How to set up a kitchen island bench

The kitchen island is the heart and hub of the modern home. Here’s how to create the perfect one for your family.

Island paradise

Arguably the most multi-functional piece of furniture in our home, the kitchen island has become the centrepiece of open-plan living, a one-stop shop for preparing food, cooking, serving, eating, washing up, storage, working and socialising (phew!). It can be as large and structured as you want – with seats, a cooktop or sink and more – or as simple as a surface on wheels.

Size your island bench up

The optimum size and position of your island will depend on its use, the layout of your kitchen and the available space – remembering that you will need to leave ample room for people to circulate around it. Laminate benchtops come in at a standard width of 900mm, which allows for a row of cupboards and drawers on one side, and an overhang on the other of around 300mm for a breakfast bar.

If space and budget permits, and you want to go bigger – for example, to pack in more storage with a back-to-back array of cabinetry – custom sizes are available in both laminate and solid surface materials. It’s also worth noting that the nominal size of an engineered stone slab is 3000mm by 1400mm, so anything over that will result in visible joins.

If you’re not limited by space and/or design, it’s most useful to position your island directly behind the cooktop or sink. This makes it easier to move from one surface to another quickly. Ideally, the aisle between the island and other countertops should be at least one metre, or more than 1200mm if appliances are placed opposite each other, two people work back-to-back, or stools need to be pulled out.

kitchen island bench
A view into the garden can be an important factor in choosing the location of your island.

Storage smarts

Depending on its size, an island bench can punch well above its weight in terms of storage – and has no tricky-to-access corner cupboards. The working side is perfect for deep drawers (more efficient than cupboards) full of pots and pans, and a long one for cutlery and utensils, while the fascia could include shallow cupboards to keep tableware on hand for the dining area.

If your island will include appliances, think about what you need close by. A mini pull-out pantry for oils and condiments near the cooktop, or hidden bins next to a dishwasher, could be useful. The ends are ideal for display storage; shelves can house cookbooks or baskets of odds and ends, while adding texture to soften the hard edges of the cabinetry. To create additional concealed storage, you can incorporate shallow touch-door cupboards at the end of the bench, or in a row where your stool sits.

Where will your appliances sit?

Consider integrating your microwave, dishwasher or wine fridge into the design. Not just practical, moving them into an island is a clever way to hide them from view, giving your on-show units a cleaner line. Sink or cooktop – or both? Consider the positioning and the view; if you're wanting to look out onto the garden or keep an eye on the children, would you prefer to do this at the sink or while you're cooking?

Aside from your personal preference, there are pros and cons for each. Including a sink lets you use your island as a food preparation area, as long as it’s big enough – think about the splashes! On the downside, sinks aren’t so great if you’re untidy (who wants to eat when surrounded by washing up?). They also look best without a draining board, which is not for everyone. If you do decide to include a sink, choose a sleek design and pair it with a chic tap. 

You’ll also need to plan for your dishwasher and, ideally, rubbish and recycling bins to be included in the island, all within easy reach of the sink. 

Cooktops are a popular addition to an island and take up less room underneath the bench than a sink. Providing there’s enough space, it’s great for interacting with your guests while grilling and sautéing. For families with small children, however, you need to think about safety: there are hot cooktops, pan handles and spitting fat to consider. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you have high ceilings, fitting a rangehood could be tricky.

kitchen bench
Waterfall ends give the island bench a neat finish and high-end appeal.

Selecting a benchtop

As the on-show finish for your island, your benchtop needs to be both good-looking and durable. Hard-wearing engineered stone comes in a range of striking patterns and colours that mimic natural stone, as do more budget-friendly laminate surfaces. “People also love that laminate is easy to clean and will stand the test of time,” says Lisa Mayski of Kaboodle. Timber benchtops are also popular, but vary in durability and will require looking after.

Tip: Before you choose a fashionable pattern or finish, consider whether this will date quickly or if you'll get tired of it.

Light fittings to suit your island

An island and a gorgeous light are a classic design pairing. If your island is for things like food prep, choose fittings that cast a bright light downwards for good task lighting. Shades made of glass or open-weave materials like rattan will give good ambient light, but you may need to supplement the illumination quota with downlights. One of the trickiest things to get right is the proportion – look for broad fittings or a series of narrow pendants to create a sense of balance with the bulk of the island. 

Tip: Look for lighting that will bring together the style elements of your kitchen and island bench. A quirky light design can bring personality to an otherwise minimalist island

Island styling

Let it flow
For cohesion in an open-plan room, use materials that complement surrounding areas. Free of appliances, a benchtop looks more like a piece of furniture than a workstation and can help to blur the boundaries between practical (kitchen) and pretty (living spaces).

Timber tones
Incorporate timber to add warmth and texture: inset timber shelves, a drop-down bar or a timber upstand to hide mess.

Mix it up
Consider creating a two-tone scheme with the front-facing panel in a different, but complementary, colour and material. 

Add a table
“Create a table as an extension of your island, positioned at a lower level and using a different surface,” suggests Lisa. “It will maintain an open space while also discreetly creating zones for a variety of uses.”

kitchen island bench
Try delineating an island dining zone with different levels, materials or both.

Thinking of renovating your kitchen?

Watch our video on how to give your kitchen a refresh and then head into your local Bunnings store to pick up everything you need to get you started.


Photo credit: Kaboodle and Sue Stubbs

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