Cabinet Details to Note when Designing a Period-Style Kitchen

Proper proportions. This Shaker classic is one of the best examples of how frame components can influence the character of a cabinet. While the board between the doors does not exactly qualify as a face frame stile, that is one of its functions. Contrast its extreme width with the single-board thickness of the rails between the drawers. (Private collection, Paul Rocheleau)

The following is excerpted from “Kitchen Think: A guide to design and construction, from refurbishing to renovation,” by Nancy R. Hiller.

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Unlike most kitchen design books, “Kitchen Think” is a woodworker’s guide to designing and furnishing the kitchen, from a down-to-the-studs renovation to refacing existing cabinets. And she shows you how it can be done without spending a fortune or adding significantly to your local landfill.

Yes, there are hundreds of pretty full-color photos of well-designed kitchens, which are organized into 24 case studies throughout the book. They range from the sculptural (kitchens by Johnny Grey and Wharton Esherick) to kitchens of a more recognizable form.

But there’s also a heavy dose of practical instruction: how to build cabinets efficiently, how to make a basic kitchen island, how to build a wall-hung plate rack. Plus butt-saving advice that comes only from experience – like how to maximize space in inside corners, how to scribe cabinets and countertops into odd spaces and how to make sure you’ve left ample space for hardware.

All of this is built on a foundation of research into kitchens from the past. Hiller’s historical perspective on design might just change your mind about what makes a good kitchen.

  1. Widths of door stiles & rails
    Bottom rails are almost always wider than top rails on old cabinet and furniture doors. Sometimes stiles are the same width as the top rail (before material is removed for fitting the doors), sometimes not – and sometimes they are dramatically different.
  1. Dimensions of face frame stiles and rails (in addition to where they appear)
    For example, a true period look for cabinets predating the widespread use of mechanical drawer slides requires intermediate drawer rails. Even if you plan to mount your drawers on full-extension slides, you should incorporate rails between them to evoke the look of those that once supported web frames.
Style is cyclical. The pulls on these metal cabinets found in a garage inspired those Lynette Breton made for her mid-century style kitchen. She made the concave handle detail with a router with a shop-made jig, using a rub collar and core box bit. Before using the router, she bored out the center on the drill press to give the bit a place to plunge into. The core box bit removed the remainder of the waste. The process was more nerve-racking than it might have been because she did this routing after painting the cabinets. The pulls in the center are Bakelite with chrome from Vintage Hardware in Port Townsend, Wash.
( (Margaret Stevens Becksvoort
  1. Hardware
    What kind of hinges were used, and how were they attached? If the doors were hung on butt hinges, were they mortised into the door and face frame, or only into the door? What is the length of the hinge? How wide are the leaves? Are the pins removable or fixed, and do they have finials? What is the finish?
  1. Hardware position
    Note the distance of the top and bottom (and center, if applicable) hinges from the ends of the door. Note the position of drawer pulls, doorknobs or latches; door hardware was commonly installed approximately halfway or two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up on base cabinet doors and similarly spaced in the opposite direction for upper doors. They were not usually located in the upper or lower corner, as is typical of cabinet doors today.
Set correctly. When we recreated the pantry in Lauri Hafvenstein’s 1917 house, I followed the original pattern Lauri had seen in a neighbor’s kitchen, with inset doors and half-inset drawer faces. (Lauri Hafvenstein)
  1. Are doors and drawers inset, overlay or half inset?
    Drawer faces were sometimes half inset even though the doors in the same set of cabinets were fully inset.
  1. Moulding profiles
    It should go without saying that moulding profiles are important. They can vary enormously and are one of the most distinctive and delightful details in a period kitchen. If you cannot replicate a profile yourself, you can usually have it done in the species of your choice by a millwork shop willing to custom-grind knives. Just be sure you order extra, as there will usually be a hefty set-up charge along with the grinding fee, and different batches can have dimensional variations invisible to the eye but great enough to cause headaches during installation.
  1. Edge treatment of half inset drawer faces
    These may be eased, quarter-round, beveled or moulded.
Graduated. Notice the proportions of door elements in this elevation of a pantry “dresser” from an 1899 carpenter’s guide. (A gift to the author from Charles Bickford)
  1. Proportions of graduated drawers
    Along with the proportions of face frames and door components, one of the least-noticed and most critical aspects of historic kitchens is the proportions of drawer faces. Many cabinetmakers make the mistake of building all the drawer faces in a stack to the same size. Not only does this look terrible, because when viewed from above (i.e., from normal standing height), the bottom drawer will inevitably look smaller than the rest, and so, out of scale. It’s also not how drawers were traditionally sized. You can make as many adverse comparisons as you like between 19th-century cabinetmakers and the furniture made by those who worked in the golden zone of northeastern American states during the late 18th century, but even oft-maligned Victorians worked with a tradition grounded in classical proportions. This was one of the first and most important lessons I learned from Roy Griffiths in 1980.
Toe kicks. Flush toe kicks were an option in 1927, and still are today. (1927 Universal millwork catalog)
  1. Toe kicks
    Are they flush (i.e., does the bottom rail of the face frame go all the way to the floor) or recessed? If the toe kick is partially recessed – i.e., if the face frame stiles extend down to the floor with inset toe kicks between them – note the rhythm of this variation. In some cases the stiles are full-length only at the end of each cabinet run, with the kick recessed everywhere else. In others, the stiles may run down to the floor on each cabinet.


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