A Guide to Kitchen Remodeling Materials

Interior of a modern kitchen with updated materials
Remodeling the kitchen can be hectic, but you can still have fun and indulge your taste when choosing your materials. Your kitchen remodeling materials should be updated, beautiful, practical, durable, and environmentally responsible. Afterall, the taste is what a kitchen is about! FOTOGRAFIA INC. / Getty Images

On average, Americans who are remodeling their kitchen spend about 16 percent of their budget on labor; the rest is spent on materials. And what awesome materials they are -- they're beautiful, practical, durable, and environmentally responsible.

Exciting advances at every budget level are available for today's kitchens, so the sooner you start learning about all of your kitchen remodeling options, the better.


We'll dissect all of the main kitchen remodeling materials in this article, including:

  • Kitchen CountertopsA kitchen countertop is another big-ticket item. As with cabinets, there are numerous types of kitchen countertops from which to choose. The primary options include laminate, ceramic tile, wood, marble, and granite. Each material has its advantages and disadvantages -- the trick is to figure out which kind of countertop works best with your particular kitchen. We'll help sort everything out in this section by examining the different kinds of kitchen countertops.
  • Kitchen LightingMost people who are remodeling their kitchen don't consider lighting to be a primary consideration. They should. Visibility is vitally important in an area where you're working with knives and other potentially dangerous cooking tools. In addition, the proper lighting can give your kitchen a warm and homey feeling. In this section, we'll examine the ins and outs of kitchen lighting, from halogen lights to incandescent bulbs. We'll also offer advice on choosing kitchen lighting fixtures.
  • Kitchen Wall TreatmentsThe first rule in choosing wall treatments is to coordinate them with your cabinets. Paint is a popular wall treatment because it's relatively inexpensive and easy to clean (which is always a prime consideration with a kitchen). If you want something a little less common, you can go with wallpaper or paneling. Whatever you decide, don't underestimate the importance of wall treatments. We'll tell you about all your options in this section.
  • Kitchen WindowsLet the sunshine in! The right kitchen window will do just that, providing a bright and cheery place for you to do your cooking. Your window choices range from double-hung to sliders -- we'll tell you about these options and others. The window treatments you pick are equally important. They add character to your windows, and to your kitchen as a whole. Cafe curtains are a popular choice, while matchstick or bamboo shades add a more novel element to your kitchen decor. In this section, we'll show you which wall treatments will work best for you.
  • Kitchen Doors and HardwareWhen it comes to kitchens, a door isn't just a door. It not only provides access to your kitchen, but it also offers an opportunity to add another decorative touch. Your options include glazed doors, swinging doors, and sliding doors -- all of which we'll discuss in this section. Kitchen hardware -- such as cabinet knobs and window cranks -- really offer an opportunity to spice up your kitchen. The right hardware can tie together all of the materials in your kitchen. In this section, we'll provide suggestions that will aid you in the tricky task of choosing kitchen hardware.


Kitchen Cabinets

These hand-painted oak cabinets add a bright touch to the kitchen.

According to the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), most people spend about 52 percent of their kitchen remodeling budget on cabinetry, so it pays to do it right. The dominant element in any kitchen, cabinets can be as utilitarian-looking as the appliances around them or as warm and stylish as the rest of the home.

There are more than 200 cabinetmakers in the United States alone and scores more in England and Europe, and they each offer a multitude of style options. Cabinets come in two main varieties -- stock, or mass-produced to standard size specifications, and custom, which are made to order for your kitchen. Some makers offer "stock custom" options; a wider range of stock choices with modifiable elements you can mix and match to create custom solutions.


To estimate the cost of the new cabinetry you've chosen, your installer will determine the number of wall cabinets, base cabinets, and specialty units (pantry-type cupboards, lazy susans, appliance garages, open shelving, and so on). Here's a look at the different elements to consider when choosing cabinets:

Kitchen Cabinet Exteriors

Cabinet styles and materials come in numerous varieties. For a sleek, contemporary look, you might explore European frameless cabinets, cabinets with brushed metal inserts, or cool, laminate cabinets in solid colors or faux stone patterns. Plain fronts and simple (or outrageously inventive) door and drawer pulls seal the look. For lovers of traditional style, raised-panel cabinets are classics; arched-top "cathedral" panel cabinets are especially elegant. Traditional hardware may be as simple as plain wood, Shaker-style pulls or as elaborate as Chippendale-style brass handles.

