07 May 2009

How to light a new (or an old) kitchen

I linked up with the Lighting Style Blog a couple of weeks ago and I'm enjoying watching their site grow. I'm intrigued by good lighting and over the years I've taught myself a thing or two about how I like to have my work lit. I am not a lighting designer and I'll be the first to admit that. Complicated lighting jobs are best tackeled by a lighting pro. But even with that said, it doesn't hurt to know a thing or two about some of the general guidlines of how to light a kitchen.

1. To add interest and functionality to a kitchen, you should have several different levels of lighting:
  • Ambient Lighting:  General lighting
  • Decorative Lighting:  A fixture that adds a design element, such as a chandelier.
  • Focal Lighting:  Is used in a specific area such as glass cabinets or a tile pattern.
  • Task Lighting:  Used on any work surface.
2. Ambient Lighting, or general lighting, is important for seeing into cabinets and appliances.

3. The most important areas to light in a kitchen are the task areas like countertops, tables, appliance tops, etc.

4. Under-cabinet lighting looks and functions best when the fixture is pulled to the front of the cabinet so that the light is hitting the middle of the countertop.

5. A footcandle is a unit of measurement used to calculate the illumination of light cast on a surface. One footcandle is equal to 10 lux.  General footcandle requirements for any space is 25-30 footcandles. (Follow this link for a good explanation of how brightness is measured.)
  • For a task area such as a countertop, plan for 50-75 footcandles.
  • You may need to adjust the footcandle level based on the occupant’s age.  Occupants over the age 55 would need about 30% more footcandles than a younger person.
6. How colors are used in a room will affect the quantity of light required.  Darker cabinets and countertops will require more task lighting.

7. Kelvin ratings are used to determine light’s color temperature (coolness or warmness).  The higher the number, the cooler the light.  The lower the number, the warmer the light.  This is important in the kitchen as a light’s color temperature greatly affects the presentation of food.
  • It is best to stay away from cool lighting (3,600 to 5,500k).
  • Warm-neutral lighting (2,900 to 3,600k) is best for general and task lighting.
8. It is important that all lamps used in a room appear to be the same color temperature.
  • If you use warm incandescent bulbs in the recessed cans and hanging pendants, but you use cool fluorescent bulbs in the under-cabinet lights for the task lighting, the difference in color temperature will not work well together, creating an odd look.
9. Note, dimming a lamp will cause it to look warmer.

10. It is important to prevent scallop lighting while illuminating wall cabinets as they can cause visual disruptions.  For minimal scalloping on the front of 12” deep cabinets, a minimum of 40” from the back wall to the center of the recessed can is usually required.


  1. I love dimming a lamp, it gives that warm feeling to a room.

  2. I had a session of "An introduction to lighting" with some clients yesterday and this post grew out of that. I'm always shocked that for a lot of people, "lighting" means a ceiling-mounted fixture with a 100 watt bulb in it. Ugh.

  3. Paul, I found this so informative that I printed it off. Hope you don't mind. -Brenda-
    P.S: Besides your pleasing personality :) you are such a 'wealth of information'.

  4. I would also add a point about balancing artificial lighting with natural lighting... which is a whole 'nother post, really, as I think about it.

    Re the "scalloped" effect on uppers, I always find extremely distinct preferences between people who prefer the light centered over an aisle vs. people who prefer the light over the front edge of the counter. I actually prefer the front edge of the counter, ~20" from the wall, despite the scalloped result. A light 40" away (15" beyond counter edge) casts my shadow over the counter when I am standing there working. Yes, I can turn on undercabinet lighting to solve that, but until recently most of those options generated a lot of heat or very harsh light, either/both which I found uncomfortable.

  5. Brenda --thank you and I'm glad you found this to be helpful.

    Rachele --Dealing with natural light and balancing it with artificial lighting is indeed fodder for another post. This post was prompted by a client's home with a window-less kitchen. I was thinking exclusively in terms of artificial lighting when I posted the above.

    You're right too about scalloping and whether or not it's a bad thing. It doesn't bother me under usual circumstances, so long as the scallops make some kind of an intentional pattern. I am such a proponent of under cabinet lighting that I won't not put it in. It's as necessary as a counter top so far as I'm concerned. The low-heat xenons are making that whole under cabinet lighting thing easier to live with and there are even warm LEDs coming onto the market, Kichler's Pro LED comes to mind as a good example of warm LED.

    I think what's more important than any rule or any prescription of what the correct or incorrect way to light a kitchen is that someone thinks through what the options are and then applies them to how he or she plans to use the room. Under-utilized lighting that's in place simply because it's supposed to be there is every bit as bad as missing lighting in my book.

  6. You'll be pleased to know that I selected Kichler Pro LED for my uc lighting. :)

  7. Hah! How do you like it? I wrote a couple of posts about it when it came out, but I haven't used it in a job yet.

  8. honestly, Paul, each and every post of yours is like opening up a whole new world for me. This is one of those things about which I should have given more thought, but didn't. I find that I'm really sensitive to lighting conditions but never explored doing anything about it. Fluorescent light almost makes me cringe in pain as do harsh reading lights.
    Yet one more thing to think about in the new house!

  9. Thank you Melody. None of this stuff is arbitrary and I love the science behind it. The formulae for measuring brightness I find compelling. But then again, I can be a bit of a nerd when it comes to this sort of thing.

  10. Well, I've only seen it in the lighting showroom so far. My kitchen is in the sheet-rocking stage. The showroom had a display with four shelves of halogen, xenon, fluorescent, and LED options. I put my hand on each counter and the heat was very prominent on the halogen and xenon (I thought xenon was cooler than that). I can't remember for sure my exact dissatisfaction with fluorescent -- either the color, or maybe it wasn't dimmable?

    I just really liked the LED light for color quality, ease of installation, and energy usage. The LED lighting (and other lighting) will go in about June or July... stay tuned!

  11. Excellent, I'll be expecting a full report Rachele.


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