Upper cabinet height (from ground) for petite cooks?

beantownrenovatorMay 28, 2013

We are going to have our cabs go to the ceiling - from alot of the photos of kitchens with cabs to ceilings they look like they start them higher than I would be comfortable with. I'm 5' tall and want to be very cognizant of this! What height (from the ground) would you recommend starting them for me? We will do separate decorative glass panel cabs at the top - just want to make sure the bottom levels are not for Michael Jordan. Thanks!

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I am 5'3" and put daily items in my base cabinets and pantry-like cabinets (I have no uppers). This really is the most convenient for me. My mother is 5" and I designed her kitchen the same way.

In my previous kitchen the lowest shelf in the uppers was at
5'4" from the ground it was the only shelf that I could comfortably reach.

In my mother's kitchen the lowest shelf in the uppers is at 51" from the ground and we can reach the two lower shelves with no problems. She stores daily plates and mugs there.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 9:25AM
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I'm 4'11 and my upper cabinets are 51" from the ground. I have regular height base cabs (36" which includes laminate counter) so that means I have 16" from counter to uppers. Luckily there is a place on the counter with no upper so that is where my stand mixer lives. I also use it enough so I want to keep it out.

Otherwise I have a toaster oven and knife block that live on the counter. I would suspect if I had a coffee machine the upper height may be a problem.

My uppers have two shelves in them (they're older stock cabs) and I can reach everything on the top shelf with a stretch. I keep oils, seasonings, and food containers on the main shelf around the kitchen and have no problems.

I am expecting to stack the uppers in our next home. I don't know what I will keep up there. I'm also thinking about putting a shallow shelf about ten inches above the counter for things I use everyday. Little things like measuring cups will live there to free up drawer space.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 10:16AM
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Sophie Wheeler

If you lower the cabinets down from the standard 54" above the floor, you will need to make several adjustments. The first is obviously to create a small appliance location where the coffee maker, mixer, and any other small appliances can live and still be operated. The second would be to be sure about how the lowered cabinets will tie in with the tall cabinets. Cabinets are produced as a system, and lowering the wall cabinets 2" means that the tall pantry or oven cabinet in the same run will be 2" higher than your wall cabinets because it was designed to work with the normal alignment height of wall cabinets, which is 54" above the floor at the bottom. So, you need to either lower them 3" and order a tall cabinet 3" shorter, or you need to go fully custom.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 12:28PM
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I'm barely 5' tall and have only 2 uppers. They are standard height. I have glasses on the bottom shelves and stuff I don't use much on the other two. If I can't tippy toe it to reach, I just call for help or get a step ladder. You will be able to only reach the bottom shelves anyway. I would not customize the entire kitchen.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 12:48PM
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I'm barely 5' tall and have only 2 uppers. They are standard height. I have glasses on the bottom shelves and stuff I don't use much on the other two. If I can't tippy toe it to reach, I just call for help or get a step ladder. You will be able to only reach the bottom shelves anyway. I would not customize the entire kitchen.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 12:49PM
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I'm barely 5' tall and have only 2 uppers. They are standard height. I have glasses on the bottom shelves and stuff I don't use much on the other two. If I can't tippy toe it to reach, I just call for help or get a step ladder. You will be able to only reach the bottom shelves anyway. I would not customize the entire kitchen.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 12:50PM
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Like IowaCommute, our 39" uppers are 16" above the countertop, so 36+16=52" from the floor. Like you, I'm close to 5'. I use the first and second shelves freely, with a little stretching, but the third shelf requires a stool. I keep a toaster oven, small espresso maker, and recipe stand on the counter -- all fit and would fit if the cabinets were lower, too. I don't use a stand mixer so that wasn't an issue.

The 16" height was a compromise -- I would have had it at 15", and seeing what the 16" looks like, it would have been fine. Not complaining, though, they're perfectly workable this way.

Another nice thing I did was to increase the depth of the uppers slightly, to 13" from 12". Just that little extra bit of storage really makes those first two shelves more useable. Thought about going to 14".

