How I’m remodeling our 1980s kitchen as a first-timer

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This is my story as a newbie attempting to remodel a 1980s kitchen into a modern, functional 21st century kitchen. I’ve never renovated anything before. If you’re in the same boat, read on to learn about my journey. Hopefully, the gritty details will help you through a similar process.

SPECIAL REQUEST: Would it be a better reading experience if this colossal post were broken into multiple smaller posts? Let me know if packing everything into this 1 article is overwhelming. Email me at

A watercolor painting of a kitchenPin

All my life, I’ve lived in houses and apartments where the kitchen was already set up. The layout was designed by an architect and interior designer long ago. At best, I got to pick some appliances, like the color of my microwave or the number of slots in the toaster.

I never had to ask: “What is the optimal layout for a functional kitchen? What are the timeless color combinations so this kitchen will look good in 5, 10, even 20 years? What do I like?”

That’s why facing a kitchen remodel is intimidating. You get to choose anything you want as long as it fits in the confines of the structure and your budget.

Scratch that.

You could transform an entire living room into the kitchen. Or build an addition to expand your kitchen. The possibilities are endless.

Knowing the challenges of facing infinite possibilities, I decided the first step to tackling this renovation is to google for advice.

Step 1: Create a Kitchen Mission Statement

After reading a lot of advice on the Internet, I chanced on this thread “New to Kitchens? Read Me First!” from a user called Buehl on Houzz. It recommends defining a goal for the remodel. This sounds prudent as I need constraints to limit my choices.

The example of the Kitchen Mission Statement that Buehl links to gives you a few sample sentences.

But I wish there were a complete mission statement I could use as a template. So, here is my version with an overview of our goals in case you need an example to follow:


We’re remodeling our kitchen to accommodate our lifestyle. We cook every day, sometimes twice a day, so we want a functional kitchen that’s not just for show. Here are our values from most to least important:

  • Functionality: Can I cook in the kitchen? Is it laid out for maximum efficiency?
  • Low-maintenance: Do I have cabinets that need a lot of repairs? Do the countertops stain easily?
  • Comfort: Can I stand for a long time without hurting my back? Is there enough lighting so I can see what I’m doing?
  • Energy efficiency: Do I have old appliances that are inefficient? What’s the ROI on replacing them?
  • Longevity: Will the kitchen materials, colors, and design last for a long time? Or is this kitchen going to be dated in 5 years?
  • Storage: Do I have enough storage?
  • Eco-friendly: Is there a more sustainable option?
  • Resale value: Does this choice boost the resale value?
  • Food blogging: Is the space conducive to food blogging?

The kitchen should handle high usage and potentially attacks from future children without breaking down. We don’t have a fixed budget, but we’d like to get it done for about $15,000 (maybe I’m delusional), based on Home Advisor data showing a typical kitchen remodel costing $13,274 – $37,547.

The feeling

We want our kitchen to feel clean, minimalist, calm, tranquil, and inviting. We want a light and bright white kitchen that is classic and airy. We want it to be casual with some elegant upgrades (quartz countertop?), mostly simple (plain white cabinets). If we can also make it feel whimsical and sophisticated, then that’s a plus.


Cabinets: We want white cabinets because they are classic and brighten up the kitchen. I learned that drawers are more functional than doors (but the cost more). We considered painting our current cabinets white but it seems they’re made from particle board and are breaking apart.

Pantry: Modern kitchens contain pantries. If we can slot in a pull-out pantry shelving unit, that would be ideal. Perhaps the only place the pantry can go is next to the fridge.

Countertop: The ideal countertop will be low maintenance, white with some veining for interest. I want it to provide a clean workspace and a ready surface for taking food photos. This means clean lines and colors, nothing too colorful or patterned that it would distract from the food.

Backsplash: I really like these small hexagonal Carrara tiles with more white than grey, using white grout. More research is needed to determine whether Carrara tiles would present maintenance problems. Is Carrara marble heat resistant? I’m OK with sealing the marble on the backsplash but will need to investigate oil splatter stains.