Beyond the options available in cabinet door and drawer styles and hardware, you also can modify your contemporary or traditional look with formal or casual finishes. Dark mahogany or cherry finishes bespeak formality, whether the style is modern or 18th century. Pine is a perennial, casual favorite. Naturally finished maple is on the semiformal side due to its fine grain; naturally finished oak's prominent grain makes it definitely casual. Any wood given a bisque, or whitewashed, finish is casual in a romantic sort of way.

Perhaps the most classic solution is cabinetry painted gloss white. This look can lean toward either formal or casual, depending on hardware and accessories. And don't forget about colorfully painted cabinet sections; they're a great way to further your scheme and create the European look of freestanding kitchen furniture. (To really give practical built-in cabinets the freestanding look, choose cabinets with toe-kick spaces and furniture feet.) New cabinets are most often the solution in kitchen remodelings, but if your old cabinet interiors are in good condition and you like your kitchen's layout, you may decide to simply reface your existing cabinets for about half the cost of purchasing entirely new cabinets.

The process basically involves installing new doors and drawer fronts and applying coordinating surface veneers to all visible exterior areas. Some companies reface only with laminates; others offer a limited array of woods as well. Most cabinet refacing companies can build additional custom units to match the refaced units. Solid-door cabinets aren't your only choice, especially in today's freestanding-look kitchens.

While an unbroken line of upper cabinets is a contemporary favorite, many people like the variety open shelves and glass-front cabinets provide. Glass doors come with mullions (wood dividers) in traditional styles.

Mike Kaskel This cabinet is not only appealing on the outside, but it also provides useful storage on the inside for spices and such.

A word of caution: Open shelves are a popular part of today's kitchen look, but the combination of airborne cooking grease and everyday dust can mean more dusting and wiping than many people would like.

For an open look without this drawback, consider glass-door cabinets. Or, if you really want open shelves, opt for dust-hiding, midtone colors or wood tones and an easy-to-clean, glossy surface.

Kitchen Cabinet Interiors

You can magnify the storage space of any cabinetry with savvy interior fittings. One of the best is a corner cabinet fitted with a lazy Susan to provide 360-degree access to supplies. Appliance depots or garages -- often with sliding, hinged, or tambour (roll-top) doors -- keep mixers, toasters and other small appliances dust-free and out of sight.

The best compartments are fitted with outlets for the added convenience of using the appliances right there where they are. European-style spice drawers at counter height help you avoid the common error of storing fragile flavors above the heat source. Deep drawers also work for stashing unsightly but necessary items like a garbage bin or household cleaners.

In fact, any time you can use a pull-out drawer rather than an unfitted cupboard, you'll do well; especially for cookpots and other heavy items. Produce bins keep fresh fruits and vegetables out of sight behind closed doors but well ventilated for a longer shelf life. Deep, narrow spaces, fitted as slide-out cabinets, are perfect for big pan lids, cookie sheets, and other unwieldy items.

Your cabinets won't look quite right if they're not complemented by fashionable countertops. In the next section, we'll tell you how to pick out laminate, solid surfacing, ceramic tile, wood, marble, or granite countertops.


Kitchen Countertops

This kitchen, while small, is livened up by the ceramic tile countertop.

About 11 percent of your kitchen remodeling budget will be used for countertops. Counters offer a great opportunity to create a fashion statement, and the price ranges are as varied as the styles. Whatever your preferences, rounded corners on countertops are a smart move for safety's sake.

