How to Build an Outdoor Kitchen: an Overview
If you enjoy outdoor living, building an outdoor kitchen can be one of the best home improvements you can tackle. Having your food preparation dining spaces outdoors where you are entertaining or hanging out with your family is much more convenient than preparing food indoors and transporting it outdoors. With a full-featured outdoor kitchen, the chef can enjoy the company of others while preparing food, and dishes can be served immediately off the grill while they are still warm and delicious. And that's not to mention the delicious smells that outdoor cooking brings to the landscape.
But if you tackle this project, go into it with your eyes open. A full-featured outdoor kitchen is a major project that will test your budget, your DIY skills, and your schedule.
What to Consider Before Building an Outdoor Kitchen
Budget, the layout of the yard, and your preferred style of outdoor activity will dictate what kind of outdoor kitchen you build. Frequent entertaining and large budgets may translate to full-scale outdoor kitchens, with an outdoor sink, countertops, stove and oven, refrigerator, a shelter for the area, and a built-in barbecue grill. If you throw just the occasional party or barbecue, it is more economical to retain some key items—cabinets, counter, and a cooking area—while putting the pricey, elaborate items on pause, at least for now.
You can expect to take two to three weeks to build your outdoor kitchen, and it's important to keep in mind that if you really plan on doing all the work, this is a project that should be undertaken only by expert DIYers. And even the most skilled DIYers often need contractors for selected portions of the project, such as running plumbing, gas, and electrical service. In terms of cost, you can expect to pay between at least $3,000 on materials if you are building a very basic outdoor kitchen, and $10,000 or more for a full-featured outdoor kitchen with a full array of appliances.
Where do you intend to build the outdoor kitchen? Logistically, it makes sense to locate the kitchen relatively close to the house, especially if you are running electrical, water, and gas lines. The area should be dry, level, and stable. If the sun is a problem, look for leafy trees that can block the sun. If you want more sun, plan accordingly.
Are there any intervening yard elements such as pools, hot tubs, flower beds, fences, or buried lines? Septic tanks, whether active or filled, may pose a problem for burying utility lines. Check the home title for easements that might restrict how and where you can build.
Unlike indoor kitchens, which follow strict layout guidelines, outdoor kitchens afford you more freedom for planning. But there are some common sense rules. Situate critical services such as the sink, stove, oven, and barbecue grill on the side closest to the house. In most cases, you will be running gas, water, and electrical lines off of the side or rear of the house. And be aware that outdoor kitchens are still subject to building codes and other regulations.
Codes and Regulations
Be sure to speak to your local permitting department about building codes and any related permits. Running electrical and gas lines to the outdoor kitchen will usually trigger the permitting process. Any structure intended to cover the outdoor kitchen may also require permitting if it meets certain conditions—such as if they are anchored to the home, or if they require poured foundations. Before digging, always call 811 or your local utilities' damage prevention hotline. Technicians will visit your property to mark gas, electrical, water, and other vital lines.
When to Build an Outdoor Kitchen
Provided you have a plan in hand and don't have to wait on building materials or appliances, you can plan on one to three weeks of hands-on labor to build your outdoor kitchen—and maybe more if you need to prepare a patio slab or build a deck to hold your kitchen. For this reason, construction is best planned for a period when the weather in your region is predicted to be mild and dry. Precipitation and snow can hamper outdoor building, as can the intense heat of mid summer. If you plan on erecting a permanent covered shelter, you may want to do this first to make it easier to build the rest of the kitchen. If you live in a cold winter region, running underground gas and electrical lines is difficult when the ground is frozen solid; mid to late fall can be a great time for this kind of work. If you prefer the spring, wait until the soil has thawed before beginning, but try to complete work before the heat of summer arrives.
Your personal schedule—and those of any potential helpers—also plays a role choosing the ideal time to build your kitchen. This project is best done with at least one or two helpers, so try to schedule your project for a stretch of time when you can call in favors from good friends with DIY skills. Or you may need to hire a handyman or laborer to help you, which requires prior scheduling. And professional electricians and plumbers often need to be booked months in advance, so keep this in mind when planning construction.
What You'll Need
Equipment / Tools
- Shovels, excavation tools (as needed)
- Assorted carpentry tools (as needed)
- Electrical tools (as needed)
- Plumbing tools (as needed)
- Deck or patio surface materials (as needed)
- Nails, screws, metal connectors (as needed)
- Electrical cables, conduits, GFCI outlets, and fixtures (as needed)
- Water supply and drain pipes (as needed)
- Pergola kit or lumber for shelter structure
- Weather-resistant cabinets (as needed)
- Weather-resistant appliances (as needed)
- Countertop rated for outdoor use
- Outdoor dining table and other furniture (as needed)
Prepare the Base
The outdoor kitchen must be built on a suitable base that is dry, level, and stable. If you have a good sized existing patio or a sturdy deck, this may be the best place for your outdoor kitchen. But if you do not such a surface already available, you must create a patio or deck—or at least a firm, flat space—that is suitable for the considerable weight of a large grill and other outdoor appliances. Here are some options:
- Elevate your outdoor kitchen with a ground-level or floating deck. One advantage of a wood-framed deck is that utility lines can be hidden below the surface decking and attached to the framing.