Fridge: We are keeping the current fridge for cost savings reasons. But we would like to move it farther from the right wall so the door doesn’t continue to scratch the wall and prevent the fridge from fully opening.

Sink: We would like to replace the current double-bowl sink, which has chips, with a stainless steel single basin sink. We like the spaciousness of a single bowl and that it can fit big pots, pans, and baking sheets.

Faucet: I would like a stronger spray head to remove food from plates before putting into the dishwasher. I will consider getting one that is touch activated so we don’t have to touch the mixer when our hands are dirty.

Dishwasher: We will keep the existing Bosch dishwasher. It has great capacity and I love how quiet it is.

Range: We would look into replacing the white electric range with a cooktop and oven. Ideally, I would like an induction range because it’s modern technology with safety (I don’t have to keep worrying about whether I forgot to turn off the cooktop). The current version is from the 1980s and is poorly insulated so it heats up the whole kitchen when the oven is turned on.

Range hood: The ideal range hood would have enough CFMs to meaningfully remove indoor air pollution while cooking.

Prep sink: We are considering a prep sink in the baking center if adding plumbing is not a huge cost or hassle.

Baking center: I want to transform the awkward pony island into a baking center that is designed for food photography. I would like to replace the pink counters with a Carrara marble countertop because the blue-grey and white background makes a fantastic surface for food photography. It also is a great surface for baking, candy making, and chocolate making.

Lighting: We would like recessed lights for general lighting to brighten the space. It would be ideal to have task lighting under the cabinets, over the sink, over the bench, and the baking center to make it easier to see what we’re doing. 

Soffit: We need to investigate what is behind the soffits and the cost of removing them. Removing them will add more ceiling height and give us a more spacious kitchen.

Shelves: Open shelving throughout the kitchen would offer more storage space, a place to display knick knacks, and a solution to stock cabinet sizes.

Now that we have a Mission Statement, I discover the next step, according to Buehl, are to ask for Layout Help. (Sounds about right, I need help with layout because I’m clueless about the triangle workspace and whether my kitchen can fit a pantry.)

As I begin reading about layouts, I discover the next step is to measure the kitchen and draw a 2D layout floor plan. This will allow me to understand dimensions, estimate costs (easier once I know the square footage and number of cabinets), and post for layout help on Houzz.

Step 2: Measure and 2D Floor Plan

I begin my measurement process by reading these useful sources:

A few minutes into drawing my 2D layout, I realize that taking measurements is harder than it sounds.

I try different types of software (IKEA Kitchen Planner, SketchUp, HomeStyler, Blophome, and RoomSketcher) thinking they will help me draw this layout. Sadly, they’re not magical.

The software programs are all hard to use because I’m not used to working in 3D planes or the user interface is designed to set up furniture and home decor, not for drawing 2D plans.

When I switch to drawing by hand using my iPad, I finally make progress. If you’re drawing a layout, I recommend using pencil, paper, and a ruler. These tools are the easiest and fastest way to measure (they’re what the IKEA measurer uses too).

NOTE: Tape measures don’t stay put so I asked Alex to hold one end while I pulled the otheand straight. Eventually, I started using painter’s tape to secure one end to the wall while I measured the other end. Keep reading to learn how the professionals solve this problem.

2D layout of my kitchen floor planPin
The best 2D layout floor plan I could draw

A few days later, I decide to pay $79 for the IKEA measurement service because I want a second opinion on measuring the kitchen.

Jennifer from Traemand spent 90 minutes measuring my kitchen. I asked for her professional tips, and these are the steps she shared:

  1. Decide where the limits of the kitchen are. Do a hand drawing with a pencil and ruler of the general layout of the space (draw in the walls).
  2. Measure the limitations and constraints in the space, e.g. windows, soffits, beams. Note down any spaces where cabinets cannot go.
  3. Measure the space of the existing appliances if you don’t plan to move them, e.g. fridge and dishwasher.
  4. Measure all the spaces where you know you want to put in something, like cabinets or an island.