For the sake of your budget as well as for specific performance needs, feel free to mix several different kitchen countertop materials in different areas of the kitchen. Mixing countertop materials is a practical and attractive option. Marble works great for pastry-making, but you don't need a glossy stone surface on which to unload grocery bags or pile up dirty dinner dishes. Butcher block is warm, but you don't want it next to the sink, where it might get water damaged. You like the elegant look of granite, but it's a bit out of your price range for a whole kitchen.


So why not mix and match? Today's kitchen design trends favor the warmth and character created by mixing stone (or faux stone) and wood counters in different areas. You might choose butcher block or marble for the counter on which you plan to prep vegetables or roll out pastry, while solid surfacing is used for other countertops.

And you might want to use real granite on a high-visibility kitchen island with coordinating faux granite laminate on perimeter counters. Most natural materials now have attractive synthetic alternatives that incorporate photographic reproductions of "the real thing," so countertops at every price point look better than ever. Take a look at your options:

Laminate Kitchen Countertops

Economical and good-looking, laminates consist of layers of decorative paper sandwiched together and laminated with a patterned paper on top, all bonded to a particle-board countertop surface. From elegant faux-marble and granite looks to fun and funky, '50s boomerang designs, laminates respond to every fashion look.

Laminates have good stain, abrasion, and moisture resistance, but scratches and nicks do show and can't be repaired. (An all-over pattern on the dark side minimizes visible marks, and color-through laminates show less evidence of wear.) You'll also need to protect laminate counters from hot pots, which can cause irreparable scorches and even melting. Specify a rolled edge or another color of laminate trim on the counter's edge to eliminate the black edging line between the two planes.

Solid Surfacing Kitchen Countertops

Nonporous, seamless surfaces are made of a blend of acrylic and/or polyester resins with mineral fillers for a smooth feel that's similar to natural stone, but not as cool to the touch. Available in solid colors and in faux-stone patterns, solid surfacing is easy to clean and maintain; burns or stains often can be repaired or buffed away.

This material is also more workable than stone: Contrasting colors and shapes can be pieced together for a custom design; the material can be routed for elegant edge designs. An integral solid-surfacing sink is an appealing and practical option. Solid-surfacing material comes with impressive warranties when installed by a professional fabricator.

Ceramic Tile Kitchen Countertops

Made of high-fired clay with a baked-on colored surface, ceramic tile resists stains, water, and heat and will last a lifetime with normal care. It also offers endless custom-colored options, including luxurious hand-painted designs to coordinate with any motif.

As with any surface cut into tiles rather than in slabs, you'll have to contend with cleaning grout, but today's cleaners make short work of that task. Some grouts have been treated with mildewcides, and the current trend toward midtone grout means less visible staining.

You can also ask that tiles be laid close together to reduce grout line maintenance. Like natural stone surfacing materials, tile is not resilient, so it's tough on dropped glassware.

Wood Kitchen Countertops

Practical, naturally warm, and handsome, wood can be finished, left unfinished, or periodically refinished. Because wood is susceptible to warping and cracking from moisture, wood countertops are most often made of butcher block (many small, thick pieces of wood glued together).

Granite is both an opulent and durable countertop material.

Wood is also susceptible to stains and burns and, because it's porous, should be regularly cleaned with an antibacterial cleaner. (Many people feel more comfortable cutting raw meats on a nonporous cutting board.) For a low-sheen surface, you should order your wood countertop without a gloss sealant, and plan on preserving it with an occasional mineral oil application, rubbed in well. For a glossier look, specify a polyurethane-finished surface.

Marble and Granite Kitchen Countertops

Marble and granite are the luxury choices of surfacing material and can easily last a lifetime or longer. Highly polished, smooth-edged stone costs more than unpolished surfaces and rough-hewn edges, but the smoother the countertop is, the easier it is to keep clean. Marble's cool, smooth surface is perfect for making pastry, but it is porous and can be stained, so regular care and sealing (with salad oil in food prep area, commercial sealer elsewhere) is important.

Granite is much less porous than marble but can be stained by grease. Granite doesn't scratch, and chips on the corners can be repaired. Thickness of the countertop greatly affects the price. If it's in your budget, specify your slab stone 11/4-inch deep, so it's strong enough to survive shipment and fabrication and sturdy enough to be used as an unsupported 1/2-inch counter overhang. Usually installed in counter-length slabs, natural stone is also available in somewhat less durable tile form for easier installation and lower cost.

