In the kitchen (by choice)


Post-demo: a blank slate

A craftsman whose work I have long admired recently mentioned that he’d noticed lots of kitchens in my Instagram feed and asked whether I enjoy the work or just do it to pay the bills.

“A friend in advertising gave me this advice,” he continued. “’Only show what you want to sell,’ so I have no kitchen photos, and slowly transitioned entirely into furniture.”

My answer to his question: I do enjoy building kitchens—in fact, I love it—and I do it to pay the bills.  It’s because I have bills to pay that I’ve cultivated the ability to make my work lovable.

I am one of those people who thrive on necessity. Were I independently wealthy, I would likely vacillate between paralyzing depression and the kind of perfectionism that prevents some of us from completing anything. Like the strictest teachers, necessity is my ally as well as my taskmaster.


This corner is nearly done. This 16″-deep cabinet will stand across from the fridge, so it will hold the kinds of things used for storing food (storage containers, food bags, wrapping materials) and function as a tea and coffee making area, with a drawer for boxes of tea, coffee filters, etc. The marble counter will have a tiled backsplash and integral lighting. The shelf above will house the microwave (we discussed whether it should be out or behind doors; given the way this family uses the kitchen, the decision was to leave it in the open, as this corner is not visible from the dining room). The cabinet is still waiting for trim at the ceiling, door and drawer pulls, and paint.

“I hated working outside the shop,” the long-admired craftsman added by way of elaboration. “Invariably there was always a tool I’d forgotten, and I detested working on my knees. Also dealing with crooked walls, sloping floors, and supervising customers.”

My knees and I can relate to all of this (especially at my own age of 59, when I am receiving unsolicited mail from purveyors of hearing aids).

Working on a jobsite takes you into a realm where you are not in charge. It’s like captaining a sailboat on the Great Lakes. You have to roll with what comes, whether that means scribing cabinets to a madly sloping floor/wall/ceiling, improvising in the tool department, or responding to a customer’s comment out of left field. (My favorite example of the latter comes from Ben Sturbaum of Golden Hands Construction, one of the wittiest carpenters I know, who answered a French customer’s criticism of his kitchen trim installation with “Do not judge my soufflé before it is finished.”)

Remodeling a kitchen is a hefty proposition at the best of times. On almost every job, there comes a point where I wonder why I take on such work. To continue the comparison with sailing, it’s that moment when the captain props her eyes open with toothpicks to enable an all-night traverse across the vastness before an approaching storm. Between the sheer scale of most kitchen jobs, the centrality of the kitchen to the customers’ daily life–you will be held responsible for the inconvenience of dishwashing in the bathtub, as well as for the fine layer of dust that inevitably circulates around the house, even with excellent dust barriers, though I wonder how much of that dust simply results from the cessation of house cleaning while a major remodel is underway–and the out-of-your-shop/comfort-zone reality of installing and trimming out built-ins, building a kitchen is an odyssey in the truest sense of that word. It will challenge your patience, your improvisational abilities, and maybe most importantly, your capacity for bending your will to necessity.

And that’s exactly what I love—though I should add that I love it partly because I don’t do kitchens all the time but intersperse them with freestanding furniture, design, teaching, and writing. The variety keeps me sane. I know this because I spent many years building furniture and cabinetry without the respite of writing and design.


Notched around the cased opening between kitchen and dining room, this birch counter is finished to match the house’s original trim.

But even more than the challenges of kitchen work, I love the opportunity kitchens offer to work with context. I’ll save that for next time.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work.

For a detailed look at some of the decisions that went into this kitchen’s design, click here.


Finally ready for paint.

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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19 Responses to In the kitchen (by choice)

  1. Jim Kelley says:

    Wonderful read and lovely, inspiring work!


  2. Dave Fisher says:

    Beautiful work on the kitchen and very thought-provoking writing, especially the part about necessity as both ally and taskmaster. Thanks.


  3. tsstahl says:

    “…this birch counter is finished…”

    It took two readings to see the letter on the left of ‘s’ instead of the right.


  4. One Big Marine says:

    I agree that working with crooked walls and sloping and undulating floors can be a challenge. But what I learned in Marines still holds true in my work today; Identify, Adapt, Overcome. The end presentation of every project is worth the time and trouble of each issue we find and face.

    Great job and fine workmanship, You have a winner in this kitchen.



  5. Brian Smith says:

    Not meant as any kind of *critical* comment, but why apply paint on-site after installation, rather than spraying off site and then installing? Is there a reason specific to this client/job, or do you find that this just works better for your method? I enjoy your perspective, and your writing, please keep it up.