Jennifer taught me 2 interesting things:

  • She uses a laser distance measure. “Tape measures can be frustrating,” she said.
  • She focused on measuring constraints, not the existing features in the kitchen. This makes sense because a kitchen designer could reimagine the space entirely. The only thing we’re not moving are the walls, beams, and columns.
Professionally drawn 2D layout of my kitchen floor planPin
The drawing I received from the IKEA kitchen measurement service. I’m so glad I don’t have to input these measurements into the IKEA kitchen planner because that software is hard to use.

After watching the professionals measure and giving it a go, here are my tips for how to measure your kitchen:

  • Don’t do it while hungry because it’s a slow and frustrating process
  • Set your expectations (maybe it takes you longer than 2 hours) and grab a buddy to help hold the tape measure.
  • Measure the distance between walls at countertop height because many walls are not straight or perfectly perpendicular to the floor.
  • Don’t round the numbers. If the measurement is “34 ¾ inches”, don’t round it to “35 inches”.
  • Measure the windows and doors to the outer edges, including the trim in the measurements.
  • Draw the 2D layout to get a bird’s eye view of the space. Then draw the elevation diagrams (the view if you’re looking at the fridge, not the top-down view).
  • Mark where the water, gas, and electricity lines are, including the exhaust vent and electrical wall plugs.
  • The drawings don’t need to be perfect. Repeat, no need for perfection.

Now that I have kitchen measurements, the next step is to plan a kitchen design.

I’m aware that my design choices will have the biggest impact on my budget and satisfaction with the outcome. The design also begs the question of whether I’m going to go with custom or mass-produced, off-the-shelf products.

So, the next step before getting a kitchen design is to figure out whether we’re going with an IKEA kitchen or not. And why.

Step 3: Should we get an IKEA kitchen?

Since countertops and kitchen cabinets are two of the main — and most expensive — features of a kitchen, it’s prudent to spend time carefully weighing the myriad of options.

I asked my friends and family how much they spent remodeling their kitchens. I heard a range of quotes from $7,000 for ready-made Shaker-style plywood cabinets to over $50,000 for custom-made, solid-wood cabinets.

Alex and I continually remind ourselves that we’re not looking for the cheapest option, we’re looking for the best value.

That said, even if $50,000 is the best value, it’s unaffordable to me.

Feeling alarmed, I desperately googled, “how to find good quality cheap cabinets”. I landed on many forums, especially on Houzz, where people were recommending the IKEA option to DIYers.


Don’t they make low-durability, particle-board furniture?

I started googling, “IKEA cabinets quality” expecting to find sob stories about the cabinet doors melting from a drop of water soaking into the particle-board panels.

Yet, none of my fears were confirmed.

There are plenty of forum threads with controversial debates, such as this one titled “Am I crazy for considering ikea cabinet???” on Houzz where a few contractors question the durability and quality of IKEA kitchen cabinets. But, most of the respondents were supportive and even recommended IKEA as the go-to choice for customizations at a fair price.

How the IKEA kitchen cabinet system works

The current IKEA kitchen cabinet system is called SEKTION. Upon first glance, it seems complex, especially considering the IKEA products have hard-to-pronounce names.

Based on my research, when I think about IKEA’s current cabinet system, I like to break it down into 4 main components:

  • The cabinet frames: Some people lovingly refer to the structure of the cabinet boxes as “skeletons”.
  • The cabinet doors and drawers: IKEA supplies many different colors, styles, and materials. Homeowners can also buy doors that fit the cabinet frames from a collection of manufacturers that specialize in making customizable doors for IKEA cabinets. This niche industry explodes the number of options for homeowners who don’t like the IKEA cabinet door options, prefer solid wood doors, and/or want a higher-end custom design with a unique color.
  • The hardware: While door handles and drawer pulls appear to be small details, they add a finishing touch that can alter the appearance of your cabinets and kitchen. Pick a sleek stainless steel handle, and you’ll have a modern appearance. Pick a high-contrast, ornate drawer pull in black and it’ll pop against white cabinet doors. IKEA has dozens of hardware options. Many homeowners write posts that rave about the hinges, which make a difference to the functionality of the cabinets. Having soft-close hinges prevents your doors from slamming shut.
  • The organizers: One of the most appealing aspects of the SEKTION system is the organizers you can purchase to customize the drawers and cabinet space. There are many drawer dividers, racks, shelves, and hidden cabinet bins to hide your trash cans. Plus, you can choose integrated cabinet lighting to illuminate inside drawers and cabinets as well as underneath wall cabinets for task lighting.
  • The accessories: These include the cabinet door handles, soft-close door hinges, toe kicks, panel fillers, etc. Many of these accessories are optional. For example, I could buy my hardware from another vendor if I don’t like the styles IKEA offers. However, it seems that the hardware is high quality and offered at a good price.

NOTE: Most of the SEKTION system uses medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Some people believe MDF is inferior to plywood because it’s ground-up wood fibers that are stuck together with a binder (basically a glue) and shaped into panels under high pressure and heat. Others say that IKEA has high-quality MDF and HDF (high-density) panels that are superior to low-quality plywood cabinets because they are more stable in fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels. Check out these pros and cons of MDF.

Pros and cons of the IKEA SEKTION system

With the caveat of never having installed the IKEA cabinets in my kitchen, I’ve learned the following pros and cons about the kitchen cabinets from my extensive research.


  • Affordable price and within our budget
  • Possible to DIY the installation
  • Traemand is the go-to installer so minimal work is required to find installation services
  • Good value. It would cost much more to get all the customizations with higher-end cabinet brands.
  • Modern, attractive designs and products
  • Many options, including glass-front cabinet doors, different colors, and even a natural ash wood pick if using the TORHAMN door
  • Many DIY videos and blog posts to help with installation instructions
  • Free kitchen design services
  • Periodic kitchen sale events (when dealing with thousands of dollars, even 10-20% discounts amount to a decent amount of money)


  • Not solid wood (or plywood for people who want about plywood cabinets)
  • Limited sizes, and therefore fit best in standard kitchen sizes (otherwise a lot of filler panels are necessary for gaps)
  • The IKEA kitchen planning software sucks
  • Limited door options (yes there are plenty of styles, but some people still can’t find a door style and color they like)
  • Quickly become expensive once you start getting custom doors, expensive installation, etc.
  • Apparently poor customer service and nobody to easily talk to (again I haven’t purchased yet so these are unsubstantiated claims from reading forum posts)
  • Don’t follow traditional cabinet systems so a randomly chosen carpenter or cabinet installer may do a poor job with the installation

After obsessively reading dozens of posts on Houzz, Reddit, the Kitchn, interior design blogs, and even an article on the NYTimes’ Wirecutter about IKEA kitchen cabinets, I came to the following conclusions:

  • Are IKEA cabinets the best quality in the marketplace? No. I could pay $100,000 and probably get higher quality.
  • Are IKEA cabinets the best quality for the price range I’m looking at? In the under $10,000 budget I’m working with, yes, probably with a few exceptions.
  • Is water damage a concern?

Step 4: Set up IKEA kitchen design appointments

After getting the kitchen measured and tentatively deciding to go with IKEA cabinets, it’s time to make an appointment for a free kitchen design.

TIP: You can make kitchen appointments in the US using this link.

Jennifer, who measured my kitchen, offered tips for making appointments.

  • Online design appointments happen with the Traemand design team whereas the in-store appointments are with IKEA employees.
  • The online design appointments are easier to book. It’s harder to score an in-store appointment. Jennifer recommended that if I’m in a hurry, I should try the online design appointment first.
  • If I don’t see any in-store appointments available, keep checking back. They release a certain number of slots each week, and homeowners are snapping them up quickly.