Since the quarrying and finishing of many running feet in a single slab is what makes stone countertops so expensive, smaller pieces can help make stone more affordable. As with ceramic tile, have your marble or granite tiles laid close together to eliminate grout line maintenance.

To make your new countertops really shine, you'll want to choose the right type of lighting. In the next section, we'll show you the best ways to light up your kitchen.


Kitchen Lighting

Dramatic down-lights bring this kitchen to life and make the cook's work easier, too.

You'd think a room in which sharp knives and boiling liquids are used would get serious attention when it comes to visibility, but lighting is often one of the last considerations in kitchen design. In too many kitchens, a central ceiling fixture leaves the cook working in his/her own shadow, for example. Others feature enough fixtures but not enough wattage.

One of the challenges is that poor lighting is hard for the average person to detect; the kitchen just may not "feel right." If your family didn't tend to congregate in your old kitchen, look at this renovation as a chance to see the space in a whole new light. A lighting plan for your kitchen requires the same elements as for any other room.


You'll need the right mix of ambient (overall) lighting to illuminate the space; task lighting to provide illumination for specific activities; mood lighting to create atmosphere; and accent lighting to draw attention to special collections or artwork. If yours is a multipurpose kitchen that opens to adjacent rooms, it's especially important for light to adapt to a wide variety of situations: cooking, dining, entertaining, or just relaxing in softly lit repose while life goes on in a neighboring space.

What's required? More variety in light fixtures, both decorative and concealed; and dimmers (rheostats) on every light switch. In addition to ceiling-mounted fixtures, many people choose to install strip lights under every upper cupboard that has a work surface counter below. The effect is dramatic as well as very practical. Here's a look at the wonderful world of kitchen lighting:

Kitchen Lighting Types

Fluorescent lighting tubes, a favorite during the post-WWII era of "kitchens-as-sanitary-labs," fell out of favor in later decades. Fluorescent lamps (the replaceable bulbs or tubes) are costlier to buy than incandescent bulbs, but they cost significantly less to operate, which is why they're still used so extensively in commercial settings. Fluorescent fixtures are energy efficient, throwing off much less heat than halogen or incandescent bulbs, but the resultant light is cool, too. The effect may be "cold," with a blue-green cast that's at odds with the warm, hospitable ambience you'd like for a kitchen. Recent improvements have made more natural, "warm white" fluorescent lighting available.

Incandescent bulbs, the most common residential lighting source, impart a warmer, more yellow light but, at the same time, heat up the room more. These bulbs are widely available and come in a broad range of wattages, tints, and sizes to fit virtually any style of lighting fixture, whether it's traditional or contemporary.

Halogen lights, the most recent de-velopment, create intensely bright, sunshine-quality light from a relatively small bulb source. Halogen bulbs are costly, however, and must be used with great care. Because they generate such intense heat, these bulbs pose a greater fire hazard than other lighting types and should not be used near kitchen curtains or where they may come into contact with plastic materials.

Contemporary and retro-style kitchens take naturally to fluorescent lights, including whimsical neon-colored options. Traditional-style kitchens fit easily with warm incandescent light, and all styles are at home with halogen, which most closely mimics daylight.

Kitchen Lighting Fixtures

The options are practically limitless. Contemporary fixtures in chrome and colored glass are often simple and Space Age inspired, hanging like jewels in the functional space. Traditional fixtures go beyond the ubiquitous stained-glass pendant lamp to include classical sconces, green glass-and-brass banker's lamps, white hobnailed milkglass shades, and more.

Halophane lamps, evolved from vintage warehouse fixtures, bridge traditional and modern looks; their ribbed-glass globes create a soft light with a chic profile. To supplement bigger fixtures, hanging halogen lamps, which use tiny, low-voltage bulbs, make big lighting possible with very unobtrusive fixtures. For contemporary-style kitchens, track lights with incandescent or halogen bulbs combine spotlights with floodlights and let you aim the light wherever you choose.

