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Solo Kitchen Cabinet Installation - a tutorial

by Michael Chotiner

In my career as a cabinetmaker, I worked on kitchens all over New York City, from modest remodels in Flatbush to lavish rooms for movie stars on the Upper West Side. In a cabinetmaker's ideal world, I would have loaded my completed cabinets on a truck at the shop and let someone else install them... avoiding the traffic jams, parking tickets, scary freight elevators and imperious co-op board reps.

But the installation phase of cabinetwork is where the chickens come home to roost-and I got tired of the eggs that installers so frequently lay. Unless I installed the cabinets myself, I couldn't rescue my handiwork from the real world's sagging floors, un-square, out-of-plumb walls-much less the inevitable accumulation of small planning and measurement errors between a project's conception and installation.

Preparation Time

It's best to have all of the cabinets, appliances and fixtures on hand at the start of installation. Carefully compare the measurements of the actual articles to the dimensions shown on the plans.

The space should be fully prepared. It's a good idea to have installed ¾-in. plywood or 2-by-6 blocking on the same plane as the wall framing where upper and lower cabinets will be fastened. You can't always find a stud where you need one. Finished flooring should also be in place; protect it with hardboard panels taped to the floor.

Also make sure the following are in place:

  • Rough plumbing (with hookup stems protruding from walls)
  • Wired, approved junction boxes for all appliance hookups, lighting and fans

Along with standard hand tools, be sure you're equipped with:

  • A 4-ft. level
  • A chalk line
  • A jigsaw
  • Hole saws of appropriate diameters to cut openings for pipes and conduits that will run inside the cabinets
  • One or two cordless drill/drivers (3/8-in., variable-speed, reversing; with bits and appropriate screw tips)
  • Cabinet Claws (clamps, 2 or more)
  • Adjustable support jack
  • Filler strips that match the cabinet finish
  • Shims and/or spacers

Dry Layout

When you're ready to start, walk around the space and set a level on the floor. Determine where the high point is. Make a mark on the wall 34-1/2 in. above the high point, then use it as a reference to snap three level horizontal guidelines around the room wherever base cabinets are to be installed:

[Illustration by the author]

  • Guideline 1, for the top edge of base cabinets 1: 3 4-1/2 in. above the high point of the floor top
  • Guideline 2 , for the top edge of the countertop: 1-1/2 in. above Guideline 1
  • Guideline 3, for the bottoms of the wall cabinets: 18 in. (minimum) above Guideline 2

Collect your base cabinets and starting in a corner, set each in place on the floor without fastening. Leave spaces for the refrigerator, dishwasher and other appliances that sit on the floor based on their actual measurements. Study the "dry" layout and determine:

  • If the cabinets fit in the space more or less as planned.
  • Where you'll need to shim along the cabinet bases to set the top edges on the reference line.
  • Whether walls against which cabinets will be installed are plumb (use a level to check). Where walls tilt, you'll need to use a combination of shimming and scribing to make the installed cabinets plumb and the joints tight. Make sure that cabinets at the end of a run have extended sides that can be scribed for a tight, neat fit, should the wall be out of plumb.
  • If electrical and plumbing hookups are in the right places, and plan where you'll need to cut openings in the cabinet backs to accommodate them.
  • Where doors and/or drawers may conflict in open position; where the direction of a door's swing may cause some awkwardness.

Once you've worked out any potential adjustments for the base cabinets, set the wall cabinets in position from left to right on top of them. Determine if the upper and lower units will fit and align vertically, as shown in the plans. You should get an indication of where you may need to insert filler panels between cabinets to set things into alignment.

Install the Wall Cabinets First

The first step to installing wall cabinets is to join units within a run together. The joining procedures for face-frame style cabinets and frameless cabinets differ slightly.

For face-frame cabinets:

In most cases, the stiles of a face-frame extend 3/16-in. to ¼-in. beyond the cabinet sides. To keep things square when the cabinets are joined, you must insert spacers between the sides of adjoining cabinets-3/8-in. plywood scraps or plastic spacers generally serve the purpose well. Before starting to join cabinets, glue four spacers to the mating side of one cabinet that will be joined to another. Place the spacers in the locations where fasteners will be driven-that is, 1 in. below the top and 1 in. above the bottom, toward the front and toward the back.

