Selecting Kitchen Finishes: Which Comes First, Cabinet Color, Countertop or Tile Backsplash ?

I liken the title of this article to the chicken or the egg proverb. During the remodeling process, most meticulous homeowners become stuck during the finish selections process. They assume there is a rigid mathematical formula that will deliver one indisputably correct solution to selecting the best cabinet, countertop and tile backsplash finishes.

There is a formula, but it is not rigid. It requires the homeowner to simultaneously “let go” while participating and seeking out lots of visual stimuli to achieve the desired end result.


Case Example

The story of my very discerning client, Kris, is a perfect case example.

Some history: I have known Kris for three years. Previously, she had engaged me for her master bathroom remodel which was completed early last year. She called me late last summer to say she was ready to redo her kitchen. She has a very high IQ and is extremely focused on all the details. She asks a lot of questions and challenges me on almost every suggestion I give her. She is my ideal client.

Our first design meeting took place on a beautiful sunny September day. While she and I sat in her kitchen, we explored her “inspirational” collection of magazine kitchen photos. Most of them had white cabinetry. You can imagine my surprise when she turned to me and stated, most emphatically: “I know everyone is doing white painted kitchens, and they are nice, but I don’t want to do white in mine. I want wood. What do you think?”

I pondered this question for 10 seconds, trying to sort out the contradictory message between the photos and her statement. I suggested that we explore both.

My theory behind the suggestion? When my client is on one side of the fence and may need to go the other side later (even if they think otherwise), it is always best see the both views from “each side of the fence.”

Since stained wood cabinetry was foremost on her mind (or was it– in light of all the pictures she collected?), we examined this option first. She did not want Maple (“too blah”). Cherry or Lyptus could be in the running as long as they avoided red tones. Walnut was also possible if it wasn’t too strong in its grain variation (unlikely).

Exploring Wood Stain Finishes

I pulled out my Pennville Custom Cabinetry sample blocks of Cherry, Lyptus, and Walnut stains. We concluded that:

  1. Cherry, definitely too red or if not too red, too dark.
  2. Ditto for the Lyptus.
  3. Walnut with a natural stain had the right tonality but the grain variation needed to be seen in full door sample.

Exploring Door Styles

cabinetry door styles and finishes
Brussels (L) and Helsinki (R) door styles

Next step: we chose the door style. It was a toss-up between the Brussels (left) and the Helsinki (right). The Helsinki style won because it had a little extra rail and stile detail that suggested “less transitional and more classic” in style.

Since we already had in hand the Helsinki door in the Cottonball paint that she would commit to above any other “white” paint, we only needed to order the same door in Walnut Natural stain.

Two weeks later, the Walnut door sample arrived (see below).

Conclusion: although the Walnut stain would work with her wood floor, the wood specie itself was too variable in its grain for Kris’ taste.

Cottonball paint became the hands down obvious winner. (See how quickly someone can jump — without hesitation — to the other side of the fence after this tried and true exercise?)


walnut door sample
Walnut Door Sample

One empty box was now successfully “checked”. Now onto the other selections: countertop and tile.

Which Comes First: Countertop or Backsplash?

Kris’ intro to our next meeting was in the form of another question: “Now, what am I going to do about the countertop? There are so many choices! How am I going to decide? And which comes first, the countertop or the backsplash?”

Here is where I want to emphasize something very important about the design process: Note Kris’ question “how”. The answer is: you have to let it “flow” by allowing yourself to become inspired by something you see.

Apropos of this philosophy, I replied, “No worries. Let us take the sample door to Marble Systems (a large granite and marble wholesaler in Northern Virginia ) and find out what inspires you.”

Amarone Granite
Amarone Granite

We met there a few days later, and explored every row of granite. We documented the slab names that caught our attention and inspired her. We then revisited each slab two more times, eliminating our “least favorites” or — with my input — ruling out those slabs that would not work. We finally narrowed it down to Amarone. We contacted our fabricator, Granite Design, and purchased three slabs to be stored until we needed them for install. Second box checked.

