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By Jayme Muller

October 27, 2021

metal outdoor kitchen frame

If you’re researching an outdoor kitchen project… You may be overwhelmed by the amount of options available to you.

There’s contractor built… Ready-to-finish… Prefab outdoor kitchens

And within all the above options are a variety of sub-solutions. For many just getting started, this can be information overload!

Naturally, all solutions have their own list of advantages and disadvantages.

For the purpose of our conversation today… We’ll be speaking about one particular option in detail.

That particular option?

Why, outdoor kitchen frames, of course.

Let’s dive in.

metal outdoor kitchen frame

History of Outdoor Kitchen Frame Construction

First, let’s talk a bit about the history of outdoor kitchen frames in North America.

Don’t worry, this history lesson is short!

The trend of outdoor kitchen framing didn’t catch on until the 1990’s in California. This is when high end designers began creating built-in cabinets with kitchen-like features. These cabinets were specially designed for their customers’ backyards.

As with many inventions in their infancy… These early bbq island frame had their own set of problems.

Generally speaking, they were not well constructed. These were wood frames built with standard lumber, wire mesh, or plywood sheathing and stucco. Cabinet doors were wooden with hinges.

vintage outdoor kitchen frame system

Although there are photos of these early outdoor kitchen frames… Many no longer exist. The large bulk of them have been torn down or replaced.

In spite of these issues, the outdoor kitchen frame concept became more popular.

Professionals quickly realized that pressure treated wood was not the best material for the structure of outdoor kitchen frames. Instead, they swapped to aluminum studs or welded metal. The plywood was also replaced with cementitious backer boards.

This outdoor kitchen metal frame and cement board system is still a popular method today. In fact, there’s over a dozen manufacturers currently offering similar kits.

BBQcoach, BBQtubes, EZfinish, RTF Systems, DIYBBQ, Big Ridge Outdoor Kitchens, EOK, Uniframe, and Grillnetics are just a few names you may encounter.

For customers in the Southwest and Southeast, these metal stud ready-to-finish options are still a common solution. In the Northeast and Midwest however… These options are less popular. In cool weather climates you’re more likely to see outdoor frames made from concrete block substrates.

Now, let’s explain what exactly an outdoor kitchen frame is.

What is an Outdoor Kitchen Frame?

Since we’ll be talking so much about them… It makes sense to know what they are!

An outdoor kitchen frame is a substrate that is used to:

  1. Support cladding, stone veneer, or stucco finish
  2. Structural support for a countertop and cooking appliances, such as a grill
  3. Used to house accessories and appliances

Think of outdoor kitchen frames like the skeleton of your outdoor kitchen. You’ve got the bones to build the rest off of.

The frames provide the essential structure of your outdoor kitchen. From there, the frame is usually covered with cement board. Much like how muscle is attached to our bones. Finally, the cement board has to be finished to form an appealing barrier or ‘skin’. This can be done with many materials. Some examples would be stucco, stone, tile, and wood.

Now that we’ve got the anatomy of an outdoor kitchen frame system down… Let’s dive into a bit more detail.

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Can you Frame an Outdoor Kitchen with Wood?

2x4 wood planks for outdoor kitchen frame

Excellent question! We get asked about this frequently and there are dozens of YouTube videos showing you how to do it.

Before we head down into the rabbit hole on this topic… We want to address the use of 2×4 pressure treated wood for building your frame.

In our professional opinion with a decade of experience behind us… We do not believe outdoor kitchens should be made with wood as the frame or sheathing.

Why?

Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. It is combustible
  2. It can warp and/or rot with moisture or water exposure
  3. It is vulnerable to termites
  4. Did we mention it is a combustible used to fuel fire?!?

We understand. You’re trying to build your outdoor kitchen on a budget.

However, there’s always a catch.

If you decide to use wood in your outdoor kitchen… You will have to purchase an insulated grill jacket. This will protect your kitchen from high temperatures and potential grease fires. These jackets cost several hundred dollars. When everything is tallied up, it may end up costing you the same or more than other options.

So what’s the alternative?

Beyond wood, there are two common approaches to building an outdoor kitchen frame:

  1. Metal Frame and Cement Board
  2. Concrete Masonry Unit (CMU)

For the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the metal frame and cement board method. But before we do that… We’d like to address environmental considerations.

So What Do You Use to Frame Your Outdoor Kitchen?

If you want your outdoor kitchen to last a long time… This is an important question to ask!

To determine this, we need to do a bit of comparison. First, let’s take a look how metal outdoor kitchen frames stack up to concrete block frames.

