Step 1: Order the cabinets and assemble key tools and materials
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Special combination drill bit
This special bit saves time because it bores a pilot hole for the screw and a countersink hole for the screw head.
Installing new kitchen cabinets may
seem intimidating, but the techniques
are really quite simple.
Think of it as screwing a series of
boxes to the wall and to one another
in the proper sequence. If your
cabinet plan is correct, your main
job is to find the best starting point
and keep everything level. In this
story we'll show you how to master
these key steps. We'll tell you how
to lay out the cabinet positions
ahead of time to avoid missteps.
Then we'll show you how to install
the base cabinets so they're perfectly aligned and ready
to be measured for the new countertop. Last, we'll
show you a simple method for installing the upper
wall cabinets. The entire project typically takes less
than a day. And depending on how large and elaborate
your kitchen is, you'll save at least $500 (and probably
much more) in installation charges.
You only need a few basic tools to do a first-class
job. You'll need an accurate 4-ft. level, a screw gun
powerful enough to drive 2-1/2-in. screws and a couple
of good screw clamps that open to at least 8 in.
Buy a 1/8-in. combination drill/countersink bit for predrilling the screw holes. You'll also
need a block plane or belt sander for fine tuning
the cuts to fit. A 1-lb. box of
2-1/2-in. screws and three bundles of
shims will be enough for nearly
any kitchen full of cabinets.
Make sure you
have the right cabinets
The cabinets shown are called “face frame”
cabinets, meaning they have a 3/4-in.-
thick frame surrounding the front of the
cabinet box. “European” style (also called
“frameless”) cabinets are simple boxes
without the face frame, and they require a
few special installation steps that we won't
cover in this article.
We won't cover planning and ordering
your cabinets here either. Just about any
home center or lumberyard that sells factory-
built cabinets will help you custom-design
your kitchen cabinet layout. All the
staff needs is a drawing of your existing
kitchen floor plan complete with exact
appliance locations and room dimensions.
But before you finalize the order,
closely examine the computer screen
and/or printout to make sure doors swing
the right direction, end cabinets have finished
panels on the ends, and toe-kick
boards (1/4-in.-thick strips of finished
wood for trimming cabinet bases) and
filler strips are included. We highly recommend
that you order at least two extra
filler strips for backups in case of miscuts. Keep a
copy of the printout; you'll need it to
guide your installation.
When your cabinets arrive, open up the
boxes immediately and confirm that each
cabinet matches the one on the plan, all
the parts are included and there's no
damage. A single mistake can delay the
entire project. In our order, one cabinet
was 6 in. undersized, the toe-kick trim
boards were missing and two of the
cabinets were seriously damaged.
Believe me, it happens!
Step 2: Base cabinets: Set the cabinet height and cabinet order
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Photo 1: Mark the cabinet height
Draw a level line on the wall 34-1/2 in. above the
highest spot on the floor. Draw vertical lines to
mark each cabinet location, label each cabinet's position
on the wall and find and mark the studs.
Find the highest spot on the floor
Most kitchen floors are very flat, especially
in homes less than 40 years old.
But it's always best to confirm that by
looking for the highest spot on the floor
anywhere a cabinet will sit. You'll measure
up from that spot and draw a level
line to define the top of all of the base
cabinets (Photo 1).
Find that spot with a straight 8-ft.-
long 2x4 (or shorter to fit between the
end walls if needed) and a 4-ft. level.
Rest the 2x4 with the level on top about
1 ft. away and parallel to the wall and
shim the 2x4 until it's level. Then mark
the highest spot on the floor and repeat
near any other walls that'll have cabinets.
Continue until you find the highest
spot. If you have two high spots, rest
the board on both and find the highest
one. Measure up the wall behind that
spot exactly 34-1/2 in. (standard cabinet
height) and mark the wall at that
point. Using that mark as a starting
point, draw a level line along the walls
wherever base cabinets are planned
Test-fit the base cabinets
In most cases, the corner cabinets determine
where the rest of the cabinets go.
