Canadian Woodworking

Cabinet installation – part 5

Author: Danny Proulx
Photos: Canac Kitchens
Published: December January 2004

This is the final installment in the series of articles on Kitchen and Bathroom Cabinets.

In previous issues I’ve discussed building kitchen cabinets; building upper and base cabinets; special cabinets; corner and pantry cabinets; and countertops. Now, after all of your construction work is complete, your cabinets need to be properly installed.
Cabinet installation is not a difficult job, but there are specific steps that should be followed to ensure that your cabinets are safely anchored and that they look good. Remember, you’ll have to look at them every day for many years to come!

Existing Cabinet Tear-Out

Unless you’re building cabinets for a new home, you’ll be faced with tearing out the existing kitchen cabinets. And, unless they are reasonably modern cabinets you’ll most likely find that they were built in place.

Carpenter, or “stick built in place” cabinets, depend heavily on the structural support of existing walls. Therefore, finding fastening devices such as screws and nails can sometimes be quite a challenge. I’ve seen every fastening device under the sun when tearing out existing cabinets.

Be careful and take your time tearing out old cabinets. Electrical wiring is often hidden, plumbing is sometimes routed through cabinets, and heating ducts may have been directed under the existing base cabinets.

In the interest of safety, turn off the water supply and electrical service to the kitchen area as well as other nearby rooms. This safety measure will help to avoid accidents or damage should you inadvertently break a water line or cut a power cable.

Support the upper cabinets with blocks or a strong wooden box prior to removing screws or nails.

The sudden weight shift downward when the last fastener is removed can be surprising. Always, if possible, enlist the help of someone to stabilize the cabinet as you remove the fasteners. Again, with respect to upper cabinets, remove all loose assemblies such as shelves and doors to lighten them. You’ll also avoid the danger of having shelving fall on you should the cabinet suddenly tip.

Removing base cabinets can be hazardous even though they appear to be sitting on the floor. Rotten floor support systems, or poorly connected toe kick platforms may cause the base cabinet to fall forward when the last screw is removed. Again, enlist the aid of another person to support the unit when removing fastening devices. I’ve had a cabinet fall because I thought four screws secured the unit when only two were actually anchored into the wall studs. It can be quite a shock and potentially dangerous, so be very careful.

Site Preparation

Site preparation prior to new cabinet installation is a very important process. Verify that water and waste supply lines are in the correct location and electrical service is sufficient and correctly positioned.

If you plan on moving the sink location, now is an excellent time to reroute supply lines. The full thickness cabinet back style that I use incorporates a backboard on both upper and lower units. Wall sheathing can be removed to allow changes in supply line positioning.

The same is true with electrical service lines. Verify that outlets are in the correct location and at the correct height. Base cabinet height is 915mm (36″), but you must also account for the height of the countertop backsplash, which can often add an additional 100mm (4″) to the overall base height. And, if additional electrical service is required, now is an ideal time to have an electrician install new wiring.

Use a long level or straight edge to check the wall condition. You’ll never find a perfect wall, but a wall stud that has badly bowed out over time can cause problems during new cabinet installation. If you find a bad bulge in any of the walls, remove the sheeting and correct the problem.

New Cabinet Installation

Cabinet installation methods vary depending on the installer. The primary difference is whether to begin by installing the uppers or the bases. Each method has its merits, however, there is no absolute correct way of installing cabinets. Find a process that you are comfortable with to achieve the end result: properly installed cabinets. There are some considerations you should be aware of before proceeding. Often a room is out of square and walls are not plumb. This can cause a number of problems during cabinet installation. Plan on installing cabinets from a point where you won’t get “boxed in” by badly built walls. It’s best to test fit cabinets prior to anchoring them permanently in place.

In kitchens where the cabinet runs are closed (i.e. cabinets are installed wall to wall) present a few problems for the installer. In this situation I would start at the center cabinet and work out to both sides, checking my remaining distances to avoid any serious problems. It can be frustrating if you have to remove installed cabinets because you’ve run out of space. This is probably the best reason to accurately measure the room dimensions during the initial planning stage.

