Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

Experts from Heaven
—and from Hell:
Getting Advice from
Cabinet and Lighting Pro's
Part 4 of the
FoodWine's Kitchen Remodel

by Kate Heyhoe


I'm pretty picky and rarely wishy-washy when it comes to making decisions. So designing the kitchen myself came naturally, but other cooks may prefer to hire a kitchen designer, a contractor or even an architect—all of which cost money but may offer valuable expertise. Other experts include lighting designers, interior decorators, and subcontractors like plumbers, painters, drywall installers, electricians, and carpenters.

But keep this in mind whenever you consult an "expert": A person only knows what they know. and when you know nothing, they all sound brilliant.


Kitchen designer Patrick O'Neill (shown here with me, Kate Heyhoe) uses my measurements to create computerized floor plans. Plan on spending at least two hours with a kitchen designer to create the initial cabinetry plan. Then add more time for redesigns and changes as needed. Note the samples of various kitchen materials in the background. (Photo 4A)

Throughout my remodel, I found many of the "experts" varied considerably in their knowledge and experience. As time passed, though, I began to arm myself with research. Eventually I concluded that I too was an expert: I knew my wants and needs better than anyone else ever could. So instead of listening to only one expert's advice, I canvassed a wide range of specialists, getting four or five opinions in the same way a patient consults different doctors. I certainly didn't become an overnight expert in every field, but it helped me to sort out all the conflicting recommendations and form my own opinions. In the end, I got the kitchen that works for me.


Kitchen Cabinet Experts

Even though I was my own designer, I sought out help in picking out the brand and pieces of cabinetry—and best of all, that help came free. Home improvement stores offer the services of "kitchen designers" at no charge, in the hopes you'll buy your cabinetry from the store. These experts focus mainly on cabinets and countertops, and depending on the person you end up with, they may also be able to assist with flooring, lighting, sinks, paint and other details.

The first kitchen cabinetry designer I consulted was a disaster. Perhaps it wasn't all Camelia's fault (not her real name)—the home improvement chain she worked for had just branched into California and the store was barely open when she volunteered to design my kitchen. For a $25 fee (applicable to any cabinets I might buy) she scheduled a technician to come out and measure the space for the cabinets (I had already done this but wanted an "expert" to confirm my measurements). After that, she and I would meet and pick out the cabinet style and pieces, then she would print out computer renderings of the plan and a detailed price list.

What happened next was a blessing in disguise: The whole process became such a debacle that I ended up going elsewhere for cabinetry, and ended up with a seasoned designer that proved both knowledgeable and talented. But not without weeks of frustration—Camelia's scheduled technician did not show up, she was unreachable for a few days and no one else knew what to do; she then came to the site herself to measure, and as it turns out, she got the measurements wrong.

When I showed up for our appointment to draw up the kitchen on the computer, Camelia was finalizing another sale and kept me waiting an hour. Then she couldn't get the computer to work properly so another hour passed while the store's MIS person tried to figure things out. Finally, I demanded my money back and went elsewhere—to Home Depot. But I had wasted two very valuable weeks in the process.


The Design Plot Thickens

My Home Depot designer, Patrick O'Neill, and I seemed to click (see photo above). Based on my hand-drawn floor plan, he instantly set my kitchen design in motion. Within the hour, the computer was spitting out pages of renderings: elevations, floor plans, and such. Using the basic plan, he gave me three cabinet brands to consider and detailed costs for each. I threw out the least expensive cabinet—too junky. The most expensive brand looked and sounded great, but given its cost, I didn't find much difference between it and the cabinets of medium price range. So I chose Thomasville Cabinetry, which turned out to be handsome, durable and moderately priced.

Tip: Pick up some layout sheets—they look like graph paper—from the kitchen design department of home improvement stores. You'll need them to plot out your kitchen to scale. Be sure to accurately measure your kitchen (including walls, doors, windows, plumbing and electrical fixtures). A half-inch error sounds small, but it can have big impact during construction. You can also buy fancy kitchen layout kits with lift off appliance cut-outs, but I found that the large layout sheets worked just fine for me. Once I marked the fixed measurements, like the walls and windows that weren't going to change, I photocopied the sheet. I then used the copies for penciling in the appliances and cabinet bases in numerous experimental configurations, until I found a layout I liked.


Stepping Cabinets

Patrick made a few aesthetic suggestions that really enhanced the look. For instance, he suggested stepping down two wall cabinets on either side of the range, as well as the cabinet over the range. Notice in photo 4B how this visually breaks up the top portion of the cabinets, keeping them from looking so block-like. Stepping cabinets up or down requires a bit more effort when installing crown molding, but for me the effect was worth it.


Crown Molding


This detail shows three types of Thomasville molding: a single-bead edging, a dentil edge, and at the top, angled crown molding. The clamp holds the pieces in place as the glue dries. (Photo 4D)

I have to admit: crown molding is an area I had never once thought about. It's a purely aesthetic element and I had been concentrating on kitchen efficiency; so when asked what molding I wanted to use, I went blank. Patrick patiently showed me the various styles, both in catalogs and in the showroom models at Home Depot. In the end, as photos 4C and 4D show, we mounted together three pieces of moldings: a single bead, a dentil edge, and an angled crown molding. Again, I could have gone with just a single layer of angled crown molding, but the extra pieces add depth and rich detail.


