Build a kitchen island

Add tabletop convenience with storage to spare

By Cathy Dalrymple


No man is an island, but if you build one for your kitchen you’ll rarely be alone. A great kitchen island draws people together, giving them a place to hang around and talk as the chef prepares a meal. It also boosts storage capacity and food prep area in your kitchen.

You’ll probably need to adapt the size and shape of my island to suit your kitchen, but don’t worry. The design is simple and easy to customize.


Top Job

I began by planing some rough maple to 1 1/2" thick for the top. When you're edge-gluing boards into a large assembly like this, it's best to alternate the arc of the growth rings from one board to the next. You should also alternate your clamps above and below the assembly to prevent bowing. Use just enough pressure to squeeze out a bead of glue, then stop tightening. If you squeeze out too much glue, you'll create a weak joint.

Let the tabletop dry for a day, then sand it and joint one edge. Trim the ends with a circular saw. (The tabletop is too large to cross cut on a tablesaw.)

The end-grain edges are capped by breadboard ends. They reduce the tendency for the top to warp and also create a more refined look. You can attach them in several ways; I chose a half-lap joint. Use a straight bit in a router to mill the last 1 1/2" of the tabletop ends down to 3/4", with a matching profile on the breadboard pieces.

Since the grain of the tabletop and breadboard ends run perpendicular to each other, you only need to secure these joints in the middle. This allows seasonal expansion and contraction of the top to occur unimpeded. Add a bead of glue only in the middle of each breadboard piece, then secure the rest of the joints with #10 1 1/4" wood screws driven every 4" from underneath. Be sure to predrill oversized pilot holes in the lower part of the wood so the screws can slide sideways as the top changes width with variations in humidity.

With the top complete, sand the surface and edges. I used a 120-grit abrasive, switching to a 150-grit, then a 220-grit belt. Be sure to sand parallel to the grain only once you work up to the finer grits. This demands careful work where the breadboard ends meet the main area of the tabletop.

Body Building

The body of the island follows a standard design, with the added touch of the turned legs below an overhang. Although the legs don't bear weight, I love how they look. You can leave them off without compromising strength, although the outcome won't be as beautiful.

The cabinet is divided into four quadrants and sits on a separate base with hidden casters. Begin by cutting all cabinet parts to size. Use a dado blade along the middle of one side of the centre divider and at the one-third point on the other side. Assemble the cabinet's end gabels with #20 biscuit joints and glue the door and drawer dividers into the dado slots. I secured these from behind with #8 x 1 1/2" screws. Anchor the base from the underside with #8 screws as well. Attach the top cleats to the middle panels and sides of the cabinet using #20 biscuits.

The cabinet base is made up of an inner and outer frame. You could eliminate them for simplicity, but it gives the cabinet a greater visual presence. The outer frame is made of four pieces of wood, cut to size with mitred corners. Use a #20 biscuit to secure each corner joint. The inside frame is 3/4" higher than the outer one to create a reveal and is assembled the same as the outer base frame. Screw the frames together, flip the cabinet upside down, then attach the base to the underside of the cabinet with wood strips screwed to the base and cabinet bottom.

Next, screw the casters to the base. I left only 1/4" of each wheel exposed. This requires you to mill corner blocks to position the casters just right. Attach the blocks to the underside of the cabinet base with wood screws and glue, then screw the casters to the blocks.

All the fixings

I discovered a dowelling jig from Dowel Max that I really like earlier this year, so I try to incorporate dowel joints whenever I can. And for this project, dowels are used to join the top rails to the stiles. The assembled face frame assembly is also dowelled to the cabinet. I used a 23-gauge pin nailer and glue to join the door divider trim.

The doors have a simple rail-and-stile design with flat panels that fit into 1⁄4"-wide grooves cut in the stiles and rails using a table-mounted router. Lower the stile onto the bit 3" from the leading end, then lift it off 3" from the trailing end to leave wood for corner joinery. The rails are routed their full length. Join the stiles and rails with two dowels at each joint, but with no glue just yet. Measure for panels to fit within the grooves, cut them to size, then reassemble the doors permanently with glue and clamps.

