Where else in the house do you scrub dishes, clean vegetables, soak beans, dye your hair and even bathe a baby (presumably rinsing between uses)?
Yet after you spend $30,000 on appliances, countertops and cabinets, it is easy to make the kitchen sink an afterthought -- and be tempted to scrimp a bit. Resist that urge, said Jerry R. Weed, a kitchen designer and the president of Kitchen and Bath Studios Inc. in Chevy Chase.
Given that you will spend more time standing in front of your kitchen sink than probably any other spot in the house, he said, "it's not a place to save money."
Even if you eat takeout every night, you will still have to stop by the sink, he said.
Seriously, how else are you going to wash that sweet-and-sour sauce off your hands?
The sink is not usually "the driving force" in a kitchen design, but it is important, said Weed, whose clients typically spend $300 to $1,000 on a sink, as part of a $30,000-to-$50,000 kitchen.
The simplest sinks sell for under $100, but if you are flush with cash, a high-end kitchen designer can find you a functional sculpture to soak your cruddy (probably copper) pots -- for several thousand dollars.
Given the role the kitchen sink plays in our daily lives, and what it can cost, it pays to understand your options before picking a new one. Should it go next to the stove, for convenient cleanup? Or in front of a backyard window, so you will at least have a pretty view while you are scraping out the scorched cheese left by those Sunday omelets? Sinks can be wide and deep, for washing large pots, or they can be just big enough to catch vegetable peelings as they are sucked into the garbage disposal. Would you prefer one bowl or two? Shapes and materials also vary, and choices depend on budget, function and aesthetics. If you have a tiny kitchen, just finding a sink that can squeeze into a spare corner may be your only criteria.
The first question: Where does it go?
Traditionally, kitchens have been designed as a triangle, with the stove, refrigerator and sink serving as the three points.
Amy Rymiszewski, a kitchen designer at Southern Kitchen Design in Alexandria, said the work triangle is not the standard option anymore. Of course, it was never the only option -- galley kitchens, where everything is in a straight line, are also common, especially in row houses. Islands can be part of traditional work triangle, or they can be a completely separate additional work space. Most people put their sink under a window for the view, she said, but if it is placed in an island, it can be turned to face company. Sometimes the only workable design has the sink's user facing a windowless wall. However, the sink is generally near the dishwasher for plumbing reasons.
Weed said he is seeing a lot of larger kitchens, especially in new construction. That requires a different approach in kitchen design, including the placement of the sink. As the kitchen gets bigger, efficiency is harder to achieve. In roomy kitchens, people will install two separate sinks: a prep sink in an island, facing a social area, and a cleanup sink, under the window. Multiple sinks also make it easier for more than one person to work at the same time. He said multiple sinks are almost standard now in new upscale kitchens.
Not everyone likes island sinks, though. Bob Kay, owner of Kitchen and Bath Factory Inc. in Arlington, said they can be inconvenient. Any dishes or vegetables washed or rinsed in that sink are going to have to 0be carried over the floor instead of a countertop, he said, and that can get messy. An island sink also will require extra pipes, so expect a bigger plumbing bill.
Once you figure out where the sink is going, you will have an idea how big it can be. Widths are usually 16 to 20 inches, to fit into most countertops. You will find greater range in lengths. If you have room to spare, a 28-inch-long rectangle works. A little less room, and a 21-by-153/4-inch model might work better. Really cramped for space? Consider a 111/4-by-131/4 sink. Bigger sinks obviously hold more stuff, whether it is dishes or food, or a bag of ice and a six-pack. The bigger the sink, however, the more counter space you give up. It is a largely a matter of personal priority, but at minimum, you will probably want to leave space on one side for a dish rack. Kay said undermount sinks require at least six inches of space on either side, or there is a risk of cracking the countertop material.
You will also have a choice in depth. Weed said he is selling more sinks that are 10 inches deep instead of six to eight inches, as once was standard.
Deep sinks are great for washing big pots, but they do have drawbacks. One, they are not ergonomically correct if you are especially tall or short. Before you install a 10-inch deep sink, stand in front of one in a showroom. If you have to bend down to touch the bottom with your fingertips, you could be buying yourself a decade of back pain. Second, an extra-deep sink leaves less space under the sink, where most people store cleaning supplies.
Sinks come in a few basic shapes. Rectangles and squares are common. Circles or ovals are most frequently used for prep sinks, so they tend to be small and shallow.
The D-shaped sink is another popular option. The curve of the D is along the back of the sink, and the faucet is set off to the side, giving you a roomier basin than a comparably sized rectangular bowl. Franke sells a stainless-steel undermount model in that style for $420.
Another choice to make is how many bowls you want -- a sink can come with one, two or even three. If space is tight, one small bowl is likely all that will fit.
An extra bowl is handy if you do a lot of cooking, especially if you frequently prepare vegetables. One bowl is used for cleanup, the other for prep work, such as peeling or soaking produce. Many people also use one bowl for washing and the other for rinsing. That second bowl can also hold a dish rack, keeping water off the counter. The bowls are often the same size, but they do not have to be. If there is a garbage disposal, it generally goes under the prep sink. Garbage disposals take up a lot of room under the sink, so even with multiple bowls, it is rare to have more than one.