- A basic patio made of poured concrete, brick pavers, or natural stone such as travertine or flagstone makes a rock-solid floor for an outdoor kitchen. For sheer durability and lifespan, a masonry base of this type is the best choice.
- A basic and very inexpensive gravel patio made from a framework of 2 x 6 lumber and a layer of pea gravel over sheets of landscape fabric make a perfectly suitable surface for a simple outdoor kitchen, though it works best in informal settings.
Run the Utility Lines
Next to purchasing the outdoor appliances, running the utility lines between the outdoor kitchen and the house can be the most expensive part of this project, as it often requires hiring professionals to do the installation. If you do decide to install a full-service outdoor kitchen:
- Both gas and water lines, if desired, may need to be run underground below the frost line, if applicable to your area. This can be as much as 4 feet below the soil surface in far northern regions. Electrical lines must be run through conduit or laid underground with special direct-burial cable. The lines must be buried at the correct depth specified for your area.
- It is highly recommended that you hire an electrician to run the power line, if any, to the outdoor kitchen. Don't do this work yourself unless you are a very experienced and skilled DIYer, and only if local codes allow for homeowner installation of electrical service.
- In most municipalities, gray drainage water from the sink cannot be expelled to the open ground. To meet the plumbing code, you must run a drain line from the outdoor kitchen's sink drain back to the house's main drain line.
- A plumbing contractor can install water supply and drainage lines, as well as gas supply pipes. Gas work should never be done by DIYers.
- All work will need to be inspected and permitted by your local building department.
Build a Shelter Structure
It's very common to build a shelter over and around the outdoor kitchen, though it is not always needed. A overhead shelter will be almost mandatory in very warm climates where direct sun in the summer can be unbearable, and in northern climates, a full enclosure with insect screens will make your outdoor dining area much more useable for a longer season. A shelter also helps define your outdoor kitchen and dining area within the overall landscape.
Your shelter can be as simple as a fabric sailcloth suspended over a patio table, or as elaborate as a fully enclosed gazebo. Another popular option is to build a pergola, covered either with open latticework to break up the sunlight, or a retractable canopy.
Construction of the shelter can be a major component of the budget and building schedule if you choose an elaborate form that requires a considerable amount of construction and carpentry work. But there are also simple pergola kits that are easy to assemble on a deck or patio.
Install Cabinets and Countertops
An outdoor kitchen will be more versatile if you include ample countertop space laid atop permanent base cabinets for storing food preparation items, dinnerware, and grilling supplies. When laying out the position of the base cabinets, leave spaces for a grill and outdoor refrigerator, if you are including them. In certain layouts, it may even be possible to mount some wall cabinets on the outside wall of the home or in the sheltering structure to provide more storage.
Cabinets used in an outdoor kitchen should be made of (or faced with) hardy materials such as stainless steel, natural or veneer stone, or even pallet wood treated with sealants.
For tough countertops suitable for outdoor use, natural stone or quartz (synthetic stone), stainless steel, or solid surface material (such as Corian) are good choices. Or, you could make your own concrete countertops by pouring concrete into a mold and flipping it over to reveal the smooth top.
Complete the Utility Work, Install Appliances
If the outdoor kitchen has any electric appliances, such as a refrigerator or electric grill, the electrician should now come in and install the GFCI-protected outlets for plugging them in. Permanent outdoor lighting can be added at this point, too. In pergolas, you might want to consider having an overhead fan installed (make sure it is rated for outdoor use). The plumbing contractor should also complete any gas, water supply, and drain stub-outs.
After the plumbing stub-outs and wiring fixtures are complete, you will need to have one last visit from the building inspector to review the work and close the permits. In some communities, this is done by two different inspectors—one for wiring, one for plumbing/gas.
With the electrical, gas, and wiring complete, the appliances and sink/faucet can now be moved into place and plugged in or connected. In most cases, homeowners are allowed to connect the appliances and faucets, provided the stub-outs and outlets have passed inspection.
If you choose not to run gas or electrical lines to your outdoor kitchen, alternate cooking sources include a pizza oven, a do-it-yourself island barbecue, a mobile gas barbecue grill, or a charcoal grill.
Create (and Accessorize) an Outdoor Dining Area
Complete your outdoor kitchen by adding the tables, chairs, and other furniture needed for dining and socializing. This can range from a simple moveable patio table or picnic table, to a more elaborate setup that includes built-in seating areas, a code-approved fire pit, or patio heaters.
Completing touches can include weatherproof floorcoverings, a planter for growing a convenient herb garden near the cooking area, weatherproof bluetooth speakers for background music, and solar-powered decorative lights. You might even include a weatherproof outdoor television.
When to Call a Professional
How much professional help you need will depend on your DIY experience and on what local codes allow you to do yourself. But it is likely that even the most experienced DIYers will call in pros for key portions of the project, such as pouring a concrete slab for the base, and running plumbing, electrical, and gas lines. And you may choose to have the sheltering structure built by a skilled carpenter.
For many people a "DIY" outdoor kitchen means really DIY general contracting—hiring and supervising several subcontractors to do various stages of work, while doing only the final hookups and finishing touches themselves.