how to install cabinets

How to Install Cabinets – A Definitive Guide for Beginners

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It’s easy to install cabinets but hard to install cabinets correctly. Just consider an imperfect space that needs to seamlessly have kitchen cabinets fit together perfectly. Then factor in cabinet weight, the right tools, techniques and complex measurements. All that makes learning how to install cabinets important before you start.

So in this article we’ll cover all the steps of fitting kitchen cabinets into your space perfectly.

But with a twist.

There is a slew of modern tools and methods available now. So toss out that ledger board concept your grandpa might have used and learn what tools and techniques modern installers use.

While I’ve built and installed over a hundred kitchens there is truth to the saying every kitchen is different. But with planning and patience you might be able to save thousands vs. a hired installation. Based on my experience here’s the steps to install kitchen cabinets.
 

How to Install Cabinets

1. Plan the cabinet install start-to-finish

Stanley Fatmax for cabinet measurements

First and foremost: you won’t be able to measure the kitchen until the walls and drywall are installed. While you can attempt measurements from a blueprint there’s always a surprise in new construction or remodels that could be costly later.

The best way to plan your cabinets? Have a cabinet supplier or big-box store take the measurements and design the space. Then they’ll order the boxes and plan complex items like cabinet filler strips and door swings for you.

But if you are going to plan your own cabinets consider the following:

    • Choose your cabinets first so you’ll understand their installation requirements.
    • Minimize cabinet filler strips whenever possible.
    • Center the base kitchen cabinet under a window (if applicable)
    • Keep even spacing around trim and other openings
    • Pay attention to finished ends vs. unfinished.
    • For islands, keep consistent walking space around the face and sides of the island
    • Factor in countertop overhang – especially near doors or openings.

2. Have the right cabinet installation tools

Cabinet jack for lifting upper cabinets

Perhaps spending another $500 in tools after you just put $5000 or more in cabinets isn’t what you want to do. But not having the right tools can damage the cabinets (or you). And keeping in mind an average kitchen installation costs around $5000 a small tool budget makes a lot of sense.

From cabinet claws, cabinet jacks to a basic miter saw the right cabinet installation tools are a must. Due to the specialty nature of cabinet installation there are time and quality improving tools that will make the install easier.

We’ll reference these tools as we go and you can decide what you’ll need.

3. Have all your cabinet installation supplies ready

Composite shims to make cabinet installation easier

Did you know a few bundles of composite shims will be your best friend when shimming base cabinets?

Make sure you have all the right cabinet installation supplies on hand and in the right quantity. Because cabinet installation is custom work the supplies are not standard.

And don’t even think about using drywall screws to attach the cabinets to the wall. Learn what the right screws are in our guide to cabinet screws.

4. Finding a reference point to install upper cabinets from

Using a laser level to ensure flat tops of bottom cabinets

The first cabinet of an installation is always the most important. Choosing the wrong cabinet or setting the first upper cabinet at the wrong height can cause a lot of time lost and possibly damage to the cabinets.

Choosing the right upper cabinet is the first step, then.

If your upper cabinets are all on one wall then this is an easy step. For most cabinets simply measure up 54″ from the finished floor and make a mark. Why 54″ for hanging upper cabinets? Well most base cabinets are 36″ with counters and an 18″ gap is standard clearance over the counter surface.

However, if you are installing upper cabinets on multiple walls and the floor isn’t level you can run into issues with the upper cabinets not meeting or appearing “off” across disconnected walls.

How do you find a perfect “plane” for the uppers and lowers? Well just start with a cabinet installation laser level, typically mounted on a pole, in the middle of the room.  Using a tape measure and the 360-degree line the laser provides measure every few feet around the entire kitchen. When you find the shortest measurement (the high point) you have a reference point to start from.

Then using this high point measure up 54″ and reset the laser to that height. And voila, now you have a perfect reference line around the room to hang the upper cabinets to.

5. Lighten the load by removing upper cabinet doors

This step is simple, but will reduce weight and prevent dings in the cabinet doors.

Carefully remove the cabinet doors from the cabinets. By doing so you will have less to lift and have easy access to the face frames or sides during installation.

6. Picking an upper cabinet to start installation

Now this step can be a little more art than science.

And by that I mean there are a few best practices, but no absolute right or wrong way to approach which cabinet goes first in the installation.

Here are a few potential starting points:

  • For L-shaped or U-shaped kitchens start from one of the 90-degree corner cabinets.
  • On single wall cabinets start with the cabinet against the wall (a must); or if both sides are walls consider the refrigerator cabinet to set the height.
  • Or, start with the refrigerator cabinet; or at least measure it’s final height to ensure it will fit later.

