Kitchen islands range from the cheapest and most simplistic, and therefore the least useful (rolling carts), to the most expensive and most functional (multi-tiered islands with a sink, electrical service, and ample room to sit and eat at the counter). We cover the range here.
The important dividing point is between the portable and the permanent/fixed island. The former class is not required to have electrical service; the latter class is required. It's important because running power is... costly and invasive. If your house foundation is slab-on-grade, this requires cutting into the slab or running wires from above. Incidentally, running wires from the attic isn't as bad as it sounds. Here's an island idea whereby two pillars run up from the island to the ceiling, acting both as structural supports and possibly disguising cables.
Few jurisdictions seem to want to define "permanent and fixed" in relation to kitchen island electrical code. Because of that, we recommend not affixing the island to the kitchen floor until you reach stage 4 below, Base Cabinets and Countertops.
01 of 06
Rolling Cart "Island"
You can barely even classify this as a kitchen island, but we must start somewhere. Rolling carts are more like portable prep areas that you keep to the side of the kitchen rather than featuring prominently and permanently alongside your primary counters. The butcher block cart is a familiar type of rolling "island."
Pros: Cheap and easy to move in and out.
Cons: Rolling carts tend to roll. These wheels tend to become unlocked with surprising frequency. When locked, these types of wheels... do not provide enough grip on floors.
02 of 06
Small, Non-Portable Kitchen Island
These islands differ from the portable, rolling cart islands, listed above, in that they do not have wheels on the bottom. More importantly, they actually strive to emulate a "real" kitchen island.
At 38", they are the right height for prepping food. They don't have the annoying tendency of those rolling carts of sliding away when you're trying to cut something.
To avoid triggering the electrical code's requirement for the installation of receptacles, I recommend not... affixing this type of island to the floor.
Pros: If you want something resembling an island, this is the way to go.
Cons: You may be surprised at the smallness of these islands. Because they are sold flat-packed and are often freighted or mailed to you, they need to be rather compact. Four feet long tends to be the maximum length. Is that big enough for you? Also, some customers report that the flip-up leaves don't remain level and are worthless for working on.
03 of 06
Kitchen Island Table
It's got four legs and a flat top, so it's a table. Yet it's positioned where the island usually is, so it must be an island. It's nothing more than a table that's used as an island for preparing food.
Pros: Easy to bring in and "install." Easy to remove if you don't like it (it's not attached to the floor). Using a table as an island also gives your kitchen a certain Martha Stewart charm, but in a good way.
Cons: It's just an extra flat surface--no... receptacle, no sink, no backsplash. It's just a table.
04 of 06
Base Cabinet With Countertop
An island built out of pre-existing materials: a base cabinet (or two or four) topped with countertop material.
Up to this point, electrical code has not required that receptacles be built into the island because the islands were portable. But now this type of built-in island, which is fixed to the floor, is considered to be permanent. As long as the countertop dimensions are 12" x 24" or greater, electrical receptacles are required.
Pros: By far, the easiest built-in kitchen island for a... homeowner to build, but not the cheapest.
Cons: The back side, which is ordinarily not seen in cabinet form because it faces the wall, must be covered with a veneer piece. Alternatively, if your kitchen has space for it, you can marry two base cabinets back to back. Also, you'll need to have countertop material cut "to size."Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Fully Functional Island (Electricity and Water)
The fully functional kitchen island does everything that the primary countertops do: electrical, sink, drainage, and ample countertop space.
Pros: This isn't just "auxiliary counter space." This is almost an entire second kitchen.
Cons: Your costs have skyrocketed due to the addition of plumbing. The sink's supply and drainage do not conveniently tap into the main sink's lines (in the same way that a dishwasher, located next to the sink, will do). Your island's lines run... into and under the floor, eventually meeting up with main supply and drainage lines.
06 of 06
Double-Tiered Cooking/Eating Kitchen Island
Is it a kitchen island for cooking or is it a kitchen island for eating? It can't quite make up its mind, so it has decided to be both. This island combines the two functions but still delineates them so that cooking is done on a lower level and eating on a higher level.
Pros: This type of island is ergonomically correct. Optimal counter height for a standing cook is 36 inches. Best height for a bar top is 42 inches.
Cons: By providing dedicated eating space, you reduce your cooking space.... There is no way you can prep food on that upper deck, even if you wanted to. But with a flat cooking/eating island, you could always impinge on the eating area if you had to.