NOTE: During COVID-19, all kitchen design appointments (including in-store) are happening virtually. Because a lot of people are fixing up their homes, the earliest appointment I could get was 6 weeks out. So you’ll want to book an appointment as soon as possible.

I was able to make an online design appointment the first time I visited IKEA’s kitchen appointment page (even though it was 6 weeks in the future). After my first appointment, I needed another appointment to finish my initial design. I wanted to try an in-store kitchen appointment this second time.

It took about 2 weeks of checking back every 2-3 days before I finally got an in-store appointment. At the end of my IKEA “in-store” kitchen appointment (our meeting was virtual), the designer gave me a golden tip. She mentioned that IKEA tends to release a small number of appointments each week. The best time to check the website was Sunday evening and Monday morning. (I’m still testing this so it’s to be confirmed whether this is the optimal time for check for “in-store” appointments.)

Design questionnaire

After I made the appointment, Traemand sent me an automated email to confirm the time and included a portal to fill out a questionnaire.

The questionnaire asked simple questions like what’s the layout of my kitchen (L-shape, galley, island, etc.). It gave me a quick overview of the different door styles, colors, and hardware choices, and asked me to pick which ones I wanted. Ditto with appliances.

NOTE: If you didn’t using the IKEA/Traemand kitchen measurement service, you’ll need to upload your measurement documents in preparation for the design.

This questionnaire was helpful because it pointed out things I never considered, such as toe kicks, and offered a quick introduction to the choices I would need to make.

I had no idea what to expect for my first appointment. But I felt confident that my kitchen design was coming together.

Step 5: Get my first IKEA kitchen design

… and then my second, third, and fourth…

Here’s what I learned about how the IKEA kitchen design process works. Then we can talk about how my appointments went.

  • The process occurred virtually with the designer sharing his/her screen while I was dialed into a conference call.
  • It’s much easier for the designer to control the software than for me to do it.
  • My first appointment was an introduction to the SEKTION line. I learned the size options, how the cabinets fit together, and what types of base cabinets were available (corner cabinet, trash-pull-out cabinet, sink cabinet, etc.). I had a half-completed design after my first appointment.
  • While the designers aren’t usually professional interior designers with lengthy experience designing kitchens, they know how to use the SEKTION line. This means they’re not prepared to answer complex questions about how to design the kitchen island, moving walls, or re-imagining a new design. They expect you to know approximately what you want and then they will build out your vision, using the standard cabinets available to them. It also means they don’t have advice or opinions about “hacking” IKEA cabinets (i.e. cutting them down to size or customizing them). You’ll need a different designer to discuss this level of customization, such as independent IKEA kitchen designers or using a custom door manufacturer.
  • While you don’t have to get your appliances through IKEA, it’s nice to add them to the plan to help visualize. Because my design happened around the time when the previous line of appliances is being discontinued and the new line isn’t set up in the planning software yet, I couldn’t add any appliances to complete the look.

NOTE: I didn’t use any third-party kitchen designers, such as Virginia Kitchens or Inspired Kitchen Design, so I cannot comment on how effective they are. However, I heavily browsed their websites to see their clients’ finished kitchen photos, which offered great inspiration. I recommend reading the case studies on Inspired Kitchen Design for an idea of what it takes to DIY the install if you’re interested in hanging the cabinets yourself.

My kitchen design experience

As of December 17, 2020, I’ve had 4 different IKEA kitchen planner appointments. It sounds excessive but each one served a purpose.

The first appointment was an overview of all the different cabinet options. Because we didn’t know what we’re looking for, Steve focused the appointment on how to use the planner software and introduced me to all the options. We discussed:

  • Fillers
  • Symmetry 
  • What a toekick is and the different sizes of drawers and doors
  • Importance of placing the big items first and worrying about the number of drawers or doors later
  • Pick a placeholder drawer and door style for now. Then I can replace them all at once later.

He confirmed we would need to get rid of the soffits if we want the 40-inch tall wall cabinets. He also gave me a solution to my fridge door bumping into the wall (either move the fridge over by 1 inch or pull it outwards by 1 inch).