Lighting Designers from Hell

Don't ignore the importance of good lighting. Even the best arranged kitchen will seem impractical if there's not enough light in the right places. But lighting can be a complex issue. A lighting salesperson should know: the difference between amps and watts; floods and spots; the maximum distance and width a particular bulb will cast its light; which lamps are warm and which are cool in color; the characteristics of incandescents, low-voltage halogens, pars, high intensity, recessed cans, electronic and magnetic transformers—and other aspects of lights and their fixtures. Unfortunately, I met very few who do.

Finding a lighting professional I felt comfortable with was painfully frustrating, and ultimately never successful. Meet just a few of the experts I encountered:

The hip and snotty San Francisco lighting company rep whose incessant sighs signaled unbearable boredom with my project.
The egocentric Pasadena lighting designer who spent three weeks boasting of his talents before submitting an expensive but ineffective lighting plan (which arrived after I had already installed my own lights)
Two designers from different branches of the same retail lamp chain: The first one was uncooperative and refused to answer even the smallest question without visiting the job site; the second was sweet and volunteered lots of information—half of it erroneous.
A pleasant and friendly "Certified Lighting Designer," from an upscale home design center chain, who literally didn't know his amps from his watts.
Numerous clerks in the lighting aisles of home improvement stores, each with their own take on what lights are best. When one guy said he'd just plug big, bright fluorescents all over the kitchen ceiling, I knew he was not the resource for me.

After weeks of speaking with nearly a dozen lighting "experts," I ended up with a massive amount of brochures, books, lighting proposals, and a whole mess of conflicting information. Ultimately, I cobbled together my own lighting plan. I didn't feel completely confident in my abilities, but no less so than I did with anyone else's. Today, I'm completely comfortable with my lighting decisions—I have the right type of light wherever I need it, with no unwanted shadows, and endless flexibility for every task or mood.

I'll show you the finished lighting photos in upcoming columns, but here's a list of the basic components of my lighting plan—all of which are affordably priced at home improvement stores:

Overhead lights: Recessed canisters, also known as "canned lights" (see photo 4E.) Because we have a pitched ceiling with a gentle slope, I chose adjustable eyeballs (using 75 watt par lamps) which swivel and allow me to direct them to specific spots on the counter. The six kitchen lights are installed 18-inches from the wall (measured from wall to the center of the lamp); at this distance, the cabinets don't block the beam and they shine directly over the countertop. They're spaced about 3 feet apart to avoid overlapping shadows. I also used two more in the butler's pantry, installed over the 5-foot long countertop. Two more illuminate the wall behind the peninsula, showcasing the artwork and casting ambient light into the kitchen. All are on dimmers, which makes them even more versatile.

Task lights: Undercabinet low-voltage halogens, known casually as "hockey puck" lights, with 20 watt bulbs, hardwired on dimmers (see photo 4F.) They're spaced every two to three feet under the wall cabinets in the main kitchen, with two directly over the double-sink; three more light up the counter in the butler's pantry. with their crisp, bright light, halogens provide excellent task lighting.

Interior glass cabinet lights: More hockey puck lights, on dimmers for ambience. Sometimes I leave only the glass cabinet lights on, instead of night lights, or for mood lighting, or for when the kitchen is not in active use.

Track lights: In the main kitchen, I mounted two four-foot lengths of track with eight 50-watt halogen bulbs in gimbal ring fixtures.

My problem was this: how to illuminate the 11-foot long dual-level peninsula with enough light for chopping and cooking? I couldn't mount undercabinet lights, since there were no cabinets above. I could have gone with pendant lights, but I didn't want poles hanging down to interrupt the visual space and besides, the pitched ceiling slopes down at a gentle angle. Plus, the peninsula has a dog-legged section at the cooktop end, so I'd have to arrange the pendants in an odd configuration.

My solution: I used two 4-foot pieces of track with a flexible elbow connector to follow the center line of the peninsula, curving where the peninsula bends. The low-voltage halogens cast a strong bright light excellent for all sorts of detailed work, and they can be rotated to shine at any angle or direction. When they're too strong for dining or relaxing at the bar, I can shut them off and use any combination of other lights. Note: Finding the correct dimmers for these low voltage halogens became an impossible task. Four different lighting experts sold me dimmers (priced from $10 to $350) that were supposed to work without causing a hum, but not one of them worked properly. Dimmers and low-voltage lights on transformers, it seems, can be problematic.

I also installed a ten-foot length of track, again with the same 50-watt halogen bulbs and gimbal ring fixtures, in the butler's pantry (see photo 4G.) These lights illuminate the tall pantries and upper wall cabinets, as well as the freezer and fridge.

Additionally, I have two other sources of light: four floods in the ceiling fan in the center of the kitchen (operated by remote control), and natural light—coming from the sliding glass door, the window behind the peninsula, and the glass doors and windows in the adjacent porch room.

Finally, there have been many experts in this remodel who brought with them unqualified levels of expertise. By preparing myself with research and self-education, I was better able to judge the quality of information I was receiving—including becoming more aware of how excellent these experts really were. You may not know all the answers, but if you know the right questions to ask, you're one step closer to remodelers' heaven than to hell.

To be continued...

Part 5: Demolition to Drywall—PLUS: Survival Recipes, Phase 2

Kate Heyhoe


FoodWine's Kitchen Remodel Series
(with Survival Recipes)


Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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This page created February 2001