    • nrhiller says:

      The answer to this may be too long for a comment, but I’ll try. I don’t spray at my shop. Long story. Main reason: pollution of the environment. When I need to have something sprayed, I subcontract the work to a properly fitted spray shop. With cabinets such as these, there is *so* much work that goes into fitting them to their surroundings that in my experience, this translates to lots of minor repairs and touching up. When I talk about fitting to the site, I’m referring to scribing the cabinets to the floors, walls, and ceiling, which means turning them over and cutting or planing–sometimes repeatedly. Dings and scratches are almost impossible to avoid. And sprayed finishes do not always lend themselves to touching up on site. (That is an understatement.) When I factor in the reality that most painted kitchens I work on are part of old houses in which the customers want to honor and celebrate their house’s historic character rather than install a kitchen that’s stridently new, painting on site with brushes and a roller proves a good fit. I am only painting the exterior of most cabinets, as the interiors are typically made of prefinished plywood, a very nice formaldehyde-free product called Purebond Plywood made by Columbia Forest Products. So the amount of painting is not that great, though of course it must be done with care: surface prepping, priming, spackle, scuff sanding, caulk, and only then do I get to start applying the paint.


      • mike says:

        As both a customer and a builder, I agree with everything you say Nancy. I have yet to see a prefinished solid color cabinet survive transport and installation without significant touch up work. One company I know factors in a day of retouching (at about $800/day) for every kitchen. I just completed a bathroom vanity and linen closet that I sprayed in my shop and the doors are already back in my shop being resprayed. When my own kitchen was remodeled (I purchased factory cabinets) the refinisher was here for two days fixing all the problems.

        Live and learn, but next time I will just sub the finishing after installation, as you have.


        • Keith says:

          I did some work a few years ago (before I cut back and “semi-retired”) for a builder. They were putting in a whole neighborhood of “luxury* condos” and all the cabinets had come in from a company that had been in the final stages before bankruptcy. So, as you could imagine, they were not the best of fit and finish. I had a lot of touch up work to do. Fortunately they were “espresso” finish that is fairly easy to do. Thank heaven we were over with the burnt umber glaze on white era.

          * this is an adjective that helps justify the 50% upcharge for sales price.

          (and Merry Christmas, Nancy The kitchen looks superb!)


        • jenohdit says:

          I have built and installed loads of kitchens and other cabinets and millwork. Most of it was finished solid hardwood with ply carcasses and always prefinished. I’ve never had to do anything other than minor touch ups. We just throw a few moving blankets down and get to work.

          Paint grade is always at least primed and might have at least a first coat of paint. It’s sooo much faster to paint in the shop (no sprayer if my choice except for primer) and do a final coat after installation. Even if they like you, no one will be upset if you get out of their kitchen a few days earlier.


          • nrhiller says:

            Yep, I hear you and I am well aware that this is how most cabinetmakers finish their kitchens. Based on my experience with both sequences of finishing, I find the one I currently use more efficient for the type of cabinetry I build, all things considered.


        • nrhiller says:

          You have stated exactly what I have experienced too many times in the past, as well as seen in others’ shops. This is not to deny that most people prefinish their work, just to say that I’ve found the touching up to be a real pain and not always as easy to do well as one might imagine.


  6. Anthony says:

    Simply fantastic work, you’ve a right to be proud.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. simon says:

    I enjoyed reading that and a couple of things came to mind. I went to a party the other day, Which happened to be in the open plan kitchen and hall – 150 people – an all white, very “high end” very expensive kitchen with all mod cons and white corian work surface. Very good friends but the kitchen lacks any tactile element and seems cold. Your work looks warm and i’d want to touch it, to run my hands over the work surface, in short the kitchens are inviting which i think is really important and you don’t get that from the big kitchen stores. The salesman comes and measure up, but has no idea how to give the kitchen soul. The one in this picture is going to ooze charm, warm,th and soul.


    • nrhiller says:

      Thanks, Simon. I could not agree more. It’s also a great treat to read “all mod cons,” an expression I have not heard (aside from in my own head) for about 35 years.


      • Gav says:

        Crikey , I’m only 45 and “all the mod cons” rings in familiarity. Then again , Australians tend to downplay a lot with generalisation and dry humour . I just explained to my neighbours the deficiencies and inbuilt limited lifespan of vinyl wrapped mdf for an oven surround and why none of the big kitchen companies are interested in duplicating a repair job such as this. They took it pretty well. May even go for an alternative I would like to actually do. Have you ever had your customers start ummimg and erring about the finish? I only say this because I constructed an inbuilt cupboard for a client and they have had so many comments on it in it’s raw state they haven’t got around to painting it yet! That was over eighteen months ago. Keep up the great work- your book was a blast as well.

        Liked by 1 person

        • nrhiller says:

          Comments on finishes and everything else. Not always (thankfully), but it’s alarming when you’ve done all in your power to show customers how something’s going to look, only to have them balk at its actual appearance. There is so much emotional interaction involved in remodeling of any sort. For me, it’s the most challenging part of the job.


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