How to Light Kitchen Counters

Discover these 6 professional tips for lighting your countertops and other kitchen workspaces

Like a canvas is to an artist, so a countertop is to the home chef. It’s a workspace that requires proper lighting to create a safe, functional and comfortable environment. If you’re remodelling your kitchen or just looking for a quick update, working with your home professional to place lights in the proper location will make your kitchen work better for you while adding beauty to the heart of your home.

1. Light the counters
One of the most common mistakes in kitchen lighting is to add overhead lights over floors rather than above workspaces like countertops, sinks and ranges. Recessed downlights, the workhorse of most kitchens, are too often placed in front of or behind countertops. This can create harsh shadows right where you might be working with sharp knives.

Instead, consider locating recessed downlights directly above the centre of countertops, as CTA Design Builders did over the perimeter countertops in this kitchen. Don’t worry about lighting up those floors; enough light still will be present to see those spills.

The correct placement of recessed downlights does more than just light countertops – upper cabinets and open shelves are also better illuminated. Avoid awkward scallops of light by aligning the downlights with cabinet doors, as seen in this kitchen designed by Mosaic Architects Boulder.

Here’s why you should use recessed lights

2. Fight shadows
Recessed downlights can create unwelcome shadows, but you can minimise this by using multiple smaller downlights instead of a few large fixtures. In the past, the only options for recessed lights were 6-inch or 8-inch can lights.

Today, consider using a few more recessed downlights in the 2-to-3-inch range, as seen in this kitchen designed by Poss Architecture + Planning and Interior Design. Doing so will better light your counters, make your upper cabinets appear brighter and reduce glare, making your kitchen more functional and comfortable.

The same principle applies to sink areas. Multiple downlights or sconces that push light down, such as the ones in this kitchen designed by Studio Dearborn, reduce deep shadows and make the sink a better place to work.


3. Downlights or downlines?
Instead of multiple small recessed downlights over a countertop, a long line of recessed lights is also a great way to evenly illuminate counters and cabinets. This approach may feel a bit odd in traditional spaces, but it works beautifully in modern kitchens such as this one, designed by Winder Gibson Architects.

4. Add lights under cabinets
No matter how well you place downlights, upper cabinets will always block some of the light and make the space below them dark. To fight this, consider adding undercabinet lighting, as the team at John Kraemer & Sons did here. As with recessed downlights, undercabinet lighting should be placed above the centre of cabinets, rather than too far forward or back.

Installing LED tape lighting that faces the backsplash will reduce reflections on glossy stone counters, but it puts the brightest light in the wrong place and leaves counters too dark. Placing LED tape lighting too far forward can also create harsh shadows on the counter. Try testing a strip of light before installing it to make sure it pushes light onto the counter evenly.

Refer to these kitchen cabinet lighting ideas

Open shelves can be treated a bit like glass-front cabinets. Include light underneath the bottom shelf, and consider adding lights either above or on the surface of higher shelves. Here, the top shelf is illuminated from an LED tape light installed in the shelf itself, creating a nice wash of light in this kitchen by Christine Curry Design.

Lighting tip: Undercabinet lights needs to be bright enough to balance the light from overhead recessed downlights. Too many LED tape light products simply do not have enough punch to get the job done right. Look for a lumen count of 250 or more per linear foot.

5. Sink and range lighting
If you’re washing your dishes by hand, it’s nice to actually see what you’re doing. For nighttime illumination, don’t add just one small recessed light or pendant light above your sink and call it day. Instead, add multiple lights over your sink, as shown in this kitchen designed by Smith & Vansant Architects PC.

Pay attention to lighting when purchasing your range hood as well. Depending on the width of your cook surface, 750 to 1,000 lumens of high-quality light is a good starting point.

6. Don’t forget those dimmers
Dimmers are not very expensive, but they are worth their weight in gold and can help you get the right amount of light on your counters. A switch just gives you the choice of on or off; dimmers, such as the ones used in this kitchen by Design Studio International, open up the possibility of setting a different mood after dinner and can help you relax while cleaning up.

Simplify your choices by following the do’s and don’ts in this diagram to get your kitchen countertop lighting right.

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