Floor Slope Draw Level Line Around Room

The first step in cabinet installation is to determine the level or slope of the floor to see how much the walls are out of plumb.

In thirty years of renovation work I have not seen a room with perfectly level floors and plumb walls. Fortunately, the adjustable cabinet legs allow for easier installation as compared to the constructed base support assembly system.

Draw a level line around the room, using a long level, at a reference height of 895mm (35 1/4″) from a point in the room. Then, measure from the floor at various positions around the room.

Determine the highest point in the room. It will be the smallest distance from that level reference line to the floor. Start your base cabinet installation from that high point, aligning the cabinet’s top edge at 895mm (35 1/4″). That height, plus the thickness of the countertop material, will set the countertop surface at the required 915mm (36″) above the floor.

All floors have a slope, some greater than others. Therefore it is important that the high point be determined. If you start installing cabinets in an area other than the high point, you may not have sufficient adjustment range on the cabinet legs.

Locating Wall Studs

Use a wall stud finder to locate the first and second stud.

Drive a small finishing nail into the mark and locate the outer limits of the studs. Mark the centres of both studs.

Measure the distance between studs and mark the locations around the room.

You may want to check the locations with your stud finder to satisfy yourself that the stud center-to-center distances are staying constant.

Use a long level to extend the stud lines below the upper cabinet position and above the base cabinet tops.

Install a base cabinet at the highest point in the room. If you cannot start at the highest point, be aware of the adjustment limits with the cabinet legs. Level that base cabinet and anchor it to the wall with 75mm (3″) screws into the studs. Four screws per cabinet are more than enough to firmly secure the base units.

After the first cabinet has been installed, continue in either direction levelling and securing the cabinets. However, the procedure changes slightly with the second cabinet. Join the front edge of the second cabinet flush with the first cabinet’s front edge and secure with screws through the cabinet sides for frameless cabinetry. Now, anchor the back of the cabinet to the wall. All cabinets, particularly the first upper and base must be plumb. Use a long level to read the position and shim the cabinet into plumb if necessary.

A small fraction out of plumb will cause a great deal of trouble, particularly on long runs of cabinets. A level cabinet is equally important. Use a good level to properly position the cabinet before it’s permanently anchored to the wall.

You may be required to add a filler strip if the cabinet isn’t tight against the wall.

Check the fit after levelling the cabinet and use a compass, adjusted to the widest part of the gap, between the wall and cabinet side, as your reference.

Holding the point of the compass against the wall, draw a pencil line on the filler face. Use a sharp plane and remove wood up to the pencil line until you get a tight fit. If the filler is melamine or veneer PB, you may find that a belt sander does the job when you have many contours in the wall. The same process holds true for countertop fitting. A countertop usually requires scribing and fitting as most walls are not perfectly flat. Draw the line and use a belt sander to remove material. Install the countertop, scribing and removing material if necessary, so that it fits tightly against the wall.

Attach the upper cabinets to the wall with four 75mm (3″) wood screws through the backboard into the wall studs. The first cabinet must be level and plumb, as it’s the reference point for all the upper cabinets. Verify the remaining space after installing each cabinet. Install the remaining upper cabinets being sure they are well supported while the screws are installed. Level the cabinets, screw the adjoining sides to each other, and anchor the cabinets to the wall.

The cabinet bottoms must be even on all standard height uppers. Reduced height cabinets should be installed with the cabinet tops in line with top edges of the other upper cabinets.

Cut to size and install any trim molding on top of the upper cabinets. Trim molding style is dependent on individual taste. I’ve installed everything from 25mm (1″) bead to 100mm (4″) crown molding to achieve different finished appearances. Purchase short lengths of a number of molding styles and experiment until you find a pleasing style.

Cut the toe kick boards to length, install the plinth clips, and secure the boards to the cabinet legs. Use butt joints where the toe kick boards intersect at right angles. If the floor is out of level, you may have to scribe and sand the bottom of the toe kick board to get a tight fit. Alternatively, you can use quarter round molding, which is flexible, to fill the gaps between the floor and the toe board. Simply nail quarter round to the toe board while holding it tightly against the floor.