Recessed spotlights or floodlights are the most unobtrusive choice and provide excellent ambient and task lighting, but they are costlier to install because they require cutting holes in the ceiling. If they're an option, recessed lights may be your best bet if your goal is today's light levels with yesterday's charm.

In the next section, we'll move onto the part of your kitchen that suffers the most wear and tear: the floor.


Kitchen Floors

Wood is a popular kitchen flooring choice because it goes with almost anything.

Kitchen flooring will cost an average of four percent of your kitchen remodeling budget, and, given the stress a major remodeling puts on the floor, you can count on spending a little extra to get your floor into shape.

In general, lighter-colored flooring of any kind makes a room seem larger, as does laying tiles on the diagonal rather than parallel to the walls. Larger tiles, 12X12 inches and up, are at home in contemporary-style kitchens and have the advantage of minimizing grout lines. Some traditional looks work best with smaller tiles; small tiles are also what you'll need if you want to design patterned floors or borders.


Below, we'll examine the various choices you have when it comes to kitchen flooring:

Vinyl Kitchen Floors

Available in sheets or tiles, vinyl is today's most popular kitchen flooring because it's durable, easy to install, easy to maintain, and inexpensive compared to most other flooring materials. On the fun side, vinyl also offers the greatest range of styles at a price, from '50s boomerang motifs to ancient Roman marble tiles.

Better-quality vinyl flooring features "inlaid construction" with color and pattern uniform throughout rather than printed on top, for richer color and less noticeable nicks. Top-of-the-line vinyl floors have a thick urethane wear layer that offers the most shine and shine retention, as well as the greatest stain resistance.

Mid-range vinyl may also offer a urethane wear layer, but it won't be as thick; lower-range vinyl has a vinyl wear layer that's best for households without pets and kids. Sheet vinyl, best installed by a professional, eliminates tile lines or possible lift-up due to standing water. Vinyl tiles with self-stick backs can be easily and quickly installed by just about any homeowner. Tiles also let you design patterns or borders using several colors.

Linoleum Kitchen Floors

A leading kitchen flooring material until after World War II, when America fell in love with plastic, linoleum is staging a comeback. An environmentalist's delight, linoleum is made of all natural products -- linseed oil, pine resin, and wood flour.

Inexpensive and durable, today's linoleum comes in matte-finished solid colors and marbleized patterns. It is ideal for retro-style kitchens, especially those striving for a 1920s to 1950s feel. It is also a very affordable option for people with lower budgets.

Laminate Kitchen Floors

One of the newer synthetic flooring options, laminate flooring looks like wood, stone, or marble because the pattern is actually a photograph of the "real thing." Laminate flooring is made of multiple layers of material including a super-hard plastic top layer over a layer with a photographic imprint of wood or stone.

It's many, many times more wear-resistant than countertop laminates and can usually be laid directly over an existing floor. Proper installation is crucial. Although laminate can be installed by a savvy do-it-yourselfer, it is best handled by an experienced pro.

Wood Kitchen Floors

Hardwood kitchen floors can last a lifetime and harmonize with just about any kitchen decor. Warm, natural, and resilient, wood floors only gain charm and character with life's inevitable nicks and dents.

Rustic oak, with its pronounced grain, is great for casual or country traditional-style kitchens; fine-grained maple and cherry create richly elegant looks; ash, beech, and birch are sleek and modern. Other handsome favorites include hickory, pecan, walnut, mahogany, and teak. Soft woods, most often pine, have a country-style charm but do show wear and damage more than hardwoods.

Wood flooring comes in several forms.