Metal Framing for Outdoor Kitchen

Advantages

There are a few distinct advantages when considering outdoor kitchen frame kits.

First, metal frames with cement board are lighter weight. This is especially beneficial if you are looking to build on an existing deck or patio. You’ll be less likely to need additional supports on your deck for installation.

Another benefit is you’ll be able to maximize interior island space. Why does this matter? For one, it’s easier to access the appliances inside the kitchen. This space can also be utilized for storage.

Metal framing also provides solid structural support for countertops and cooking appliances. You can feel confident that your outdoor kitchen is structurally sound and won’t be easily compromised.

Disadvantages

Now for the disadvantages.

Climate can be a huge disadvantage here depending on where you live. Outdoor kitchen steel framing with cement board is highly vulnerable to environmental stresses. Freeze-thaw climates, high humidity, and coastal salt air are a few examples.

There’s a multi-step finishing process as well. This can make the project a bit more tedious to complete as there are more tasks to finish.

Speaking of finishes… Metal frame outdoor kitchens are usually only rated for lightweight and thin set stone veneer. Heavier, thicker stone options present challenges. If you’re looking for a more rustic, heavier finish… A metal frame system may not work for you.

Concrete Block Outdoor Kitchen Frame

cinderblock frame wall of outdoor kitchen -
Advantages

Now for advantages of concrete block.

There’s a strong advantage to CMU if you live in a climate with inclement weather. This solution is structurally permanent with no climate vulnerability.

The second main advantage also has to do with strength. Unlike metal frames, CMU is strong enough for any masonry finish. This includes heavy natural stone. So if you are set on this look… Concrete block may be a better solution for you.

Disadvantages

As with metal frame, there are some disadvantages to CMU construction too.

When you think about concrete… What’s the first thing that comes to mind? In all likelihood, the word ‘heavy’ pops up.

The weight of concrete block can make it challenging to install. CMU also requires a poured concrete footing and professional labor to build. So this may be a turn-off for DIYers.

Unfortunately, concrete block cannot be retrofit over an existing surface. So if you were planning to have it installed on a deck or patio… That idea will have to be scrapped.

A secondary disadvantage is loss of cavity space. The thickness of the concrete block reduces storage potential on the interior of the kitchen.

Climate Considerations

Okay, back to climate! We know that’s really what you were looking for… But it was important to outline the key differences between CMU and metal frame construction.

As we know, your outdoor kitchen will be outside and exposed to the elements year round. Understanding the unique conditions it will be exposed to in your region is important to the longevity of your outdoor kitchen.

As we touched upon earlier… Metal frame with cement board construction is not ideal for all climates. If you live in an area with freeze-thaw cycles, high humidity, or coastal areas, proceed with caution.

For those in cold climates, the freezing and thawing can easily compromise cement board. It’s a constant expansion and contraction that makes the structure vulnerable to moisture and degradation.

For those in high humidity or coastal areas, there’s a high potential for compromise due to moisture. Salt water in coastal areas can be especially pernicious and corrode metal framing.

If you live in one of these areas you may be thinking… “Well, now what?”

Well, you’ve got options!

Before we discuss said options, let’s continue our conversation about outdoor kitchen framing.

Outdoor Kitchen Framing Materials and Approaches

Here we’d like to discuss the main two materials used in a bit more detail. There are some variances in this category so we want you to understand all of your options.

First, let’s talk about the metal frames themselves.

Metal Frame Deep Dive

Galvanized Steel or Aluminum?

Two common materials you’ll find for metal frames are galvanized steel and aluminum.

Both materials are resistant to corrosion. Aluminum contains no iron, which is the main cause of rusting in steel. However, aluminum can still corrode due to oxidation.

On the other hand, galvanized steel does contain iron. It’s an iron steel dipped in molten zinc to provide corrosion and rust resistance.

Even with corrosion and rust resistance… There are still situations where this can occur with both metals. The main ones to note are:

  • High relative humidity above 60%. Think tropical or coastal environments like Florida.
  • Exposure to salt in the water or air in coastal areas.
  • Heavy exposure to rainfall or flooding. An example of a high precipitation climate would be the Pacific Northwest.
  • Sulfur Dioxide and air pollution. You’ll find this in urban areas such as NYC, Chicago, and LA.
  • Exposure to strong alkalis such as plaster and cement. These compounds contain chlorides and sulfates. Such as what is found in cement board.

You’ll also want to note the gauge of the metals being used. A higher gauge means the metal is thinner. Conversely, a lower gauge means the metal is thicker. Off-the-shelf aluminum studs are generally not thick enough to support an outdoor kitchen.