That's especially true with lazy Susan corner
cabinets, which have face frames facing
two directions and have to meet
adjoining cabinets perfectly. Our kitchen's
“blind-corner” cabinets (Photo 2) are a
bit more forgiving. Check your cabinet
layout by “dry-fitting” all the base cabinets,
starting with the corner ones, and
setting all the cabinets in place as tightly
together as possible. If the layout calls for
filler strips, make sure to leave spaces for
those, too. With the cabinets in place,
check to make sure drawers and doors
clear one another, appliance openings are
the proper widths and sink bases center
under windows above. Unless your cabinet
plan is flawed, any adjustments you'll
need to make are just a matter of ripping
filler strips narrower or using wider ones.
Next, remove the shelves, drawers and
doors and mark them and their matching
cabinets with numbered masking tape to
save time and confusion later. Then move
the cabinets out of the room.
Starting with the corner cabinets, carefully
measure, draw and label each base cabinet
and appliance location on the wall.
Use a 4-ft. level and a pencil (Photo 1).
The marks should reflect the width of the
face frame, not the cabinet back. (The
cabinet back is actually 1/2 in. narrower
than the front, 1/4 in. on each side.) Use a
stud finder or probe with nails to find and
mark the stud locations just above the
horizontal leveling line.
Step 3: Base cabinets: Level and set the boxes
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Photo 2: Position the first cabinet
Set the first cabinet 1/4 in. from the positioning
line and shim the base until the top is even with
the horizontal line and level from front to back. Drive
2-1/2-in. screws through the back into the wall studs
to anchor it.
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Photo 3: Screw face frames together
Shim the next cabinet even with the horizontal line
and level it. Clamp the frames together, drill 1/8-in.
pilot holes, and screw the frames together with 2-1/2-
in. screws. Then screw the cabinet to the wall studs.
Position the corner cabinets 1/4 in.
away from the vertical positioning lines.
Shim the base until the cabinet top is even
with the horizontal leveling line and then
level and shim the cabinet front to back
(Photo 2). If there's a gap between the
wall and the cabinet back (the wall isn't
exactly plumb or straight), slip in shims
and run screws into the studs through the
cabinet back about 1 in. down from the
top (see Photo 8). After all the base cabinets
are set, score the shims with a utility
knife and snap them off even with the
Position, level and shim the next cabinet
and clamp it to the first cabinet
(Photo 3). Run your fingers over the joint
and you'll be able to feel if it's misaligned.
Loosen each clamp one at a time and
tweak the cabinet frames until they're perfectly
flush, then retighten the clamp. Be
fussy! Sometimes you'll have to loosen the
screws holding the previous cabinet
against the wall and pull it away slightly to
get the frames aligned. When you're satisfied,
drill pilot holes through the frames
1 to 2 in. from the top and bottom of the
Make sure you're drilling straight. The
most common mistake is to run the bit
through the front of the cabinet frame!
With the face-frame
screws in place, remove
the clamps and screw
the cabinet to the wall.
Repeat the same
process for each consecutive
Step 4: Base cabinets: Add filler strips
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Photo 4: Measure the gap
Measure the gap between the wall and the end
cabinets at the top and bottom. Add 1/16 in. to
each measurement and draw a cutting line on the
backside of a filler strip.
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Photo 5: Cut the filler strip
Clamp the filler strip and cut it at a 10-degree bevel
from the backside so the wide edge of the “keeper”
piece faces the front.
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Photo 6: Fit and install the filler
Test-fit the filler strip and plane the sharp edge of the
bevel until it fits perfectly. Set the strip in place,
predrill and screw it to the cabinet frame.
filler strips wherever
the cabinets come up
short of walls as we
show in Photos 4 – 6
or wherever the plan
calls for them. Leave
the correct gaps for
appliances. Some built-in
appliances like dishwashers require very
All manufacturers offer filler strips to
match the wood type and finish of
their cabinets. Generally they'll offer
widths about 3, 6 and 8 in. cut in the
same lengths as the height of the cabinet
face frames. They fill spaces
between end cabinets and walls, create
additional spaces between cabinets
or between cabinets and appliances
for drawers and doors to clear,
and close up odd gaps (Photo 4).