  • Plank flooring features boards three to seven inches wide and three-quarters of an inch thick that are cut to lengths up to about eight feet. Wide planks show off the grain of the wood and are associated with traditional looks, especially when wood dowels, plugs, or decorative nails are used to anchor the boards.
  • Strip flooring features narrow boards (under three inches wide). Versatile and attractive, strip flooring works for both casual and formal, traditional and modern rooms. Ideally, boards should run parallel to the room's long axis. Using only "shorts" (boards shorter than 18 inches) makes a room look larger. Special effects can be created with borders of different woods.
  • Parquet is patterned wood flooring made of 5/16-inch-thick geometric shapes puzzled together to create larger pieces about eight- to twelve inches square. Of course, more pieces mean more opportunities for moisture to seep in and warp or loosen flooring, but with its multidirectional patterns, parquet is less likely than strip or plank flooring to draw attention to a floor with irregular dimensions. While historic purists advocate natural oil treatments to resist moisture and staining, most people today choose a polyurethane, moisture-cure urethane, or waterbased urethane finish. Some wood floors are given an aged, distressed finish at the factory or after installation; for authentically aged floors, some homeowners seek out dismantled barn planks to plane and install as flooring.

Rubber Kitchen FloorsA popular flooring in health-care, restaurant, and other commercial settings, rubber floors are an ingenious solution for creating commercial-style kitchens at home. Among the most resilient and comfortable floorings to walk and stand on, rubber floors are easy to clean and are extremely forgiving of dropped glassware. Offered in textured sheets or tile, rubber floors may last 20 years.

Ceramic Tile Kitchen Floors

A decorative building material since ancient times, ceramic tile retains its colorful charm virtually forever. Made of clay that is pressed, glazed, and fired, ceramic tile has many stonelike qualities: It stands up easily to hot pots and is cool to the touch, but it is tough on dropped glassware. Ceramic wears for ages but, like stone, can chip or crack under heavy abuse.

Colors and designs are literally unlimited. In addition to a vast selection of beguiling patterns, you can custom-order tiles that are hand-painted with color schemes and motifs you personally specify to coordinate with your kitchen.

High-gloss finishes make it easy to wipe splatters from countertops and walls, but for floors, it's safer to select matte or textured-glazed tiles to reduce slipping when the surface is wet. To minimize grout discoloration from mildew and food stains, specify a grout with mildewcide in the mixture or a midtone grout (taupe and gray are practical and popular), and use a mild bleach cleaner.

Quarry and Terra-Cotta Tile Kitchen Floors

Rustic and handsome, quarry tile is a mix of clay, shale, or earth extruded to produce an unglazed tile. Terra-cotta (literally "baked earth") tile is made of clay that's been fired but left unglazed. Some terra-cotta tiles come with a baked-on sealer; other terra-cotta tiles and quarry tiles should be sealed to prevent permanent staining. These tiles may also be glazed for more lustrous color and a more refined look.

Natural Stone Tile Kitchen Floors

Limestone, tumbled marble, and slate tiles are among the most elegant flooring choices available. These tiles share properties with marble, granite, and other stone materials, but are valued as much for their interesting textures as for their colorations. Natural stone tiles must be sealed to prevent stains.

The right wall treatments can really bring out the flooring, as well as the other materials in your kitchen. We'll examine kitchen wall treatments in the next section.


Kitchen Wall Treatments

This wallcovering helps make 18th century furniture seem at home with today's lifestyle.

Whether or not there's a lot of kitchen wall space left on view after the new cabinets and appliances are in place, you'll want your walls to support your decorating scheme. If your kitchen redo involves more decorating than remodeling, you'll be pleased at how much of an improvement new wall treatments can make.

Coordinate the wall treatment style and color with your cabinets, or, if your cabinets aren't being replaced, consider painting them to match the new wall color. Either way, you'll cool the clutter and create a more spacious, calming look, whatever your style. Here's what you need to consider:


Kitchen Paint

Paint is the kitchen wall treatment that's easiest to change, easiest to clean, and least expensive. Many experts recommend "eggshell" paint (paint with a slight sheen) for walls and semigloss paint for trim in homes without kids and pets, and semigloss walls and high-gloss trim for homes that need to endure more wear and tear.

All the usual recommendations about paint effects apply to kitchen paint. Light colors dry lighter and dark colors dry darker than they appear when wet, so buy a small amount and test it on your wall before making a commitment to gallons. Light colors will make your kitchen look more spacious and cool; midtone and dark colors will make it look cozier and warmer.