Use the metal gauge as a litmus test for how sturdy your outdoor kitchen framing material will be. A higher gauge means thinner metal… And thinner metal = less sturdiness.

So if longevity and durability of your outdoor kitchen is a priority… Ensure you use a lower gauge metal if you decide on this solution.

Next, let’s talk a bit about how these frames come together.

Welded or Bolt-Together?

There are benefits to each depending on what is most important to you – convenience or cost.

Welded frames are as they sound… All the junctures have been welded together for you. This method provides a lot of convenience as you don’t have to assemble the frames yourself. However, they take up more space and may increase your shipping cost.

The bolt together option is the converse situation. The outdoor kitchen island frame kit will come to you in pieces. From there, you have to bolt together and construct the frames. Obviously, this makes the process less convenient. On the other hand, this brings down the shipping cost. Separate frame pieces can be packaged into much smaller boxes than their fully constructed counterparts.

As you can see, there’s no clear advantage here. It really comes down to personal preference. If you value convenience, you may opt for welded. If you value reduced shipping costs, you may prefer the bolt-together method.

The final material we have to discuss is cement board.

An outdoor kitchen, designed and built by you.

RTA Outdoor Living is here to give you the tools and resources to build the outdoor kitchen of your dreams.
Use our design tool and watch your idea come to life.

Types of Cement Board

We have to open a can of worms here. There’s a lot to cement board that can’t be reduced to a few simple sentences. We’ll do our best not to ‘boar-d’ you! (Our apologies, the pun was necessary).

There are several major brands that manufacture cement board. There’s Durock, Wonderboard, HardieBacker, Fiberrock, Permabase, and DensShield to name a few.

It’s important to note that cement board was NOT invented for use in outdoor kitchens. It was originally designed for interior tiled areas that could be exposed to moisture. Showers and bathroom floors are a prime example. Over the years, use of cement board has expanded to exterior applications… Such as primary sheathing for metal frame outdoor kitchen kits.

Is there something wrong with cement board?

Well, not necessarily.

There are some issues with cement board in outdoor kitchens… Depending on your climate.

Why?

It has to do with permeability and absorption rate in freeze-thaw climates.

Let’s back up a bit. Cement boards are often classified as water resistant. They’re generally not affected by indirect water exposure. Although considered water resistant… Most cement boards rate <10 perms (highly permeable) and a water absorption of >8%.

What does this mean? Moisture can still get into cement board.

This spells trouble for those in freeze-thaw climates. We’ve all made ice before. When you’re filling the ice cube tray with water, do you fill it up to the top? No, you leave space for the ice to expand as it freezes. And of course when ice melts… It contracts again into a smaller form.

The same thing happens when moisture gets into cement board. It expands and contracts as it is frozen and thawed. This action will affect the bond line of your outdoor kitchen. It’s common to see the veneer crack and fall off. That’s a headache you don’t want to deal with!

To make things worse… This moisture content can lead to chloride leaching and impact the metal frame. Over time, this can pose a risk to the integrity of the structure.

You’ll definitely want to take the above points into consideration if you live in the Northeast or Midwest.

After reading all this… You may be feeling a bit hesitant about outdoor bbq island frame kits.

Depending on your situation, it can still be a good fit for you! So if you do decide on this solution, which outdoor kitchen island frame kit is the best?

Grillnetics Outdoor Kitchen Frame Kits

According to our research, Grillnetics is the best option for those sold on a metal frame system.

Why?

The primary reason is quality of their components.

Grillnetics uses cement board with the least permeability / absorption rate. There’s still a risk of moisture damage, but it is less so than other options.

They also utilize quality aluminum with the appropriate gauge. This ensures proper integrity of the structure and longevity of your kitchen.

Grillnetics has thoroughly considered efficiency in assembly and shipping. Their system is less complicated to bolt together than others we’ve seen.

As a company, they appear to be invested for the long haul. Grillnetics shows a desire to innovate and improve their products. We also appreciate the detailed instructions they provide on their product line.

In short?

They don’t cut corners. They glue them 😉

Are RTF Frame Systems Really as "Easy as Legos"?

Ready-to-finish solutions are often touted as being simple to install… But is this really true?

If you’re referring to simply putting together the frame, then yes! Installing the frames is relatively straightforward.

However, the frame is only the beginning. You have to create openings for your grills and appliances. You won’t want to mess these up! There’s only one chance to do it right… Otherwise you have to start over with a new sheet.

Creating these openings requires specialized equipment, too. You’ll have to use a grinder or masonry blade… Which isn’t exactly something everyone has in their garage.

