Kitchen Design Lighting Guide – How To Light A Kitchen
I always say that the kitchen layout is key and the most important factor when designing a new kitchen. However, once you have your layout sorted, one of the next biggest impacts on the functionality of your kitchen will be the kitchen lighting.
Having been an electrician as well as a kitchen designer, when it comes to kitchen lighting, my expert advice is to add lots of light but to do so in layers and make sure you can control each layer of lighting independently.
In this post, I’ll go over the main types of kitchen lighting, what you need to consider from a practical and aesthetic point of view as well as any other considerations and options available when it comes to kitchen lighting.
Settle in, this is an in-depth guide!
Kitchen Lighting Design Key Takeaways
- Design around your kitchen layout
- Light the room in layers (Ambient, Task and Decorative)
- Control everything individually
- Install dimmers if you can
- Choose your light fixture finishes carefully
- Pick the perfect colour temperature
- Check your lumens levels
Kitchen Lighting Types
I like to break kitchen lighting down into three main groups:
Ambient Lighting – Ceiling lights (Recessed/Pot Lights)
Task Lighting – Under Cabinet Lights / Pendant Lights
Decorative/Accent Lighting – In-Cabinet Lights / under countertop lights / Plinth Lights / Pendant Lights
If you’d rather watch my video on this topic check it out below:
Confirm Your Kitchen Layout
First things first. Before you start to look at and plan your kitchen lighting scheme you must have your kitchen layout finalised and confirmed.
The location and type of kitchen lighting you include will depend greatly on the layout of your kitchen within the room as a whole.
Where the cabinet runs are, whether there is an island or peninsula, if you have tall or wall cabinets and where they are located. All these factors (and more) will have a direct impact on the lighting scheme.
Right, let’s look at the three main lighting types or groups.
Top Tip: Make sure to finalise your kitchen layout before planning your lighting design.
Ambient lighting is the main lighting in your ceiling. Typically recessed LED recessed downlights or pot-lights. This is the lighting used to cover the whole room and give a general overall coverage of your kitchen area.
Now there are a couple of things to consider with these lights, most notably where you position them and how many you need.
So let’s look at how many you need, and I’m afraid this is the classic ‘it depends’.
The aim of these lights is to flood the room evenly with light. So you want enough lights to cover the room but not so many that they’re overlapping light and we feel like we’re on the surface of the sun.
There are three main factors to consider when it comes to the number of ambient lights we need.
You need to consider the size and shape of the room as well as the kitchen layout to determine where to place these downlights. You want to make sure you cover the main kitchen layout as well as the room as a whole.
You’ll also need to consider the size of the downlight themselves, as the larger the diameter the bigger the light coverage, so you might not need as many, or you may be able to space them slightly further apart and still achieve the same coverage.
And lastly, you’ll also need to consider your ceiling and where the joists are and which direction they run. As well as any architectural features such as any skylights or beams, as this might restrict where you can physically install them.
So with these in mind let’s look at some positioning.
How far from The wall should recessed lights be in the kitchen?
A good general rule is to try and position recessed lights in line with the edge of your countertop, which is usually 60cm or 24inches off the wall.
This is for two main reasons:
1. It is far enough in front of any wall cabinets that it will light the whole of the inside of the cabinet, rather than being too close at the top and only lighting part of it. As light is blocked by the cabinet.
2. It’s not too far off the wall that when you’re standing working at the countertop, you create a shadow where you’re working because the light source is behind you.
So this, 60cm or 24inches is the sweet spot you’re looking for.
How far apart should downlights be placed?
Kitchen downlights should be placed between 90cm- 1.5m (3-5 feet) apart from one another, making sure no light is closer than 60cm or 24inchs to any wall.
However, this will depend on the size of the downlights, the size and height of the room and how many lights naturally fit evenly spaced out.
Now there is a sort of loose rule to help work this out:
You take your ceiling height, and half it, and that gives you how far you should space the lights out. So with an 8 ft ceiling, you should space them 4ft apart.
I think it’s an okay rule, but personally, I believe the size of the lights, the shape of the room and the kitchen layout are more important factors to consider.
