Purpose of space above kitchen cabinets

criticalmass048January 24, 2009

In tearing apart our kitchen, it seems that the roughly one-foot space between our kitchen cabinets and ceiling serves no real purpose. Yes, there are a few wires running up from the wall which then enter the ceiling for the light fixtures, but the space needed to conceal those is only a matter of a few inches. There's no other vents, wiring, or anything up there.

The wife would like to either replace the cabinets we have with taller cabinets, and have more cabinet space, or else get new cabinets the same size as the old ones, and maybe use the space above for storage of rarely-used (and short!) kitchen pots, pans, etc.

Is there any particular reason this space is there, other than to make the cabinets lower? Is there any downside to getting bigger cabinets (such as cost)? Has anybody else done anything creative with that space that I'm unaware of? Any opinions pro or con are more than welcome, since I have a few weeks before I'll need an answer. Thanks!


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A lot of kitchens have a soffit running over the cabinets. It does not really serve anything other than an aesthetic purpose. I chose not to have a soffit and to go with cabinets of varying heights and large crown. Others will have different opinions.
Enjoy your reno.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 3:26PM
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I also chose varying height cabinets and did away with the soffit, although mine had been hiding the hood vent that was vented to the outside and I needed to replace it with a recirculating one. All taller cabinets are more expensive, I paid more for each taller one I added. It makes sense since it requires more wood. You can use the very high interior shelf for less used items, put taller items in them or put less often used items on top of the cabinets like your wife suggested. Some people only want cabinets all to the ceiling so they don't have worry about dust collecting. I think the added decorative space is nice, and the staggered height cabinets more interesting. You will find those that like each option here, and those that hate each one. :)


    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 5:24PM
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You should know that sofits are out of style now, but of course will inevitably be in again, then out, etc. Done right by architects and other skilled designers, they are used, not just for the negative reason of filling empty space (yes, often created by saving money on cabinetry), but rather to shape space and change the way it feels to the people who use it.

That said, this is definitely potential storage space up there that should be put to use in homes that need more, much less valuable and even maybe a nuisance in homes that don't need it because it creates an inconvenience.

Some people just like the look of cabinets that run to the ceiling, and it's valuable in creating certain looks, such as early last century for instance.

Also, some very nice looks have been created by using this space specificaly for decoration. One way is lighted glass-fronted cabinets that block dust but set off whatever you want set off inside. However, 12" would probably be about the very minimal limit for any sort of decoration and too short to set anything back from the front plane of the cabinets. Hope this helps.

Oh, forgot to mention, any use that causes its owner's eyes to light up on is a very good use.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 5:49PM
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Hi Greg, thanks so much for posting this question as I am facing a similar situation. I currently have these (ugly) blue soffit panels between cabinets and the ceiling and I suspect they contain absolutely nothing save for the few wires for the over sink light. (The kitchen is circa 1960s, and I haven't taken the panels down yet to confirm).

How high is your ceiling?

My ceiling is 9 feet tall, and I'm seriously thinking of filling the soffit space with a second set of cabinets along one of the walls. I mean, have the standard height uppers, and then shorter ones above. A kitchen designer I spoke with is thinking 42" uppers, and then crown molding and a little space up to the ceiling. Having additional cabinets would be more expensive than the 42" uppers, but I am not so fond of lots of crown molding as he is suggesting.

And then on a perpendicular wall, I'd have the space and put functional, but decorative, :-), items on top.

I'm still in the imagining phase though!

    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 5:54PM
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My ceiling is 8 feet tall in the kitchen. We had those soffits too that look just like the cabinets, so it appears they extend to the ceiling when they do not.

My walls will be a sage green with red accents, so I decided to take all the soffits down and paint the wall where they are a warm red. Then i'm putting glass inserts into the soffits above the cabinets with a lights behind.

Since we were keeping our existing cabinetry i'm hoping this looks good. I'll post a pic when I finish it. Painting the cabs now!

    Bookmark   January 24, 2009 at 6:38PM
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Many times soffits contain not only electrical, but also plumbing to an upper floor and if you want to remove them you have to move the plumbing. Other times soffits are almost empty with maybe a few electrical wires going through (like the OP seems to have).

We had 12" high soffits that we removed. Most were either empty or only had electrical that we were able to move up to the ceiling area. However, there was one area that had the waste pipes from the master bath. We were unable to move that plumbing so we put in a very shallow soffit and ran the crown molding over it where there were cabinets, but where the vent hood is you can see the soffit if you look closely. While I wish we could have gotten rid of the soffit altogether, I'm happy with how it looks now as opposed to what it looked like before.


