Kitchen islands are a popular way to add extra storage, seating, and work surface to a kitchen. Unfinished kitchen islands provide a blank slate to create exactly the look you want. With some simple DIY skills, you can build and finish your own kitchen island to match your home’s style. This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about unfinished kitchen islands, from design ideas to finishing techniques.

What Are Unfinished Kitchen Islands?

Unfinished kitchen islands are pre-made cabinetry units that are delivered without final surface finishes. They consist of a wooden base cabinet fitted with doors, drawers, and shelves. The cabinet’s exterior is typically raw wood or MDF (medium density fiberboard).

The “unfinished” nature allows full customization in choosing stain colors, paint techniques, counter materials, and hardware. With some basic tools and DIY skills, you can build and finish an island tailored to your kitchen’s decor.

Benefits of Unfinished Islands

Opting for an unfinished island over pre-finished cabinetry offers several advantages:

  • Full customization: Choose finishes to perfectly match existing kitchen cabinets and countertops. Stain, paint, decorate, and distress exactly as desired.
  • Cost savings: Unfinished islands are cheaper than pre-finished custom cabinetry. You save on labor costs by finishing it yourself.
  • Exact sizing: Islands can be ordered in custom dimensions to fit your kitchen layout perfectly.
  • Quality materials: Islands are constructed from durable plywood boxes rather than lower-grade particleboard.
  • Easier installation: DIY-friendly unfinished cabinets install more easily than pre-finished units.

Unfinished Island Design Considerations

Several factors go into designing the perfect unfinished kitchen island for your needs:

Size and Layout

Consider traffic flows and clearances to optimize your island’s dimensions and positioning. Islands are commonly 36-48 inches wide and 16-24 inches deep. Ensure at least 42 inches of open floor space around the island perimeter.

Cabinet Construction

Quality unfinished islands have plywood case construction, solid wood doors and drawer fronts, and full-extension drawer glides. Opt for soft-closing hinges and drawer glides for a luxury feel.

Storage Options

Incorporate drawers, cabinets, shelves, and pull-out trays customized to your storage needs. Mix closed cabinets and open shelves for different looks.

Countertop Shape

Common island shapes include rectangular, oval, curved, and L-shaped. Match or contrast the countertop shape with your existing kitchen counters.


An overhang creates an eating bar or casual seating space. Allow 10-15 inches for seating or 8-12 inches just for ergonomic purposes.

Sink and Appliances

Consider adding a sink or small appliances like a wine fridge. Ensure adequate plumbing and electrical connections are in place.

Leg Style

Exposed legs showcase your island’s unique finishes. Tapered feet, chunky posts, and metal legs are popular options. Or use side/base panels for a built-in look.


Islands 42-48 inches high work well with barstools for seating. Allow at least 15 inches of overhang for comfortable seating. Include outlets for stools with built-in charging.

DIY Unfinished Island Finishing Techniques

Finishing an unfinished island yourself allows complete control over the final look. Consider how you want the island to complement existing kitchen finishes. Here are some top finishing options:


Matching stains are an easy way to coordinate island cabinets with your current cabinetry. Test stains on scraps first to ensure an ideal color match. Apply primer if staining a lighter color than the raw wood. Use a pre-stain conditioner for more even absorption.


Painted islands add a cheerful pop of color or sleek modern look in contrasting hues. Opt for cabinet-grade paint in a satin, semi-gloss, or high-gloss sheen. Use an angled brush for the recessed cabinet frames.


A distressed island has an antiqued, well-worn finish. After staining or painting, use coarse sandpaper to rub away color in spots. Focus on edges and corners for a naturally worn look. Apply glaze to crevices for added contrast.


Whitewash pickles the wood, leaving a muted aged effect. Wipe cabinets with a white paint/stain mix, then immediately wipe it off to leave color in crevices only. Layer for intensity.


