What Is the Best Under-Cabinet Lighting?

The Pros and Cons of Popular Options

Under cabinet lighting
Steven Miric/Vetta/Getty Images

Have you been thinking about adding some lights under the upper cabinets in your kitchen or home office, or over your workbench? These lights are a great example of task lighting -- lighting that we install to let us see more easily and clearly while we do something.

It might be making a salad or rolling out dough or just finding the right spoon or spice in the collections. Or you could be sorting some papers or photos on your built-in desk.

Maybe you want to be able to see exactly what you're doing to the dresser drawer or coffee maker you're repairing.

As under-cabinet, or countertop, lights have become more popular in recent years, more options for installing them have become available. The question is, which one would you be happiest with?

Fluorescent Strips

For a while, it was popular to install fluorescent tubes under the wall cabinets. That option fell out of favor as people found that they didn't care for the color or the intensity or the glare from these lights.

For one thing, the fluorescent fixtures were almost always installed along the angle where the cabinets meet the wall. That was great for keeping these fixtures, which tend to be both bulky and fragile, away from the person working at the counter, and it made wiring them easier. It also meant, unfortunately, that the light was coming from the other side of the work, and that it would bounce, or glare, off the surface of the counter.

So maybe fluorescent strip lights aren't what you're looking for, but we've learned some things about what we do want by looking at them:

  • The fixture should be mounted close to the front edge of the wall cabinets, so that as much light as possible will be on the objects you're working with, or looking for.

  • It should produce a non-glaring light.

  • The fixture should be small and light, not heavy or bulky.

  • The fixture should be sturdy, in case it does get hit with something.

  • To the extent possible, the fixture should be easy to wire.

And there's one more characteristic that isn't an issue with fluorescent strips:

  • An under-cabinet light should be cool. Not in terms of color temperature, and not just cool looking, but in the amount of heat it generates. It shouldn't give off enough heat to damage your cabinets or their contents.

Round Lights

Some people call these "hockey puck" lights because, well, that's what they look like. They are available with either halogen or xenon light bulbs. Xenon bulbs don't have a filament, so they typically last up to three times longer than halogen bulbs. They also give off a whiter light, which can help visibility but may also produce glare, and they burn hotter than equivalent halogen bulbs. If you want to use lights with xenon bulbs, check the fixtures to see how much heat they'll be transferring to the bottom of your wall cabinets.

Pros:

  • Round lights are designed to be attractive.

  • They are usually sturdy.

  • Round lights are typically relatively easy to wire.

Cons:

  • These lights can get hot - especially the ones with the xenon bulbs.

  • Round lights tend to throw pools of light. Getting even lighting across a broad area may require installing quite a few of them.

Slim Fluorescent Strips

These are the successors to the bulky fixtures of yesteryear. Slim fluorescent fixtures are small enough and light enough to be mounted at the front of the cabinets just behind the face frames. They're also directional so that they can be mounted to cast their light down and toward the wall, not back toward the room.

Pros:

  • Slim fluorescents are more attractive than the older models.

  • Most fluorescent tube fixtures with covers are reasonably sturdy.

  • Most of these fixtures are relatively easy to wire.

  • Some fluorescent tube fixtures can be strung together to create very even lighting.

Cons:

  • It may become expensive to add enough to provide even lighting.

  • Because these are fluorescent lights, you should make sure you enjoy the color of the light before installing them.

LED Strips and Packs

Some of these lights look a lot like the slim fluorescent fixtures, and some of them can be a bit bulky. They are LEDs, though, which tends to mean a long service life, lower operating costs, and a different quality of light. It can vary, so you want to power them up in your kitchen and try out the light before you install them.

Pros:

  • LED strips and packs are designed to be attractive.

  • Most of these fixtures are reasonably sturdy.

  • Some LED strips and packs can be strung together to create very even lighting.

Cons:

  • It may become expensive to add enough of these to provide even lighting.

  • LED lights may require a separate power source, which adds to the cost and can make the wiring trickier to install.

  • Because they are LEDs, make sure you enjoy the color of the light before you install them.

LED Ropes and Tapes

These lights are so slim that you can make them virtually disappear. They tuck into the angle between the face frame and the bottom shelf of the cabinet. You should never see them, only the light they produce. They don't give off as much light as some of the other types but, because they come in a continuous roll, they often provide the most continuous light available.

Pros:

  • LED ropes and tapes can be installed to be invisible, or nearly so.

  • They are sturdy.

  • They provide very even lighting, and they can be mounted end-to-end to keep the light going without dead spots.

  • LED ropes and tapes are relatively inexpensive, per foot of light.

  • These lights are good to use for add-in lighting.

Cons:

  • They may require a separate power source, which adds to the cost and can make the wiring trickier to install.

  • Because they are LEDs, make sure you enjoy the color of the light before you install them.

  • LED rope and tape lights might provide less light than you would like. It means that they are not as useful as a primary source of light as some of the other options.

    What's the Best Choice?

    If you have good general lighting in your kitchen or home office, and you want light evenly across the counter, adding LED strip or tape lights might be your best choice. Above a workbench, a brighter light, such as a fluorescent tube fixture, is more likely to give you the level of light you need. For more ideas on how some new countertop lighting might look in your kitchen, check out Best Kitchen Countertops.