Installing Kitchen Cabinets: A Homeowner's Guide

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Installing kitchen cabinets is a major step in most kitchen remodeling projects, and it normally occurs just before the installation of countertops and plumbing fixtures. The process is largely the same whether you are installing preassembled stock cabinets purchased at a home-improvement center, custom or semicustom cabinets that are purchased from an online retailer or custom cabinet maker or ready-to-assemble cabinets that you must first assemble before installing them. Installing cabinets is a suitable DIY project for an experienced do-it-yourselfer who has a helper or two.

Kitchen Cabinet Demolition Issues

Occasionally, a kitchen remodeling project may involve simple replacement of the countertops and cabinets with no other layout changes. This poses some challenges since you will need to be careful to not damage other materials in the kitchen as you remove the countertops and cabinets. The best strategy is to remove whatever appliances and fixtures you can and cover the flooring with heavy dropcloths before beginning. This isn't necessary in major remodeling projects where the space is being gutted for major renovation.

Unless you have some reason for saving the old cabinets, it is generally easier to cut the cabinets apart for removal rather than trying to remove them intact. The process is messy but simple. Remove the countertop and sink, then the doors and drawers and then cut the boxes apart using a reciprocating saw. A couple of pry bars and screwdrivers will also be necessary.

If you want to save the cabinets, they can usually be separated from one another and detached from the walls by removing the screws or nails that hold the cabinets together and anchor them to the walls. Both the wall cabinets and floor cabinets are usually attached to the walls with nails or screws driven through mounting strips at the back of the cabinets.

Removing the existing cabinetry will be the first step in DIYing cabinet installation.
Image Credit: powerofforever/iStock/GettyImages

Make sure to wear protective gear when performing any demolition, including a long- sleeved shirt, eye protection and work gloves. If you are sawing cabinets apart, also wear breathing protection to guard against inhaling sawdust.

Flooring Considerations When Installing Cabinets

During major remodeling, flooring that is nailed or glued down is generally installed before the cabinets. This makes the installation of the floor cabinets considerably easier. However, with so-called "floating floors," including click-lock laminates and some types of cork and bamboo flooring, it is best to install the flooring after the cabinets so that it butts up against the base of the floor cabinets.

The reason for this is that a floating floor is designed to expand and contract, and if it is pinned down by a heavy base cabinet, then there is a potential for the planks buckling or separating if the floor expands or contracts with seasonal humidity and temperature changes.

Nail-down or glue-down flooring, including hardwood or linoleum, can also be installed after the floor cabinets are installed. This is a more difficult installation, but if a DIYer is striving to save money, placing the base cabinets directly on the plywood subfloor can save the cost of the flooring material that would be hidden under the cabinets. Remember, though, that this will slightly change the height of the countertops when measured from the finished flooring surface.

Preparing for Kitchen Cabinet Installation

Although installing cabinets is a major step in a kitchen remodeling project, in many ways, it is a finishing step. It is normally done after most of the other rough-in work is completed. This means that any in-wall plumbing or wiring lines should already be finished, and lighting and electrical fixtures should be installed.

Where feasible, the floor covering should be installed and the wall surfaces finished and painted. Some touch up will probably be necessary, but it is much easier to paint the broad wall surfaces before cabinet installation rather than paint around the cabinets. Make sure to protect floor surfaces with heavy dropcloths as you are installing cabinets.

How to Install Wall Cabinets

Step 1: Mark the Layout

For ease of installation, it is best to mark the walls and floors to show the location of all the cabinets you will install. For wall cabinets, outline the position of each cabinet on the wall (top, bottom and sides). If two cabinets will have a filler strip between them, make sure to create a separation between the layout marks.

As the National Kitchen & Bath Association notes, the bottom edge of standard wall cabinets is typically 54 inches above the floor, assuming that your base cabinets will be 34 1/2-inches tall with 1 1/2-inch-thick countertops. This creates an open space of 18 inches between the tops of the countertops and the bottoms of the wall cabinets.

The position of the wall cabinets will change for specialty cabinets, such as microwave cabinets and cabinets above refrigerators or wall ovens. Check the manufacturer's specifications for the proper position of these cabinets. The goal of the wall-cabinet layout is to have a smooth line across the tops of the cabinets all around the room.

As a final step in the layout, mark vertical lines to show the location of all wall studs using a carpenters' level and electronic stud finder. This will make it easier to anchor the wall cabinets as you install them. Both the wall cabinets and base floor cabinets will be anchored to the walls by screws driven through mounting strips at the back of the cabinets.

Step 2: Install Ledger Boards

Begin cabinet installation with the upper wall cabinets since it is easier to reach inside to screw them to the walls if you don't have to lean over the base cabinets. To make the work easier, attach ledger boards — or horizontal strips of wood — made from 1x3 or 1x4 lumber to the walls with screws.

The cabinets will rest on these ledgers as you attach them to the walls. The top edge of the ledger boards should be at the same level as the bottom of the wall cabinets, normally about 54 inches above the floor. Make sure this ledger board is exactly level either by first snapping a level chalk line or by using a carpenters' level as you attach the ledgers.

Step 3: Attach the Corner Wall Cabinet

Starting in a corner of the room, position the corner cabinet on the ledger. Drill pilot holes through the cabinet's hanging strip and attach the cabinet to the wall studs with 2 1/2-inch flathead screws. Do not tighten down the screws fully at this time; this will not be done until all the cabinets are hung. If the cabinet layout requires filler strips on the sides of the first corner cabinet, first clamp the strip into place with woodworkers' clamps. Drill counterbored pilot holes through the cabinet face frame or sidewall and into the filler strip and then attach with 2 1/2-inch wood screws.

