How to Install Kitchen Cabinets
Anyone of any experience level can install kitchen cabinets. You don’t need to be a master carpenter or DIY expert to create a beautiful result you can take pride in. What you do need is the right tools, proper instructions, and a little patience, both with the process and yourself.
For the purposes of this DIY guide, we’re going to assume you’ve already removed the old cabinets. Before you install the new cabinets, you may also want to consider completing the following work:
- Installing new flooring. Installing a floor wall-to-wall can be easier than installing around cabinets. If you do plan to install a new floor, confirm it’s designed to handle cabinets. Many floor materials, like hardwood, tile, and some vinyl and laminate, can support the cabinets’ weight. Some laminates and vinyl do need to be able to expand and contract and may buckle or crack when restrained by cabinets.
- Updating electrical outlets and switches. An electrician will have a much easier time working on an empty wall to run wire, install new electrical boxes, or simply update the kitchen with appropriate GFCI outlets.
- Wall/drywall repair. Without the cabinets in place, it is easier to patch and repair damaged walls and drywall.
- Painting the kitchen. It’s faster to paint an empty wall than to tape, edge, and paint (carefully) around new cabinets. Plus, you don’t want to get paint on new cabinets. Is there a chance you’ll nick, scratch or otherwise damage the paint putting the cabinets up? Sure, but paint touch-ups go faster and are easier to do than working around new cabinets.
Once you’ve got the room set and cabinets delivered, it’s time to get started. As a note, it’s recommended to have assistance from one or two other people to help move cabinets into place, especially the wall cabinets.
What You’ll Need to Install New Cabinets
For an efficient installation, you’ll want to make sure you have all the tools and materials available before you begin. Nothing ruins efficiency like multiple trips to the hardware store in the middle of a project. Here’s what you’ll need:
• 4’ or 6' level
• tape measure
• stud finder
• cordless drill/driver
• drill bits
• clamps that open to at least 8”
• finishing nails
If you will need to cut toe-kick trim boards, you will also need a circular saw and workbench.
• diagram of kitchen layout
• wood shims—3-4 bundles should do it
• 2-1/2" screws—a 1 lb box will ensure you have enough to complete the job
• 1x2 ledger board, at least equal to the length of all wall cabinets
Step 1. Set measurements. Mark the walls.
With this first step, you will prepare the installation area. You will draw two lines. The first will be 34 ½” from the highest spot on the floor where the cabinets will sit. The second will be 54” from the highest spot on the floor where the wall cabinets will sit.
This will give you an 18” backsplash between countertop and wall cabinets. If you prefer a 20” backsplash, measure to 56” for the wall cabinets. (A standard countertop typically measures 1 ½”).
IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s essential the two lines are made from the highest spot on the floor. The last thing you want is to install cabinets only to find that one sits higher than the others.Countertops require the cabinets be level, so find the high spot. You’ll shim the other cabinets to bring them level.
Most floors in modern houses (those built in the last 40-50 years) have level floors. Older houses, maybe not as much. Here's how to check the level of a floor find the high spot:
• Take a flat 2x4 and lay it on the floor where the cabinets will sit.
• Set your level on top. Raise the 2x4 where needed, using shims to get it level. Wherever you’ve raised to is your high spot.
• Check that spot again with other areas where the cabinets will sit.
Once you’ve found the high spot, draw your lines. Make sure they are level, especially the 54” (or 56”) line.
Next, look at your kitchen diagram and draw the outlines for where the cabinets will go based on the measurements indicated. Then, use the stud finder to find the studs. Mark them on the wall in the space where the cabinets will go. It may be worth testing with a hammer and small nail to confirm the stud in the places where you plan to screw the cabinets to the wall. (This can be important in older homes where studs may not run perfectly perpendicular from floor to ceiling.
Finally, measure and note the location of all wiring, electrical boxes, and plumbing.
Step 2. Set a ledger board.
The ledger board is a temporary board you will use to make installing the wall cabinets easier. It will support the weight of the cabinets as you level and screw them into place.
Set it on the wall and secure it to the studs with screws. Make certain the board used is flat, and ensure the board is level as you put it up. A friend can hold it steady and track the level while you drive the screws into place.
