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Under-Kitchen-Cabinet Lighting: Using the Best Task Lighting Fixtures

Under kitchen cabinet lighting provides the highest-quality task lighting for your kitchen counter.


While there are several types of kitchen counter task lighting available, under kitchen cabinet lighting provides the best quality task lighting for your counter top. This is because the other forms of task lighting necessarily create shadows that are potentially dangerous. In this article, I will discuss why under cabinet lighting is the best, and discuss some common mistakes with its application.

Advantages of Under Kitchen Cabinet Lighting

Other forms of kitchen task lighting have one common problem: they shine from the wrong direction. One of the most common forms of task lighting in a kitchen is the use of track lighting systems, in which a single track with fixtures is placed in a central area between all of the counters in the kitchen. The light is then shone downward toward all of the food preparation spaces like spokes on a wheel.

Under-Cabinet Lighting

By hiding the light sources, all under-cabinet lighting is reflected, making it surprisingly soft.

The problem with this sort of lighting is that it is very easy to stand in the beam of light when preparing your food. If you are standing between the light source and the counter, you will cast a shadow on the surface and on your food. Worse, because track lighting is directed lighting, the shadow will be harsh. Since you will be moving around, the shadow too will be moving around, causing distraction and lack of detail.

Recessed lighting fixtures have similar problems. Since the light comes from directly above, you will create harsh shadows on the surface directly below where your hand or kitchen implements are. This can create distraction at the last possible second, just as you cut or otherwise manipulate food. In some ways, recessed task lighting is even more dangerous.

Under kitchen cabinet lighting avoids this problem by shining its light from behind the food preparation surface. As a result, there are few shadows produced when you are actually preparing your food. The light actually comes from two places. First, it comes from the light source itself, shining down on the counter top below. Second and more importantly, it comes from the light that reflects off of the wall behind the counter, reflecting a diffuse light onto the counter surface.

Common Mistakes in Under Kitchen Cabinet Lighting

Specular Counter Tops

Granite counter tops can be especially specular. Be careful you don’t create reflective glare when using them.

Reflected Glare: The way that under kitchen cabinet lighting reflects creates some important issues in terms of how it is used. First, the light from the fixtures can also bounce downward, off of the counter top and into the eyes of whoever is preparing food. This is a source of glare that can be just as distracting as the shadows that under cabinet kitchen lighting was intended to prevent.

Therefore, if you are using a counter top surface that is called “semi-specular” (you can see images reflected in it), you may have a problem with glare. There are two possibilities. The first is to lengthen the lip that goes below your cabinets. This prevents any light from going forward, preventing glare. The second is to block the light that goes forward from your light source. You can either cover a fluorescent tube on one side or use semi-parabolic bulbs. These are bulbs that shine light in one direction, but not in the other direction. Rotate the bulbs so that they shine light downward and onto the back wall but not forward.

Direct Glare: Another common mistake when using under kitchen cabinet lighting is to not take account of eating areas. Eating areas are commonly lower than the kitchen cabinets themselves. This means that anyone sitting at the eating area may be able to look directly up into the bulbs of the under cabinet lighting. This can make an entire area in their field of view uncomfortable. Make sure you consider children when considering glare, as they perceive the cabinets from even lower.

The solution for direct glare is exactly the same as for preventing indirect glare. You can either lower the lip of your kitchen cabinets or use semi-parabolic bulbs for the lighting itself. In each of these cases, your goal is to make sure that no one can see the bulbs when sitting at the eating area.

Color: Finally, another issue with under cabinet kitchen lighting is color. Because much of the light that is used in lighting your food preparation surface is reflected off of your wall, it will pick up the color of your wall. This can affect the color of the light and distort the color of your food. Since things like seeing how well cooked your food is are dependent on color, this can cause problems in terms of proper food preparation.

Unfortunately, there is really no solution to this aside from recoloring the backsplash behind your kitchen cabinets. If you are redoing your kitchen consider using a neutral color for the backsplash. Vibrant colors are more likely to distort the color of your food. Changing your bulb color would simply distort the color of the light coming directly from your bulbs.

Types of Under Kitchen Cabinet Lighting

There are almost as many types of under kitchen cabinet lighting as there are types of lighting. However, a number of options are available. Each of these options are designed to be as compact as possible, so that you can fit them behind the lip of your cabinets without causing any glare:

Under-Kitchen-Cabinet Lighting

Using puck or other point sources of light can create dramatic constrasts of shadow and light.

Fluorescent tubes: Traditionally, the most common type of under-cabinet lighting was fluorescent tubes. These were simply stretched along the bottom of the cabinet, shining light both downward and backward toward the wall. Now that whiter tubes are available, make sure to get something that renders food accurately.

LED Light Fixtures: LEDs have become more and more common, simply because they are so compact. You can have a number of small fixtures that run the length of your cabinet, providing even light across your entire surface. This can include what are called “light bars”, fixtures that provide LED lights almost the entire way across.

Puck Lights: Puck lights are technically LED lights. If you put them far enough apart, you will produce the effect of cones of light going down the back of your wall behind your counter. Some people like this effect as it creates drama. If you do wish to produce this sort of light, make sure that your puck lights are still close enough that their beams touch on the counter top, or you will be creating uneven task lighting as well.

Putting It All Together

Under kitchen cabinet lighting provides the highest quality kitchen counter task lighting available:

  • It avoids the harsh shadows produced by track lighting and recessed lighting.
  • One needs to be careful of glare, both reflected and for eating surfaces.
  • The color of your wall will be picked up by under cabinet lighting.
  • Under cabinet lighting comes in many types, and you can create dramatic effects using spacing.

With all of these tips in mind, you will be better able to make use of under kitchen cabinet lighting in your home.


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