Your Kitchen Project

Our price guides below provide prices and costs for all aspects of your new kitchen, so be sure to check them out.

Cost of Kitchen Countertops, With Costs & Prices
$66 – $114 sq.ft.
Kitchen Backsplash Cost & Prices for Installation
$18 - $100 per sq. ft.
Compare Kitchen Remodel Cost & Prices for 2020
$14,000 - $150,000

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