How to Design a Bar

Learn how to plan and design a bar for home use, including options for cost, aesthetics and function.

Bar design typically requires specifics for dimensions. Options for cost, aesthetics, assembly and amenities are personal choices. Combine specifics with options and design a bar that fits your needs, while conforming to standard dimensions. If you're unsure about your design capabilities, the option to buy or acquire plans is always a possibility.

Bar Height

Plan on making your bar 42 inches tall. Don't stray too much from this important measurement. Bar height is regulated by comfort while standing at the bar, and the fact that readily available bar stools, are 28 to 30 inches tall, and need to fit comfortably under it.

Depth and Anchoring

Standard island cabinets are about 24 inches deep -- that's about perfect for stability. It's advisable to plan your bar with this much depth, but not necessary if it's anchored adequately. A more narrow bar, 18 to 22 inches wide, can be built by screwing a two-by-four ledger to the floor around the inside perimeter of the island. Fit the island over the ledger, and screw it to the ledger on all four sides to anchor it.

Bar Shape

Sturdiness is important, because bars get leaned on and pulled on. The most common bar is a long rectangle, and even if it's anchored properly, over-zealous party-goers may apply too much force. A U-shape or L-shaped design resists movement, and adds stability to the bar.

Toe Kick

The toe-kick is important for comfort, and should be designed into the back of the bar, just as would for a kitchen counter. The toe-kick is a 3-by-3 notch under the front edge of the bar that prevents your toes from bumping or cramping on the bottom of the bar when you're working on the service side.

Overhang Concerns

Wide overhangs are another concern with bar shape. Too much overhang, particularly if you decide to use granite, concrete or another heavy top, places stress on the bar -- another instance where the L-shaped bar is superior. The most common overhang for a bar with stools, typically doesn't exceed about 12 inches. If you're not adding stools, 6-to-9 inches works just fine.

Bar Tops

Substrate Material

Substrate is the underlay for tile or plastic laminate. If you choose laminate you can get by with particle board or fir plywood. If you choose tile, you'll need to add cement backer board to the equation.

Bar tops are another factor that can make or break your design. Thicker tops, such as rock or granite, should be balanced. They exert a tremendous amount of force on the bar, and often require reinforcement with steel to prevent cracks. In the event that someone sits on the overhang -- it happens -- the force is multiplied. More common bar tops might include hardwood plywood or laminated, solid lumber. Tile is an option, but plastic laminate is more affordable.

Bar Rails

Fancy rails are not necessary, but add to the ambiance of a bar. They're relatively complicated to install because they're wide; it's hard to get tight miters on wide material unless you're experienced. Bar rail is expensive, and doesn't lend itself well to mistakes. Simple raised molding might be a better choice for your bar.

Shelves and Standards

Adjustable shelves are probably the best choice, because they allow for some flexibility. Shelves can be adjusted as needed, plus bars with adjustable shelves are easier to build, because the bar is essentially a hollow box. Use adjustable shelf standards -- they look like metal ladders -- or drill 1/4-inch holes for shelf clips that can be moved anywhere you want the shelves.

Wet or Dry

If planning a wet bar, you've probably already made arrangements for plumbing to enter and exit from the floor, or wall if the bar terminates against a wall on one side. Since sinks anchor from the top, your design requirements should include enough width for the sink, plus about 2 inches on each side. Start from the center of the sink, add the measurements, and plan the width of the shelf sections on each side accordingly. A common bar, wet or not, might have three sections; the middle section, with one section each on either side.

Doors and Drawers

Doors are personal choice. They are more appropriate on the sink portion of the bar, but leaving them off is also fine. Drawers are also optional. Add them at extra cost if desired, but you'll likely need that space for larger items. A few shallow drawers running along just under the bar top might be a better choice.

Three Types of Construction

Plywood Skin

Plywood overlay, sometimes referred to as "skinned with plywood," is a framework of 2-by-4 studs, with 1/8-to-1/4-inch plywood attached to the visible sides and back with glue and staples. It's the most affordable and relatively simple to master. Use standard-grade fir plywood or common particleboard for the vertical jambs on the inside.

Mitered Hardwood Plywood

Mitered plywood precludes the need for hardwood solids. The box or structure of the bar is nothing more than plywood, mitered at 45-degrees. If you're comfortable with mitering, it's efficient, and cost effective. An 8-foot bar requires about three sheets.

Face-Frame Construction

Face frame construction is common in cabinetry. Look at the side of most cabinets, and you'll see a 3/4-inch face of solid wood. Build a face-frame style by first building the jambs and floor. Build the face-frame out of hardwood, and glue it to the front. It's more time consuming to build, but almost nothing looks better than face-frame style. You'll need about three sheets of plywood, with 2- and 3-inch-wide, 3/4-inch-thick hardwood for the face frame.

There are three basic techniques to bar construction. Plywood skin is the most affordable, mitered hardwood plywood is mid range in cost, and face-frame construction, which is the most expensive because it involves hardwood, but shows the best craftsmanship.

Tools Needed

Basic woodworking tools and supplies are all you need to build a bar. Round up a table saw, miter saw, wood glue, a few clamps and either a nail gun or a hammer.

Finish Materials

Stain Types

Use stain if desired. Solvent-based stains dry within a few hours, and are easier to use than oil-based stain, which require 72 hours to dry. But solvent or water-based stains don't penetrate as deep as oil.

Top Coats

There's lots of options for finishing your bar, but common lacquer is the most efficient, easiest to apply, and provides a tough finish. Polyurethane and varnish require days to cure properly, emit odors and are more difficult to apply. Apply lacquer with a brush, if desired, but spraying is more efficient.