7. Mark stud locations to attach cabinet screws

Use a stud finder to locate where to install cabinet screws

If you learn nothing else on how to install cabinets you must know that cabinets have to be screwed firmly into a wood or metal stud. Due to the weight of the cabinet and it’s contents a drywall hanger or other approach just won’t work.

Using a stud finder, locate the center of the studs throughout the kitchen so you can reference them later. There are many reasonable stud finders on the market, including a few that will help you avoid plumbing and live AC wires.

8. Drill pilot holes in back of the first upper cabinet

Pilot point bits for drilling cabinet backs

You might be wondering how you’ll find the right place to screw into a stud when the cabinet is on the wall.

Well, you’ll first mark the back of the cabinet with the stud locations.  While this step can be error prone there are a few tricks like butting the cabinet into place against the wall and transposing the stud location to the top of the cabinet.

When you have the stud location identified, drill a 3/16″ pilot hole at the top and bottom of the cabinet using a brad point drill bit. And be careful to not splinter the inside of the cabinet by using steady but slow pressure. Finally, don’t forget both cabinet backs for a corner cabinet.

9. Lifting upper cabinets in place

Cabinet lift to install upper cabinets

While I’m 6’3″ and have the advantage of being able to lift and hold cabinets perhaps you don’t.

And that’s where a nifty tool called the cabinet jack comes in. A cabinet jack enables the installer to set the cabinet on the jack and then using a fine adjustment lever hold the upper cabinet in place. Now when paired with a cabinet claw you’ll be able to balance an upper cabinet in place and firmly clamp to an adjacent cabinet.

Need help lifting? Fortunately there’s a tool called a cabinet lift that will hoist and hold the upper cabinet into place for you.

10. Installing face frame screws

Cabinet claw to connect cabinet face frames

With the upper cabinet resting on the cabinet jack and the cabinet claw in place, attach the face frames of the cabinets together first.

By doing this before you screw the cabinet to the wall you will have leverage to ensure a smooth fit

Mos cabinet claws have a bushing for a pilot drill. Using this bushing, drill a hole through the first cabinet face frame and into the second. Then using a specialty face frame screw firmly attach the cabinets.

Make sure you don’t over-torque the screws as they are strong, but can twist off in hardwoods.

11. Screw upper cabinets to the wall

Cabinet screw

Now this step is easy if you’ve placed your pilot holes in the right spot.

First make sure the cabinet is level using a 72″ level and that it’s at the right height as set earlier. Then, using a 2-1/2″ cabinet screw (for most cabinets on 1/2″ drywall) insert all screws firmly.

If you have gaps or curves in the sheetrock a composite shim inserted between the cabinet and the wall will keep everything square.

12. Installing filler strips

When you reach a point of needing to install a filler strip make certain it’s needed and works in alignment with any base cabinets.

Because filler strips can be tricky to install between cabinets or against the wall check out our guide on how to install cabinet filler strips for a full walk thru.

13. How to install cabinets - picking the first base

Similar to installing the upper cabinets, you’ll need to decide which cabinet to install first. Personally I like to start in a corner or an end wall and work out from there.

But perhaps you have a fridge cabinet and it will be an anchor for other cabinets. Since a fridge cabinet has limited flexibility to be raised or lowered it often sets the base cabinet height.

Using common sense and some advanced layout decide which cabinet fits best in your installation. Note however I rarely start with an island cabinet as it is floating and can be installed last.

Finally, make sure you set the height of the first cabinet using the high point “laser level” line.

14. Installing the first base cabinet

Cordless drill to install cabiets

Using the highest point as a reference, set the first base cabinet in place against the wall and use shims to make it perfectly level left to right and front to back.

After it’s level screw it to the wall using cabinet screws and composite shims as needed. Remember, the shims will keep the cabinet level and prevent the screws from tilting the face of the cabinet front-to-back.

15. Keeping the base cabinets level during installation

Six foot cabinet level

Do you know what the biggest risk of a base cabinet install is? No, not putting them in the wrong place. Rather, having to re-install the bases if you don’t maintain a perfectly flat surface for solid surface counters.

This happened to me once. And on a job that was a few hundred miles away.

The trick to this is slowly and methodically ensure your base cabinets are installed flush and level is maintained. Because base cabinets can extend many feet apart a six foot level is a great tool to have on hand.

16. Clamping, screwing and filler strips

Fastcap cabinet clamp

For base cabinets follow the same steps as for upper cabinets.  While cabinet claws are a must for upper cabinets they also ease lower cabinet installation as base cabinets are heavier to position in place perfectly.

To keep good visual lines make sure to keep filler strips in the base cabinets in the same line as for upper cabinets.