You’ll also have to finish the exterior of your outdoor kitchen. This could be stone veneer, stucco, tile, or another option. If you live in a cold weather climate… Steer clear of masonry adhesive or glue to clad to your outdoor frame. Your finishes can pop right off as soon as the thermostat reads below freezing.

A better option would be applying a scratch coat followed by mortared on stones. This can be a tedious process… Applying a proper scratch coat can be difficult to pull off. If you’re not confident, we have an alternative for you!

What's the Alternative?

outdoor kitchen with wood fired pizza oven and fridge (1)

Why, RTA of course!

If you’re not already acquainted with our product… We’d like to take some time to introduce it to you. Here we’ll explain how the RTA frame-less system works and how it stacks up to other RTF solutions.

Ready-to-Assemble vs Ready-to-Finish

At this point, you should be pretty familiar with the RTF system. If not, let’s do a short recap!

First, you start with assembling your frames. These could be metal or concrete block. From there, a cement board sheathing is attached. You create cutouts for appliances. Finally, you finish the outside with stucco, tile, stone veneer, or another option.

While it seems simple on its face… We’ve already described some complications with the process. If you’re not a confident DIYer, you can become easily overwhelmed with this solution.

How is ready-to-assemble better?

We’ll give you some more detail in a moment. For now, know that ready-to-assemble kitchens are a further simplification of RTF frame systems. 95% of the work has already been done for you. You receive the panels, you install in a couple hours, and you’re ready to host.

Let’s dive into the RTA frameless system.

How the Frameless RTA System Works

Without further ado, it’s time to discuss how RTA works!

Like RTF, you start with your design. RTF systems are a bit more plug and play. You select individual cabinets and arrange them together.

With RTA, you have a lot more flexibility. We have many assets online you can use to customize your design. In fact, we have a free online design tool for this express purpose. You can also speak with a design expert on our team to assist you further.

Once your dream design is solidified… It has to be manufactured. Unlike most RTF systems, RTA outdoor kitchens are made to order right here in the USA.

It’s important to note the panel materials. These ultra high performance concrete panels are monolithic… Meaning one single piece. The finish is integrated into the panel itself. With a <0.5 absorption rate, these panels are nonporous and nonpermeable.

Therefore, there’s nothing to rot, rust or erode. No skilled trades needed to finish either!

After manufacturing, your outdoor kitchen panels are shipped to your door in pallets. Your countertop and appliances also arrive the same way.

All you have to do is assemble and enjoy. For tools, all you need is a power drill. Everything else you require comes in the kit.

It’s as simple as fastening the panels together, placing the countertops, and dropping in the appliances. That’s it! Your outdoor kitchen is ready to use.

Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Advantages of the Frameless System

Based on our description of RTA… I’m sure many of the advantages have already popped up in your mind.

We’re such a fan of this system we just want to reiterate those benefits!

One clear benefit is simplicity. It’s true, the ready-to-finish system is not overly complex. But for those uninitiated in basic construction… It can easily feel like too much to handle.

RTA is more akin to a furniture kit. As long as you follow the instructions, you’ll have no trouble assembling our outdoor kitchens. In fact, we’d argue it’s sometimes simpler than a furniture kit!

Another advantage is durability. Our panels are composed of a high performance concrete that will not succumb to freeze-thaw or coastal climates. No matter where you live… You can feel confident an RTA outdoor kitchen is designed to withstand the elements.

This also makes RTA a more aesthetically pleasing system in some cases. You don’t have to worry about the finish breaking down in a couple years… No one wants their outdoor kitchen to turn into an eyesore!

A third benefit is time savings. You can save a huge chunk of time going the RTA route over RTF. This is mainly in the assembly process. You don’t have three separate components to piece together like with RTF. So effectively, ready-to-assemble eliminates two entire steps in the installation process. Time is our most precious resource, so these savings should not be understated!

Moving Forward

So… Where to go from here?

It’s up to you!

Based off of everything we’ve discussed, you may be leaning more one way or the other.

If so, we’d recommend doing some more research. If you’re interested in metal frame systems, look into some companies. Really understand what they offer and how they can assist you in your project.

As part of your research, check reviews as well. It’s essential to know what actual customers have to say about the product you’re considering!

Same goes for us at RTA! If you’re interested in what we offer… We have a ton of information on our website for you to peruse! We also have plenty of online reviews for you to view.

We’d also encourage you to try out our free online design software to try an outdoor kitchen layout. You might even want to speak with one of our design experts for specific questions on your project.

Outdoor kitchens are our passion. We’d be honored to assist you with your project!

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