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How to Install Kitchen Cabinets

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How to Install Kitchen Cabinets

With the modular kitchen cabinets now available for purchase from many sources, "Do-It-Yourself" installation is easier than ever. This can be a big job, and to do it and get it right, you may want to get help from a friend. Take a bit of care to line things up correctly and you can proceed with confidence.


Make your decision to replace the entire cabinets. If your existing cabinets fit your space well enough and you just want to freshen up the look of your kitchen, don't rule out refinishing or refacing. Both of these options are likely to be less costly than replacing the entire cabinets.
Refinishing is replacing just the finish, by sanding off or stripping the old, worn paint or varnish if necessary and applying a clean, new coat.

Refacing is replacing just the fronts of your cabinets, the doors and, if necessary, the fascias just behind them. The cabinet itself stays where it is.

You can also replace the cabinet hardware, (the hinges, handles, and drawer pulls) to give them a fresh look without tearing out the entire cabinets.

Many new, modular cabinet systems have particle board for their interior. If your old cabinets are solid wood and in good condition, consider keeping at least the interiors.
Carefully measure and plan your space. If you are replacing existing cabinets, you may want to use them as a pattern, or you may prefer to create a new layout to better suit your purposes.

Get brochures from the cabinet company you think you will use. It will tell you what standard sizes are available, as well as listing finishes, styles, materials, and hardware options. In many cases, it is possible to get a custom size to match your needs, but it is usually much less costly to use their standard sizes.

Draw a layout of your cabinet plans. It doesn't need to look like something an architect would draw, but it should be enough to give you an idea of how everything will line up and fit together.

Check the cabinet heights, especially for upper cabinets. If you are especially tall or short, check how far up you can comfortably reach. Many upper cabinets are designed to have an empty space between the tops and a standard height ceiling; others will extend all the way to the ceiling.
If one of your cabinets will go over your sink or stove, make sure to allow space underneath it for working, and to attach lighting or a stove hood.

Check how your range hood will fit with any upper cabinets above the stove.

Most systems have special cabinets to go under the sink, in corners, and in other special locations. Learn how these work and incorporate them into your layout.

Check that upper cabinets line up appropriately with lower cabinets, and allow for windows and other features in the wall.
Consider how you use your kitchen (or other workspace). Does your layout make sense for you?

Materials and supplies.

Obtain all your materials and supplies for the project. Make a list. Don't forget screws to screw the cabinets to the walls and shims with which to level the cabinets.

Remove the old cabinets, if there were any. At the back of the cabinets, you will generally find screws or nails holding them into the walls. Empty the cabinets completely first. It is much easier to work inside them and remove them without loose stuff rattling around inside.

Remove the doors and shelves before unscrewing the cabinets from the walls. Most shelves simply lift off of pegs; some may need to be unscrewed or pried off their supports. In either case, it will help to have them out of your way.
Make certain that you support the upper cabinets somehow as you remove the screws that support them. If the upper cabinets are a one-piece unit, you may have to seperate them to avoid damaging adjacent walls, since there will be no room to turn them as you bring them down.

Easier with the cabinets gone.

Paint the room and replace the flooring, if you are going to. It is not necessary to run the flooring under cabinets, but for some flooring materials, it is easiest to do the whole floor, while the cabinets are out. Do not replace base boards until after the cabinets are installed. If you will install wood or tile floors, consider the thickness of the floor material when you decide whether it should go under the cabinets.

Assemble the cabinets.

Assemble the cabinets, but do not put the doors on yet. Most modular cabinets come with instructions and go together just like kit bookcases. Take the time to make sure that the cabinets are assembled as securely, squarely and evenly as you can.

Install upper cabinets first if possible, so that you will not need to work over the lower cabinets to do so.

Locate studs and use a level to plumb a line down at their locations.

Use a stud finder to locate and mark the locations of the studs in your walls. Plumb down from the ceiling and use a measuring tape to mark the height of the cabinet brace or rail you will fasten through. Since the new cabinets will conceal the wall after they are installed, you can simply tap a small nail through it to locate the studs. When you have found one, measure either 16 or 24 inches to find other studs in your wall, since these are typical stud spacings.

Upper cabinets first.

Start on one end or in a corner, install the upper cabinets. There are two methods you can use. Either way, get help lifting and supporting them until they are screwed in.

The first method, called the French Cleat method, consists of screwing a support, or cleat, to the wall at an appropriate height such that you can hang the cabinets on the cleat. See the Sources and Citations section below for a link giving the details of this method.

A T-shaped support for installing upper cabinets. There is a laser level on a tripod in the foreground.

The second method will require a partner. Create a support jack by screwing a short length of a 2x4 or other sturdy scrap wood across the end of another 2x4. If you like, cover the end with a rag or old towel to use as a cushion. Have your helper use this T of wood with the bottom end against the floor and the top against the bottom of the cabinets to support the cabinets while you level them and screw them to the wall.

