When we first bought our home, I could not fathom living in a kitchen in such a horrendous state but we couldn’t afford to renovate. So we decided to improve it for the time being. Every night after work, we did all the work ourselves. We refinished the cabinets by cleaning, priming and painting them a dark grey. We replaced the faux wood cup pulls with metal ones and changed the countertop to a faux slate laminate. We changed the sink to a black silgranit and bought new light fixtures and a black computer desk. I still have fond memories of our DIY kitchen.

This is what our kitchen looked like during the renovation. I was so glad to get rid of the cold ceramic tiles and replace them with hardwood. You can also see the original colour of our hardwood floors on our adjacent family room. They were nice but very yellow and not very ‘us’. It was a hard decision to refinish them but the result was perfect.

What I Learned

These are some of the main tips that I personally learned during the reno although not all of them may apply to your kitchen.

  • Custom cabinetry can be more affordable than non-custom, especially when you go with a local cabinetmaker.
  • Deep single bowl sinks are amazing. They make it so easy to clean large items and hide dirty dishes.
  • Include a prep sink if you have the space. The extra cost for the sink, faucet and plumbing is worth it especially if you have more than one cook in the family or like to entertain often. We use ours for washing vegetables, straining pasta and filling pots.
The small but mighty prep sink.
  • Don’t always go with the standard clearances for aisles; you need less room that you think.
  • Mix cabinet finishes such as painted and stained. It’s a good way to make your kitchen look unique and you can satisfy both yours and your partner’s choices if they are different.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy online. I saved a ton of money by purchasing my sinks and faucets from an online store.
  • Carefully choose your backsplash. Take a sample home, be careful about tiles with variation, post on GW for advice, etc. It is the one thing that will be jarring to your eyes if it is “wrong” since they visually connect your cabinets to the countertop. Cabinets tend to be fairly neutral and countertops lay parallel to the floor, while backsplashes are up against the wall and patterned so your eye will be drawn to them.
  • Post on a forum when you’re stuck on the elements with a variety of choices such as backsplash, pendant lights, bar stools, etc. You have an instant online committee at your fingertips! But take the advice with a grain of salt as everyone has a different sense of style and background. Use GW to leverage and educate your own personal decisions.


There are a few things that we would have done differently. Instead of crying about it, I will instead pass along the information to you in the hopes that you will avoid making the same mistakes. Luckily, this is a short list but I had to get it off my shoulders!

  • I would have made the main sink white rather than biscuit. We went with biscuit thinking the white would be harder to clean, plus our granite has a warm tone to it so we thought it may go better with the warm biscuit sink. But white is so classic and it would have went well with our white cabinets. The biscuit has a yellow undertone that doesn’t quite work with the granite or the crisp white tone of the cabinets. The one “but” is that we wanted silgranit, and I’ve read on GW that the white silgranit doesn’t look as nice and stains over time. So I think our choice ended up being the right one for us even though the colour of the sink still bugs me sometimes.
  • We should have treated our range hood as an important design element especially since it’s in a focal area. My direction to our cabinetry maker was to “make it like the cabinetry” which he did but it was very plain. He also followed the cooktop’s guidelines to have it 24” above the countertop. We had to modify the hood by shortening it to sit 31” above the counter, and we added decorative trim to make it look more finished. He also had to modify the uppers on either side of the hood because they connected to the hood via the frames around the cabinets. This delayed our timeline because our cabinetry maker was busy with other projects, so the installation of the upper cabinets was dependant on the hood being finished. I should have been more specific and created a mock-up for it. Although it turned out pretty nice, we would have avoided the delay if we put more thought into the design of it.
The original hood – too low and too plain.
  • We should have been there the day our hardwood was stained. If the stain colour is wrong, they can adjust it on the spot. Refinishing our floors again due to the wrong stain colour was the number one headache and timeline-buster of our entire reno.
  • We would have covered our hardwood floors while work was being done. Our floors had stain and one coat of poly, then they put the last coat of poly after all the cabinets were installed. In that interim period, they painted, primed, spackled walls and ceilings, and got all that stuff on our dark hardwood floors. We laid down a pathway with cardboard but everywhere else, there was stuff that took us hours to remove with rubbing alcohol and water as water alone didn’t work! Anything we missed was unfortunately sealed in with the last coat of poly. We should have spent the upfront time to cover the floors completely as it would have saved us hours of time and aggravation.
Just seeing those dirty floors makes me shudder.
  • I should have done rollout shelving for all the shelves in the floor-to-ceiling pantry. For some reason I was thinking that it would help to save costs but the value it provides would far outweigh the cost. (Picture yourself on a step ladder, with one third of your body in the cabinet, trying to get something in the back of the pantry. It’s not fun!)
  • We should have hired all the subcontractors through our head contractor. The jobs with the subs that we hired separately (ex. The first guys who stained the hardwood) did not go ideally, and we had a positive experience with all the subs hired through our GC. I think there are many benefits to doing it this way, such as more accountability and more competitive pricing as our GC gives them regular work.
  • We should have purchased embedded floor vents/registers like we did in our bathrooms. The ones we installed sit on top of the floor and it’s annoying when we trip over them or our kitchen chairs catch on them. Fortunately we were able to find dark brown metal ones that sit flush with the floors.

