With what we hoped was a beautiful kitchen all laid out on the drawing board, my wife and I went to look at kitchen cabinets.
I was appalled by the poor quality of cabinets; a veritable playground of staples and hardboard. So we decided to build our own.
An old cabinet, probably built with or soon after our house, was beyond repair and had to be removed. But it did provide a model for the basic shape of the bake center cabinet, to which we added some modifications to provide more counter space.
We decided to use a marble counter top for baking needs, with the remainder of the top to be of formica. Neither of us is very fond of formica-type counters, but in this case the material solved some problems of function and cost. The remaining cabinets were to be more or less standard floor units built in place and faced with hardwood.
Good materials are necessary if you want a good finished product, one that approximates the feel of Victorian kitchen furniture. One of my pet peeves is putting cheap looking hardware on nice cabinets. Why not take a little time to buy good reproduction hardware or, better yet, search out some period hardware?
Good quality lumber is another necessity both for esthetics and because it must hold its shape under loads. If you can get it, full dimension lumber is helpful (a 3/4-inch board that is really 3/4-inch thick).
Using genuine materials like the marble counter top also helps, and we discovered to our delight that it was actually cheaper than "cultured" marble substitutes. While offering some advantages over marble, these substitutes simply do not have that Victorian feel about them.
Large crown molding can do much to enhance the effect of your cabinets and, if you build them to the ceiling, there will be considerable extra storage space. On the other hand, you can kill the whole effect of a Victorian kitchen by having a flat, plain panel above the cabinet door. The crown molding in our kitchen was constructed with nothing more exotic than a flat six-inch board with 45-degree cut on each edge and a 1-by-2 laid on the top.
Begin by constructing a base of 2-by-4 and 2-by-2 stock. It helps if your floor is level but if not, constructing your cabinets in place allows you to compensate for irregularities. The base was a simple ladder frame, 20 inches wide, built of 2-by-4s on edge with center members placed to carry the weight of the cabinets above.
Toe kick materials are usually four inches high (we used the basic brown rubber ones) which means that the frame must be shimmed up either by nailing a 1-by-2 furring strip on top of the frame or by shimming it 1/2 inch off the floor. Plumbing and wiring should be roughed in at this point and space left in the frame to accommodate appliances.
I nailed five-inch sheets of particle board over the frame. Later they were covered with scrap formica to form the bottom shelf of the cupboard. This board should be 24 inches wide and should protrude four inches beyond the base to make a toe kick. From here the frame is built up of 2-by-2 squares tied together horizontally with 1-by-2s. Height will depend on the thickness of your counter top. Remember that taller people may want counters one to two inches higher than the standard 36 inches from the floor.
Preformed laminate tops are readily available and easy to install. Preferring the crisp, square lines of the hand-laid kind, we elected to lay the counters ourselves and have a professional glue down the laminate afterward.
Install with screws coming up through the framing from below so that the top can be unscrewed and removed if necessary. The front lip was a 1-by-2 nailed with the edge flush with the counter top. Sand off any unevenness, countersink nails or screws and double check to make sure the entire top is level.
The back splash, a 1-by-4 strip, is not installed until the surface of the counter is applied. Make cut-outs for the sink or stove top before applying the laminate since it is a good deal cheaper to replace the particle board without the laminate than to replace the whole thing. With the counter securely in place and cut-outs made, you are ready for surfacing -- a difficult and tricky job that I left to professionals.
The insides of the cabinets were finished with standard prefinished paneling. The only place I know of where commercial paneling looks good is where it can barely be seen.
The resulting kitchen was straightforward and modern, yet the cabinet treatment lent enough Victorian feeling to tie the kitchen into the rest of the house. The cabinets required about 250 board feet of cherry to face, and the entire kitchen, including counter tops, quarry tile floor, hood, lighting fixtures and all appliances excluding the refrigerator cost just under $3,000.