And one other thing, maybe not applicable to your kitchen. My island is 33.5" final height (including countertop). It makes such a difference! I do my mixing, whipping and beating by hand and it's much easier than at 36" counter height. Even if you don't have an island, some people have had a lowered 'prep area' in their kitchens for this reason.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 8:58PM
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My kitchen has wall cabinets at 52 above the floor. Ours are framelees which makes the inside 3/4" lower than framed. The cabinets flanking the hood are at 54 to meet code. Inspectors use appliance mfg specs when determining code. My SIL is an installer in another state and they leave the undercabinet moldings off till after inspection or they can't pass.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2013 at 10:11PM
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I am 5ft tall. I actually ended up lowering the base counters to 33in finished height which is perfect for me and my mom who is even shorter than me. I can retire my kitchen platform heels and still look into the stockpot. The 18in clearance from the counter is a code that is enforced in my city in california. But as my base cabs are lower, I can comfortably reach both the first and the second shelves in the uppers. I have a galley and no pantry. So not doing uppers was not an option.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 12:50AM
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I am 5'3", and I have the standard 18" between counter and bottom of upper cabinets. Actual space is really 16", cause there is 2" for undercabinet lighting. Also, to be clear, "standard" base cabinet height including countertop is 36". Add to that the "standard" 18" bet. counter and uppers, and then uppers can be any height you choose. Be aware it is more current to have 39-42" tall uppers. Realtors will brag about "42" kitchen cabinets" or "cabinets up to the ceiling" as a selling point.

In any case, I am accustomed to the idea that anything above the first shelf of the uppers, I need either to get a step stool or my DH. I wanted cabinets up to the ceiling because I needed every bit of storage. And, since it doesn't matter whether my upper cabinets are 30" tall or 42" tall, because I need a stepstool (or DH) regardless, I opted for the tall 42" cabinets.

Also, I am concerned about resale. I wanted standard kitchen cabinets heights, because of that.

If I had a bigger kitchen, I would do away with uppers entirely. There are several GW Kitchens Forum kitchens with no uppers; you can do a search for them.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 8:38AM
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Arm length is important too. I think I have short T-Rex arms, but when I'm around others my height (4'11) I can see my arms are usually longer than theirs. I think that shows when others on this thread are saying they can't reach a certain shelf. I think flexibility too. I know it gets into a lot of details, but I've discussed this on a past thread. I make sure to only store plastic things on the top shelf in my cabs (which are only 30") so I can reach the edge of the object with the tips of my fingers or tongs. Oh yes. I use tongs.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 8:53AM
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Exerpt from Mise-en-Place: What We Can Learn About Kitchen Design from Commercial Kitchens

Upper Cabinet Height and Placement

The maximum useful height of upper cabinets is about 32". The top shelf should be not more than about 26" from the bottom of the cabinet. Anything higher is "stool storage" -- you have to stand on a stool to get to it. There is no harm in having taller cabinets, even right to the ceiling, so long as you recognize that the top part of tall cabinets is usually unreachable and should be used to hold things only rarely used.

Even the top shelf of a 32" cabinet is for most of us in the extended rather than the primary arc of reach. We can usually reach just the stuff in front of the shelf. (Lazy susans installed on the top shelf can remedy the problem, however -- everything at the back of the shelf can quickly be brought within reach with a little twist of the wrist.)

The placement of upper cabinets can hamper efficiency. Most commonly they are placed 18" above the counter top. This has become the standard, not because it is the best height, but because it's where the typical 30" wall cabinet happens to fall when installed above a 36" countertop on an 8 foot wall under the usual 12" soffit. This is, however, too high for efficient use by the most people under 6' tall.

The best reach height for most people is shoulder height -- about 57". If the bottom of the cabinet is at 54" then almost everything in the cabinet is above the best reach height. Lowering the cabinet slightly makes the stuff in the cabinet more readily accessible.

A lot of countertop appliances, however, especially coffee-makers, assume an 18" height above the counter, and use every bit of it. If you have these tall appliances, then at least some of your cabinets will need to be placed higher than the optimum height.

Lowering the upper cabinets just this 3-4 inches makes all of the bottom two shelves of the cabinet easily reachable, as well as at least the front half of the third shelf. Upper cabinet storage is now much more efficient with just this modest change.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 10:05AM
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Another shortie here...5' if I stand up real tall. In our last 3 homes, I've had the uppers 15" above the counter (51" from floor), and I wouldn't even mind it another inch lower. I can easily reach the bottom 2 shelves. In our last kitchen with 9' ceilings, we used stacked cabinets, with glass in the upper ones. Loved it.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 12:20PM
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Fori is not pleased

I'm 61" and don't like to feel closed in by low lowers. I've always been comfortable with standard heights (but having the second shelf positioned as low as possible helps a lot). What bothers me most is bad sink and faucet spout placement. But of course I want a big sink. I've had some pretty nutty giant faucets to get the spout where I want it. (My favorite was the double jointed Chicago Faucets deck mount that I had to get when I realized I made my custom sink too big.)

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 12:32PM
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I'm 5'6" but wanted double door cabinets....meaning small doors at top and longer doors underneath. I went with 45" upper cabinets set 51" from the floor. I also used a small light rail. I still have room for my toaster and coffee maker. I have a butler's pantry off the kitchen that I can use for taller items if needed. Here's a picture.