17. Install the island

For kitchens with center islands now is the time to install.

First, make sure the floor is finished and ready for the island. While there are a few tricks to installing the island a few things you’ll need to plan for:

    1. Use a hole saw to cut plumbing lines as needed.
    2. Screw 2×4’s to the floor as blocks to screw the island cabinets too.
    3. Make sure you watch for in-floor heating or other utilities in the floor.

18. Double check the cabinets are level

Learning how to install cabinets means becoming friends with a level. And on the base cabinets there needs to be a 100% level surface cabinet to cabinet. Once the toe kick is installed the options to level the cabinets are much tougher.

Double check level in all directions before proceeding and make all adjustments now.

Cordless nail gun to install cabinets

And now we’re more than two thirds through our guide on how to install cabinets.

This should be one of the easiest trim jobs of the entire kitchen.

Toe kick is a piece of 3-1/2″ wide by anywhere from 1/4-3/4″ thick piece of trim that fits at the base of the cabinet. While the basic steps are to start with the longest piece and work to the smallest piece you can follow our complete step-by-step guide to installing toe kick for all tips and tricks.

20. Install base shoe on cabinets

Miter saw for cabinet trim and crown molding

So this step is optional but hides any imperfections. Base shoe is 3/4″ trim that matches the cabinets or wood floor and hides small gaps. It also provides a finished look.

While most trimmers will choose to install this with 45-degree angles you can also cope the trim for a gap-free look.

21. Install crown molding

Special jig to make compound crown cuts simpler

Now that you’re warmed up with trimming at least the toe kick we can move up to the crown molding. Because of the compound angles involved with crown molding there are a few tool requirements. I recommend at minimum a miter saw with a good quality brad nailer to handle the complex cuts required. 

For a complete step-by-step guide check our guide to installing crown molding for tips and tricks plus a few helpful tools to make compound cuts easier.

22. How to install cabinet end panels

Contact cement for dishwasher panels or custom counters

This step may be optional, but some cabinets do not have the end panels attached since they are “universal” up until the exposed end is chosen by the installer.

While not as big of a headache as it seems, just follow the included directions.

If you don’t have directions then for most installations a contact cement will work fine. Using the directions on the can you can install most end panels in under an hour. But make sure you use a mask for chemical-based contact cement.

23. Hide nail holes and any gaps in face frames

Shop rags for cleanup after installation

If you’ve ever walked into a kitchen where the installer didn’t hide the nail holes in the trim you noticed.

So don’t be that installer and use a magic mixture I’ve used for decades: Color Putty. Simply rub it into the gap or nail hole and wipe away the excess with a shop towel. Nothing else, no waiting or applying finish. All the holes will immediately blend in and disappear.

24. Clean up the cabinets

Portable vacuum for cleaning up dust

After drilling pilot holes, plumbing lines and cutting outlet holes you’ll have a dusty mess inside the cabinets.

Before putting the cabinet doors back on and inserting drawers take a small vacuum and pick-up all the wood chips. Follow that up with a damp rag to get all the fine dust.

25. Re-install the doors and drawers

Since you’ve removed doors and drawers to allow easy access to the inside of the cabinet, now is the time to put them back on the cabinets.

Since doors and drawers all appear the same size, one trick is during removal use painters tape on the inside of each door or drawer and number them according to the cabinet.

Lastly be careful in this step to avoid dings and dents. From experience hanging a cabinet door is a balance of a cordless drill, a small screw and a heavy door.

26. Install outlet covers

This is almost a guaranteed step in the microwave cabinet. Before you start installing shelves make sure the outlets are covered and safe.

Depending on your installation an outlet box extender may be required to bridge the gap.

27. Install shelving

Shelf pin locator

Now that you have the interior of the cabinets cleaned up and ready to be used the shelving can be installed.

Choose a shelf height for the upper and lower cabinets that best suites your uses. And if in doubt go for centered on the base cabinets and equally spaced on the uppers.

Lastly, cut a wood stick to the desired shelf pin height will make quick work of installing the pins.

28. Install cabinet door handles or knobs

Cabinet knob jig for installing handles and knobs

One of the final steps in this project is to install your knobs or handles. First, determine where you want to place your cabinet hardware and then use a cabinet jig to make perfectly aligned holes. Finish up with a quick knob installation and you’re on to the last step.

29. Call in counters, plumbing and electrician

With the cabinets ready to be finished there are a few trades left to do. For solid surface counters make an immediate call to confirm a measurement date. Wrap-up by calling on an electrician for any outlet boxes in the island or a plumber for finishing up the sink connections.

Summary

While a cabinet installation requires many steps, with planning, tools and patience a serious DIY’er can consider tackling this job.

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