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Frugal Happy: Putting in a New Kitchen

It's a DIY affair, right down to installing the cabinets and cutting the quartz countertop

Chris Stratton uses a wet polisher/grinder with a diamond drum to finish the edge of the sink opening. The job took several hours. All photos courtesy Chris Stratton and Wen Lee.

Time to build a new kitchen! After we demolished the old one, we ripped out the ancient vinyl flooring and the layers below it until the original subfloor was exposed. My brother Bin helped with the dirty work.

Since we were expanding the size of our kitchen (almost doubling it), Chris removed some of the adjacent original hardwood floorboards (don’t worry, we reused these pieces in the ceiling so they did not go to waste). He put down a new plywood subfloor throughout the space.

After tearing out the old vinyl flooring, Chris installed new plywood subflooring.

Then it was time to install the new linoleum flooring. This was Chris’ first time doing this work so it was a little stressful. You basically get one shot at installing it correctly (if it’s crooked you can’t exactly just pull it off and try again without ruining the flooring).

The linoleum is adhered to the plywood with special flooring adhesive. Below is Chris spreading the goop with a trowel.

Linoleum is fully adhered to the subfloor.

After the adhesive was applied, Chris had to oh-so-carefully lay the long linoleum sheet on top of it before it dried.

By the way, this is real linoleum flooring; it’s made of linseed oil (not the vinyl stuff that most people think of when someone says “linoleum”). Chris chose to use authentic linoleum because it’s made of naturally sourced materials.

We chose a color called “vintage blue” that we think looks light and cheery, and it goes well with all the wood in the room. Chris used a heavy roller (which he rented from Home Depot) to press the linoleum down firmly and evenly into the adhesive.

A heavy roller rented from Home Depot bonded the linoleum to the plywood subfloor.

Time for cabinets

After the flooring was complete, it was time for cabinets. We jammed the knock-down cabinets into our Nissan Leaf (which turns out, has impressive capacity). In true DIY fashion, Chris wanted to assemble the cabinets himself. It’s not a super complicated or technical process, but it’s very, very tedious.

Assembling the kitchen cabinets wasn’t especially difficult, but it took some time.

One of the most tedious parts of assembling and installing the cabinets was getting them all level with each other. It turns out, floors are almost never actually flat, there are ever-so-slight imperfections, high and low spots all over the place.

Chris had to install shims under the cabinets, meaning he stuck flat pieces of wood of variable thickness under each corner of each cabinet until they were perfectly level and plumb (Chris used up to three spirit levels at a time to confirm this). He never discovered the real science of it; it was more a matter of trial and error (and persistence).

A new range and a range hood

For our new, 100% electric kitchen, we decided to swap out our natural gas range with an induction range. That means we no longer have to cook over an open flame (which produces indoor pollutants and uses fossil fuels), and instead get to cook using efficient, precise induction technology (powered by electricity generated renewably from our solar panels).

The kitchen isn’t even done yet (who needs electrical outlets or countertops?) but we were so psyched about the new range that we started cooking on it anyway. Here’s me cooking our first meal on the new cooktop—time for soup.

An induction range means an end to burning fossil fuel in the kitchen.

It’s unwise to cook without a range hood (the fan above the stove that sucks up pollutants from your cooking and exhausts them outside), so that was our next priority. Chris installed our new range hood with help from our neighbor Hang.

The range hood vents directly through the wall and pops out right next to the front door—a little awkward, but at least guests will know what’s for dinner as they arrive.

Chris also put in under-cabinet lights to ensure that the countertops would be well-lit for food prep. Finally, the cabinets are done! (Besides the handles and a couple doors, anyway.) Check out all the new kitchen lights, too.

Lighting is a mix of overhead and under-cabinet fixtures.

Installing the sink and counters

When it came time to install the sink, Chris started by cutting a hole in the plywood in the shape of the sink. Then he used a router to cut out a groove for the lip of the sink to sit in the plywood.

Chris uses a router to cut a shallow rabbet in the perimeter of the opening for the edge of the sink.

We purchased quartz countertops, and, oh boy, were they a huge challenge to install! That’s mostly because stone is so heavy and difficult to work with. It was a big ordeal every time Chris needed to move a piece anywhere. It’s pretty much impossible for a single person to lift a piece of this material alone, so you have to have other people around to help, and you need to be very careful to not drop, chip, or crack the stone in transit.

Each uncut piece of countertop weighs about 200 pounds. Chris, Bin, Lac, and Johnny (four strong guys) struggled to carry a single piece outside so it can be cut.

Chris cut the quartz using a circular saw with a diamond blade, with water added to keep the blade cool. It’s high-stakes cutting because if you cut off too much, the piece is ruined and you have to buy a whole new one. (Angled cuts are especially tricky.) So Chris triple- and quadruple-checked each measurement before cutting. It was slow, loud, wet, and messy.

It took four people to move each 200-pound section of quartz counter.

Editor’s note: Quartz countertops have very high silica content. Airborne silica, created when the stone is cut or abraded, can pose a serious health risk. Dust should be strictly controlled. For more, see this article.

One of the hardest parts about installing the countertops was cutting the mitered corners just right. There is very little room for error.

The only solution is to keep cutting off a little more at a time until a joint fits snugly. This is easier said than done, because remember, the pieces have to be cut outside (due to the water and mess), and each piece is super heavy. So schlepping the pieces inside and outside, cutting and checking, over and over, takes momentous effort and patience.

To fill in the gaps at seams where two pieces meet, Chris used epoxy. A suction-cup device held the pieces together while the epoxy cured. Chris then sanded down the epoxy until it was nice and smooth.

