Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of IKEA. Their vast variety of storage solutions, lighting, furniture, etc makes them ideal for any modernist on a budget.
One of IKEA’s most ubiquitous offerings is their line of modular kitchen cabinets. IKEA cabinets have been featured in multi-million dollar architect-designed homes (they were gorgeous, and I even got to meet the architect!), a renovated Airstream trailer, and just about everywhere in between. I recently built and installed an IKEAkitchen in a 160q ft Tiny House on wheels (THOW), and I’d like to share some of the things I learned so that you can decide if IKEA cabinets are the right choice for your Tiny House.
NOTE: Tiny houses come in all shapes and sizes, but for this review, I am focusing on Tiny Houses on Wheels (THOWs). THOW’s have unique restrictions in terms of weight and width that require some extra care when choosing things like kitchen cabinets.
IKEA’s latest line of kitchen cabinets is built on a basic 5” modular system. Drawers are either 5, 10 or 15 inches high; doors come in sizes ranging from 15 - 60 inches high. Cabinet frames start at 12 inches wide, and continue up to 15, 18, 21, 24, 30, and 36 inches wide. What does this mean for you? Well, if you need a cabinet that is exactly 32 inches wide…. fuggedaboudit!! However, with a little creativity and flexibility, you can nearly always find a configuration that will work in your space.
One common trick many THOWs use to maximize space is to use base cabinets that are only 18 or 21” deep (instead of the standard 24”). If that is your plan, you better be handy with a table saw - IKEA cabinets come in two depths: 15 inches and 24 inches for both base AND wall cabinets. That’s it. This can be a little limiting, especially for the wall cabinets, which are traditionally only 11-12 inches deep. IKEA cabinets allow you to store more, but at 15” deep they are literally in your face.
Every THOW I have seen that uses IKEA cabinets has eschewed the upper cabinets in favor of open shelving. One benefit of the 15 inch-depth cabinets: you can use them as shallower base cabinets on one side of your kitchen to open up more floor space. Check out Cody and Randi’s tiny house - they did just that!
There are two things about IKEA’s modular system that make IKEA cabinets ideal for tiny houses:
- 15” Depth (front to back) drawers - Many wheel wells intrude about 9” into a THOW’s interior space (every house is different - please measure yours). Using a 15” depth drawer on the bottom of the cabinet instead of a 24” deep drawer means we were able to allocate the perfect amount of space taken up by the wheel well and still have a usable drawer. Coincidence? I think not.
- Shallower utensil drawers - Go measure the front of a utensil drawer in your regular kitchen. It’s okay, I’ll wait….. Chances are it’s about 6” high. Deep drawers for pots and pans (if you’re lucky enough to have them) are typically 12”-14” high. Since IKEA’s drawers are built on a 5” scale, you can fit an EXTRA utensil drawer, and still have two 10” deep drawers for pots and pans. It’s a small feature that makes a BIG difference!
TIP: Before you start designing your kitchen, stop by IKEA and pick up a copy of their Buying Guide - cabinets, fronts, organizers, knobs and handles. It provides EVERY available cabinet, door, drawer, etc. and is essential for planning your tiny kitchen.
IKEA offers a fairly limited range of door and drawer styles. (watch the prices - they vary widely based on style!) While many people can find something they love, there are other options as well. Companies like Semi Handmade and Dunsmuir specialize in making custom doors and drawers to fit IKEA cabinet frames. While generally pricier than IKEA’s stock doors, they are absolutely gorgeous and look great as an accent if you can’t afford custom fronts for the whole kitchen.
We are solving two problems at once by having a shallower custom upper cabinet built that will contrast the white IKEA cabinets, but won’t break the bank.
TIP: IKEA's stock cabinet hardware, while very nice, is not the best I've ever experienced. Instead of settling for their limited options (unless you absolutely love it!), try pairing your IKEA cabinets with good quality hardware that truly reflects your style.