What Went Well

  • Hiring an extremely competent head contractor made our first major home renovation stress-free and thus enjoyable. We never had to worry that something would go wrong because he took care of all the details and was always available to answer our questions. He made everything happen from getting our cabinet paint and stain colours just right, to booking another subcontractor to restain our floors, to modifying the range hood to our new specifications. He has a knack for hiring competent subcontractors which is critical to having a successful renovation. The GC is the main project planner and plays a key role, and we are so lucky that he is also our good friend.
  • Hiring an experienced designer to do the layout was a really, really good thing. She sat down with us to understand our needs and brought in her experience from designing other kitchens. I know there are people who do the layout on their own but I doubt anyone would argue how challenging it is. She suggested amazing ideas that we would never have thought of such as repositioning the island and having a ceiling-to-counter glass cabinet. I am also happy with how she incorporated a desk area for my husband and coupled it with the pantry, which enabled him to hide his computer peripherals in the bottom shelf of the pantry.
  • Some people think that hiring a designer will be similar to many of the HGTV shows, meaning that the designer comes up with a look and feel and presents it to their shocked and surprised client. This was not our experience with our designer as she acted as more of a technical consultant. My husband and I chose everything in the kitchen on our own including the lights, faucets, cabinetry colour and style, hardwood stain, etc. Where our designer provided value was in the design details: Where should we use knobs versus pulls, what size of pulls should we use, what colour of white to use on the painted cabinets to create a crisp and classic look, what type of window treatments to use on the challenging window wall, etc. For me, these decisions are the hardest to make without experience. I’ve posted on GW many times for this type of help and have had great advice. But sometimes, I think this type of help can only be provided by someone who is physically in your kitchen because photos can’t replicate the amount of light that your room gets, the sight lines to another room, how it feels to move throughout your kitchen, etc. A lot of design is about “feel” rather than following a specific set of design rules which makes it challenging.
  • Include a place to display something special on every wall of your kitchen. I know this may not work for some of the smaller kitchens but to put it more generally, maximize the areas where you can show off your pretty stuff! It could be a glass cabinet, open shelves, a shelf on your range hood, etc. For kitchens with dramatic windows as focal points I don’t think this is as important since you have a view to the outdoors.
  • I was regularly tempted to go with trendy and unusual elements as I was worried the decisions we were making were too safe. To reassure myself, I kept going back to the inspiration kitchens that had timeless, classic materials. Their kitchens have signature, unique elements but they didn’t include something unusual just for the heck of it. I know that if I went with a funky red glass backsplash I would have gotten tired of it.
  • Put hardwood in your kitchen!!! Yes, I will shamelessly advocate putting hardwood in the kitchen despite any perceived negatives because it feels great and will add tremendous character. Don’t overthink it, just do it, and you’ll love it.
  • The biggest piece of advice: Don’t compare your kitchen to every other kitchen in a magazine or Houzz or Garden Web. I can’t tell you how many times I have been ridden with angst over seeing other kitchens which caused me to second guess my own choices. That is the one danger of lingering online too much; the constant comparison of your home to others’ homes. You should focus on the things that matter in life and the memories you will build in your kitchen. Throughout the reno, sometimes I became so self-focused that I began to sweat the details and forget the reason why I was doing it in the first place. When it’s all over, it really is just a room to enjoy life in. Love your kitchen for the unique characteristics that no other kitchen has.