Spaces between cabinets and walls
are rarely even, so you'll have to taper
many filler strips. The best strategy is
to overcut slightly (1/16 in.), then
plane or belt-sand the edge back. The
10-degree bevel simplifies this process
(Photos 5 and 6). If you have a large
piece left over, protect the surface
with masking tape as we show and
use it elsewhere. You won't be able to
clamp filler strips when they're against
walls, so fit them tightly to make
drilling and screwing them to the cabinet
easier. Fillers that are less than 6
in. wide can “float” against the wall
and need no support. But fillers more
than 6 in. wide should be supported.
Nail them to a 1x2 backer board that's
glued to the drywall directly behind
Step 5: Base cabinets: Make plumbing and electrical cutouts
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Photo 7: Cut plumbing openings
Lay out plumbing and electrical openings on the cabinet
back, using the layout lines on the wall as reference
points. Then drill and/or saw out the openings.
You'll probably have to cut openings for
the drain and water supply lines and for
outlets (Photo 7). Lay out the openings
by measuring from the layout lines at the
top and side, and then transfer those
numbers to the back of the cabinet. To
avoid confusion, do the layout work with
the cabinet near its position and in the
right orientation. Drill holes for water
supply lines and starter holes for square
openings with a 1-in. spade bit. Stop
drilling when the tip just penetrates the
back, and finish the holes from the inside
of the cabinet to prevent splintering the
cabinet interior. Cut square openings with
a jigsaw. If your drain line projects from
the wall at an angle, simply cut a rectangular
hole around it as we did.
Step 6: Set the peninsula cabinets
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Photo 8: Set the first peninsula cabinet
Orient the first peninsula cabinet at a right angle
to the wall. Level and clamp it to the adjacent cabinet
and screw it to the cabinet and the wall.
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Photo 9: Mark the position of the second cabinet
Position the next cabinet in line, clamp it and draw a
line around the base. Make sure it's at a right angle to
the other base cabinets. Set the cabinet aside.
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Photo 10: Install 2 x 2 support
Draw a second line to mark the thickness of the
cabinet base, then screw 2x2s to the floor along
the inner line.
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Photo 11: Set the cabinet
Lower the cabinet over the blocking. Shim, clamp
and screw the frames together. Screw the cabinet
to the blocking with two screws from each side.
Level and screw the first peninsula cabinet
to the adjoining standard base cabinet.
You'll probably have to fill a 1/4-in. gap
with shims before screwing it to the wall
studs (Photo 8). If the first peninsula cabinet
is only 2 ft. wide, you may have to
clamp and screw filler strips to the frame
so doors and drawers in the next cabinet
will have operating clearance at the inside
corner. This should be marked on your
After the first peninsula cabinet is in
place, anchor the cabinets that follow to
permanent blocks on the floor. To do that,
position the next peninsula cabinet and
outline its base on the
floor with a pencil
(Photo 9). Then screw
2-by blocking to the
floor after allowing for
the cabinet base thickness
(Photo 10). Don't
try to place or cut the
blocks perfectly. They
can be short of the cabinet
end by a couple of
inches and back from
the inside of the cabinet
1/8 in. or so. That way
you won't have to struggle
to fit the cabinet over
the blocks. Screw the
blocks into the subfloor with 2-1/2-in.
screws spaced about every foot. Set the
cabinet into place, level it with shims, then
clamp and screw it to the neighboring
cabinet and into the blocking.
Anchor island cabinets using the same
positioning and blocking techniques we
show for the peninsula cabinets. However,
it's best to install your upper cabinets
before starting on an island to keep a clear
work area in the middle of the kitchen.
Step 7: Install the upper cabinets
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Photo 12: Mark the cabinet positions
Draw a level line 19-1/2 in. above the lower
cabinets and mark the upper cabinet positions.
Screw a 1x2 ledger to the wall even with the level line.