Ps. Even though I'm not considered short, I enjoy the lower shelves.....I'm sure I will even more over time as I age. I'll be 49 next week! Yikes!

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 12:35PM
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I'm 5' 1" (at least that's what I claim - I'm somewhere between that and 5' so why not round up). My torso is normal height - it's my arms and legs that are short - DS could reach higher than me when he hadn't yet reached my height.

You didn't ask about it, but I'll second fori's comment on sinks and faucets. We put the faucet on the corner of our D shaped prep sink to make the reach easier and in a similar position on our 1 and a half bowl main sink.

We did 42" uppers with a minimal molding on top for our nominal 8' ceilings (really 95"). The bottom of the main row of uppers is 16 3/4" above the counter (52 1/2" above the floor). That puts the bottom shelf at 17 1/2" (thickness of the cabinet bottom). There is a 1 1/4" light rail leaving 15 1/2" to the counter. Our toaster oven and blender fit under that.

There is one upper sitting by itself over the baking and beverage area. We put that slightly higher at 17 1/4" and ended the light rail before the end of the upper to leave height for the stand mixer to tuck in there. The bread machine and the espresso maker fit under that cabinet too.

The second shelf up in both cabinets is set around 26-27" above the counter and I can reach things at the front of it pretty easily. The third shelf up in most of the uppers I really have to stretch on tipsy-toe or get the step stool but in the baking area we have it set a bit lower and I can reach the handles of the measuring cups to get them down.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 4:58PM
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Adding a picture:

The cabinet to the right of the L is the one where we stopped the light rail before the end of the cabinet to make space for the mixer.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 5:06PM
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Unless you have the luxury of not having to prep under those upper cabinets, 18" is soooo much nicer than 16" workspace. And the 2" difference isnt likely to make the upper shelves any more usable.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 8:30PM
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As others have said, if you need to use taller items on your counters (blender, mixer, coffeemaker, etc.), then be sure they will fit under not just the cabinets but the light rail.

Here's what I usually post as food for thought for those contemplating a shorter backsplash height. It repeats some of what has already been mentioned as well as has other information.

First, 18" is the "standard" backsplash height...regardless of the reasons why, it's still the standard.

How this affects your kitchen....

  • Refrigerator and other tall cabinet heights...Because wall cabinets are meant to be mounted at a standard height, cabinet manufacturers take this into account when designing tall cabinets. Tall cabinets are designed to be the same height as the installed wall cabinets so the tops all line up. When you change the height a wall cabinet is installed at, it affects cabinet top alignments. (Note: With custom and some semi-custom cabinets, this is a non-issue b/c the cabinetmaker/manufacturer can adjust for this.)
  • With the refrigerator you can usually mount the upper cabinet a little lower OR order a shorter upper cabinet, but be sure you don't make the alcove any shorter than 72" tall b/c newer refrigerators are 70" to 72" tall (and seem to get taller each year!)

With other tall cabinets like oven cabinets and pantry cabinets, they're a standard height and designed so they're the same height as the wall cabinets when those wall cabinets are installed 18" above a 36" high counter. If you have custom cabinets, this may not be an issue b/c your cabinetmaker can adjust the cabinet heights. But, if you are using stock or even some semi-custom cabinets, you cannot change the height. You can often get taller cabinets for use w/36" or 42" tall wall cabinets, but not shorter for 30" mounted lower. But, even those that are taller are also adjusted based on standard wall cabinet heights + an 18" backsplash height. Small appliance height...Small appliance manufacturers often design their products to meet this 18" standard...for example, my KA stand mixer (bowl lift) is around 17" and many coffeemakers and blenders are just short of 18". So, you need to be sure you have room under the cabinets + light rail to fit those appliances.

Small appliances...

Keep in mind that if you're using an appliance on your counter, you must be sure you have room under the base cabinets to move that appliance around easily. Don't, for example, tell yourself you're only going to use it in front of your upper cabinets so you don't need to worry about its fit. In reality, you will be moving things around on your counter while you work and most likely your appliance will be moved under the cabinets at some point. You don't want to tear your light rail off or damage it (or the cabinets).

Also remember that "standard" upper cabinets are 12" deep + 1" for the door...so they stick out 13" over your counter...leaving you only 12" or so of workspace in...

    Bookmark   May 29, 2013 at 11:30PM
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I am only 4'10" so I read all the posts which will help me when I am designing my kitchen layout and cabinet height. Thank you everyone!

    Bookmark   May 30, 2013 at 12:09AM
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