Traditional styles usually feature white or other contrast-color trim; contemporary styles feature walls and trim of the same color. If you plan to use both wallcovering and paint in your kitchen, choose the wallcovering first. It's much easier to custom-mix a paint to match a wallcovering than it is to find a wallcovering containing the exact color of your paint!

Don't overlook the elegant potential of special faux-finish effects with paint. Sponging and ragging, for example, can create a sense of airiness or rustic charm. A breakfast nook or pantry door is a great place to create a sense of vista with a classic trompe l'oeil still life or garden scene.

Kitchen Wallcoverings

If you want a more complex color scheme or pattern than paint makes possible, or if your walls are in less-than-paint-perfect condition, wallcoverings offer dimension, warmth, and eye appeal with surprisingly easy care. Modern kitchen wallcoverings bear little resemblance to fragile wallpapers of yore. They're also a world away from the less-than-inspiring looks that used to be available in coated wallpapers for the kitchen.

Today, kitchen wallcoverings are as beautiful and subtle as traditional wallpapers for other rooms, but they're not just spongeable, they're scrubbable. Traditional-style rooms are made for wallcoverings, and you can find motifs inspired by just about every historical period, each in a wide selection of colors.

Many wallcovering companies offer carefully researched collections that are adaptations of actual historic wallpapers, recolored for today's tastes. Others replicate the colors as well as the patterns of historical papers, if you're really intent on a historically correct impression. And, while paint is generally less expensive than paper, if you want a trompe l'oeil picture, it's probably going to be much less costly to purchase a length of scenic paper than it would be to commission a painting. Modern rooms don't have to do without wallcoverings, either.

In addition to nostalgic motifs from the 1920s to 1950s, wallcoverings that simulate sponging, marbling, stippling, and other timeless faux-finishing techniques are plentiful. While rooted in ancient techniques, these styles work beautifully in contemporary kitchens.

Kitchen Paneling

From rustic, cabin-style kitchens to elegant European kitchens, wood paneling can create a mood like no other wall treatment. Unless your kitchen gets lots of natural light and is on the large side, you probably will want to keep the wood tones on the naturally pale side. Whitewashed wood is a great compromise if you want a beachside or cottage look; it delivers the warmth of wood and the space-expanding qualities of white.

Like other wallcoverings, paneling is a fine solution for less-than-perfect wall surfaces, providing dimension, warmth, and subtle visual interest. Wood paneling upkeep is much the same as for cabinets, and natural wood tones have the advantage of hiding fingerprints and smudges.

A key element of kitchen walls -- the windows -- are addressed in the next section.


Kitchen Windows

There are many different window treatments from which to choose. In this kitchen, balloon shades and a swagged valance complement a great bay window.

The windows are a key part of any kitchen remodeling project. There are two things to consider with kitchen windows: the treatments and the windows themselves. We'll start by examining the window treatments.

Kitchen Window Treatments

The classic charm of cafe curtains is often associated with kitchen window treatments, but these aren't the only choice. Fabric valances make pleasing toppers to cafe cute; sets and are great for traditional and retro decorating schemes. Roman shades are chic solutions for neoclassical or contemporary spaces. Metal mini-blinds are also fine in modern rooms and have the added advantage of furthering any color scheme and being more fire resistant than other window treatments.


Matchstick or bamboo shades are a novel approach that adds an especially pleasing touch in kitchens showcasing an ethnic flair. In natural tones, they offer the plus of hiding dust. You may decide on an elaborate treatment in an eat-in area, but it's best to keep fabrics, tassels, and such well away from the cooking arena.

For a dramatic look without a lot of drape, consider pelmets (hard valances jigsawed out of thin wood) to frame your windows. If your kitchen opens into a great room or family room, try coordinating the window treatments. They don't need to match, but they should relate.