For instance, if this rule says you should place your lights 4ft apart, you might not feel like there are enough or they might not fit effectively in your room or with your kitchen layout.
So I think this ‘rule’ is more of a starting guide. Still helpful though!
Spacing Downlights Across A Kitchen
Once you have established how far apart you are spacing your downlights, you can do the same on the opposite side of the room to try and keep the lighting distribution looking even across the ceiling.
Then, come into the room from these first layers of lights, again spacing them around 3-5 feet from one another. Depending on the depth of the room, this might be one more run of lighting in the middle of the room, or two runs if the room is bigger. Or none if it’s a narrow room.
Depending on the kitchen layout you may skip some downlight out of the run if you have an island or peninsula underneath and want some pendant lights (which we’ll talk about more later)
And although I strive to keep the lights in a uniform run, sometimes you may need to position them out of line depending on the room shape and the kitchen layout.
For instance, if there is a full-height cabinet in the run and the light fixture needs to be positioned in front of it, 60cm from the wall won’t be enough, as the cabinet itself is 60cm. The light will be blocked!
In this instance, I’d bring the light between 6-12 inches further forward from the cabinet front (depending on the size of the light) to create enough separation for the light to shine down and not just be blocked by the cabinet.
Similarly, if you have a run of tall cabinets, I’d bring that run of lights all off the wall further than the typical 60cm 24 inches.
What size recessed lights should I use in My kitchen?
The most popular sized kitchen recessed lights in the UK are approximately 90mm / 3.5inchs wide (70mm hole cut out size) or 115mm / 4.5inchs wide (90mm hole cut out size).
However, sizes can range from 50mm to 300mm depending on the type of light fitting and look you want.
The bigger the size of the recessed downlight the less you would potentially need to light your kitchen. As not only would they give off more light, but you may also be able to spread them further apart, meaning you need fewer.
As I said, the goal is to create a full and even coverage of light for the main room but also to not overdo it and place so many lights we’re blinded every time we turn them on.
So I have two types of lighting I consider to be talk lighting and that’s under cabinet lights and pendant lights. Of course, pendant lights could also be decorative too, but I think they should really serve to function as task lighting foremost.
Under Cabinet Lights
Under-cabinet lighting is really important for a functional kitchen. It gives that extra light needed for doing the day-to-day tasks in the kitchen, like actually preparing and cooking food!
While your kitchen will have the ambient lighting positioned correctly above, it’s higher up in the ceiling and the light is much softer and generally spread by the time it reaches the countertops.
By adding under-cabinet lighting, you get much more direct and intentional light on your countertops in the areas you will be working the most. Making it a very practical light source!
Types Of Under Cabinet Lighting
Now there are lots of different under cabinet lighting options on the market from LED colour-changing strip lights to individual fixed lights at the back of your cabinets and even recessed spotlights cut into the bottom of your wall cabinets.
The type you choose will ultimately come down to what is available for your particular kitchen and what you like the look of most.
Personally, I recommend LED strip lighting of some description, as I find it gives more even and wider light coverage, rather than any individual lights or spots that might create these small pockets of light.
Where To Position Under Cabinet Strip Lights
I recommend locating the strip light towards the front of the bottom of the wall cabinets. I find this gives a better spread of the light over the whole countertop, rather than lights at the back of wall cabinets.
When you position lights at the back, I find they sometimes only light the back of your countertop and up the wall or backsplash, rather than the actual area of countertop you’re working in.
Top Tip: I always recommend under cabinet lighting, if you’re designing a new kitchen plan these in early on so your electrician can get the wiring in place, if you’re retrofitting some, you might be able to surface mount some wiring or even get some battery-operated lighting that just clips on underneath.
Having pendant lights over a kitchen island or peninsula, basically any area countertop where we don’t have wall cabinets above. Brings that more intense lighting down closer to our work surface, giving us that more practical task lighting.
How Far Should Pendant Lights be Above The Countertop?
A general rule is to position the bottom of the light fixture between 75cm – 90cm (30 – 36 inches) above the countertop. However, the exact height will depend on your height. It’s your kitchen, it needs to work for you!
