Factory-installed undercabinet lighting in vintage St. Charles kitchen cabinets — lucky Kate McKinnon

factory installed undercabinet lighting in kate mckinnons kitchen

Reader Kate McKinnon lived with her vintage St. Charles kitchen cabinets for four years before discovering that there were two factory-installed undercabinet lights. Each with their own integral on-off switch. I totally understand how she missed them. They’re integral … your head has to get in there at an odd angle — and who would really expect this level of technology on vintage cabinets! Similarly, it took me two years to realize there was fantabulous vintage 6″ vinyl tiles — with ravishing coral streaks running through them — underneath the discount carpet in the hallway. For some reason, I had it in my head that there was plywood subfloor under that carpet. As Kate says on her blog:

All I know is that I want to stay in this universe, the one in which my St. Charles cabinets have factory-installed undercabinet lighting.

Thank you, Kate.


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  1. kate mckinnon says

    Thank you, Pam, what a surprise and a treat to see the corner of my kitchen on my daily read of Retro Renovation!

    It was really shocking to me to find the lighting, because not only had I lived with these lovely cabinets for four years, I’ve loved them, and cleaned them, and inspected and admired them, and stuck my head inside them, and looked underneath them. I’ve done everything but crawl inside them I love them so much.

    So to see such familiar and well-loved objects reveal a new exterior part that I had never managed to notice… well. It really made me wonder what else is right in front of me in life? What else am I missing?

    Seeing that lighting was a real reminder not to take life at face value.

    • Steve says

      Hi, Kate – I wonder if you have had to repair wiring for your under cabinet light. Ours blew out recently and we cannot figure out how to remove the bottom shelf so as to get to the wiring… And we can’t seem to find anything online. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

      • kate mckinnon says

        Steve, my shelves just lift out, but most of my bottom shelves run into the screws that hold the cabinets together side-to-side, and so I have to remove those screws before the bottom panels can pop out. They are held in with clips, in most cases.

        I haven’t had to find the wiring yet- maybe when you succeed you can post the info (and a photo) back in this thread, for those of us who will surely follow in your footsteps?

  2. Holley says

    What an awesome experience and a wonderful find! I’m always looking for things in my house that I haven’t seen before; looking deep into the highest kitchen cabinets, looking far back into the attic when I muster up the courage to venture there, checking out the underside of a cabinet in the bathroom, that kind of thing. It’s fun! And even more so when you may a fabulous discovery!

    • kate mckinnon says

      From the inside, nothing is visible. The floor is smooth. You can see the underside of the exterior in the photo above- there is a recess only slightly larger than the fluorescent tube, and there is a chrome toggle off/on switch at one end of the fixture.

  3. MCM is Grand says

    This is a wonderful find, a gift from retro gods delivered right to your kitchen! My only suggestion would be to make sure the wiring is up to date.

  4. says

    Very cool. Miss Kate – in a very cool house! I sure enjoyed seeing those cabinets in person this past February! Wonder what other surprises you’ll uncover in your little corner of Tucson!!

    • kate mckinnon says

      I’m sure you can easily imagine how excited I was, just the IDEA that familiar and beloved objects hold surprise is so thrilling.

  5. Pete says

    Hi Does anyone know the proper way to wire these cabinets together ? Im not sure if these can be connected with regular lamp wire or if I need a heavier duty wire. Id like all my st charles cabinet lights to be connected together and run powered from one switch of possible. thanks !

  6. Devon says

    We also have St Charles cabinets in our 1955 ranch. They are stamped “Yellow” but appear greenish/yellow. I stumbled upon our under cabinet light too. Can’t remember how I found it but was surprised.

    There was one other house in my community that had St Charles kitchen cabinets that were mint green. Our city had a flood in 2008 and her kitchen flooded so she had to tear out her cabinets. When I heard of this, I called her to inquire about salvage and she had given them to the contractor that installed new cabinets. I then called him and he allowed me to take any parts I wanted. I took latches, stainless steel trim and 18 of the cool cabinet handles. Don’t know what I’ll use the handles for but you never know.