Calculate the distance from the edge of a wall cabinet to the stud(s) behind it. Mark these spots on the back of the cabinet, and drill pilot holes from the back of the cabinet. Be sure to allow for the "ears" on the front of the cabinet. When you place the cabinet to the wall, you'll know where the stud is.
Always secure the cabinets firmly to studs before loading them with their contents. Secure cabinets to each other as well as the wall. Drill pilot holes in the cabinet frame and screw together with good wood screws.
Mark the locations of your studs for the lower cabinets, then bring in the cabinets and set them into place. Check which cabinet sits highest, perhaps due to a high spot in the floor. It is easier to shim the others up to this height than to shorten the tall one.

Cut outs for plumbing hookups.

Do a test fit and, if the cabinets are backed, make any cutouts necessary for electrical outlets, plumbing hookups, and the like.

Level the top of the cabinets by shimming under and behind them. Remember that you will install a counter top on the cabinets, so you want this reasonably level and all the joints flush. Also look at the appearance of the cabinet fronts and make sure those are even.

Lower cabinets in place.

Screw the lower cabinets to the wall. You can often screw right through the shims.

Test fit the counter top. Cut it to length if required, and cut out the sink opening and the opening for the stove (hob) if it will be built in. You may need to cut the countertop short so that it will set in if it is between two walls. If you allow 1/4 inch on the overall length, you can caulk the ends after it is installed.

For post formed (laminate on particle board) counter tops, you will get better results cutting it to length with a "finish", or "plywood" blade rather than a ripping or combination circular saw blade.

Cutting with the countertop upside down will reduce chipping and spalling, but make sure you support the piece until the cut is complete.

For cutting a sink opening, invert your sink at the location it will go, mark the outline of the outside rim lightly with a pencil, then make another mark about 5/16 inch inside this line for your cut. Place masking tape on the outside of the cut mark, and use a jigsaw to make your cut. If you cannot "plunge" your jigsaw (starting inside the cut line), you may drill a 1/2 inch hole to drop your blade into to start your cut.
Seal all cut surfaces of post formed countertops before installing to prevent moisture from swelling the material later if your caulking fails to seal.

Other, more durable countertops can be made from synthetic marble (Corian, etc.), natural granite or other stone, or cement backer board or plywood covered with ceramic tile.

Place the counter top on top of the lower cabinets. Screw it in from underneath, making sure that the screws you use are not so long that they will break through the material to the top.
Apply caulk around the sink cutout and lower the sink into place. Check the fit and location, then secure it into place with the brackets underneath. Apply caulk around the rim of the sink.

Apply caulk around the edges of the counter top and between the backsplash and the wall.

Install the stove in a similar fashion, if it is a range top model.

Install the cabinet doors and hardware.

Install the cabinet doors and hardware, and adjust the hinges so that the doors hang properly.

Bring in and reinstall any other appliances you removed during your remodelling project.
Replace the baseboards, if you removed them.


Measure the space multiple times to make sure your layout is correct. Otherwise, you may find yourself installing cabinets that don't fit your kitchen.
Plan on having your kitchen out of service during a remodel such as this. You can cook on a camp stove (outdoors) or with a crock pot in another room or go out to eat for a while.
Make sure that they are level.
Secure them well to the wall and to each other.
Install the upper cabinets using the "French Cleat" method. This will make the job easier and go faster.
Get any appropriate permits that may be needed ahead of time!

Get several quality levels of different lengths. As you are installing, check the level on as many axes as possible: along a run of cabinets, corner to corner, across appliance openings. Measuring the level during and after installation avoids starting over, or problems after you start using the kitchen again. It's a good idea to check the level of the floor as well, especially for long cabinet runs. If the floor is uneven, draw a horizontal level line on the wall, and level your wall cabinets from this line.


Top cabinets need to be secured to studs so that they don't fall on people when fully loaded.
Be sure to use the right screws. Screws used specifically for hanging cabinets are stronger than common "drywall screws" which are weak and could shear off.
Always lift safely and make sure the cabinets are supported as you work.

Some stud finders locate such items as electrical conduits and piping behind walls, as well as studs. If this is a concern, get the sort of electronic stud finder that can distinguish.

Things You'll Need

Several carpenter's levels or laser levels of different lengths
Lots of shims (little slats of wood for leveling)
Clamps to hold cabinets together while you are arranging. C-clamps will do the job, but there are many different types of clamps that will work better. Remember, the clamp is the only thing holding two cabinets together until you secure them to the wall and to each other.
Stud finder
Counter top
Two 2x4s or a cabinet jack
Hinges (if not included with cabinets)
Drawer pulls and door handles
Any sinks, faucets, or other fixtures you will replace at the same time
Paint and replacement flooring, as necessary
Caulk (can usually be color-matched for the product you choose)
Basic power tools (circular saw, drill, jigsaw, screwgun)
Screws for hanging cabinets