The second appointment allowed me to finish off the initial design. This appointment was with an IKEA kitchen planner and not with Traemand. Kaitlyn was fantastic. She has done many designs in the past, and her knowledge and experience showed. She offered a different perspective from Steve and found a mistake where one of my doors didn’t have enough clearance to open because the handle from the dishwasher would block it. I had a great experience planning with her because she has built an IKEA kitchen before so she understands the design process from an installer’s perspective.

The third appointment was to figure out the kitchen pantry. I wasn’t sure how to fit a pantry into a narrow space next to the fridge. I had exactly 36 inches to use. My third appointment was with a Traemand designer, Susan. She ended up removing the 36-inch pantry (which was made up of 2 18-inch pantries side-by-side) and replacing it with a 30-inch pantry (made up of 2 15-inch pantries side-by-side). The rationale was that I didn’t have enough space to fit a 36-inch pantry once we factored in the fridge, fillers, and clearance required for handles (I needed about 2-3 inches of clearance).

I was pretty bummed with this result because a 30-inch pantry meant I would lose 6 inches of space. It also meant I’d end up with 3-4 inches of fillers, which seems like a big gap to me. After shopping around for feedback, I decided this pantry wouldn’t do. So another appointment had to happen.

My fourth appointment was with another Traemand designer. I hoped this designer would give me a better solution to the pantry. She didn’t. Instead, she recommended I not void a corner and put in a 21-inch corner base cabinet instead so I could use the extra space. Unfortunately, the call quality was so bad (I couldn’t understand every third word she said) that I had to call it quits after 30 minutes.

I like most of my design except for the pantry. My current plan is to figure out how to fit the pantry. I keep digging around the Internet for IKEA hacks to see if I can cut down the 18-inch pantry by 1 inch on either side. I started asking for advice from contractors that specialize in installing IKEA cabinets. I looked into other cabinet companies that manufacture 33-inch pantries (the door styles wouldn’t match). I may get desperate enough to start asking carpenters for advice.

This kitchen remodel process is addictive. I’m surprised to discover I enjoy the problem solving. It’s like a detailed puzzle with many dependent parts to mull over.

Step 6: Get feedback from friends & family

After each kitchen design appointment, I shopped my design around to ask friends and family for feedback. So far, I’ve gotten great ideas about the kitchen island and glass doors.

My dad recommended removing the wall cabinets lodged in the corner in favor of open shelving because it would be hard to reach items in the corner.

He’s also the one who insists on a pantry because he says every modern kitchen must have a pantry to be functional. So, we’re working very hard to find a viable solution to the pantry design. Since he’s a general contractor and had a horrible story about not being able to close a deal because there was no pantry in the kitchen, we’ve decided to trust him on the pantry and find a way to make it happen.

I recommend you shop your design around people you trust to give you an honest opinion. They’ll see mistakes or optimizations you won’t have noticed. But pick someone who has redone a kitchen or two (or at least lived somewhere with a kitchen). College students living in dorm rooms may not offer much valuable advice (unless they’re studying interior design).

Step 7: Get competing cabinet quotes

The couple sitting to my right picked glass doors. I couldn’t help eavesdropping on their design session because they talked loudly and one of them spoke with an accent that reminded me of my friend’s Kiwi Fijian Indian, a rare combination to hear in Denver that hit me with homesickness.

Once they completed their plan, the IKEA kitchen designer gave them a price list. The list includes the build of materials, which are all the parts they need to build their kitchen cabinets.

“The design comes out to just over $15,000,” the designer said.

“Really? Why does it cost more than the online quote for RTA cabinets we got?”

“Well, IKEA uses high-quality materials. You get high-end features like soft-close hinges. Your kitchen is pretty big with a lot of upgrades.”

“The online quote looks the same as what you designed for us using IKEA cabinets,” one of them replied. 

“You should double check it really contains the same upgrades.”