  7. Joan Smith says

    I am very fortunate in that I installed St. Charles cabinets in my custom house 40 years ago, and also in a vacation house 27 years ago. I LOVE the built-in under cabinet lights. However, two of the 14″ light fixtures need to be replaced. The ballast in one burned out, and the plastic receptacle for the pins on the end of the bulb broke in the other one. Does anyone know where these replacement parts can be found? I really miss the light in these two areas, but the best I have been able to come up with is to utilize a thin under-counter light fixture, and put it inside. This is makeshift, and if I can find the proper fixtures, it would be so much better. I will appreciate any leads.

    • George Zawacki says

      Yes to Joan’s question regarding under cabinet light fixtures. I have five of seven cabinets with under counter lights that were installed in 1973. All of them have needed replacement ballasts at one time or another. The ballasts are available at large lighting stores that have parts departments. An electrician is needed because the colored wires may not match up to what is being sold today. I replaced some of them myself but had to call in an electrician for the last one because of the wiring colors.

      To get to the light fixture, you need to remove the inset bottom shelf which will have a finger hold to help leverage it up. They are snugly fit so it may take a little effort. Remember you are dealing with a well fitting St. Charles product. My finger holds are at the left rear.

      This shelf looks permanent when you look at it but it is removable by working it up. At the front, you are actually looking at the lead edge of the shelf. You will need to also remove one or two shelves above the bottom to allow complete removal of the bottom. When you do get it out, you will see the hollow bottom and the light fixture and ballast as well as the pins at each end of the fixtures. All parts are replaceable. If the cabinets were painted inside, it may take a little extra effort. You may need to score the edges of the inset shelf to break them free.

  8. Devon says

    Kind of off topic, but I’m in process of stripping the old wax. The best way I’ve found to strip the old wax is a solution of water/ammonia or windex. It takes about 5 rounds to get them cleaned of all wax. I then use softwater spray to neutralize them, then use #7 Megueirs, then #6. I’ve found the best way to get the great shine/look is using an auto buffer (6″ recommended). Have all the tops done. It takes a long time but it is well worth it when you see the difference it makes.

        • pam kueber says

          got it. Precautionary Pam just wants to put it out there: Old paint can have lead in it — be sure to consult with properly licensed professionals to ensure you are taking the correct precautions when working with old surfaces.

          • pam kueber says

            One more thought: I don’t think we can universally say that old cabinets all had wax on them — the shiny finish may be a shiny enamel finish — a baked on finish. So take care….

            • Devon says

              With St. Charles cabinets they are enamel baked. St Charles recommends waxing regularly. The wax on my cabinets was possibly 30+ years old and had yellowed. [Devon comments on lead issue. PAM HAS EDITED THIS – readers, consult with a properly licensed professional to determine what’s in your house and how to handle.]

              • pam kueber says

                Devon, where have you read that St. Charles recommended waxing the cabinets?

                ALSO READERS: I DO do want to emphasize: DO YOUR OWN HOMEWORK on how to handle. Consult with a properly licensed professional to assess the surfaces in your house and how to handle safely.

  9. Steve says

    I wonder if you have had to repair wiring for your under cabinet light. Ours blew out recently and we cannot figure out how to remove the bottom shelf so as to get to the wiring… And we can’t seem to find anything online. Any help would be appreciated.

    PS We want to remove the shelf before calling an electrician – since we don’t want the shelf forced out… we know there must be a way to do this.


  10. Devon says

    No, I have not. I went to look at mine for clues to possibly help you and just discovered there is a separate a/c outlet up there too! Never knew that. I’m sure you have, but have to ask if you’ve taken the bulb out to look for any screws, etc. If there isn’t any it most likely pops out somehow as it appears to be a separate piece of metal, but not sure.

    Question: Does your not work at all? Mine works but I have to jiggle maneuver the toggle just right for it to come on and stay on.

  11. George Zawacki says

    I have replaced the ballast in two of our St. Charles cabinets. Both lights now work. The next time I attempted to replace a ballast, I failed to get it working. I will have an electrician check it out at some point which you should do.

    Yes, the lower shelf is removable to access the lighting and you may need to remove any wall anchor screws at the rear to remove the shelf since they are a snug fit. They are St. Charles after all. If you have repainted the cabinets, it may have obscured the joint at the front, but there is a joint there and you may need to score that seam with a utility knife.

  12. George Zawacki says

    I have a question about the nylon latches. Most of mine are broken. I have been experimenting with magnets. Has this issue been broached before?

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