Get The Classic Look With Freestanding Kitchen Cabinets

This Style, Once Gone, Is Back Again

Freestanding Kitchen Cabinets in Natural Wood Finish
Freestanding Kitchen Cabinets in Natural Wood Finish. Chalon/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

We live in a retro world now, more old than new. White hexagonal tiles evoke the feeling of Lower East Side New York, circa 1913. Wide plank floors, often original, bring back memories of old factories.

And in the home, the same period has returned in the form of freestanding kitchen cabinets.

When All Kitchens Stood Free

At one time, you had no choice: every kitchen was a freestanding kitchen. Take a look at this first image of a pre-World War II kitchen, and you'll notice that all items are free and movable: table, pantry, refrigerator, stove.

Only the sink was fixed in place, and that was because it was attached to the house by plumbing.

During the 1940s, continuous metal kitchen cabinets began to appear in American kitchens. Post World War II, these wraparound cabinets, with their seamless counters, were found everywhere. If you had freestanding cabinets, you were deemed highly impractical--and worse, seriously out of fashion.

The 1950s saw the rise of kitchen remodeling--both do it yourself and hiring pros--as a favorite American pastime. Yet, as homeowners--armed with Popular Mechanics--began to personally take control of the look of their kitchens, cabinets and countertops had gradually become such a specialized craft that pros were chiefly the ones who installed them. 

Think of your own kitchen: did you install your cabinets and fabricate/install the tops? Likely not.

Freestanding cabinets represent both a shout-out to the past and a way for homeowners to gain control of installation and placement flexibility.

What Are They?

Freestanding cabinets are base cabinets that have legs. Except for the legs, the cabinets are completely elevated from the floor.

They differ from conventional base cabinets in that they do not have a toekick nor are they required to be attached to the back wall. 

The category can include both cabinets on the perimeter of the kitchen as well as prep tables in the center of the room.

It usually does not include smaller, loose items such as rolling carts, pantries, butcher block tables, and baking racks.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Freestanding Cabinets

  • Classic Look: Most homeowners choose freestanding cabinets because they want their cabinets to impart a traditional style. 
  • Easier Cleaning: With the absence of the toekick, these cabinets allow for the mop to pass underneath, thus avoiding that abrupt, 90 degree-angle stop created by the juncture of the toekick and flooring. However, this just means that you will have another stop (where floor and wall meet), albeit one that is hidden from view. 
  • Flexibility: Many (but not all) manufacturers produce these items as true pieces of furniture, finished on all sides. This means that you can back them up to a wall or place them in the center of the room. Conventional cabinets have a particle board or thin plywood backing that is not suitable for viewing (though in the case of a kitchen island, you can join two of those cabinets back-to-back or purchase a separate veneer piece to cover that backing). 
  • Movable: Lizell Mill Studio points out that, as long as the length of all cabinets equals the length of the countertop, they can be moved around. While they don't recommend that you make a habit of moving your kitchen "furniture" on a regular basis--in the way you might rearrange your living room pieces--it is possible to do so. This is something that's not possible with conventional cabinets.
  • More Expensive: Freestanding cabinets do tend to be more expensive than conventional cabinets. Ready-to-assemble (RTA) companies, one proven avenue for finding cheaper cabinets, tend to have paltry freestanding offerings or none at all.

Installation Process

While I like to characterize conventional cabinets as being easier to install than they may appear, freestanding cabinets go one step further: they're even easier to install.

Screws located within the cabinets and flush with the bottom of the cabinets are turned by means of an Allen wrench, raising or lowering each leg individually.

For cabinet-to-cabinet connections after leveling, some manufacturers provide special fasteners that positively lock the two pieces and minimize marring. If no fasteners are provided, cabinets can be joined using screws.

If desired, cabinets can also be attached to the back wall.

Manufacturers and Retailers

  • Lizell Mill Studio:  Lizell's tagline is "Innovation By Simplicity." This Pennsylvania-based company makes cabinets using "old-fashioned, traditional construction methods such as mortise and tenon joinery and dovetailing," according to their website.
  • Chalon:  UK-based Chalon produces gorgeous, unique, handcrafted freestanding units (among other pieces).