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Photo 13: Mark stud locations
Measure from the cabinet position lines to the stud
locations. Mark the stud locations on the cabinet
backs and drill 1/8-in. pilot holes through the hanging
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Photo 14: Screw the cabinets to the wall
Start 2-1/2-in. screws, then rest the cabinet on the ledger. Align it
with the cabinet position line and drive the screws into the wall
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Photo 15: Hang additional cabinets
Position the next cabinet and run the top screws partially into
the studs to hold it in place. Align the frames, clamp them and
screw the cabinets together. Then screw the cabinet to the wall.
The only tricky part about hanging upper
cabinets is supporting them in exactly the
right position while you screw them to the
wall and one another. That's a tough, awkward
task, especially if you're working
alone. The ledger method
simplifies this (Photo 12).
It's a fail-safe method, but
you'll have to accept a bit
of patching and paint
retouching to repair the
screw holes left from the
Start by making a light
pencil mark 19-1/2 in. up
from the lower cabinets
(it'll be 18 in. after the
countertop is installed)
and then mark the stud
locations using the ones
below as a guide. Next,
transfer the cabinet positioning lines from below (Photo 12) and
screw a 1x2 ledger to the studs even with
the layout lines. It's best to prestart the
cabinet screws before hoisting the cabinets
up onto the ledger. Photo 13 shows
an easy method to get the screws in the
right place using the cabinet positioning
lines and the stud locations on the wall
and then transferring them to the cabinet.
You'll often find that a cabinet, especially a
narrow one, will have only one stud
behind it. Don't worry; the other cabinets
will help support it too.
Start any corner cabinets first. Space the
first end cabinet exactly 1/4 in. away from
the layout line and screw it to the wall. Be
exact with the first cabinet because it will
define the locations of all the rest of the
cabinets on that wall.
Start the screws and hoist the next cabinet
into place, snugging its frame against
the neighboring one, and screw it to the
wall. Next, align the frames and clamp
them together as you did with the base
cabinets (Photo 15). You'll probably have
to back out the stud screws slightly in one
or both cabinets to get the frames to line
up perfectly. That's fine—leave the screws
backed out while you clamp, drill and
screw the frames together.
Step 8: Finish with doors and trim
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Photo 16: Install cabinet doors
Replace the drawers, then rehang the doors and adjust
the hinges to align the doors with one another.
Finish off the cabinets by cutting, fitting
and nailing the toe-kick boards to the
bases. They'll be 4 in. wide, but on irregular
floors, you may need to rip them narrower
to get them to fit. If you have bad
gaps between the floor and the toe-kicks,
add base shoe contoured to fit the floor.
Wherever cabinets have finished ends, run
the toe-kick boards 1/4 in. past the cabinet
for a nice appearance. Finish up by slipping
the drawers into their slides and reattaching
the doors (Photo 16). Adjust the
hinges until the doors line up perfectly,
and move on to installing the door and
Editor's Note: Complete Repairs and Painting Before Installing Cabinets
After your old cabinets are torn out, and before installing the new
ones, is the perfect time to do any kitchen improvements. Here are
some upgrades to consider:
- Electrical upgrades. Older kitchens are notorious for lacking adequate
lighting and outlets. Consider adding undercabinet, task or
indirect lighting and more outlets and upgrading all the outlets to
GFCI-protected ones (now demanded by code). It's easy to cut open
drywall, fish new wires and install electrical boxes because you can
do the work behind the cabinets. Repairs won't have to be perfect
because they won't show.
- Drywall repair. Patch any holes or any other drywall damage.
- Painting. Repaint all of the walls and the ceiling. You'll save the
hassle of cutting in around the new cabinets and get a much neater
job to boot. You can touch up nicks and bumps later.
- Install new finished flooring if you can. Most finished floor materials
can be installed ahead of the cabinets. That's much easier to do
because you can project the flooring under the cabinets and avoid
cutting around them later. Hardwood flooring, tile, most vinyl and
some laminate floors can handle cabinets resting on them with no
problem. But be careful. Perimeter-glued vinyl and floating wood
laminate floors need to expand and contract freely. If you rest cabinets
on them, you may have problems with buckling, splitting or