A Kitchen Remodel in Real Time: Changing horses in midstream

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Work in progress. Partially finished elevation of the north wall, showing the planned corner unit and set of narrow drawers to the left of the stove.

After a long hiatus from shop time thanks to Indiana’s stay-at-home directive, I’ve been back in full force over the past two weeks. Sure, I could have kept working on the kitchen — my shop is next to our house. But why turn my work area into a life-size game of Tetris with cabinets as playing pieces a moment before that crowding was really necessary? Better to leave the roughsawn oak and sheets of plywood flat until we could firm up the schedule for delivery and installation.

Every kitchen I’ve worked on has entailed a few changes along the way. I do my best to help clients make the most important decisions early on. I also encourage them not just to order their plumbing fixtures and appliances, but to have them on hand before I start to cut materials, because reworking cabinets can get expensive quickly.

On this job we’ve done a lot of things differently because of the ongoing pandemic. With no clear idea how long the stay-at-home directive was going to last, my clients, Jenny and Ben, were in less of a hurry to order appliances, etc. and have them delivered — they’ve been working full-time from home in the company of their three children, whose schools were closed for in-person classes. Ordinarily we would have met to discuss a few questions that have cropped up; instead, we’ve hammered things out by email and phone. I’ve dropped off samples of milk paint at their back door. Everything has been slightly off — at times, surreal.

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Soapstone slabs at Quality Surfaces near Spencer, Indiana

Our only recent meeting in person took place at a local stone yard, where Jenny and Ben fell in love with a slab of medium-gray soapstone. Compared to other stone, such as granite, this one is relatively soft, so I wanted them to be aware of how it would likely age. I sent snapshots from our kitchen, which has pale gray soapstone counters, and emphasized that even though we treat our counters with care, there’s significant wear along the front edge at the sink. This stone would require extra coddling.

They weighed my warnings. Then, intoxicated by the beauty of the stone, they concluded they had to have it.

To compensate, they decided to use a different kind of sink. The plans included an undermount sink, but after seeing pictures of our counter, Ben and Jenny decided to buy an enameled cast iron apron front, to do away with the especially vulnerable strip of stone across the front. Good thing I hadn’t started building the cabinets — not only did this change the doors from full height to more like 20″; it also meant the sink base would have to be 2″ longer.

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Comparing milk paint samples (which have a topcoat of the same water-white conversion varnish we’ll be using on the cabinets) to colors in the stone

The second major change has been to the kitchen’s inside corner. In our earliest discussions I’d gone through my usual reasons for recommending a simple stack of drawers instead of attempting to use the blind space that would otherwise be wasted, but Ben and Jenny decided to go with a corner optimizer.

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The unit holds four baskets — two on the left, and two on the right, with one above the other on each side. Here Tony is modeling the unit closed, with only the lower left basket in place.

Full disclosure: I had never installed one of these units, which I first learned of thanks to Craig Regan. It seemed like a better choice than the half-moon blind corner pull-out I once experimented with in my own kitchen (more about this in my forthcoming book); it’s sturdy, better looking and smooth in operation. But once I had it in the cabinet I could see trouble down the line: Unless you’re meticulous about pulling the unit straight out and extending it fully before you pull the second half forward, the face frame of the corner cabinet and the face of the cabinet next to it would get scratched and banged up in short order. For a family of five who really use their kitchen, it seemed like a bad idea.

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The first step: pull the primary pair of baskets forward. You have to pull them all the way out before attempting to move them over so that you can pull the secondary baskets out.

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Fully open. The primary side [only one basket is installed on each side here] pulls over to the side of the cabinet opening, freeing it up so you can pull the secondary baskets forward.

I thought through every likely scenario with the corner optimizer and decided to recommend we nix it in favor of some intelligently-designed, fully-functional drawers; depending on what we discover during demolition, the blind area in the corner will probably become a storage cabinet in the wall flanking the stairs to the basement.

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A set of four capacious drawers on full-extension slides will take the place of the original corner optimizer and the 12″-wide drawers that would have flanked it.

To those who complain about old-timers being unwilling to change/jump on the bandwagon of The Newest And Greatest Thing, I offer this story as one reason why some of us whose livelihood depends on this kind of work prefer to recommend the products we know well. We’re not being lazy, fearful or unimaginative. We might have learned something over the decades from our mistakes. In the future, if clients ask me about the advisability of using a corner optimizer such as this one (and I am aware that this is not the only style available), I will factor what I know about how they use their kitchen into my response, as I do with every other detail of kitchen design.

If anyone would like to buy this 15″ blind corner unit at a discount (it makes a great climbing frame/nap place/carnival ride for a cat), let me know in the comments.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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19 Responses to A Kitchen Remodel in Real Time: Changing horses in midstream

  1. One Big Marine says:

    I’m in the middle of a kitchen remodel as well. This current delivery situation is slowing down all deliveries, and changing the supply acquisition process for the better in some ways.
    We have learned just how many companies have relocated manufacturing to China, and who is still in the U.S., and this has added to delivery timelines, as well as to the stress levels of the customer (my wife).
    Another learned lesson, is that my shop is way too close to the house for this project, and hearing, “Honey, I have an idea” can be the ruin of some very expensive lumber.

    I applaud you for continuing to work, and your customers for keeping the project going during this time.