Add interest with varied gray-brown hues like driftwood. Brush white paint over raw wood, then sand through paint in spots. Apply gray and tan stains randomly over the distressing. Seal with a matte polyurethane.


Glazing accentuates the wood grain with bold contrast. Stain the base color first, then apply a darker gel glaze by hand over the surface. Wipe away glaze evenly for the desired effect.

Chalk Painting

Chalk paint adheres well and needs no priming or sanding. Brush two coats of chalk paint on the unfinished cabinets, then lightly sand and seal with wax for a smooth finish.

Unfinished Island Countertop Options

Choosing the right countertop completes the look of your DIY kitchen island. Consider durability, maintenance, cost, and how the material complements your existing counters and sinks.

Butcher Block

Butcher block offers a timeless warmth. Opt for unfinished wood treated with food-safe mineral oil or go for a pre-finished look. It requires regular oiling to maintain.


Granite is a high-end classic with unique natural patters. Choose a polished, honed, or leathered surface texture. This natural stone is extremely durable but can be porous.


Quartz counters are engineered stone that is non-porous and nearly indestructible. It resists heat and scratches while requiring very little maintenance.


Elegant marble brings an eye-catching veining and luminosity. It stains easily though, so sealing and care is required. Honed marble hides scratches better than polished.


Soapstone has rustic charm along with naturally antibacterial properties. Oil routinely to keep its darkened patina. Avoid abrasive cleaners that can scratch the soft surface.


Ceramic, stone, or porcelain tile allow you to get creative with patterns and designs. Use large grout lines for a more rustic look. Cons are sealing and staining in the grout lines.

Reclaimed Wood

Upcycled barn wood or salvaged floorboards make gorgeous live-edge countertops. Each piece is unique and easy to install. Wood sealers help protect the surface.


Concrete counters offer industrial cool and can be tinted, stained, or engraved. They are prone to staining and cracking though. Use sealers to limit absorption.


Affordable and practical, laminate counters mimic luxury looks like quartz and granite. Modern laminates are durable, but joints may lift over time. Avoid cutting directly on the surface.

DIY Installation Tips

With some simple tools and DIY skills, installing your own unfinished kitchen island can be a relatively easy weekend project. Follow these tips for smooth assembly:

  • Review the detailed instructions provided with your island kit for specifics.
  • Ensure you have the necessary tools on hand before beginning, such as drills, screwdrivers, clamps, and safety equipment.
  • Carefully inspect all components to verify everything is in good shape before starting.
  • Work on a clean, spacious area of the floor with room to move around the entire island.
  • Start by laying out all pieces in order and hardware in labeled bags.
  • Build a section at a time, keeping the island square as you go with corner clamps.
  • Pre-drill holes whenever screwing into the cabinet ends to prevent splitting.
  • Follow hardware specs for placing drawer slides, shelving, and doors properly.
  • Install utilities like sinks and appliances once the cabinetry is completely assembled.
  • Carefully lift the finished island and set in place, verifying all clearances.
  • Use shims to level the island if needed before securing to floor.

Style Inspiration for Unfinished Islands

The beauty of unfinished islands lies in their design flexibility. You can match existing finishes or make the island a stylish focal point. Here are some inspiring ways to customize your DIY kitchen island:

Modern Farmhouse Island

Give a classic farmhouse island relaxed sophistication with weathered oak staining, an antique brass apron, and Cambria Brittanicca quartz topped with intricate marble mosaic tile.

Rustic Industrial Island

Exposed metal legs, galvanized metal cladding, and a reclaimed wood countertop create a raw, utilitarian vibe perfect for urban lofts.

Cottage Island

A clean white distressed island with crown molding, turned feet, and marble herringbone backsplash exudes breezy cottage charm.

Traditional Island

For formal elegance, opt for painted cabinets with rubbed glazing over wood grain. Fluted details, carved corbels, and white marble countertops keep it classic.

Coastal Island

Capture casual coastal style with a whitewashed oak island housing a ceramic farmhouse sink. Blue ombré ceramic tile backsplash and white quartz countertop keep it beachy.