“Can you match their price?”

“Sorry, we don’t do that. You get to come in and see all our products. We build a custom plan for your kitchen. You don’t get to touch and try the products from your online cabinet company.” “Thanks for your time. I feel bad you spent over an hour helping us create the design. But we’re going to go with the RTA cabinets.”

They pushed back the modern plastic chairs. They walked towards the exit sign with their printed plans in hand.

Before attending our cabinet design meeting, I heard the abbreviation “RTA” from my friend and real estate agent. She installed RTA cabinets in her house and told me they’re an affordable option and DIY-friendly. Convinced I would go with an IKEA kitchen, I paid no attention at the time.

After eavesdropping, I browsed numerous forums to learn about RTA cabinetry and how they stack up against IKEA cabinets. Doubts emerged. Once I knew the price of an IKEA kitchen from our design appointment, I couldn’t help myself. As a home renovation maximizer, I had to explore the world of RTA before I committed to IKEA in case there was a better product I had no idea about. 

What are RTA cabinets?

“RTA” stands for ready-to-assemble cabinets. RTA companies ship cabinetry to your house flat packed, similar to IKEA cabinets. Like ready-to-wear clothes, they come in standard sizes and forms. Possible to mass manufacture, RTA cabinets are much more affordable than custom cabinets. But they don’t perfectly fit your kitchen’s dimensions. Like IKEA’s cabinetry system, you’ll need fillers, cover panels, and creative solutions for odd gaps. Another major difference is that RTA cabinets hang using the traditional method of cabinet installation that carpenters are used to.

In contrast, IKEA’s rail system hangs using its special rail system. The advantage of installing traditional cabinets is that carpenters and contractors are used to this system. You’ll know how to install them if you’ve previously installed traditional cabinets. The disadvantage is they often require 2 people to install, and because they must be level, you end up shimming a lot if your walls—like most walls—aren’t plumb.

TIP: If you’ve never installed cabinets before, you may find the IKEA system easier to learn, especially if you’re DIY installing without a helper (check out this video on how to DIY install IKEA cabinets).

RTA versus IKEA cabinets

A few weeks after our IKEA design appointment, I browsed Craigslist looking for leftover hardwood floor planks. That’s how I found our contractor to install the tile in our entryway and our hardwood floors. I also saw an ad for RTA cabinets.

With a mind of their own, my fingers typed an email to the RTA cabinet company. They sent me a quote the same day using the floor plan and the build of materials list from IKEA. The RTA quote came back cheaper than IKEA’s. The quote included drawers with dove-tail joints and Shaker-style plywood door fronts. Plywood doors seem like an upgrade compared to the MDF (medium-density fiberboard) door styles from IKEA.

“Shake style,” I thought, “my kitchen could look like everybody else’s. And plywood must be better quality, right?”

The designer seduced me with a 3D rendering of what our kitchen would look like using their cabinets. In her visualization, the window in front of the sink had a view of a pergola while the window next to the microwave showed a manicured lawn with a willow tree and vivacious shrubs. The rendering even added details like white lilies in a vase and accent lighting casting a warm glow on the kitchen island and cabinets.

The 3D pictures depicted a dreamy white kitchen. It looked functional, laid-out well, and seductive compared to IKEA’s clunky rendering.

The temptation to get a more affordable and attractive product snaked through me. So what, it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, they don’t disclose the country of origin, and a lot of online reviews complain about small defects and shipping damage?

I dug into the benefits of plywood versus MDF. Most European cabinets use MDF or high-density fiberboards (HDF) because it’s more environmentally friendly than using plywood. Like engineered hardwood flooring, MDF cabinets can be more resistant to water. Whenever I prepare breakfast or dinner, I can count on spills, drips, and splashes. Water damage is one of the most common reasons cabinets get damaged. As long as MDF is sealed with a water-resistant laminate veneer, as most modern cabinets using MDF as the core have, they stand up well to the moisture hanging around a kitchen.

