How To Install Kitchen Cabinets

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

Conventional wisdom says the correct way regarding how to install kitchen cabinets is from the top down. Guide books and TV shows will tell you exactly how to install kitchen cabinets – you’re supposed to start with the uppers first.

If you have to, or you’ve done this before and feel comfortable with it, stick with it. It obviously works for you.

However, having installed cabinets for a living for 15 years, it didn’t work for us.

IS THERE IS A BETTER WAY?  ACTUALLY, THERE ARE TWO WAYS!

What about working from the ground up? What if, and this is a radical idea in the world of TV, you install and level the base cabinets – first?

In thinking about how to install kitchen cabinets, and actually doing it, we found this to be easy and much faster. We never installed cabinets any other way.

Leveling the cabinets, and getting it right, is the hardest part in how to install kitchen cabinets. If you find the lowest spot in the room, you can decide if and where you will need to shim cabinets up, or cut them down.

It really is easier doing this with the bases first, then just measuring up from those perfectly leveled bases (usually 18” to allow for today’s coffee makers and mixers) and installing your uppers.

HOW TO INSTALL KITCHEN CABINETS – REASONS TO START AT THE TOP

  • You can get under the uppers and hold them up (it may be easier for some to do it this way).
  • You don’t have to worry about scratching the countertop once it’s installed.
  • You don’t have to worry about dropping a screw gun or other tool on the cabinets beneath you.
  • You can almost just push the cabinets up to the ceiling (if you have 8’ ceilings and 42” uppers) and you’re done.
  • HOW TO INSTALL KITCHEN CABINETS - THE CONS OF INSTALLING UPPERS FIRST

    In deciding how to install kitchen cabinets, let’s say you discovered you need to shim up and cut down (which is what you usually end up doing). Now let’s say that you installed the uppers first. They are fixed to the wall. Do you really know where those bases are going to end up? What if you calculated wrong? - By the way, doing it this way and trying to figure out where the bases will really end up is a bit more complex and a lot more time consuming than just putting the bases in first - why make your life harder?

    If you calculated wrong, you may end up tearing out the uppers you just put up. You can’t cut too much off of base cabinets (if need be) to compensate if you make a mistake. Dishwashers need so much room from the floor to the countertop. They are somewhat adjustable, but . . . what if. It is easier to cut some off the top of the upper cabinets and cover it up with top trim (yes, nobody is perfect), or fudge by having less space (or more) between the countertops and the upper cabinets.

    Here is another scenario that makes for a lot more work and time wasted.

    What if you are like so many people out there and you have an appliance garage, or something that sits on top of the countertops?  Appliance garages are often separate pieces that are fitted in after the cabinets are installed, but in a custom cabinet shop, they will usually make that appliance garage as part of the upper above it, so you have fewer seams.

    If your appliance garage is part of your upper cabinet, and you install the uppers first, and then the bases, you would have to tear down the uppers to get the countertops in, and REINSTALL the uppers that it affected.

    This affected us in our custom cabinet shop, because we made the appliance garage as part of the entire cabinet.

    The photo above, right, is a classic example.  It is a beautiful bookcase area we built and installed in a couples living room.  It is actually built in four pieces, two bases, and two upper parts.  The upper part actually sits on top of the bases, so, there is no choice but to install the bases first, not to mention it is actually easier, in the long run and in most applications, to install bases first.

    WHAT ABOUT KEEPING YOUR CABINETS AND COUNTERTOPS SAFE?

    Okay, let’s say you want to install the base cabinets first, but are afraid you are going to drop a screw gun on the cabinets or countertop underneath you.

    There is a simple solution. Put blankets down.

    If, after you install the bases and countertops you just do this simple thing, you can easily use the countertop for extra work space, and/or use the bases to actually help you install the uppers, while still keeping them safe.

    T-JAK, OR ANY KIND OF SIMILAR JACK, WILL WORK WONDERS

    We always installed the bases first, then the countertop.

    We then used a T-JAK to hold up the upper cabinets. If you don’t have one and are going to be doing a lot of work, they are worth the investment and will run you around $70. If you get handy with them, you can just about install all your cabinets by yourself.  

    Your local contractor or dry-waller may have one they would rent or borrow to you, especially if they are doing some work in your home.

    If you can’t find one, it is still beneficial to install the bases first. You can use a small, regular jack, or find help to lift and hold those cabinets for you (which you would have to do anyway if you were installing the uppers first.)

    Just some things to think about when you are deciding how to install kitchen cabinets.

    TOOLS AND SUPPLIES YOU WILL NEED TO INSTALL KITCHEN CABINETS

  • A Good Level
  • Tape Measurer & Pencils
  • Blankets or other covering to protect your floor and countertops if needed
  • A Drill and Appropriate Drill Bits
  • A Screw Gun and Appropriate Bits
  • Screws (may possibly need ½” to 4”, most common is 2 ½”)
  • Extension Cords
  • Stud Finder
  • Ladders
  • Belt Sander
  • Vacuum Cleaner
  • ¾” thick x 2 or 3” wide lengths of some type of wood, pine strips, or particle board to attach to top of bases so you can attach countertops from underneath (if installing laminate or solid surface countertops – if you are installing granite or quartz, you’ll have to beef it up a bit more in certain areas)
  • T-Jak (if you have one available)
  • Small Air Compressor (to install top trim & toe kick)
  • Air Nozzles and Hoses
  • Chop Saw (for top trim & toe kick) & Stand (if you have one – it makes it easier)
  • TOOLS YOU WILL PROBABLY OR MAY NEED

  • Jig Saw and Blades
  • Electric Planer
  • Hammer Drill (if going into cement)
  • Wood putty to fill in any small gaps or holes
  • Laser Level (if you have one or can borrow one – they save a ton of time)
  • Don't be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. You may save yourself hours of work!!

    Return to Kitchen and Bath Cabinets from How to Install Kitchen Cabinets Page.

    And, as always - HAVE A HAPPY KITCHEN!!

     

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