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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: