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Victoria Thompson, RN, JD Wood Working

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Kitchen Design Series #4 Microwave and Oven Placement

One of the things a I really do not like in a kitchen is a microwave set in almost over my head.  The door opens and I have hot liquids coming out at eye level.  My husband does not want to bend over to set the controls on the microwave set in under the counter top.  I found a good height to set the microwave is so that the bottom of the door opens just below the cook’s shoulders.  The food can be viewed as it cooks and there is better control of the hot food coming out.  The controls are easy to reach at that height.  There are many places around the kitchen design to find that perfect spot.  Designing a full length cabinet around the placement of the microwave is a good idea.  There needs to be heat tolerant counter space very close to the microwave.  Plastic wrap storage, microwave safe containers and hot mitts need to be close at hand.  As an aside: I found that I LOVE Pampered Chef finger tip silicone grips for microwave and hot lid handling. I have several sets in the drawers under my cook top next to my microwave.

 www.pamperedchef.com     microwave grips

The design of where to put the microwave and ovens goes back to where the cook stands and what the cooks wants to see from that spot.  I had a double wall oven where it blocked my view of the den and place where family and friends gather.  Down it came. The counter and pass-through to the den was widened.  I put a large single oven under that counter space.  I like the large oven low to the floor so I can roast large food items (turkeys, beef roasts, slabs of whatever) where I can see down into the pot without removing it from the oven.  I also feel that if I lose my grip it is close to the floor and I won’t be throwing hot juices all over me.  This design put this oven across from and perpendicular to the cook top.  I have a counter able to handle hot pots from either direction in easy reach.  

I found a microwave and wall oven combination and I chose a smaller size to fit in the space.  I mounted that unit so the microwave was at the right height while the smaller oven that I use for baking and heating is at a perfect height for seeing into the pots without removing them from the oven.  (another aside – it took me 4 tries at making the cabinet correctly for the height I wanted. Measure 89 times cut 90 and get it right on 91!) This unit is beside the pot sink/cook top counter so I have easy access to place hot items on the cook top burners and easy access to the utensils I need. My island cart is directly in front of this unit giving me added convenience of prepping food for the oven and ease of putting it in the oven without walking across the kitchen with a full pan or pot.  

To complete the task oriented corner for savory hot cooking I used the space under the pot sink for a savory spice rack that is 3 inches wide and pulls out.  I also have a pull out rack for oils, sprays, bottled seasonings, plastic wrap and aluminum foil.

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Kitchen Design Series #3 What goes where? Start with the cook top.

Moving from design to build is a huge step.  Plan well so you only build it one time.  Planning your layout requires detailed design for electrical switches, outlets, lighting, plumbing, gas, appliance fit, and door and drawer clearance.  Ask questions, research the issues and plan to meet all building codes whether you are in an area that requires building permits or not.  Short cuts in building cause huge headaches later on.  My mantra is simple – if I am not going to do it right the first time when will anyone have the time and resources to correct it later.  Don’t hurry – research it – do it right.  Require your contractors to build to code.  Check their work.

Use the task oriented plan for your kitchen design.  The areas I looked at include: savory hot cooking, cold food prep, dessert and baking space, food service, leftover and garbage management, dish cleaning and storage, and pantry storage. Use a piece of poster board (or several as I needed) to block off one inch squares to equal one square foot. I used colored paper to make scale foot prints of appliances.  Note on the main board where current outlets and utilities are located. Don’t be limited by where the appliances are presently located.  The only areas that are not easily moved are drains and gas lines.  If those are on outside walls they can be moved some but that adds quite a bit of cost to the project.

Where do you want to be standing while cooking?  Savory hot cooking and baking have special requirements.  This is a good place to start planning the details for the remodel or new kitchen.  The cook top, cook top ventilation, ovens, lighting, electric outlets for the appliances and occasional-use hand held appliances, microwave and warming drawer work best near each other.  Savory food prep involves adding oils, spices, water, chopped items, canned or jarred items, draining hot pots, and moving hot vessels on and off of the heating elements. Those all require counter space that can handle heat and cold.  Storage should also be close at hand for pots and pans, hot mitts, and utensils including can opener, garlic press, slotted spoons, large spoons, turners, tasting spoons, and some measuring utensils.

The cook spends a great deal of time in this area.  That location should be considered relative to other spaces where social interaction will occur.  I like being able to see the large TV in the den, look outside and have a window pass-through for hot items on our patio.  Moving the cook top from the island facing the dining room to an outside wall where I could enlarge a tiny window to the patio and be in direct line of sight to the den, worked best for me.  Stand in the possible areas and look around.  Where do you want to spend your time?

Select the appliances you want to work with.  I have seen many kitchens outfitted with high end “suites” of appliances from one manufacturer.  Some fit the cooking style, while some pose real issues.  Note the things that do and do not work well in your current appliances. Then go play house in front of models at stores.  No, really. It is hard to compare features on paper.

Start with the stove and ovens.  Two ovens is a minimum for resale value of a kitchen. The cook top can be either gas or electric, for resale value.  Deciding between a full stove with ovens and cook top, or separate modular units is a matter of space and design.   The cost is very close which ever way you choose.    Many times separate units give better options for clustering storage closer to where it is needed.  My cook top is separate.  It was the configuration I wanted which I could not find in a full stove and oven appliance.  My utensil drawers and pull out storage for pots and pans are directly below the cook top.

Look at the controls on the cook top.  Often the knobs are on the front below the cook top. If the party gathers in the kitchen in your house, as folks lean against the counters and appliances, those knobs can be accidentally turned on.  At a house we rent every summer in the mountains I have had moments when shirts or hair were catching fire because the knob started the gas burner.  Think of children in the home.  Think of pets.  The positive side of knobs on the front is a larger cooking surface, however, knobs on top of the cook top may be safer for your lifestyle.

I wanted gas with several burner sizes and a very controllable wide range of heat.  One burner size does not fit all pots.  It may make a difference to you depending on how you cook.  Larger burners with high heat do well heating water for pasta or for soups and stews.  Smaller pots for sautes or sauces do not waste energy or burn handles on a medium burner.  A small warming burner is a luxury for chocolate melting, sweet or creamy sauces and keeping butter melted without browning.  Not all controls are flexible with regard to heat provided.  Some controls have fixed heating positions while others allow a range to be determined by the position of the knob. As well, some with the position controls do not really give a fine tuning to the heat provided.  Research what brands will give a level of control you want.

Decide how close to the front of the counter you want the front burners.  Many larger cook tops, often with front knobs, will have the front burners very close to or right at the edge of the counter top.   It is nice for seeing into the pot, not having to reach too far, and allowing room for more large burners.  I find my apron/shirt too close on those and I worry about children’s fingers and pet’s noses.  Lowering the level of the cook top by just an inch or so while moving it back from the front counter edge is one option.  A full stove unit will not give you a choice so comparing brands for burner style and placement is important.

To some cooks the ease of cleaning is a consideration. While I considered that detail when comparing brands, it only effected my choice regarding cook tops that offered integrated griddles, grills and deep fryers.  These features are terrific if they fit your cooking style.  They take up room and provide cleaning challenges.  I use those features rarely and chose to go with a more compact cook top so I could make room for a new pot sink beside the cook top. I do have a griddle and grill that cover two burners for the few times I want to use those features.

Pot filler versus pot sink.  A pot filler is a cold water tap that is located over the cook top to allow for pot filling.  I have not had a problem with carrying cold water in pots from the sink to the cook top, but carrying a boiling pot across to the main sink is a hassle.  The pot sink is a bar sized sink that perfectly fits a strainer with a cold water faucet that extends to fill pots too.  We had located the cook top on an outside wall so plumbing a drain and tapping into the cold water feed to the refrigerator was easily done.

Ventilation is a requirement for all cook tops.  Several critical factors must be researched to avoid wasting money on something that will never work properly.  I have seen gorgeous kitchens with beautiful ventilation units that do not work!  Yes, the units operate as manufactured, however, for the beauty of the design they are hung way too high from the cook top to be effective.  Read the instructions on the ventilation unit you are considering.  How far from the cooking surface must it be to ventilate properly?  That is also how far the lights on the unit will provide good coverage.  Most ventilation units need to be surprisingly low to work effectively.  The width and length of the ventilation unit needs to be the same size as the cooking surface to be effective.

A downdraft vent requires a wall placement.  Some have been installed in islands with a below flooring exhaust pipe. Strong air movers really are needed for those vents to function well.  grease build up in the bottom of exhaust pipe is a concern as well.  There is no good way to clean that.  There are downdraft vents placed in the center of the cook top itself which may not work as well overhead vents.  They seem to handle the burners next to them with average pot sizes, but they do not vent secondary burners or deep pots very well. The down drafts that do seem to to work well are those that rise from under the counter and are installed exactly next to the back edge of cook top.   Manufacturers offer different heights and widths.  When buying the cook top or stove buy the ventilation system that matches.  Downdraft vents do open up the view across the cook top and allow for a variety of lighting.

All of the units require a separate air mover from the fans themselves.  Some brands include the air movers in the design.  Air movers work only for a certain length of ventilation exhaust pipe before a larger unit or even a second air mover is required.  Planning where the cook top will be located requires planning the ventilation exhaust path.

The design then must respect the look and placement of the vent.  Some vents are lovely over an island cook top but know how far down and how wide the vent will have to be to decide if the block on the view is acceptable.  Make one of card board to give it a try before you buy.

Add to the plan where the hard wired boxes need to be placed to plug in or direct wire the cook top, ventilation and lights for this area.  A note about under-counter outlet placement: some gas cook tops (especially outdoor kitchen cook tops) may be fueled by propane rather than natural gas.  Propane is heavier than air and will collected at lower levels in the event of a leak.  Natural gas is about the same weight as air and can dissipate fairly easily.  Consult with experts before placing electric outlets near gas lines in cabinets.

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New Rustoleum Wood Stain Failed

I had the opportunity to make a brief case for my step-daughter to use to carry small bottles of her Do-Tera essential oils.  I had some purple heart on hand.  She and her husband are loyal Texas A&M aggies so I decided to stain the purple heart to the maroon side for her case.  The wood working was no sweat.  I planned a rabbeted edge on the two flat sides and a single board with mitered corners around for the sides. A fitted lip was routed for a nice secure seating of the closure.  Purple heart is very dense.  It was heavy enough that I took it down to 5/8 to work with.  It creates tiny splinters and will crack so going to 1/2 – leaving me with 1/4 edges minus a bit for the tolerances of opening and closing or glue ups was risky.  I had more splinters doing this case than I did doing my entire kitchen in curly maple.  The wood is so pretty it is well worth it.

I had not seen Rustoleum wood stains before.  There was a black cherry stain in that and I looked at the Minwax bombay mahogany.  On the tests the black cherry hit the right tone of maroon so I gave it a try.  The directions say to leave for a minute or two and not allow it to dry before wiping off.  I left it about 30 seconds and noticed that it could not be wiped off at that point.  I had to sand it down. When I just wiped it on the color was good.  It did not allow a lot of the wood grain to show through but the color was nice.  I did a second wipe the next day to even it all out.  Two days later I sprayed a coat of SPAR lacquer to seal it.  Twenty four hours later I sprayed a second coat.  Twenty four hours later it was still a bit tacky – odd but in this humidity in Houston that can happen even in the AC.  I waited another day and it felt dry.  I started putting the hardware on the case.  I noticed many scratches and found that I could scratch my finger nail through the stain to make a light purple streak.  I tried buffing it only to find that the entire finish was unstable and unacceptable.  I had to sand it down to the bare wood.  Stains generally soak into the wood and do not sit on the surface like a paint would, and like this stain did.  I reread the directions and it said to use polyurethane as a top coat.  I needed another small can so I bought a new one.  This time instead of having a red base to the black cherry as the first can did it had a deep purple base.  It was a different color than the first can. (Both from Lowes, both from the same batch.) It also went on the surface and did not stain the wood.  I sanded it back off, again.

I switched to Minwax red mahogany and it stained beautifully.  I took the next two days to to get two coats nicely settled in.  The wood grain was shining through but in the proper Aggie Maroon color I was going for.  I had purchased SPAR poly and did four complete coats over the next week.  Hardware went on and the case is lovely.  Still heavy but all of that sanding had to help, right?  It can handle bumps and scrapes and they will buff out easily.

So why SPAR, why lacquer, why poly?  Poly is very water proof and hard – excellent for flooring.  The problem is that UV rays of the sun cause it to break down and flake off.  If you have ever had a gorgeous hardwood front door age quickly and seem to break down it is because it was coated with Poly alone.  Lacquer does not break down sun light, but it is not as hard wearing.  It can be buffed up to a gorgeous shine and is preferred for fine furniture.  A SPAR rating added to either poly or lacquer gives the wood finish and stain the UV protection it needs and has an added water proofing as well as hardness.  SPAR coatings are used on wooden features on boats.  For any piece that will be in the sun, banged around and exposed to moisture a SPAR coating is the way to go

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Kitchen Design Series #2 Gathering the Palette

Colors and style are the most fun to pull together.  Consulting a designer is always an option.  Choosing finishing materials up front prevents waste and conflict later on.  What do you want a main feature of the kitchen design to be?  The back splashes, the counters, or cabinets, maybe your dishes, or cookware, or a particular style reflecting the rest of the home’s style.  Deciding that “main feature” for the design allows you to develop a color plan with a goal in mind.

Start with any appliances you intend to keep.  What are those color tones?  Most appliances available on the market fall into three basic color collections, black, white, and brushed stainless steel/aluminum.  Refrigerator fronts may be custom made, however it is more involved to find custom fronts for other appliances.  We had been planning our remodel for a number of years so when we could not put off replacing old appliances the new ones were chosen with an eye on coordinating with future appliances.  Real Estate agents often advise that matching appliances are far better in a resale showing.  We had a combination of black accents with the brushed metal look.  I found choices in completely brushed metal or completely black or a balance of the two.  I laid out photos in the kitchen near the appliances we were keeping to compare and that allowed me to make some good choices. The goal was to balance the metal and the black tastefully.  The black dishwasher we owned was balanced with a black trash compactor so it was not the only all black appliance in the room.  The black and metal refrigerator we owned was matched with the microwave/oven combo and large lower over by choosing black glass inserts with the brushed metal.  The old white microwave we used during the remodel was replaced.  The choice in a warming drawer was limited to brushed metal but blended in well. 

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As a wood worker, choosing my wood for cabinets was a process.  The big choice is whether to go light or dark for cabinets.  My husband prefers light colors over dark.  Light cabinets enlarge the space in many instances. Dark colors are more formal in appearance. I wanted a look and feel somewhere in the middle of casual and formal.  I wanted the “main feature” to be the wood and took a chance on a very figured (busy) curly maple.  Ask for, buy or rent samples of the cabinet finishes you like to display in your space over the course of several days to a week.  Seeing those in the different lighting over time will help in the decision.  

Finding a counter to coordinate with the maple was a huge challenge.  I did not want a solid color for the counter because any little thing out of place stands out making the kitchen look messy.  A figured counter can camouflage wayward drips or a few utensils out without that messy look.  If a bright clean slick look is what you want aim for the solid counter color choices.  Because of the figure in the wood I could not add a definite pattern, especially small dots, as many of the quartz counters offer.  I think quartz is one of the best materials for kitchen counters in terms of lasting performance.   The counters can produce a pop of color or blend away.  They cut the room in half vertically so choose carefully.   Samples help even though the actual stone may change from the show room to the stone yard.  Photos are important.  I found a granite with an organic look and strong pattern that did not clash with wood.  It has both black and metallic accents and tones of the wood.  Image   

 

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Our low 8 foot ceilings look higher because the counter blends well and minimizes the vertical visual cut off a prominent counter would present.  If you have huge ceiling heights go for a feature counter.

With those major choices out of the way the color palette will fall together easily.  I pulled tones from appliances, wood and granite to coordinate the back splashes and flooring.  

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Kitchen Design Series #1 planning – where to start

About 2 years ago my best friend Vickie agreed to help me remodel my outdated kitchen.  It took about 1 year of work spread out over two years.  Before we started, I spent at least 2 years designing and planning.  In this Kitchen Design series I will walk through what we learned along the way.  

The most frequent comment I have heard about the kitchen now that it is finished is, “I wouldn’t know where to start.”  Whether you are hiring a contractor or doing it yourself or a hybrid of those you must decide what you want in the design and why.  Most kitchen design books on the market start with the age old “triangle” design.  These were to be the points between the sink, refrigerator and cook top traditionally designed to be in a close triangle to each other.  That dates back to when Harriet cooked for Ozzie (not Osbourne) and the family, but was in the kitchen by herself all day.  If you have never heard of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, please pause here for a quick Google.

Today’s families are far more dynamic and everyone tends to be in and out of the kitchen for different purposes.  In deciding what to remodel begin with looking at what works and what doesn’t work for your space.  If you are building in a new space watch the dynamics of family and friends in the kitchen in your current space.  The triangle is now a 3D polygon!  For a kitchen design to pass the test of time two concepts are at the top of the list to plan for in detail: traffic flow and tasks.  

It is easier to use my own kitchen as an example, however, I would love to hear about your kitchen details in the comments.  Our home was lovingly built by a man who raised 6 boys with his wife.  It is set in the country just outside of Houston.  The design of the house, and especially the kitchen, served the task of cooking and serving lots of hungry kids.  We had 2 inlet spaces for 2 full refrigerators and 2 gas cook tops.  The main counter was a pass through under dish cabinets that opened to the casual dining area.  The pantry door was off of the dining area and the pantry was a good size but cut up by the second refrigerator space. It was built in 1980 with a 1970’s look.  The design and look were past their prime.  

In assessing the current needs for the kitchen I found that when I was cooking and my family was home we ran a circle around the large island which held one cook top.  My husband would head to the refrigerator for ice, back around to pour a drink, and back around to add water.  Prep space was limited because of the awkward position of cabinets hanging over the counter space.  I love to cook and found myself running in circles to the pantry and back.  One entrance to the kitchen was the den and the other was to the second casual dining area.  When I was cooking I was cut off from the den by the placement of the wall ovens.  There was a small pass through to the den for casual dining but it was deep and became the resting spot for junk.  Our back yard is about 2 acres and we have miniature horses.  One small window over the second cook top did not give us a good view.

The goals for my remodel design included:    Move beverages to a more convenient bar space, get rid of the stationary island, create a more formal dining area between the kitchen and the formal living area, better access to the pantry from the kitchen, create more usable prep and drawer spaces, open up the view from the kitchen to the den and to the back yard, improve traffic flow to allow more access from the den to the kitchen and back again and create activity centers in clusters around the kitchen.    No triangle here – just humming little hives of activities.  I began cutting out magazine photos, printing online photos and consulting current kitchen design books for the look and feel I thought would be right for this house.  This is not a Georgian estate, a Tuscan Villa, French chateau or farm house; it fits more of a modern Texas ranch estate so I looked towards natural stones and wood but a wanted a forward looking updated feel.  As the Kitchen blog goes forward I’ll show you how we got there. 

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Welcome to my new blog!

Rule one: be nice.  Rule two: be nice. (Get the drift?) Wood working is fun.  Let’s keep it that way.  Wood working is a very necessary industry for the US to develop more so.  Think global, buy local.  Furniture and cabinetry should be locally built to last as heirlooms and as not throw away cheaply built, imported junk.  Is there room fro some cheaply built pieces in a home?  I suppose.  Buy American made first though!  One of the first tips I have as a wood worker is to watch where your stock wood is coming from.  I built my kitchen cabinets with furniture grade (baltic birch) ply sold by Home Depot but coming from right here in Texas.  Your wood is marked as to its origin.  Vote with your dollars.  I also used Pacific Northwest Big Leaf Maple from Oregon.  I can confidently state that at 90% of the kitchen is from the USA, appliances included.   I do use exotics on small projects.  Many wood species are not grown in this country.  I watch for where it is coming from.  I do my best to avoid any rain forest wood stock.  Responsible forestry includes thinning and growth management.  I do my best to find wood from sources that use best management practices.  Ask where the source is and research them.  Vote with your dollars. Watch out for that ply from China – very thin laminate layers and orange glue that is a toxic mess. 

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