Eclectic Island

Make a unique statement by mixing unfinished oak cabinets, vintage hardware, organic edges, concrete counters with inlaid agate, and an unexpected pop of color.

Unfinished Island Storage Solutions

Beyond providing extra counter space, islands maximize kitchen storage and organization. Tailor storage options to suit your needs:


Opt for large, deep drawers to corral cooking tools, cutlery, or baking essentials. Soft-closing glides provide smooth access.


Open shelves lend easy access to favorite cookbooks, small appliances, or barware. Try glass doors on upper shelves for a cleaner look.


Enclose lower cabinet spaces for discreet storage of less attractive items like trash bins and recycling.

Towel Racks

Incorporate a pull-out stainless towel bar or wall-mounted rack for handy towel access.

Wire Pull-Outs

Slim wire racks that pull out provide vertical space for baking sheets, cooling racks, and pizza pans.

Spice Racks

Designate a drawer or install pull-out racks to organize spices alphabetically for easy access while cooking.

Wine Storage

Add specialized racks or refrigeration to store wine bottles horizontally without drying corks. Display favorites on open racks above.


Rattan, metal, or wooden baskets are great for corralling fruits and vegetables or even cookbooks.

Peg Storage

Use peg rails or boards to hang frequently used tools like spatulas, whisks, and ladles for quick access while cooking.

Cutlery Dividers

Customize drawers with inserts featuring slots for neatly organizing flatware into divided sections.

FAQs About Unfinished Kitchen Islands

What are the standard dimensions for kitchen islands?

The most common island dimensions are 36-48 inches wide and 16-24 inches deep. Sizes beyond 30 square feet can disrupt work triangles in smaller kitchens. Allow at least 42 inches of clearance space around all sides.

What countertop materials work best for kitchen islands?

Durable and attractive options like quartz, granite, marble, and butcher block make excellent island countertops. Tile or concrete can also be nice statement pieces. Avoid soft woods prone to damage.

How much overhang should I allow for seating at an island?

For seating purposes, allow 10-15 inches of countertop overhang beyond the base cabinets. For ergonomic uses only with no seating, 8-12 inches usually suffices.

Should my island be the same height as my kitchen counters?

Consistency is recommended, especially for working areas. Standard counter height is 36 inches. For a bar or seating area, 42-48 inches is comfortable.

What is the best paint for kitchen islands?

High quality cabinet-grade paints like Emerald Urethane Trim Enamel provide a durable, smooth finish that withstands cleaning and abrasion. Use soft sheens for an elegant look.

Can I install plumbing and electrical myself in a kitchen island?

Unless very experienced, it is wise to allow professionals to handle any complicated island wiring and plumbing installation. Ensure proper permits are obtained too.

How much assembly is required for an unfinished island kit?

A basic RTA (ready-to-assemble) island kit involves joining cabinet boxes, installing doors and drawers, attaching hardware and feet. More complex islands may require additional assembly.

What kind of flooring works best with a kitchen island?

Hard surfaces like wood, tile, or stone complement islands well aesthetically and are more durable. Ensure flooring extends under the island for seamless flows.

Is it cheaper to build my own island or buy a custom pre-made one?

In most cases, buying an unfinished RTA island and finishing it yourself yields cost savings over a fully customized island. But pre-made allows skipping the work.

Do I need to seal my DIY unfinished island?

Yes, always apply a clear sealer suited to your materials (polyurethane, wax, etc) as the final step. This protects any painted, stained, or natural wood finishes from damage.


The possibilities are endless when creating your own one-of-a-kind kitchen island from an unfinished base. Take time to carefully plan the size, shape, storage, and finishing treatments that will work best in your space. Invest in quality materials and devote the necessary time to properly construct and finish the island yourself. The result will be a furniture showpiece tailored exactly to your style, needs, and budget. With the right skills and inspiration, your dream island can become a reality!