Ways To Fix Space-Wasting Kitchen Cabinet Soffits

One major choice you need to make before installing kitchen wall cabinets concerns the space above the cabinets--the soffit.  Do you want it or not?

The problem is that ceilings are 8 feet high, minimum.  Comfortable reachable height for cabinets is about 5 feet.  On cabinets with a soffit, that's your middle shelf.  The uncomfortable reachable height for cabinets is about 6 feet high, or your top shelf.  Most shorter people simply cannot reach that top shelf without the help of a stool.

Now imagine one more shelf on top of that top shelf.  That's your soffit area, stratospherically located around 6.5 to 7 feet high.  A person of any height would need a stool or even a stepladder to reach that area.

Here is the range of options you have when dealing with cabinet soffits:

  • 01 of 07

    Open Soffit

    High Gloss Slab Kitchen Cabinet Doors 514410507
    High Gloss Slab Kitchen Cabinet Doors. Getty / Spaces Images

    This is the most common option for kitchen cabinets.  Your 32" tall cabinets maintain about a 7" gap between the top of cabinets and ceiling.

    • This gap provides a visual relief, giving the cabinets less of a bulky appearance.
    • The top shelf inside the cabinets can still be reached by way of a stool for shorter people or without a stool for taller people.
    • You have the greatest range of kitchen cabinet options with this sizing choice.
    • Downsides:  Dust collects in open soffits and requires regular cleaning; space appears to be large enough to store items but isn't (i.e., a coffee maker would have to be laid sideways).
  • 02 of 07

    No Soffit (Cabinets Built Up to Ceiling)

    Kitchen Cabinets With No Soffit
    Kitchen Cabinets With No Soffit. CC-Licensed; Flickr user Charley

    Another option for dealing with that open space is to shove the cabinets upward, thus filling in the open space.  But you'll need to purchase taller wall cabinets--36" or 48" high--in order to fill that space.

    • Maximizes potential storage space. 
    • Eliminates dust collection on top of cabinets.
    • Gives kitchen a smooth, seamless appearance.
    • Downside:  Many homeowners find that top shelf to be so high that it is essentially unusable, meaning they have paid for more cabinets than they need.
  • 03 of 07

    Short Open Soffit

    Kitchen Cabinets With Very Short Soffit
    Kitchen Cabinets With Very Short Soffit. CC-Licensed; Flickr user Susan Serra CKD

    Notice the few inches of space between the top of the cabinets and ceiling?  This is a style that has become more popular in recent years.

    • Increases but does not maximize, potential storage space.
    • The space above cabinets helps to avoid that monolithic, "heavy" look.
    • Downside:  low space is impossible to clean.
  • 04 of 07

    Glass Cabinets in Soffit

    Glass Doored Cabinets in Kitchen Cabinet Soffit
    Glass Doored Cabinets in Kitchen Cabinet Soffit. CC-Licensed; Flickr user Susan Serra CKD

    I like this compromising option very much; it presents the best of different worlds.

    • Soffit is closed off, so no dust can collect.
    • Glass doors are great for displaying pretty items.
    • Visibility through the glass provides some feeling of airiness, though not as much as an open soffit would.
    • Downside:  glass door cabinets are more expensive than solid door cabinets.
    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Bulkhead in Soffit Area

    Kitchen Cabinets with Bulkhead in Soffit
    Kitchen Cabinets with Bulkhead in Soffit. CC-Licensed; Flickr user Kricket

    The soffit is closed off with a bulkhead constructed of drywall and 2x4s.  Basically, it's a little wall built above the cabinets.

    • No dust collection problems.
    • Potential storage space is sealed-off and wasted.  Even if you wanted to use this space in a pinch, you are prevented from doing so.
    • Helps out when you want to hang cabinets in the center of the room, as pictured here.
  • 06 of 07

    Open Soffit, Decorated

    Open Soffit Decorated with Tile
    Open Soffit Decorated with Tile. CC-Licensed; Flickr user Hywell Martinez

    More common than you might think:  a row of ceramic tiles applied to the soffit wall; a strip of colorful, vibrant paint; a line of metal or faux metal ceiling tiles.  Anything that fits that space and looks good:  your imagination is the only limit.

    • Same dust problems as with any open soffit.
    • Strong visual interest enlivens shadowy, gloomy, unlighted soffit area.
  • 07 of 07

    Ad Hoc Fill-In Cabinet in Soffit Area

    Kitchen Cabinets with Fill In Cabinet in Soffit
    Kitchen Cabinets with Fill In Cabinet in Soffit. CC-Licensed; Flickr user xbobmx

    A custom-built "cabinet" filling in the open soffit.

    • Doors help to cover up unattractive items stored above cabinets.
    • Easy to build crude, functional doors.  Difficult to build furniture-quality doors, though.