Kitchen Transformation on a Budget: The Thrill of the Hunt

When we think of a kitchen renovation we usually see lots of dollar signs … And often these projects are big-ticket items ranging anywhere from $50,000 and up. There are times when kitchens need to be gutted to the studs. But often with old houses such heavy-handed approaches are not necessary.

With old houses, sometimes less is more when it comes to making changes.

To illustrate this point, when Cindy was looking to purchase a home she was on a very tight budget. She purchased a 1947 cottage and was able to intervene before the sellers ripped out the original kitchen. She was able to work with what was there, purchasing vintage appliances, repairing existing cabinetry, and installing Marmoleum on both the floor and the countertops. Young used leftover rolls of 1940s kitchen wallpaper to create a feature wall at one end of the kitchen. Then she used 1940s kitchen decorative elements to give the kitchen a rich and individual sense of her personality. She did such an amazing job by using the existing cabinetry and playing up the 1940s elements of her kitchen that her house ended up on the Architectural Heritage Center (AHC) Kitchen Tour and was featured in the magazine, Old-House Interiors.

Her kitchen was done on a budget of $7,500 and saved a wonderful historic kitchen that reflected both the period of the home and her individual tastes. She managed to do this on a restricted budget.

So what about homeowners who are not as fortunate as Cindy? Those who have a wonderful historic home, but the kitchen was lost to a less insightful or historically sensitive previous owner? Addressing this sort of damage done can often be much more expensive than if the historic kitchen had been left in place. So what to do?

Step One: Learn as much as you can about the period of your home and the style of kitchen that it may have had. This investment of time is worthwhile. The more you learn, the fewer mistakes you will make. It is better to live with the house and the kitchen for at least a year while you learn and train your eye to understand period details. You can learn from period images, vintage magazines, books, and old movies. The main thing is to resist the impulse to rip things out before you understand what you have or what you may have lost.

Step Two: Look for salvage cabinets when possible. Salvage cabinets of a variety of periods can be found at local salvage businesses such as the ReBuilding Center, Salvage Works, Craigslist, or even eBay. Sometimes just finding a section of old cabinets can provide a template to work with. Once you have that keystone piece, or have a period-sensitive cabinetry design, it is possible to start laying out the kitchen. Remember, if the sink does not have to be relocated, there will be substantial savings. For those who can do the work of deconstructing and building the cabinetry themselves, there is also substantial savings. But for those who cannot, it may be necessary to look for a competent craftsperson that will work with you, your budget, and salvaged items. This can be a challenge. Look for multiple references and ask to see previously completed kitchen projects. Talk to those homeowners and see what their experience was with the craftsperson being considered. See if the craftsperson is willing to work in phases dictated by your budgetary needs.

Step Three: Look for a salvage kitchen sink. It is amazing what might turn up. Anything from an early porcelain cast iron sink with legs to a jazzy Mid-Century Modern double-basin sink in a variety of colors might turn up. A great resource is Brenda Wasco’s Portland Vintage Plumbing ( or 971-404-8149). Wasco can find just the right fixtures and parts, including new manufactured products that are very similar to the old period ones.
It is also possible to locate salvage period faucets. It’s best to have the faucets evaluated to see if they need any work before purchasing them. They may be just fine as they are. However, they could need a simple gasket change, or need to be rebuilt, which would make them an expensive undertaking.

Step Four: Countertops can be a very tricky component for a DIYer. Early kitchens often had wooden countertops. Closely spaced hex tiles were common in kitchens from the 1920s through the Mid-Century Modern period. It might be possible to find salvage tile or to find seconds at places such as Pratt & Larson Tile. Sheet Marmoleum was also used as countertop material in the 1930s, 1940s, and even the 1950s. This can be a cost-effective countertop material, but it is important to have it installed by a professional. Remember the upkeep on Marmoleum it is not for everyone. Two things to remember: no hot pots or cutting on the countertop. But the savings for the look is worth it.

Step Five: Period lighting is another component that is important to the overall outcome of your kitchen. It is possible to look for appropriate lighting at salvage shops or sources like eBay. If they need to be rewired, take that into consideration when purchasing them. Sometimes it is possible to find simple kitchen lighting with sound wiring at a very good price, but it takes time and patience. The same is true for salvage kitchen exhaust fans.

Step Six: Kitchen floors are another issue in a vintage kitchen. Depending on the period, early kitchens often had painted wood floors, one of the cheapest floor options going. Never try to install Marmoleum yourself; that is a job for trained installers. If working in stages, this can be done at a later date, after the cabinets and plumbing fixtures are in. There are other options that homeowners can tackle on their own, however. Marmoleum Click is an option. It comes in a variety of colors and can be used to create a multitude of patterns. Floating floors that are placed on top of the existing floor seem to be increasingly popular. Cork is yet another appropriate option for historic kitchens and can be installed as a floating floor. So look at what the options are and decide what you are able to do yourself.

Step Seven: Vintage appliances can be a great way to save money. But you’ve got to know what you are looking at and who can find parts and do repairs. Make sure the vintage appliance you are considering has all of its parts, and have it checked out by a professional before using it. There are some fabulous vintage reproduction stoves and refrigerators. Sometimes it is possible to find a good used one, or a new “scratch/dent” or floor model might turn up. The key is persistence. Embracing the satisfaction of delayed gratification can lead you to wonderful. Regarding dishwashers, to really preserve the vintage feel of your kitchen it is important to go with a fully integrated, panel-ready dishwasher. It may be possible to find a display model or possibly a salvage dishwasher. Again it is important to be particular and patient in your quest.

It is absolutely possible to create an amazing, national-magazine-worthy kitchen with very little money. The key is to think outside the usual remodeling box, be creative and patient, and enjoy the hunt. Who knows, maybe your kitchen, like Young’s, could be featured on tours and magazines, even if you’re working on a tight budget.

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