Install the cabinet doors, adjusting for plumb and equal spacing between doors on double door cabinets. There are normally three adjustment screws on good quality European hinges. You should be able to adjust the door gap as close as 2mm (1/16″) on two door cabinets and that gap must be equal from top to bottom.

Humidity variations can cause the door gap to change depending on the door material used and they may require occasional adjustments. The climate in your area, as well as the control of humidity in the home, will have an impact on how much change you’ll experience.

Install the drawers and check their operation. Drawers can sometimes go out of alignment if the base cabinet was twisted during installation. Proper drawer operation is critical as this hardware is constantly in use. There’s nothing more frustrating than improperly operating cabinet drawers, so buy the best quality drawer slides that you can afford.

Install the cabinet shelves and verify the alignment. They should rest on all the shelf pins unless they’ve been thrown out of alignment because the cabinet has been racked or twisted during installation. If severely twisted, the cabinet may have to be loosened from the wall and aligned. This twisting can be avoided by making sure the cabinet is level and plumb when it’s installed. Remember that it’s important to avoid racking (twisting) the cabinet during installation. Most walls are not straight; many have irregular surfaces and are not plumb. When anchoring cabinets to the wall, verify that the cabinet back is touching the wall, if there is a gap use a shim to fill the space. I find cedar shims work very well because they are tapered. Always check the level, front to back and side to side, as well as the plumb of the cabinet before and after you anchor it securely. Racked cabinets will seriously effect the operation of drawers, and the proper position of shelves on shelf pins. It may also cause doors to be off level affecting the operation and visual appearance.

All bottom boards on adjoining cabinets should be flush with each other. If there is an error because sides were not cut to the same length during construction, leave the error on top of the cabinet. Tops of cabinet sides on the base cabinets are hidden by the countertop overhang and sometimes by the applied trim on the upper cabinets.

There are situations that will arise during cabinet installation and most cannot be anticipated. However, you can minimize the “surprises” by taking accurate measurements during the planning stage. Measure wall-to-wall distances at the top, middle, and bottom. Use a long level on the floor and against the walls to determine the level and plumb of these surfaces. Review the installation process in your mind before you build the cabinets, checking for electrical wiring needs and problems, sink, water drain, and water supply situations. And, most importantly, verify that door openings will allow you to bring cabinets into the kitchen area.

Installing appliances is always challenging, particularly as there sometimes appears to be a lack of standards with respect to appliance dimensions. In reality, there are a few set standards that manufacturers follow.

Most refrigerators require 787mm to 838mm (31″ to 33″) of space for proper installation. Ranges need about 768mm (30 1/4″) and the majority of dishwashers require a 615mm (24 1/4″) wide opening.

However, don’t assume these dimensions are cast in stone. Verify your appliance dimensions before beginning the kitchen design process. One common point of frustration, in the kitchen cabinet making industry, is with ranges. Many cabinetmakers leave 787mm (31″) of space between lower cabinets for range placement. This allowance provides 10mm (3/8″) countertop overhang on each cabinet side and 6mm (1/4″) clearance between the countertop sides and the range for easy removal and replacement during cleaning. However, range hoods, which are installed above the range, are exactly 762mm (30″) wide and look properly installed when there isn’t any space on either side.

The simplest way I’ve found to overcome the problem, and to have the upper and lower cabinets align, is to add a 13mm (1/2″) filler to each upper cabinet side on either side of the over-the-stove cabinet. The upper stove cabinet, being 787mm (31″) wide, will allow installation of the range hood with a 13mm (1/2″) space on each side.

Countertop ranges, built-in wall ovens, and microwaves don’t seem to follow any set dimensional standards. It’s best to refer to the installation instructions when designing your kitchen so you’re aware of the requirements. If you’re re-installing existing appliances in a new kitchen, check their measurements.

When all is said and done, a successful installation means the room was properly “read”. An installer must know the floor slope and wave, how much the walls are “rocking and rolling”, and the ceiling slope before starting the installation. If you begin by properly reading the room, your cabinet installation will go much more smoothly.

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