The kitchen is the one area in the home where there never seems to be enough storage space and work surfaces. Come in the kitchen island, which can give you more of both those things.
While built-in kitchen islands are great, they tend to work best in large open kitchens. Plus, installation can often mean a full-on renovation. The more versatile (and less pricey) option is a freestanding island, which provides the extra work surface and storage needed but is available in many different sizes. Also, adding an island is a great way to create a focal point in the kitchen.
Of course, the size, shape and style of an island is your personal preference, but keeping these general things in mind when you're shopping will help you better decide on one that works in your kitchen.
Island dimensions that work for you. Find a freestanding island that works with the size of your kitchen. Most standard islands are generally about 36" tall and 20" deep (from front to back), but the length/width varies greatly in order to accommodate different kitchen sizes. Big rectangular islands in small spaces leave very little room to walk around. And, if the island comes with drawers and cabinets, make sure there's enough room around to pull them open. (There should be one to two feet of space at the very least around the drawer or cabinet.) Or, consider a square or narrower island with open shelving instead. Our pick: Utility Cart, from Target.
Pick the right surface. If you already have a dining table and will be using a kitchen island primarily for food preparation, find an island that's topped with a butcher block. Strong and thick, it provides the best cutting surface. Also, butcher blocks are porous so cleaning is as simple as a wipe down after every use. However, butcher blocks do require maintenance and need to be regularly resealed with mineral oil once every several weeks -- this keeps the wood from warping and cracking. If you're looking for a heavy-duty workspace, sleek stainless steel is heat-resistant and more durable than a wood top, but just remember that it's not a cutting surface so you'll always need to use a chopping board. For smaller kitchens where the island will do double-duty as a dining surface, go with a varnished wood top. It will give you the look and feel of a dining table but will also provide a sturdy work surface -- just remember that you can't chop food directly on top of it. Our pick: Farmhouse Butcher Block Kitchen Island, from Cost Plus World Market.
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Consider drop-leaf tops. Drop-leaf refers to a table top that has ends which can be folded down and pulled up when needed. The greatest benefit of "leaves" is the versatility it provides. In smaller kitchens, you can keep the leaves down during the everyday and pull them up for an expanded table top when you need more surface area for entertaining. But while the leaves are convenient in adding tabletop space, they don't provide the most stable surface for prepping food, so it's best to keep the chopping and dough-kneading to the center part of the island. Our pick: White Kitchen Island, from Target.
Go for wheels. People often think of islands as fixed stations in the kitchen, but one of the biggest advantages of a freestanding piece is that it can be moved around if really needed. Wheels help make this easier, and it's a convenient addition for islands that are used in smaller spaces, especially. Just remember to check that the wheels have locks that can secure it in place. Our pick: FLYTTA Kitchen Cart, from IKEA.
Think about storage options. Although islands with open-tiered shelves provide easy access to pots and pans stored on them from all sides, they do have a tendency to look cluttered and collect dust. But the big plus with open shelving islands is that they don't have doors that might interfere with foot traffic, making them ideal for smaller kitchens. On the other hand, islands with cupboards are generally a little pricier but they're great for hiding clutter. However, as mentioned earlier, just be sure it's positioned with enough room for doors to open without trouble. And for those looking for an island that can also serve as a bar surface, consider a bar cart, which often comes with a caddy to hold bottles and keep them from toppling over. Our pick: Alexandria Kitchen Island, from Bed Bath & Beyond.
On the lookout for a good kitchen island? We've found the best in the marketplace now. Just flip through the slideshow below. And let us know in comments what's important to you in a kitchen island.