If your family room draperies are patterned in blue and gold, for example, consider a honey-hued bamboo shade or a solid blue mini-blind for the kitchen. If you've got elaborate burgundy floral draperies in the great room, think about a burgundy plaid in the kitchen, and line or trim the great room draperies with a bit of the plaid. In general, keep kitchen wallcoverings a bit simpler than those in adjoining rooms.

Kitchen Windows

Windows may be custom, semicustom, or stock, but they're all constructed to fit snugly in the window opening provided. You can choose from aluminum, vinyl, wood, aluminum over wood, and vinyl over wood, depending on your needs and budget. Whatever material you prefer, the best news about double- or triple-pane windows is that separate storm windows are a thing of the past.

  • Aluminum is the most economical material but may conduct cold, heat, and moisture. It's maintenance free, but if you elect to paint it, it requires yearly maintenance like any other painted outdoor surface on your home.
  • Vinyl is also maintenance free and cannot usually be painted successfully, but it comes in a range of popular trim colors as well as in white.
  • Wood, the classic window frame material, is still favored for many high-end and historic homes.

Casement. More common than double-hungs are casement windows, which are actually an older, simpler style than double-hungs. Casement windows are hinged on the side and can swing in or out to provide complete ventilation. They usually operate with crank handles, making them easy to operate, even when placed above counters and sinks. Make sure your casements are hinged to swing outward, or you'll need to allow space in front of the window for opening.

Decorative windows. Decorative windows are available in many shapes and sizes, but among the most pleasing is the half-round, sometimes called Palladian after the classic architect Palladio, who popularized them. Half-round windows can be positioned above doors, above other windows, or in shallow wall spaces to bring in more light and create architectural interest. Quarter-round and elliptical versions are also available.

Doors and hardware are the final two items on our list. In the next section, we'll cover these kitchen materials.


Kitchen Doors and Hardware

In this south-of-the-border-style kitchen, silvertone Mexican concha buckles are the perfect hardware accents.

The doors and hardware complete the look of your kitchen. So before you start your kitchen remodeling project, you need to find out more about these materials.

Kitchen Doors

Glazed doors let in the light, but they also pose a greater security issue than solid doors. Sliding doors are contemporary classics, at home in modern or retro rooms. They allow easy access to patios and decks and eliminate the need to sacrifice floor space for door swing.


For a romantic traditional look, French doors are the style of choice. These hinged, swinging doors traditionally are used in pairs and open from the center. If possible, they should open to the inside, although this does require allotting door-swing space.

Kitchen Hardware

Kitchen hardware -- window cranks and pulls, cabinet knobs and handles, door and drawer pulls, and more, are often called the jewelry of the room. They don't have to match, and, in most cases, you won't be able to match them. But do keep the number of different looks to a minimum.

For example, don't mix shiny brass, brushed brass, chrome, brushed nickel-finish steel, white-enameled metal, and so on, all in one room. Rather, pick two or three colors/finishes and stick with them, and keep in mind any hardware visible from an adjoining great room or family room. You'll want to stay with a complementary look.

In general, bright and brushed/antiqued brass hardware are considered elegant traditional, nickel-finish steel is traditional, wrought iron or wood is rustic traditional, and shiny chrome and enameled steel are modern. However, shape can also affect whether a particular metal "reads" modern or classic. You have more choices than you may think.

Use hardware to personalize your kitchen. If you don't like the standard knobs that came with your stock cabinets, shop for novelty ones you like better. Why settle for a plain chrome knob when you can have a knob or pull that's an antiqued brass acorn, a verdigris frog, or a pewter-look miniature fork?

After all, creating a new and improved kitchen may be work, but you can still have fun and indulge your taste when choosing your materials. And let's face it: Taste is what a kitchen is about!


Mary Wynn Ryan is the author of numerous interior design books, including The Ultimate Kitchen, The Ultimate Bath, Cottage Style, Fresh Country Style, and Garden Style. She has written about home furnishings and interior design for various magazines and served as Midwest editor of Design Times magazine. She was also the director of consumer and trade marketing for the Chicago Merchandise Mart's residential design center. She is president of Winning Ways Marketing, an editorial and marketing consulting firm that specializes in home design and decorating.