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posted: 6/6/2014 4:21 PM

How to get that put-together look on an IKEA budget

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By Elizabeth Mayhew
Special To The Washington Post

I am working on two kitchen renovations: one for a client who lives in a New York City townhouse and the other for a client who owns a classic four-bedroom Colonial house in rural upstate New York. Although the layouts of the two kitchens -- not to mention the sizes -- are distinctly different, one thing is not: the budget. Both homeowners want to create the nicest kitchen possible for the least amount of money, which is why several weeks ago, I found myself meandering along the yellow-carpeted path of the 300,000-square-foot-plus IKEA store in Paramus, N.J.

The promise of an inexpensive, chic, European-style kitchen that is easy to install is a beacon for budget shoppers. IKEA has enough door styles, countertop materials and hardware designs for a homeowner to create affordable looks that range from modern to country. But the low price means you're on your own for assembly and installation. I do not have the time nor the experience to build and install the cabinets myself, and my contractors don't have any interest in putting together IKEA cabinets; it's just not worth their time.

Unlike other brands of kitchen cabinets, which come assembled, IKEA cabinets are like much of the store's furniture: You have to assemble each and every piece. The daunting assembly process can make even a well-trained woodworker wary. Take for example Scott Shaeffer, a furniture maker and builder in Denver who, also for budget reasons, decided to install an IKEA kitchen. Considering his profession, Shaeffer thought that installing an IKEA kitchen "would be a snap." But, because "IKEA does things its own special way," he had a hard time. Shaeffer recounts the ups and downs of his experience in an entertaining and very honest three-part video series, "What to Expect When You're Expecting IKEA" on his San Juan Carpentry YouTube channel. Yet even after his trying experience, Shaeffer told me in an email that he would install IKEA cabinets again, especially now that he knows what he is doing. His advice to the novice: "Take your time, have patience and expect several return trips to the store to exchange or purchase additional items. People should know their project is NOT going to go as smoothly as it does for the perfect couple in the IKEA video."

For my projects, I didn't even attempt to match the "perfect" IKEA couple. Instead I sought out professional IKEA installers, which led to other issues -- most notable of which is that IKEA installs kitchens only within a limited distance from their stores. Unfortunately, my project in the country is out of that range. A Google search and some poking around led me to the Kitchen Couple (, a duo who not only install but also design IKEA -- and only IKEA -- kitchens. Self-professed IKEA experts, the business partners, Bonnie Konopka and Ron Youman, originally met in 1990 while both were working at IKEA's Burbank, Calif., store. They offer a menu of services similar to IKEA's: You can have them measure your kitchen ($100 fee), design it ($500 fee, they can do this no matter where you live) and/or install it (approximately $150 per cabinet, but you need to live in the New York area).

Konopka suggested turning a drawer front on its side (vertically) and hinging it to create a narrow tray storage cabinet next to the oven. Another suggestion was to create wine racks in a leftover six-inch space next to a refrigerator by manipulating cabinet parts. Such solutions are a result not only of their experience but also of their clients' demands. "People go to IKEA wanting to save money," Konopka says, "but they still want their overall space to have the 'wow' factor of a very expensive kitchen."

So how do you accomplish that "wow" factor on your own? Konopka says to start by upgrading your appliances. A stainless-steel restaurant-style stove and a quiet, top-control-panel dishwasher will make the entire kitchen look more expensive, but the appliance that will make the biggest impact is the refrigerator. Opt for a cabinet-depth model, which will sit flush with your cabinet fronts, thereby giving a built-in look without a built-in price.

Upgrading cabinet hardware will also improve the look of your cabinets. Konopka often suggests her clients shop for hardware at Home Depot for its quality and selection. Restoration Hardware also offers a handsome selection of knobs and pulls that are available in four finishes, but expect to pay more than double IKEA's prices. Also when choosing alternative hardware, check with your installer first because there might be an upcharge. Konopka explains, "IKEA handles are made to fit their doors; the thickness and the screws are the right size. Other handles may need time-consuming adjustments, and some handles are so particular that each one has to be drilled individually, so the installer cannot use a template, which makes the installation substantially more labor-intensive."

Another design trick Konopka and Youman employ is double-stacking crown molding at the top of the cabinets, which gives a richer, more traditional look. And ideally they finish the cabinets with soffits that connect them to the ceiling, which also gives a more finished, built-in look. As an alternative to creating a soffit, you can mount the cabinets higher on the wall, but unless you are over 6 feet tall (a la Julia Child), this is a mistake because it changes the ergonomics of the kitchen.

No matter which direction you take -- DIY or hiring a professional installer -- keep in mind that IKEA is a box store, where you will need some guidance to make the right decisions. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Remember: No matter how inexpensive the product is, a poorly made quick decision will only cost you more money.

Tips for buying an IKEA kitchen:

1. Take your time: The biggest mistake you can make is jumping into a kitchen remodel without doing the proper planning. This can be particularly tempting when IKEA is having one of its kitchen sales.

2. Be meticulous: Do your research. Take exact measurements. Design the layout. Decide on flooring, appliances and countertops, and make sure you check lead times on all materials. Whether you are doing it yourself or hiring someone, you need to make sure that you have what you need when you need it.

3. Make your mess first: First demolish the existing kitchen, then update the electrical and the plumbing. And before you install IKEA cabinets, make sure your ceiling and floor are finished. Unlike other cabinets, which go in before the floor is finished, IKEA cabinets sit on adjustable legs, with toe boards that clip on so they are easily removable. This means that moisture can find its way under the cabinets; exposed subflooring will only lead to problems down the road.

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