Step 3. Check your cabinets.
We have two recommended parts to this step.
1. Once your cabinets arrive, open the boxes and check to make sure they are in good condition. Check also that you have all the parts.
2. Move the floor cabinets into place based on the kitchen diagram. Check to make sure they fit as planned and the cabinet that sits on the highest point on the floor (if there is one) sits exactly at the 34 ½” line. They should also sit exactly under the squares drawn on the walls that represent where each wall cabinet will sit.
Once you’ve made these checks, remove the floor cabinets carefully. You might want to use the cardboard from the boxes to protect the floor as you work.
Step 4. Hang wall cabinets.
Remove the doors from the wall cabinets. Label each cabinet and each door to make replacing them later simple. Use painters tape and a set scheme such as 1 for the cabinet and 1 L (left) and 1 R (right) for each door. Remove drawers and label the drawer and the space it belongs. You can use letters for drawers for added simplicity. Label the space and the drawer with the same letter.
To hang your cabinets, start with corner cabinets first. Mark the locations of the studs on the hanging strips at the top and bottom on the back of the cabinet. Pre-drill a pilot hole with a 1/8” bit. This will ensure accuracy, make hanging simpler, and reduce the chance of splitting. Hoist the cabinet into place and set it on the ledger board. Screw the cabinet into place, checking that it’s plumb and level before you drive the second screw. Start with the top screws, then bottom.
With the next cabinet, the process is a little different. Transfer stud locations onto the hanging strips on the back. Pre-drill. Then hoist it into place. For this cabinet, use clamps to secure it in place. Make sure it is plumb and level with the first cabinet. Adjust as necessary and re-clamp. Apply shims behind as necessary to bring it even. Screw into place.
Then, secure the cabinet to the one next to it. One screw goes at the top and bottom on the front and back of the stile (the vertical piece on the inside, or face, of the cabinet frame).
Follow this step to set each wall cabinet in place. If two cabinets of the same height will sit next to each other, you can attach them together while on the ground. Follow the same process of using clamps and checking for level and evenness between the two cabinets. This can help speed the process.
Once all wall cabinets are set in place, remove the ledger board.
NOTE: If any of the wall cabinets require electrical cutouts, these will need to be measured and done prior to securing in place. These cutouts should be measured once the cabinet next to it is in place. Transfer measurements to back of cabinet. It may make sense to lift the cabinet in place BEFORE making the cut, to check the accuracy of the measure. Remember the rule, ‘Measure twice; cut once.’
Step 5. Install base cabinets.
Once again, start in the corner. Set the corner cabinet in place and shim it to bring it to level. Pre-drill holes through the framing piece at the top back of the cabinet. Screw into place. Check level again after you secure the cabinet.
If a corner cabinet does not sit all the way in a corner, ie., a lazy-Susan cabinet, you will need to frame with 1x2’s on the wall in the corner to ensure corner support for the countertop. If you do need to add this additional framing, measure, cut and put it in place before installing the corner cabinet. This will make screwing it in place easier. Once the cabinet is in place, it will not be possible to drive the screw straight into the stud.
With the first cabinet installed, set the next new cabinet in place. Shim to level and clamp together. Adjust for evenness, shimming along the back as necessary to bring the face of each cabinet perfectly even. Secure the cabinets together along the stile with screws as you did the wall cabinets. Then pre-drill along the framing piece and screw the cabinet in place. Check for level.
Repeat this for each cabinet. Always check for evenness, plumb, and level as you shim, as you secure, and after you’ve secured. Move to the next cabinet ONLY when all secured cabinets are level, even, and plumb.
Step 6. Finish with doors and trim.
Once the cabinets are installed, it’s time to add the finishing touches. Fit the toe-kick boards in place, cutting if necessary. Nail them into place carefully. If the toe-kick is real wood, predrill a small hole (not all the way through) to reduce the chance of the wood splitting.
Sometimes unevenness in a floor can leave gaps between the toe-kick and the floor. To eliminate this gap, add a piece of shoe or scribe molding (trim pieces) at the bottom of the toe-kick where it meets the floor.
Next, re-attach the doors and drawers.
Finally, step back and look at a job well done.