  2. selina333333333 says:

    (selinaadams731@gmail.com) i am interested in knowing you much more. i will email you my pictures

  3. Doug Cahail says:

    Love the comment about old timers not willing to totally jump on the latest, greatest way to do the same OLD thing. Am in the trades and so tired of the sales hype on so many products that are going to save us so much time and money. Most actually take more of both and don’t deliver as good a product.

  4. Paul Davies says:

    We opted for the Le Mans storage system in our kitchen to overcome the blind corner problem.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy34ngL-EME
    It is almost the favourite thing in our kitchen..

    • nrhiller says:

      I believe the one you have is the one Craig told me about. But it looks as though it could still scratch the cabinet next door if the user weren’t super careful. Have you had any problem with this?

      • Paul Davies says:

        I have the one shown in the video. There is no possibility of scratching adjacent cupboards due to the shape and a stop. We have the moving shelves loaded ( and I mean loaded) with jams, pickles and dry goods. As you are picking jars from above, they are all easy to reach. I really recommend them highly. I have done numerous kitchens and this is one of the better ideas (along with massive pan drawers).
        Paul

        • nrhiller says:

          That’s helpful information. Thank you! The shape of those shelves, combined with the mechanism, appears to provide far more genuinely useful storage space than the rectangular versions.

        • nrhiller says:

          Thanks for this additional information. After looking up the specs, I see that even the smallest LeMans would apparently not have worked for the space in my current kitchen job, but it’s good to know that you’ve found it as thoughtfully designed and well-made as it appears in the marketing videos. The four full-extension drawers we’ve ended up going with will give my clients a lot more usable space than any of the whiz-bang mechanical corner products, but in the future, if a two-level pull-out corner unit of this type fits the bill for clients’ optimal storage AND fits into the available space, I will certainly suggest it. So thanks again!

          • Paul Davies says:

            Thanks. Maybe it will help somebody.
            Love your A&C book! My hayrake table sits in the kitchen, surrounded by Welsh stick chairs.

  5. Blind corners. Blech. Our brains keep trying to tell us there has to be a better way. So far, I haven’t seen it.

    • nrhiller says:

      The better way is to use the available space in the kitchen to best effect with drawers, then access the rest (the “wasted” corner space) from an adjacent room. At least, that’s the best solution I’ve come up with to date — and I learned it from paying attention to how such conditions were handled in some of the early 20th-century houses where I’ve worked!

  6. Pascal Teste says:

    Good call on convincing them against the blind corner unit and to go with an apron cast sink. I’m sure they will thank you down the road. The more movable parts, the greater the risk of things rubbing, jamming, or breaking. I’m totally with you on the old-timer way of thinking.

  7. Avery says:

    I retrofitted a corner optimizer coupled with full extension shelves. I was younger and more elastic then. Not for the claustrophobic. While they do what they’re supposed to, a good point is made about their proximity to the adjacent cabinetry when accessing the second bank of baskets. I can definitely see how with children in the house horizontal scratches would result.

    • nrhiller says:

      The likelihood of scratches and dents didn’t even cross my mind until I was experimenting with the unit to see where I would be able to install the door hinges. Then the penny dropped!

  8. Keith Klickstein says:

    I am a full time cabinetmaker, I do mostly kitchens. For blind corners I typically recommend half pie pull out lazy susans. They are reasonable priced and do the job. I hate 3/4 lazy susans, but end up doing a lot of those. I have considered the LeMans unit several times, but , like you, I am stuck in tried and true ways. The funny thing is, with each of these options, you still lose a lot of space. I tell all my clients this and try to get them to do a basic corner shelf unit, and put infrequently used items in the blind corner, but people have their own ideas of how they will use their kitchen,,, most of the time, they are wrong…lol

    • nrhiller says:

      There is a lengthy section on this topic in my forthcoming book. Most “space-saving” units do indeed end up leaving a ton of space unused. A basic corner shelf unit is the one true way to leave the entire space available for storage, but you have to be a contortionist to access whatever’s in the blind area. 🙂 The half-moon susans certainly win from a low-cost perspective, but I find that in most cases the most user-friendly way to maximize use of the available space is with drawers on full-extension slides.

  9. Craig T Regan says:

    Sorry it didn’t work out for you, but, it probobly wont be your last as these swinging corners are growing in popularity… I kind of like ’em but not for every kitchen. PS thanks for the mention; It got me four new followers on instagram today : )

  10. Dumont69 says:

    My 2 cents…..I hate the lazy susan in our blind corner. Hate it! Just do as Nancy says, give up the loss of space in exchange for sensibility. We also have a hinged pivot bi-fold door on that corner cabinet, and it does exactly what this gizmo does, pivots into the surrounding cabinets and scratches them.

  11. Gav says:

    I have found the three quarters not intolerable to install – but they don’t float my boat either. I can’t even remember the brand of the corner optimiser I installed on a mates kitchen about fifteen years ago, I do remember it as a RPITA! and back etc. As I recall if it was not completely extended and doors completely opened and so on something would hit something. The adjustability was an adventure too. His pantry was even worse, pull out unit with front face fixed and accessed from each side, which in principle worked really well in his apartment which was tight for space but being two metres tall something of a bear to fine tune. It also had an interesting bearing system which was exposed at the base of the unit internally- for the rock salt to fall into when a spill occurred. I had to strip it down, clean the slides, in some cases remove some of the rust, lubricate everything before reassembling and then refitting/levelling the door. NOT SOLD! three quarters of a day I will not get back .

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