NOTE: MDF cabinets are different from particle-board cabinets which swell when water hits them. I hated the time we had particle board cabinets in our kitchen. They started getting damaged after 3 years, swelling beyond repair and continuing to deteriorate.

MDF cabinets have a modern look because the manufacturing process of pushing wood fibers together under immense pressure gives MDF a flat and smooth look. That’s why MDF is the material of choice in modern cabinetry that has a minimalist flat panel.

Plywood contains layers of wood laminated together to create a sheet of wood. Plywood is excellent for making furniture, such as bookshelves. But it’s more likely to warp and deform in the presence of water. If you want cherry or walnut wood cabinets, unless you are buying high-end custom cabinet doors using solid wood, your cabinet faces are likely plywood.

The way you tell the difference between plywood and MDF is that plywood still has a wood grain on its face whereas MDF is smooth.

NOTE: MDF and plywood are both used in high-end cabinet doors. The most expensive European cabinet manufacturers use MDF for the minimalist style that’s in vogue. Although MDF is highly processed, cabinet manufacturers still use it for high-quality cabinetry.

Four quotes shuffled into my email inbox. Two were over $1,000 higher than IKEA’s price. Two were almost $1,500 lower. Most of the RTA estimates used cabinet shelves rather than drawers. 

In the end, we went with IKEA for several reasons:

  1. We read that they were willing to replace a whole kitchen’s cabinets that showed damage when the homeowners kept the original receipt.
  2. Alex prefers the modern aesthetic of IKEA. He didn’t want Shaker-style or raised-panel cabinet doors. Even though they’re the most commonplace in American kitchens, he thinks they look too traditional.
  3. We wanted drawers for all of the lower cabinets, not shelves. Drawers are friendly for my back as I don’t need to bend over as much to get things from the lower cabinets. You can also pack in more items in a drawer because it’s easier to see and find things.

In the next post in this series, I’m covering the correct order for designing and installing a kitchen. Learn how to avoid design limbo where indecision leads to never placing an order. 

To be continued. This is an ongoing post as I write about this remodel project in real time (excuse the scruffy writing). Tune into the next section as I discuss Step 8: Learn the correct order for designing and installing a kitchen. Because it’s expensive to do things out of sequence.

If you’d like a notification to check in when I’ve published the next section, subscribe to email updates by filling out the form below. I also published off-the-cuff email updates as I learn something new or hit a roadblock. Sign up to get this impromptu material, which won’t end up in this post.

    READ NEXT: How to Cook and Organize Your Kitchen to Reduce and Prevent Back Pain

    Anna looking down chopping vegetables
    About Anna Rider

    Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

    3 thoughts on “How I’m remodeling our 1980s kitchen as a first-timer”

    1. If you aren’t set on Ikea cabinets already, you might look at RTA cabinets (ready to assemble). I suspect you could find good quality budget options. We have been living with a set of JSI brand RTA cabinets for the last 7 years and are happy with them.

    2. Are you done already with the kitchen?
      If not or for others looking here: IKEA is the way to go, if you want a good kitchen for a budget price and if you or your friends are decent in DIY stuff.
      The cabinets and hardware are way better than anything from normal kitchen manufacturers. Real wood or “solid” construction is way overrated.
      IKEA kitchens last a long time, you can get all lower cabinets with drawers which is important. Filling the last inch with a cabinet space is also overrated. I just had to look in my kitchen, my IKEA pantry is 24 inches wide and has plenty of usable space. The bottom part has 2 drawers and the top part has two internal drawers.

      I can’t imagine that you will find any other cabinet maker who can get you the same functionality than IKEA. Of course there are also better top end solutions possible but that is more in the $30-50,000+ range.

      If you have some friends (one would be enough) who are DIY inclined, go with IKEA. You will get the best Kitchen for your budget.

    3. Hi Anna,

      I’ll be interested in hearing about your cabinet quotes and about whether you considered unassembled or unpainted cabinets to help stay in budget. Thanks for the guide!


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