Kitchens are the undisputed heart of the home, where everyone gathers, mingles, and lingers during parties. But to achieve that kind of appeal outside means expanding your outdoor living space. To draw a crowd—and keep them entertained—requires a bit more than plopping down a table and a few plastic chairs.
With an outdoor kitchen you can prepare meals and be around your guests with minimal time spent running back inside for plates, beverages, or tongs. Although you could spend tens of thousands of dollars for a custom outdoor kitchen, a basic island is an efficient design that leaves out the complexity of curves and angles. Not only that, with an island guests can relax on one side while you’re cooking on the other, so you feel as though you’re part of the gathering.
Since durability is such a critical issue for an outdoor kitchen, stone veneer is a low-maintenance option that won’t need painting or sealing. Real stone is heavy, expensive, and requires the experience of a mason. Cementitious cultured stone, such as the type used in this project from Landmark Stone, is easier to work with because it’s lighter, cuts faster, and lasts just as long as the real thing—all while looking as natural as real stone.
How to Build a Better Barbecue Area
Building this open-air kitchen takes some time, but with the right planning, you can do it in two weekends.
As long as you get to the point of coating the frame and lath in a layer of mortar, you can essentially tarp over the top of it and take your time applying the finish decoration. Once you get the counters on it, you can go ahead and use it, working on the stone veneering over time.
The kitchen consists of a stainless-steel grill set into a 3-foot-long stone-veneered plywood base and flanked by two more 4-foot bases with cabinets below and 48 linear inches of countertop on each side—one with a working sink. The countertop – here it’s concrete, but it can be any kind of stone—sits 38 inches from the ground, which is a comfortable height for both food prep and elbow propping. It rests on a gently sloped concrete slab to help prevent water from pooling around the bottom, but any structurally sound existing patio would work as a base.
The island’s frame is made out of pressure-treated 2x4s and 3/4-inch plywood – an inexpensive and durable construction that’s easier to work with than concrete block. The frame consists of three small, manageable boxes that are built separately and then screwed together to make one long island: one 24-inch-high, 37-inch-wide box in the center to support the grill and the shelf it sits on, plus one 36-inch-high, 48-inch-wide box on either side, with cabinets set into each. This layout allows you to scale the island’s length to fit your patio or adjust it to incorporate a built-in bar with a 90-degree turn. Because the boxes are empty, they can accept steel doors, drawers, or other storage compartments or conceal a propane tank for a gas grill.
The outside of the island is veneered with cultured stone, which is lightweight and easy to put on with mortar. Use stones that complement your home’s architecture or existing stonework – round fieldstones evoke a classic New England farm wall, while thin, horizontal stones have a more modern look. Arranging the stone in an aesthetically pleasing way is like doing a big jigsaw puzzle. Speed up the hunt for the perfectly sized stone by first unpacking and organizing all the pieces into piles of corners, shorts, longs, and rectangulars. This ensures you’ll have on hand a random range of colors, mimicking real stone, and keeps you from rummaging through boxes and chipping the pieces.
How to Build an Outdoor Kitchen
Follow along as This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows you how to build an outdoor grill island by starting with a simple frame, covering it in faux stone, and then nestling a gas grill in the center to get the party started.
Step 1: Build the frame
- Make corner posts for each box: Using a circular saw, cut eight lengths of 2×4 to the height you want the finished counter to be, minus the thickness of the countertops and the height of the metal post standoffs.
- Using a drill/driver, screw the 2x4s together in pairs with 2½-inch deck screws.
- Using a circular saw, cut a 1½-inch-deep-by-3½-inch-high notch at the top and bottom of each post.
- Separate the posts with stretchers: Cut four 2x4s to the depth of the box. Line up the four posts and screw the 2x4s to the top and bottom of the posts to tie the sides together.
- Cut four 2x4s to the width of the box, minus 3 inches. Run these between the posts at the top and bottom of both the front and the back of the box.
- Wherever you will have cabinets, put a 2×4 for support in the middle of the bottom framing.
Step 2: Sheathe the Frame
- Screw the three boxes together side by side.
- Flip the frame over and screw a metal post standoff to the bottom of each post to act as feet.
- Using a circular saw, cut plywood panels to fit the dimensions of the frame. Run a bead of construction adhesive along the posts and stretchers.
- Lay the plywood over the adhesive and screw it to the 2x4s with 2-inch deck screws.
- Leave openings in the sheathing to match any cabinet openings.