To match the hinges on my kitchen cupboards, I used European-style cup hinges on the island doors. Before installing, fasten a block of wood to the inside of the cabinet as a base for each hinge. You could avoid this step by using butt hinges mounted on the face frame itself. (See “Hinge Helper” below for your options.) Attach the doors to the cabinet by whichever method you choose, after planing them to fit before staining. The shelves rest on adjustable shelf pins and have a 11⁄2"-wide solidwood trim on their front edges.

Build your drawer boxes according to the openings in your actual project with 1⁄2" dados cut to accept the drawer bottoms. The drawer sides are glued and nailed together with 11⁄4" brads. Since the stiles attached to the gables are 11⁄2" wide, you'll need to make a spacer board as a base for the drawer glides. After attaching glides to gables and the drawer sides, slide the drawer into place and check the fit of the drawer front.

I used ready-made, 36"-long legs for my island, trimmed to fit in the space beneath the overhang. As I measured and cut, I left room for vinyl feet to protect the legs as they slide. The legs are dowelled together with skirts that are set back 1⁄4" from each leg face. The skirts also have an arched cutout to boost legroom and give the island softer visual lines.

Attach the front and side skirts with dowels, then attach the leg assembly to the cabinet with dowels and wooden corner brackets. Attach a 3⁄4" x 3⁄4" cleat to the top edge of the skirt using #8 11⁄4" screws. This cleat also helps to secure the tabletop later.

Finishing touches

I sanded the entire cabinet up to the 220-grit level before finishing with Minwax dark walnut stain. Three coats were required to achieve the colour I wanted. The island top is finished with several coats of Circa 1850 Terra Nova NaturOil. The first couple of coats really soak in, so you need to repeat the process to achieve smooth protection. I didn’t attach the tabletop or the legs to the cabinet carcass until the island was in the kitchen. This project is too heavy and large to get through doorways once it's all together.

Once the island is in place, find some stools, pull them up to the counter, then share a little casual conversation (and some great food) with a friend.

Tools & Materials

Part Material Size (T x W x L*) Qty.


Tabletop maple 1 1/2" x 48" x 48 1/2" 1
Breadboard ends maple 1 1/2" x 4 1/2" x 48" 2
End gables maple 3/4" x 30" x 34" 2
Bottom maple 3/4" x 34" x 50 1/2" 1

Centre divider

maple 3/4" x 29 1/4" x 50 1/2" 1
Door divider maple 3/4" x 13 5/8" x 29 1/4" 1
Drawer divider maple 3/4" x 20 3/8" x 29 1/2" 1
Drawer side shelves maple 3/4" x 19 1/4" x 24 3/4"** 2
Single door shelf maple 3/4" x 13 1/4" x 17 3/4** 1
Double door shelf maple 3/4" x 14 1/2" x 32 1/4** 1
Top cleats maple 3/4" x 8" x 50 1/2" 2
Legs maple 3 1/2" x 3 1/2 x 36 2
Skirt front maple 3 1/2" x 3 1/2" x 45" 1
Skirt sides maple 3/4 x 3 1/2" x 7 1/2" 2
Cleat maple 3/4" x 3/4" x 45" 1
Outer base frame sides maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 34" 2
Outer base frame front/back maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 52" 2
Inner base frame sides maple 3/4" x 4 1/4" x 32 1/2" 2
Inner base front/back maple 3/4" x 4 1/4" x 50 1/2" 2
Corner caster blocks maple 3/4" x 1 3/4" x 6" 4

Each Door (Side Trim)

Stiles maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 30" 2
Top rail maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 49" 1
Bottom rail maple 3/4" x 3/4" x 49" 1
Door divider trim maple 3/4" x 3/4" x 25 1/2" 1

Each Door (Side Trim)

Stiles maple 3/4" x 1 1/2" x 30" 2
Top/bottom rail maple 3/4" x 1 1/2" x 49" 2
Drawer divider trim maple 3/4" x 1 1/2" x 27 3/4" 1
Drawer faces maple 3/4" x 5 1/2" x 23 5/8" 2

The Doors

Double door rails maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 9 1/2" 4
Single door rails maple 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 10" 2
Stiles maple 3/4" x 2 1/2" x 25 1/2" 6
Double door panels maple plywood 1/4" x 10" x 19" 2
Single door panel maple plywood 1/4" x 11" x 19" 1
Corner brackets maple 3/4" x 2'' x 5" 2

**Shelves include 1 1/2

* Length indicates grain direction

Recommended Tools


Build a kitchen island

Illustration by Len Churchill

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