With more families spending time at home, the outdoor kitchen trend is starting to open up.

Imagine relaxing with your friends and family on a bright sunshine-filled summer evening, luxuriating in the cool shade, feeling the fresh air of the breeze, listening to the birds sing and watching the sun set, the stars appearing in the sky, all while enjoying gourmet food and wine in your own backyard. Sound like a fantasy? Not for many homeowners in America who are forsaking expensive trips to villas in France and Spain for the pleasure of entertaining at home in their own outdoor kitchens.

A long-standing tradition in southern Europe, where keeping the heat from the stove out of the house helps keep the interior cool and the air conditioning bills low, the outdoor kitchen trend is starting to catch on in the United States. High-end consumers from Florida to California, the Arizona desert to the Eastern seaboard and even New England, are “cocooning” — staying home and taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors without leaving their property.

To be more health conscious as well, people are grilling foods more often and want a nice outdoor area to cook and entertain guests. These outdoor kitchens range from simple wood stoves and barbecue pits to exclusive designs featuring outdoor plasma televisions, Sub Zero refrigerators, dishwashers and more. This trend offers a new and lucrative market possibility for the custom cabinet industry, with customers spending big bucks: sales of grills exceeded $17.4 million in 2007, and the outdoor furniture and grill product market is expected to reach $7.5 billion by 2011, according to The Freedonia Group.

Originally, the most common material used in outdoor kitchens was brick, stucco or stone, and many still go this route for a natural look. However, nowadays, people wanting the stone or brick look often settle for a fiberglass facsimile, such as Ameristone, to be more cost effective.

Stainless steel is also a very popular material. Some advantages are that it is easy to clean and will not rust unless it comes into contact with other metals. Resorts and restaurants that feature outdoor kitchens often use stainless steel.

For the sports fan who does not want to miss the big game, no outdoor kitchen would be complete without not one, but two televisions, as in this design from Cal Flame.

Another material that has gained considerable traction among outdoor cabinetmakers is marine-grade polymer (or King StarBoard). This plastic material is easy to machine with woodworking equipment, simple to clean and maintain, and will last for decades. This is the same material that is used on yachts and is perfect for use near water, such as pools.

The color selection, however, can be limited, as are the standard cabinet face design options. Custom colors are becoming more available, and as the material is easy to work with and custom designs can be easily cut into the surfaces, more design choices should become available as time goes on.

Of course, for those who prefer a more natural look with warmth, real wood may provide the answer. Ammonium copper quaternary (ACQ) treated wood can be used, and cabinet faces and doors are available in mahogany, cypress, teak, ipe and others. The door fronts can be used in combination with steel or polymer. This wood must be treated periodically for moisture resistance.

As noted in the previous Cabinet Section profile, Dave Hadley uses composite material for his outdoor cabinets. Composite material has been used in decking for years, and according to Freedonia’s Composite & Plastic Lumber report, the market is expected to continue to grow 14 percent a year to $2.7 billion in 2011. Picnic tables, Adirondack chairs and other patio furniture made from wood plastic composite materials are now often the norm. Outdoor cabinetry would seem to be the next logical step.

Made from various combinations of recycled wood fiber, flour or sawdust mixed with recycled or virgin plastic, the composites do not splinter and generally show less wear and tear than wood, Hadley says. Questions remain about strength, with some woodworkers insisting that extra support is necessary to prevent bowing on decks, but Hadley says his own deck required no extra support and has not shown any sagging. The solid composite planks are generally considered stronger than the hollow ones.

Mildew, insects and rot affect wood, and since the composites are part wood, owners also are advised to follow a preventive treatment (basically an application of an appropriate chemical solution as directed) to keep these problems at bay.

Clearly, custom woodworkers interested in tapping into this growing market have many options to choose from. Offering an enhancement to a customer’s lanai or patio by creating a dream outdoor kitchen area can be a new and potentially lucrative opportunity to explore.

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