Step 4: Attach Adjoining Wall Cabinets

Working from the corner cabinet outward in both directions, position wall cabinets one at a time onto the ledger board and loosely anchor them to the wall studs with screws driven through the hanging strips at the upper back of the cabinet. Woodworkers' clamps can be used to hold the adjacent cabinets together along the face frames as you work.

mid-century bar stools with metal mesh seats at a kitchen island
Image Credit: Paul Anderson for Hunker

Step 5: Join the Cabinets Together

When all the wall cabinets have been loosely attached to the wall studs, line up the face frames of the cabinets so they are flush and temporarily hold them in place with woodworkers' clamps. Attach each cabinet to the adjoining cabinets by drilling counterbored pilot holes through the inside surface of the face frames near the hinge locations and driving wood screws to secure the face frames together.

Step 6: Anchor Cabinets to the Wall

Using a carpenters' level, check the joined wall cabinets to make sure they are level and plumb. You can tighten or loosen the mounting screws to adjust the position of the cabinets relative to the wall. When the row of wall cabinets is perfectly level and plumb, finish anchoring them to the studs. Where there are gaps between the wall and the back of the cabinet, fill the gaps with wood shims and then tighten down the mounting screws to secure the cabinets. When the cabinets are secure, unscrew the ledger boards from the wall.

Step 7: Attach Filler Strips and Trim

At the end of a row of cabinets, you may need to cut and attach a final filler strip where the last cabinet meets the side wall. After cutting the filler strip to fit, position it between the face frame on the last cabinet and the wall and then drill counterbored pilot holes and secure the filler strip to the last cabinet.

If your cabinet style calls for decorative trim (such as crown moldings around the tops of the cabinets or edging moldings around the sides), cut and attach the trim pieces using a brad nailer (or by driving finish nails with a hammer).

Step 8: Install the Doors and Shelves

Attach the cabinet doors to the wall cabinets according to the cabinet manufacturer's directions. In some cases, this will mean mounting the hinges and then the doors. In other cases, it will be simply a matter of attaching doors to hinges that are already mounted on the cabinets. Finish the wall cabinet installation by installing shelves and any inner storage accessories.

How to Install Floor Cabinets

Step 1: Lay Out the Location of the Cabinets

Begin by outlining the position of the floor cabinets on the flooring. Where filler strips will be used between cabinets, make sure to leave a gap between the cabinet outlines. A carpenters' square is helpful for making sure the outlines are perfectly square.

If the wall behind the cabinets is uneven, you may find it necessary for one or more of the cabinets to sit slightly forward from the wall to ensure that the cabinets will all line up flush at the front. This is not uncommon, and it poses no problem since the countertop and backsplash will cover any gaps between the back of the cabinets and the wall.

Step 2: Position the Corner Cabinet

Position the largest corner cabinet in its proper place and check it for plumb and level with a carpenters' level. If necessary, level the cabinet by driving shims under the base (or use the leveling feet on the cabinet if so equipped). Loosely anchor the cabinet to the wall studs using screws. If there will be filler strips installed between the corner cabinet and the adjoining cabinets, attach them at this time. Clamp the filler strips in place with woodworking clamps and then attach them by drilling counterbored pilot holes and driving wood screws through the edge of the face frame and into the filler strips.

Step 3: Position Adjoining Cabinets

Working one cabinet at a time, begin positioning the adjacent floor cabinets alongside the corner cabinet. Use woodworking clamps to secure the cabinets together, making sure the face frames are flush. Secure the cabinets together with counterbored woodworking screws driven through the edges of the face frames. Anchor each cabinet loosely to the wall studs with wood screws. (Do not tighten the cabinets up against the back wall until all cabinets have been leveled and joined to one another through the face frames.)

Step 4: Prepare Specialty Cabinets

Sink-base cabinets and wall-oven cabinets may require that openings be cut in the back wall or side wall of the cabinet to provide room for the water supply, drain hookups and electrical or gas hookups. For example, a sink-base cabinet may require a cutout in the back wall for the drain and water-supply hookups and a cutout in the side wall for the dishwasher drain and water-supply tube. A wall-oven cabinet may require cutouts for electrical lines or a gas pipe. If so, make these cutouts with a jigsaw.

Step 5: Secure Floor Cabinets to the Wall

Use a carpenters' level to check the entire row of floor cabinets for level. Shim beneath the base of the cabinets if necessary to level them. Once all the floor cabinets are level and secured to one another through the face frames, anchor the cabinets by driving screws through the mounting strips and into the studs. If there are gaps behind the cabinets — as often happens if the floor is not level or the walls are uneven — use wood blocks or shims to fill spaces behind the cabinet-mounting strips and then drive screws through the mounting strips and into the wall studs.

Step 6: Install the Trim, Doors and Drawers

Gaps along the base of the cabinets and along side walls are normally filled with toe-kick trim moldings, filler gaps or decorative trim moldings. A brad nailer makes this work easier, but it can also be done with finish nails driven with a hammer. As a last step, attach the cabinet doors, shelves and inner accessories for the floor cabinets. The process will vary depending on the manufacturer, and in some cases, it will be best to install the inner accessories before attaching the doors.

Special Considerations for Kitchen Islands

Kitchen islands and peninsulas pose some special considerations since there are no back walls to which the cabinets can be anchored. The only real difference is that the upper cabinets will be anchored through the tops of the cabinets into ceiling joists (or into a constructed soffit), and the base cabinets will be anchored down through the floor of the cabinets and into the floor structure. Other than this, installation is largely the same. Manufacturers make cabinets in special sizes and configurations for these installations, often featuring doors on both sides of the cabinets.

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Bryan Trandem is an avid home improvement DIYer and trained Master Gardener. He has been writing and editing books and articles on gardening, home improvement, woodworking, and home decor for more than 30 years. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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