Exactly how close to the countertop or how far above it will really depend on your height and the overall ceiling height. You want your pendant lights to hang down from the ceiling enough to help create practical task lighting and create that feature look, but not so far down that the light fixtures are blocking your sightlines through the kitchen or are right in your face when standing at the island.
Now, as I said, pendant lighting can also be viewed as decorative and is a great way to add some visual interest to your kitchen or help to achieve a particular aesthetic or style.
There’s no set rule for pendant lights, as with most things kitchen, it’s whatever you like, whether that’s one big pendant strip or cluster of pendants, to a series of individual pendant lights.
However, in my opinion, if you are having individual pendant lights, rather than one large lighting statement fixture, I would go with either two or three pendant lights. No more, no less.
How Far Apart Should You Position Pendant Lights?
The distance you set your pendant lights apart from one another will depend on the size of the pendant lights, the number you are having, the size of the kitchen island or peninsula you are hanging them above, and most importantly what feels appropriate in the space.
If it’s two pendant lights you are having, make sure they are evenly spaced from the edge of the island as well as from one another.
To do this, take the size of your island, divide it by three and position the pendant on those third lines. The rule of thirds for any photographers out there!
And if it’s three pendant lights. Centre the first light over the island and then evenly space them out from that centre light and the edge of the countertop. This is for perfect symmetry.
Depending on the size of the light fitting you may want to move the lights further out from the centre and closer to the edge of the countertop. Just don’t go too close to or past the edge. I always like to allow at least 15cm / 6 inches.
Top Tip: We want good light coverage for our pendant task lighting but also the right balance from an aesthetic point of view.
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Kitchen Island Lighting Guide – Perfect Pendant Placement
I would consider decorative or accent lighting to be things like:
- In-cabinet lighting – such as glass-fronted cabinets or inside a larder cabinet
- Drawer lighting
- Under-shelf lighting – such as a floating shelf
- Wall lights / Sconces
- Up-Lights – lights on top of wall/tall cabinets
- Strip lighting underneath your countertop overhang
- Plinth lighting
Essentially, any additional lighting in the kitchen that isn’t directly designed and used for tasks, and could be classed as non-essential.
These types of lighting are really more style and aesthetic-focused and add that little cherry on top to your overall kitchen design and lighting experience.
Just because they’re more decorative doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add them, it’s these types of details that can really elevate a kitchen or any space really. It can create a real wow factor and make your kitchen a more joyful user experience.
Decorative lighting is very much a personal preference thing, there’s no right or wrong, as with so much kitchen design it’s what you like!
Kitchen Lighting Design Considerations
Now we’ve looked at the three main types of kitchen lighting, let’s look at some of the other things to consider when designing your kitchen lighting scheme.
Individual Lighting Control
Probably the most important one, which I mentioned at the start, is to make sure you have separate controls or switches for each lighting type.
As I said, lighting is all about layers, and you want to be able to control each layer individually. You don’t want just one light switch in your kitchen that turns everything on and off together.
I recommend that you create a separate switch for your ceiling ambient lighting, maybe even two depending on the size of the room and number of lights, and then separate switches for any pendant lights, under-cabinet lights, wall lights, and any additional decorative lighting, like plinth or under countertop strip lights.
This means you have lots of different options to create different lighting environments and moods depending on what you’re doing in the kitchen.
For instance: If it’s all systems go and you’re in full cooking mode, you can have your main ambient and task lighting on to help make it a practical cooking environment.
Or on the other hand, if you’re just relaxing with a glass of wine in the evening, you can turn on some select decorative lighting to make it a softer and calmer environment to set a different mood.
So whatever’s going on in the kitchen you have more control and lighting options. Very important!
Where possible, I always recommend installing dimmable lighting. Similar to the point above, this is all about controlling your lighting environment.
You could add dimmable lighting everywhere for ultimate control or maybe just to your pendant lights. Whatever you think makes the most sense and could be handy to have that extra control over.
Top Tip: Remember to make sure any lamps or bulbs (especially LEDs) are dimmable and you’ve got the correct dimmable switches installed.