These suckers are pretty HEAVY! IKEA uses laminated particleboard for their cabinet boxes, which is a common material in off-the-shelf cabinets. Their drawers are also fairly heavy-duty. The full-extension drawers with soft close mechanisms, while AMAZING, are also going to add a significant amount of weight. In a normal house, this wouldn’t be an issue beyond making sure the wall could hold the extra weight, but when you’re counting ounces in a THOW, weight is a BIG deal.
TIP: If you love the look of IKEA cabinets, but have concerns about the excessive weight, remember this: IKEA uses 3/4” panels in their construction, and all the components (frame, hardware and drawer/door fronts) are sold separately. You can build your own frame using a lighter material, then install IKEA drawers and doors. Just make sure your frame is sturdy enough to support the stuff in it and the countertops on it.
I can certainly say one thing: these Swedes know their materials. They understand that particleboard may be cheaper, but it has some structural limitations. As a result, you will see they use some quirky methods to make sure your cabinets are structurally stable and can withstand daily wear and tear. The hinges and drawer glides are incredibly solid. They are made by a company called Blum, which provides hardware for many high-end cabinet companies.
When choosing door/drawer fronts for your cabinets, pay attention to the materials used. NOT ALL STYLES ARE CREATED EQUAL. Different styles use different quality materials and finishes, and some are more durable than others. I recommend buying a single small cabinet, taking it home, and using it on a daily basis to store something you use frequently. For example, we used a 15”x15”x15" cabinet with drawers in a painted MDF finish as an ottoman to store remotes, iPads, etc to test the durability of the finish. It’s held up very well. We also learned that the white lacquered finish, while very pretty, shows pretty much every fingerprint and smudge you throw at it.
IKEA has a good reason to make sure your cabinets last - cabinets and hardware (hinges, drawer glides, etc) are covered by a 25 year limited warranty. Mind you, cutting out spaces for things like wheel wells probably isn’t very warranty-friendly, so I recommend doing your research if this is something that’s important to you.
At the end of the day, you can absolutely get a product that will work great and last a long time, so long as you do your homework ahead of time, and you're honest with yourself about how much abuse your kitchen will take.
Navigating IKEA's system can be confusing for those who are not familiar with it. Customers start by configuring their kitchen on IKEA's website using a klunky "3-D Kitchen Planner", then a store associate will help you translate your design into a list of parts and items that they then load onto a cart for you to take home (or you can have it delivered). Be patient, check to make sure you have everything, and remember that no matter what you'll need to make a few trips back for additional items.
Depending on who you ask, you may get some differing opinions on whether or not you should tackle installing your own cabinets. Here’s the best advice I can give you: Go buy two cabinets. Put them together. (Yes, BOTH of them) If you are wearing more than 4 band-aids and contemplating the benefits of alcoholism by the time you’re finished, then you should probably hire someone to install your cabinets for you (unless your THOW only has two cabinets, in which case, congratulations you’re already done). If you’re like me and only had one bloody knuckle and a moderate case of potty mouth, then you should be okay. The first cabinet is always the hardest. Once you figure out how the system works, it gets easier from there.
Now, when it comes to attaching these heavy, stylish things to the wall, IKEA got it right. They designed a super easy-to-use rail system to install all of your cabinets (both base and wall). You basically just screw a narrow piece of metal into the wall, then hang the cabinets on it. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
IKEA cabinets can be summed up in one word: VALUE. Our ENTIRE budget for one tiny house’s kitchen cabinets? Under $1,200. Not. Too. Shabby.
Those who are purely budget-minded can absolutely find nice, basic cabinets at any Lowes or Home Depot for less than IKEA. IKEA cabinets are designed to appeal to those who want to incorporate higher-end features and customize their kitchen to suit their needs, but are flexible enough to work within a system that is more limited than, say a semi-custom company like Kraftmaid (which coincidentally came in over 3X the price of IKEA!).
If you’re looking for something clean and simple for your tiny space, and the weight isn't a deal-breaker for you, IKEA is an incredibly solid product, both literally and figuratively. Their value is incredible, and their kitchen design team is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, especially if you show up on a weekday morning.