Selecting Tile for the Backsplash

Our next foray was into the world of tile for Kris’ backsplash. We went to a large tile showroom in Fairfax to scope out stone, porcelain, and ceramic. We brought with us the cabinet door and a slice of the Amarone granite. We spent a solid 3 hours looking, comparing, discussing, and envisioning possible combinations. The closest we came to finding something Kris liked was a crackle ceramic tile. Its texture felt right, but not the color. More disappointing: the palette of colors for this brand was limited. None worked.

At this point, some may think that this situation meant we were at an impasse and there was reason to become concerned. Not me. I saw this particular chapter as an important step in the right direction. Unfortunately, I could tell Kris did not see things the same way. She was frustrated and exasperated. She commented, “Oh no, I probably shouldn’t have picked this granite. It is doesn’t work easily with any tile!”

I replied, “No, not at all, this is sometimes the bump in the road we have to get over. We just haven’t found the right tile — yet.”

(Actually the term for finding the right tile is what I call the “it” factor”. We had not found “it”. But in my mind’s eye, I knew what would work — we just had to find “it”. For now, the box remained “unchecked”.)

We departed, and I suggested we let everything “percolate” until the next day.
I arrived home in the evening. In typical obsessive compulsive fashion, I opened my desktop’s web browser and typed in “crackled ceramic tile”. Within minutes, I found a place called The Complete Tile Company in New York City that offered a line called Vermeere Ceramics. I viewed the almost infinite color palette of the line. Now I knew it was just a matter of time before we found “it”.

Now, you may not believe in synchronicity, but I do. Ironically, that same evening, Kris sent me an email about one of her “inspire” photos, which I had not seen. The tile backsplash in the photo was by Encore Ceramics. More sleuthing confirmed that Encore could be sourced by Architectural Ceramics and it was essentially the same as the Vermeere collection I saw. We could get what we needed in our own back yard!

The next day, Kris went to Architectural Ceramics and, on her own, selected samples from Encore. There were several, and when she returned home, she concluded that some obviously did not work. However, one was close: Truffle.

I met her the day after to help confirm this choice. “Close,” I said, “But not ‘it’. I got back on Encore’s website and perused other colors. I suggested she pick out a few more from the palette she or I had not seen live: Grain, Beach, and Smoke. We met again. Without question, Smoke was “it” (see below). The final box was checked.

Tile Backsplash Selections
Tile Backsplash Selections

(A caveat: unfortunately website photos are not the way to go to make a final decision; they can only provide guidance.  The actual samples of these tiles was the only way to make our final decision.)

For Kris’ kitchen project we now have three major selections finalized with confidence. The cabinetry is in production. The granite is in safe storage with my granite fabricator. The tile was ordered yesterday. (An 8-week lead time unfortunately, but this is because it is “made to order” to ensure consistency.)

Lessons Learned

So what are the morals of this story? A few:

  1. Let the selections process flow. Use photos to get the spirit going. And if stuck somewhere, visit your supplier to see if you get inspired. Don’t get stuck in the “how” other than go out and start looking.
  2. If you are still unsure, call me!

Stay tuned for the next chapter when everything is installed with before and after photos.

Sandra Brannock, Owner, Expert Kitchen Designs
Sandra Brannock, Owner, Expert Kitchen Designs, Virginia
Sandra Brannock designs beautiful, timeless, functional kitchens that reflect your personal style, within your budget. She helps discerning homeowners throughout Northern and Central Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC get the kitchen of their dreams and select the perfect cabinetry, fixtures, flooring, lighting, and appliances to make their dream kitchen a reality.

Call Sandra today at (703) 801-6402 to schedule a kitchen remodeling consultation. Sandra will help you get the most value out of your kitchen remodeling budget and ensure that all the details of your kitchen renovation proceed smoothly, on time and within budget.