- For the cabinets, create boxes out of plywood to fit within the depth of the framing. Hold them together with construction adhesive and 1¼-inch deck screws.
- Build in a 1-inch-wide, 1¼-inch-deep flange around the front of each box.
- Set the boxes aside.
Step 3: Attach the Lath
- Cover all the plywood with builder’s felt and staple it in place using a staple gun. Work from the bottom up and overlap the sheets of felt by a couple of inches to make sure water can’t get behind them.
- Examine a sheet of wire lath and note which way the honeycombs are protruding outward. Run your hand over the wires—in one direction the sheet will feel like a cheese grater. Make sure the wires face up as you lay each sheet over the builder’s felt (to catch or cup the mortar).
- Nail the lath to the plywood using stainless-steel roofing nails every 6 inches vertically and every 12 to 15 inches horizontally, making sure you hit the framing as much as you can.
- Overlap the pieces of lath at seams by a couple of inches.
Tip: Wear gloves when working with the sharp lath.
Step 4: Trim the Lath
- Using tin snips, trim the top of the lath so that it’s flush with the top of the frame.
Step 5: Trowel on a Scratch Coat
- Using a masonry hoe and a mixing trough, mix up a bag of mortar with water until it is the consistency of peanut butter and it clings to a trowel turned upside down.
- Lay a ring of 1x scrap boards against the bottom edge of the island. Using a finishing trowel, spread a ½-inch-thick layer of mortar over the lath and down to the 1x scrap.
- Push the mortar into the crevices in a downward motion. If at any point the lath moves, stop and nail it tight to the sheathing.
- When you are finished, you should not be able to see any mesh.
- Let the scratch coat cure for about an hour.
Step 6: Score the Mortar
- When the scratch coat is firm to the touch, score the surface horizontally using a ½-inch notched trowel.
- Start at one of the island’s short ends and position the trowel vertically and on edge.
- Tilting the trowel 45 degrees, score all the way across the short side and continue around to the front.
- Make one pass all the way around the island; keep the lines as straight and parallel to the ground as you can, so you can use them later as guides for setting the stone.
- Continue scoring the scratch coat in single passes that wrap all the way around until all the mortar is grooved.
- Let the mortar cure for at least 24 hours.
- Set the cabinet boxes into the openings, pushing each back until the flange butts against the mortared face of the island.
- Secure the box through the bottom and into the base framing with 2-inch deck screws.
Step 7: Back-Butter the Stone
- Separate the stones into piles of corner, short, long, and rectangular pieces to organize them and to help create a random color pattern.
- Start with a corner piece. Using a pointing trowel, butter the back of one of the L-shaped stones with a 1-inch layer of mortar.
- Scrape excess mortar from the edges of the stone, then use the trowel point to create V-shaped air pockets in the wet mortar.
Step 8: Set the First Course
- Starting at the base of a corner, set the L-shaped stone by pressing it firmly onto the grooved scratch coat.
- Let it rest on the 1x scrap board.
- Scrape any excess mortar that oozes out, pushing it into the seam to make a tight seal.
- If at any point you knock a stone loose, remove it and reset it to recreate this seal.
Step 9: Shape the Stones
- Continue laying stones out in both directions from the corner. Dry-fit stones before mortaring them in place to check the look.
- Overlap the stones, then mark where they intersect.
- Using a grinder fitted with a diamond blade, shape the stone at the mark so it will sit tightly against its neighbor.
Step 10: Trim Large Stones
- If a stone is uneven along a top or bottom edge so that it gets in the way of keeping the rows straight, cut away the protruding parts using a miter box fitted with a diamond blade. Set the stone cut side up.
- Camouflage the cut face by setting other stones around it that protrude out farther and cast a shadow over it.
Tip: Clamp smaller stones to the box before cutting them to keep your hands away from the blade.
Step 11: Veneer the Rest of the Frame
- After setting the first course around all four sides, start the second from the same corner, alternating the orientation of the L-shaped corner piece.
- Continue setting subsequent courses, incorporating stones of varying sizes for a natural look. Minimize cuts by dry-fitting several stones at a time and piecing them together like a puzzle.
- Do not lay any stones over the flanges of the cabinet boxes.
- Position straight-cut stones along the top edge so they sit flat against the underside of the counter.
Step 12: Install Fixtures
- Allow stones to set for 24 hours; install cabinet doors by attaching them over the flanges of the cabinet boxes.
- Install the countertops and the grill.