Story of a Soffit Removal in Pictures:

Waste Pipe that couldn't be moved (before cabinets went in):

First cabinet installed:

All 3 cabinets installed on one side; you can still see the waste pipe if you look closely above the cabinets:

Start of Crown Molding, note that the waste pipe extends into the space b/w the vent and the cabinets. The pipe will need to be hidden here as well:

Soffit between 2 taller upper cabinets that don't need it, but not behind them. It's there so the upper wall of both sets of cabinets look the same:

Soffit on either side of vent:

Soffit to left of vent:

All crown molding, full view:

All crown molding, right view:

All crown molding & Light rail, full view:

Note no soffit outside of cabinet run:

Kitchen before paint, etc.:

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 12:44AM
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I had hideous soffits and a drop ceiling in my kitchen before my reno. Talk about wasted space! I removed both and installed tall uppers. I gained almost 18" of storage space! Even at 5'11", I need a step ladder to reach items on the top shelf, but I just put seldom-used items up there anyway. Having the storage space, even if it's somewhat inconvenient, in my opinion, is well worth the cost of more expensive upper cabinets.

Here are before and after shots of the same corner...

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 8:48AM
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Buehl...I have looked at your cabinet photos several times (bc I like them so much and we are doing something sorta similar) and I never noticed that little piece of soffit you had to keep due to plumbing. Just goes to show you what a great, creative solution you came up with!

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 9:02AM
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Bulkheads (soffits) can be made decorative.


    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 9:22AM
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I needed a soffit on one side of my kitchen to cover a supporting beam so I just echoed the look on the other side. The only way to make this look right to me was to balance both sides of the room. Mine is finished with wallboard and painted the wall color.

I didn't really think about whether soffits were in style or not. Glad to hear that maybe they'll "come back" into favor, perhaps in time to make up for the passing-from-favor my espresso-stained cabs will be experiencing!

Even if I could have run cabs right to the ceiling, I can barely reach the top shelf on a step ladder at 5'1". I also wonder if smaller kitchens begin to look lopsided with very tall cabs....and my kitchen is smaller. I think that depends on the overall color scheme and can be done well in a fairly monochromatic look. Otherwise, I'm not so sure...

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 12:12PM
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My kitchen is 11' x 12'. Cabinets to the ceiling, after having space-wasting soffits. BUT, I also reduced the number of wall cabinets, so that the stove wall is entirely open, making it feel less 'enclosed'. They're white, as well, which probably helps. But if you want to store infrequently used items, I say go for the cabinets to the ceiling.

I remember one poster had two doors mounted on her wall cabinets. Cheaper than separate cabinets - the top one had a glass panel, and she used it as display space.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 12:41PM
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I got rid of my soffits in our kitchen remodel and it is one of the changes i like most. I think it makes the kitchen seem larger to have the cabs to the ceiling, plus I have the storage for seldom used stuff.


    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 2:57PM
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If you are going to get rid of the soffits, which is one of the best ways to update the kitchen (IMHO), I'd definitely go for taller cabinets, rather than leaving the 12" open for storage. Having clutter up on top of the cabinets is also dated (and hey, I'm not a staunch flag-bearer of "must have everything be the latest and greatest'), and they will collect dust and grease.

If you are going to the trouble of renovating, try and get the most bang for your buck. We were going to add 42" cabinets, but the line we picked only carried 39". We are really glad, cuz that gave us the room to add crown molding. I think it would have been too stark and an awkward transition to ceiling with only 1/2-1" space on top.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 3:01PM
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I have a soffit-like concrete beam that goes along one side of my galley kitchen and extends about 7" from the wall. My old "built-in-place" cabinets (circa 1948) were built up to the ceiling, but when you opened the door, almost the entire top shelf was taken up by the beam.

I wanted my new cabinets to go up to the ceiling too, because I like the look. I thought they could be cut away in the back to fit around the beam. No go - most KD's & contractors I spoke to hated the idea - they said it would affect the structural integrity of the cabinets. (I might have been able to achieve this with custom-built cabinets, but that's an expensive option in NYC.)

I ended up with 36" uppers plus crown molding with a few inches open above the tops. We still had to hang them slightly over an inch lower to fit under the beam. I'm sure it will accumulate a lot of dust up there (perhaps not so much grease since I don't cook a lot). But it actually looks pretty good even with some open space on top. Can't even see the beam!

BTW, my KD said that taller uppers weren't that much more expensive than less tall ones. So if that's a consideration, you might want to price it out.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2009 at 3:54PM
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