Rymiszewski, whose clients typically spend $400 to $800 on their sinks, said she sometimes sees triple bowls, for people who are very into cooking. The third bowl is usually a small one, for soaking and cleaning produce.
Weed said he is seeing fewer double-bowl sinks. His clients are favoring "big, wide, deep" single-bowl sinks that are more versatile. They are roomy enough to hold big pots, and with the use of dishpans can mimic many of the useful features of a double-bowl sink.
Your next choice will be the drain placement. If space is not a issue, a center drain is fine. However, if your kitchen is small, consider a sink with the drain set to the back or in the corner. You will find no cost difference among those options, but you will increase access to the space in the cabinet under the sink. That is especially important if you have a garbage disposal, which takes up a lot of room. Many center-drain sinks are still available to accommodate existing plumbing -- not to mention the sink manufacturers' existing molds, Kay said.
A D-shaped sink, with a disposal in the back, gives you the most convenient access to the under-sink cabinet.
Once you have picked a shape, your next decision will be material. Sinks can be made of granite, enameled steel, quartz, titanium, porcelain, cast iron, Corian, fireclay, vitreous china, stainless steel, and many other materials. Rymiszewski said her customers tend to go with stainless steel and fireclay, a durable, stain-resistant ceramic.
Stainless steel is by far the most popular. It is sturdy and easy to maintain, and it is available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The gauge of the metal is the best indication of quality, with 18 gauge or lower preferred. Commercial kitchen sinks are often made with 12 gauge stainless, but that is overkill in most home kitchens. Higher than 18 gauge, and the sink will be noisy and dent easily, so think hard before buying a 20- or 22-gauge sink, no matter how cheap it is.
Noisiness is the biggest drawback to stainless steel, and many manufacturers attach a soundproofing material to the underside of their sinks. Rymiszewski said Whitehaus, an upscale manufacturer that she likes, uses a fiberglass material under its stainless sinks to dampen the racket, but even low-cost manufacturers add this feature. Ikea's 18-gauge stainless sinks, which start at $39, also have a layer of soundproofing.
If a quiet water flow is important to you, though, pass on the stainless and consider cast iron, porcelain, or Corian or a similar synthetic solid-surface material. Their thick, heavy construction make them practically soundproof.
People tend to favor the familiar when it comes to sink materials, said Kay, whose customers spend between $350 and $750 for a sink as part of a $25,000 to $40,000 kitchen.
That usually means stainless steel, but that is too bad, he said, because "Corian is such a great product." It is attractive, durable, heat-resistant and easy to clean.
People worry about it cracking, he said, but he only remembers that happening twice, and both times it was because of mistakes made by plumbers, not a fault with the material.
Weed's customers also favor stainless steel. He said he also sells some fireclay and porcelain, which can be customized to "wild" colors. He does not consider that practical because the colors easily show specks and watermarks.
Sinks are generally set in the countertop in one of two ways. An overmounted or "self-rimming" sink sits on top to the counter. The least-expensive sinks are mounted that way, and they are cheap and easy to install.
An undermounted sink, while more expensive, has several advantages, according to Rymiszewski. You get an extra 11/2 inch to 2 inches of depth, it is easier to keep clean because there is no lip to catch crumbs, and you get a cleaner line along the countertop, she said. It was also less expensive to do a cutout for an undermount in granite countertops, she said.
Weed and Rymiszewski both said they do very few overmounted sinks now.
A third way to install a sink integrates the sink with the countertop material. Weed's showroom featured a Corian sink built into the counter. Such sinks are expensive -- $1,100 to $1,200 -- but counter cleanup is a breeze, Weed said, swiping his hand across the counter to show how easily water and debris can be wiped into the basin.
Kay's showroom also features a built-in Corian sink. He said the single-bowl, D-shaped sink, with a slightly angled drain board incorporated into the counter, would cost about $550 as part of the rest of the countertop. Integrated sinks, long common in bathrooms, are becoming more common in kitchens as their prices come down.
The big exception to the popularity of regular undermount sinks is the farm sink, which has one big bowl and an exposed "apron" in the front. The apron can be decorated with tiles, hand-painted, or left plain. Farm sinks can be overmounted or undermounted, and they are heavy, requiring extra support in cabinetry. They can be made of porcelain, ceramic, stainless steel, copper, natural stone, and of course, cast iron, the makings of the original farm sinks.
Weed, whose showroom had a Kohler farmhouse sink on display, said he is not a fan of the style because it is hard to get a good seal between the countertop and the sink. The farm sink has no practical advantages, he said, but "it is a look."
If authenticity is part of the "look" you are after, you could pick up a real farm sink. Vintage Plumbing in Southern California will sell you a 1928, 52-by-20-inch farm sink with a left-side drain board for $2,150.
That ought to make even a sticky three-day old cookie sheet look good.