This device kept a joint in the countertop snugged up while the epoxy filler cured.

Speaking of momentous effort, let’s get back to the sink. Now, Chris’ task is to cut out a hole for the sink in the countertop. The hole has to be perfectly shaped like the sink and be in the exact right spot. If Chris is off by even a quarter of an inch, the whole thing is pretty much ruined. But no pressure or anything.

For this job, Chris decided to do the cutting inside so he could use the hole in the plywood as a reference (he was also worried about breaking the countertop by moving it in and out too much… a big hole would make it more fragile). This caused a big wet mess inside the house but he decided it was worth it.

First he used a saw (with a diamond bit) and cut a crude hole inside the lines.

A crude hole just inside the layout lines was first.

He then used a wet polisher/grinder with a diamond grinding drum to cut the edges oh-so-precisely. This took several hours and it was a huge, messy pain. But he did it!

The completed sink installation.

Here is the installed sink. A thing of beauty. We will never look at a kitchen sink the same way again.

At long last we have a kitchen! It took Chris over two months of hard work, but it’s the kitchen of our dreams and it looks and performs superbly.

Chris is very proud that he installed the entire kitchen himself (I’m proud of him too!), and he has learned so much in the process. Although to be honest, he’s not sure if he would attempt to install stone countertops ever again. It probably saved us thousands of dollars in labor costs, but it was a truly exhausting and Herculean undertaking.


-This post is one of a series by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee, a husband-and-wife team living in the Los Angeles area who are turning their 1963 suburban house into an all-electric, zero-net-energy home. They chronicle their attempts at a low-carbon, low-cost, and joyful lifestyle on their blog Frugal Happy. This post was written by Wen. All photos courtesy of the authors.

Use these links to read more posts by Chris Stratton and Wen Lee:

14 Comments

  1. But Why? | | #1

    " It was slow, loud, wet, and messy."......nah..... its too easy

  2. Eric Habegger | | #2

    You are some seriously brave dudes. I would never have attempted the stone countertops myself, though I did the rest of my own kitchen myself. Well done!

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Brian Pontolilo | | #3

      I agree, Eric. I cut and installed one small, salvaged marble countertop for a baking area in my kitchen--no joints, no cutouts, and that was about enough stone countertop work for me. I do admire ambitious do-it-yourselfers, though, mostly for their patience with such tedious work.

    2. User avater
      Stephen Sheehy | | #4

      I'm with you, Eric. I had no issues with building all my kitchen cabinets. But stone countertops? Nope. I'd be terrified.
      The last kitchen I built ( I've done three, definitely not a professional) I used plastic feet under the cabinets. They have a screw mechanism that allows very precise leveling. And the feet come with a clip that attaches to the kick space base. Pretty slick and easy.

      1. James Howison | | #8

        Yup. Doing this now and very adjustable. I’m using these (840 bases, regular length legs).
        https://petermeier.com/product-category/cabinet-levelers/cabinet-levelers-plastic/

    3. Malcolm Taylor | | #5

      Add my name to the crowd showing respect. Not something I'd attempt. Well done!

    4. Kohta Ueno | | #7

      Agreed--DIY quartz countertop is seriously impressive. I'm another person who did their kitchen renovation themselves, except for the countertop. When it came to fabricating the pieces and hauling them up three flights up stairs--yeah, please take my money.

  3. CarsonB | | #6

    If you are building the cabinets yourself, one trick you can use is to only build them as simple boxes and build the stand separately which makes it easier to level. Very ambitious cutting out the countertops. I had considered soapstone but decided on butcherblock as it's a lot cheaper and easier to work with. More maintenance, but it looks great.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Brian Pontolilo | | #9

      Hi Carson.

      That's another good tip. I've installed cabinets with integral bases and toe kick and have always found it fussy. I've also used separate bases on some of the cabinets I've built, adjustable feet, and one design where each cabinet unit had furniture-style legs that could be trimmed to get to level and plumb. I'd take any of those options over the latter, although, with some advice from more experienced carpenters and more personal experience, there is a science to it.

      1. CarsonB | | #11

        Brian, did you find the adjustable feet easier than shimming? I’ve never tried it with custom cabinets, but other personal experience with adjustable feet tells me shims are probably the easiest route for something that will never move or be seen.

        1. User avater GBA Editor
          Brian Pontolilo | | #12

          Maybe I should have said, adjustable legs. The adjustable legs were part of the cabinet's aesthetic, in other words, they were exposed and not covered by a kick. I remember them being quite simple to install and level.

          Of course it depends on exactly how wonky the floor is too. For example if it is just out of level a bit in one direction, you can make a long base, level it with shims, fasten it, and now you have a level surface to place your run of cabinets on. I imagine that it the floor has many different high and low spots, an integral base that can be scribed to the actual contours may be the best option, despite it being a lot of work.

        2. User avater
          Stephen Sheehy | | #13

          I found the adjustable feet, like the ones James mentioned above, to be much easier to use and more precise than shims. They're threaded, so you can turn them a tiny bit to raise or lower the cabinet just enough.

  4. George Smith | | #10

    Nice work.

    Hang hung hood, eh?

    I built my base cabinets as simple boxes and set them on a separate toe kick. In the new house, I'll re-use the cabinets, but might go with the adjustable legs this time. That's a good idea.

  5. Keith Gustafson | | #14

    Super ballsy doing your own quartz countertops

    Real linoleum is super cool too. But hey, take care of it, may not last that long. Had some at my first apartment that was pretty beat up. We found the original shipping tag on cardboard shimming up the living room carpet. It was only 50 years old.......

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