How To Install Kitchen Cabinets
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
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
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
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
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
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”)
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
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
TOOLS YOU WILL PROBABLY OR MAY NEED
Jig Saw and Blades
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