When This Old House contractor Tom Silva started his carpentry career over 35 years ago, he often built the kitchen cabinets he installed for his customers. "Back then, it was still cost-effective for small shops to build them," he recalls. "Today, manufacturers assemble them faster and more economically than we can."
Cabinetmakers also offer an overwhelming variety of styles, features, and price points, but with the help of a knowledgeable kitchen designer, finalizing your order can be the easiest part of a major remodel.
The goal is to take this collection of boxes and bring them together to make a beautiful piece of built-in furniture. The basic installation sequence is straightforward: You want to get everything straight, plumb, and level. But more often than not, the room itself lacks those attributes. "When walls aren't flat, floors aren't level, and corners aren't square, that's when it gets interesting," Tom says with a smile.
Hang Kitchen Cabinet Overview
Lay a wood floor before hanging cabinets. "It goes down a lot faster in an empty room," says Tom Silva. Protect it with thick mover's pads during installation. Sheet flooring is more easily damaged, so lay it after the cabinets are in.
Using a 4-foot level, a framing square, and a straight 2x4, check the walls and corners to see if they are plumb, square, and straight. Note any dips, bubbles, or angles that will require scribe-fitting, shimming, or alterations of the wall.
Install electrical lines for the range, dishwasher, garbage disposal, refrigerator, and vent hood. Locate receptacles above your countertop backsplash every 4 feet, and anywhere you plan to use a portable appliance. Also, rough in cabinet lights and their wall-mounted switches.
Rough in supply and drain lines. Make sure cap is not glued to drain pipe.
Mark the Reference Line
Using a level, mark a level reference line on the walls about 48 inches off the floor. Snap a chalk line at these marks, and measure from this line down to the floor in several places. Mark the line where the measurement is shortest; this is the high point of the floor. Directly beneath the mark for the high point of the floor.
Mark the High Point Layout Line
Directly beneath the mark for the high point, mark the height of your base cabinets, usually 34 inches above the floor. From that mark, extend a level layout line along the walls. The top of the base cabinets will be flush with this line. Measure 17 to 18 inches up from the base cabinet layout line, and snap a level chalk line for the bottom edge of the upper cabinets. Find the studs and mark their locations on both layout lines. Mark out locations of all appliances.
Join the Upper Cabinets
Remove doors, drawers, and movable shelves to make the cabinets lighter and easier to position. Label everything with masking tape so each piece can be put back without mix-ups. Set a straight 1x3 cleat alongside and just beneath the layout line for the upper cabinets. Drive 2-inch drywall screws through it and into every other stud. Attach more cleats along the length of the line. With the cabinets on the floor, align the face frame of the upper corner cabinet so it's flush with the frame of the neighboring cabinet. Clamp them together. Check for flush with a straightedge. Drill counterbored pilot holes through the edge of the face frame, top and bottom. Drive 2-inch screws into these holes to hold the cabinets tightly together.
Hang the Upper Cabinets
With one or two helpers, lift the upper cabinet assembly into the corner and rest it on the cleat. As a helper steadies the assembly, check the cabinet face with a level to see if it's plumb. If it is, drive four 2½-inch deck screws (with washers) through the back of the cabinet, top and bottom, and into the studs. If it's not, slip shims between the cabinet back and the wall at the stud locations. (To shim out the bottom, remove the cleat.) When the cabinet is plumb, screw it through the shims to the studs. Lift the remaining cabinets onto the cleat, align their faces flush with those already installed, and clamp and screw the edges together (see Step 4). Shim cabinets as necessary, then fasten them to the studs through the shims with the 2½-inch deck screws and washers. Close any gap between the wall and the end cabinet by scribing its stile or back edge, or by covering the gap with trim.
Install Corner Base Cabinet
Jockey the corner cabinet into position. Shim it up from the floor until its back edge meets the layout line. If there are plumbing lines, push the shimmed cabinet against them and mark their locations on its back panel. Turn the cabinet around and drill holes through the back with an appropriate-size hole saw. Using a level, check the face of the cabinet for plumb. If it's not plumb, insert shims between the floor and the bottom of the cabinet, or between the wall and the back of the cabinet, at the stud locations. Check that the top of the cabinet is level, and add shims underneath as necessary. With the cabinet seated against its shims, drive 2½-inch deck screws (with washers) through the cabinet back and into the studs. At the shim locations, counterbore and fasten cabinet to the floor with deck screws (without washers).
Install Remaining Base Cabinets
Working out from the installed corner cabinet, shim the adjacent cabinets out from the wall (at the stud locations) and up from the floor so that the face frames are plumb and the tops are level and even with the layout line. Align each cabinet so its face is flush with its already-installed neighbor. Clamp them together, counterbore through the edge of the face frames, and fasten them together with 2-inch screws, as in Step 4. At the shims, drive the deck screws (with washers) through the cabinet back and into studs, as in Step 6. Close any gap between the wall and the end cabinet by scribing its stile or the back edge of its side panel. Or, cover the gap with trim. Using a utility knife, score and snap off any shims that protrude beyond the edges of the cabinets. Remove all the upper-cabinet support cleats and fill the screw holes with spackle. Place the drawers and shelves in their original cabinets.
Replace Doors, Install Toekick
Reinstall the cabinet doors. For overlay doors, which cover the cabinet frame, adjust the hinges so that the doors hang straight. For an inset door, adjust the hinges so door is flush with the face frame and so there's an even reveal (gap) around its perimeter. Using 1-inch brads, fasten the toekick trim to the base cabinets. Fit the longest pieces first, then cut and install the shorter pieces. Close any gaps between the floor and trim by scribing, or cover them by brad-nailing a shoe molding to the floor. Recess the nail heads with a nail set and cover them with wood putty or color-matched wax stick. If there's crown molding to trim out the upper cabinets, miter the joints at outside corners; cope the joints at inside corners. Align the molding's bottom edge with a level layout line marked above the tops of the doors. Fasten the molding to the cabinet with 1- to 2-inch finish nails. Glue the molding's end joints. Recess the nailheads with a nail set and cover them with wood putty or color-matched wax stick.