Light fixture Finishes
You can usually get recessed downlights or pot lights in a whole host of different finishes, such as stainless steel, brass, black etc.. and If you like these and it works for your look then that’s great, go for it!
However, I recommend going with a plain white finish for your recessed downlights. You’re more than likely going to be painting your ceiling white and choosing the white finish on the downlights, it helps them blend into the ceiling and almost disappear.
I find that if you go for a different finish they become very noticeable and really draw your eye up to the ceiling, which can make the room feel busy and the ceiling appear a little lower.
Where I recommend you introduce some other finishes and textures into your kitchen lighting scheme is through some other lighting types such as pendants or wall lights. These are the perfect fixtures you can use to introduce any particular finishes to enhance your kitchen style or aesthetic you want to achieve.
The colour temperature or lighting temperature of any light is measured in kelvins (°k).
With a low number of around 2000 kelvins being a very warm ready orange colour like candlelight. 4000 kelvins being that middle ground and what you’d call more natural coloured light, going all the way up to say 7000 kelvins which is a much bluer, whiter light, referred to as a more daylight colour.
What colour light is best for the kitchen?
I recommend a more natural / daylight colour, somewhere around 4000-5000 Kelvins for your main ambient lighting and any task lights. This gives a clearer light and one that can help to focus more.
Whereas the warmer more orange light can be used to create a calmer environment. Which you may want to use for some of your more decorative lights.
There are even smart lights or bulbs on the market that can change their colour temperature. Some you can control with an app or remote control.
Another option is to install what’s called dim-to-warm lights. These fixtures will go from a natural light of around 4000°k down to a warming candlelight of around 3000°k as you dim the lights down. Giving you that ultimate control and ability to change the mood of the room.
So consider the colour temperature of your lights, what you like and what you think will work best for you.
how many lumens are needed to light a kitchen?
Generally, kitchens require around 7,000-12,000 Lumens depending on the overall size of the kitchen and the amount of countertop that needs task lighting.
As a guide, you should aim to have:
- 30-40 lumens-per-square-foot for ambient kitchen lighting
- 70-80 lumens-per-square-foot for task lighting on kitchen countertop areas
What are lumens?
A Lumen (lm) is the measurement of the total quantity of visible light emitted from a lamp (or light source).
Put simply, when a product gives the number of lumens it produces, such as a downlight or bulb, it is giving you an indication of how much light output it has.
A typical LED recessed downlight will be between 400 – 600 Lumens. It may be a little more or less depending on the size of the light and the wattage of the bulb.
Good To Know: An old 60-watt incandescent bulb produces about 800 lumens. However, by comparison, a typical LED bulb that produces the same 800 lumens only uses around 9 watts. This is why LEDs are great for saving energy, as well as saving on your energy bills.
How many lumens in total are needed for a kitchen? – (Calculation)
To work this out we need to know the overall square footage of the kitchen as well as the square footage of the task areas (countertop area).
Say we have a kitchen that is 200 sq. ft overall and the task area (countertop area) accounts for 70 sq. ft of this.
130 sq. ft will fall into the ambient lighting lumen guide – (30 – 40 Lumens per sq. ft.)
70 sq. ft. will fall into the taste lighting lumen guide – (70 – 80 Lumens per sq. ft.)
So if we base our calculations on the upper limits to be safe:
130 x 40 = 5200 lm
70 x 80 = 5600 lm
Total lumens = 10,800 lm
This is, of course, just a guide to get you in the right area. The exact amount and type of lighting for your kitchen will depend on your personal needs and taste. As well as everything else we discussed above!
I like to check the proposed kitchen lighting scheme’s overall lumen output against this calculation to see if it’s in the right general ballpark.
So there you have it! My ultimate kitchen lighting guide.
Remember, the key to lighting a kitchen is to add lots of light but do so in layers and make sure you can control each layer independently. As well as to have fun with it!
Happy kitchen lighting design!
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Michael is a kitchen designer from the UK. He's been designing and project managing new kitchen installations for over 10 years. Before that, he was an electrician and part of a team that fitted kitchens. He created Kitchinsider in early 2019 to help give people advice when it comes to getting a new kitchen.