  • Lay cabinets on their backs on the floor, side by side in adjoining pairs.
  • Align the tops and bottoms, and make sure the face-frames are flush.
  • Clamp the cabinets together at the face frames.
  • Join the cabinets with four screws driven through the cabinet side from the inside, top and bottom, front and back (#10 1-1/4-in. screws work well, or use comparable decorative fasteners).

Ordinary C-clamps can be used for joining cabinets, but specialized clamps called "cabinet claws"
are designed to make it easier to get stile edges tight while keeping their faces flush-all without
marring the cabinets' finished surfaces. Photo courtesy of Jorgensen and Pony Tools, Inc.

For frameless cabinets:

Joining frameless cabinets is easier than face-frames since you don't have to insert spacers between cabinets. Just follow the steps above, but note that since screw heads near the front of the cabinets won't be concealed by the face-frame, it's usually a neater job to join frameless cabinets with decorative fasteners such as Powerhead screws ( or cabinet bolts.

PowerHead screws have especially thin heads, so it's not necessary to countersink them
as you would with standard wood screws used to join cabinet sides. Photo courtesy of FastCap

Cabinet bolts are particularly suited for joining frameless cabinets side to side.

Once cabinets are joined, it's a good idea to pre-drill holes in the mounting rails at the back of each cabinet and drive screws partially in. Two #10 2-1/2-in. or 3-in. wood screws will do the trick. Don't use drywall screws; they don't have enough shear strength.

Lifting Aids

If you're working by yourself (and even if you have one or more helpers), it's a hard balancing act to lift and hold an assembled bank of cabinets in place for fastening. Some pros use mechanical cabinet lifters, which are nice but expensive to buy, and hard to find as rentals. Most, however, make their own temporary supports, like the one shown (below), from scrap lumber. 

Temporary supports made from 1X6 or other scrap lumber can be used hold wall cabinets
in place while you're fastening them. Position the horizontal legs of the bracket with the top aligned
on the horizontal guideline for the cabinet bottom, and screw each to the wall through the vertical leg.
[Illustration by the author]

With or without stationary supports fastened to the wall, it's helpful to work with at least
one adjustable support that enables minor up-and-down corrections to the cabinet position
before fastening. (Photo courtesy T-JAK)

If the joined wall cabinets are too heavy for you to lift onto the temporary supports, disassemble them into manageable units by removing some screws. The assembly work that you did on the floor won't be wasted since the screw holes will make it easier to align and rejoin the cabinets when they're supported against the wall.

Lift the wall cabinets onto the supports. Be certain that the back bottom edge rests directly on your level horizontal guideline, then fasten the cabinets to the wall with #10, 2-1/2 or larger screws driven through the fastening rails at the back, top and bottom. Check the face of the cabinets for plumb and adjust as necessary by inserting shims between the wall and cabinet back.

Setting Base Cabinets

You should have identified locations where you need to cut openings in the base cabinet backs for plumbing and electrical hookups, and made the cuts. Rails and end panels that need to be scribed to fit against out-of-plumb walls should have been altered.

(Illustration by Author)

  • Set prepared base cabinets on their backs in pairs. Clamp pairs together and join with screws as you joined wall cabinets.
  • Tilt joined cabinets in place and slide them into position, shimming at the bases as necessary to bring them up to the level guideline on the wall.
  • Fasten them to the walls through the mounting rails at the top and bottom. Check the faces for plumb and adjust for plumb with shims.

When you're done with the fastening, check for gaps where end panels are supposed to meet walls, and at the cabinet bases. Small gaps can often be filled with paintable caulk (siliconized latex). Larger gaps can be concealed with quarter-round or shoe-base moldings that match the cabinet finish.

Finishing touches

Once the cabinets are firmly fastened, install the doors and drawers. Check for horizontal alignment and consistent spacing.

Finally, install the door and drawer pulls. It's best to make your layout marks on the face of the doors and drawer fronts when they're already in place, to assure alignment. Drill the holes from the face toward the back to avoid unsightly breakout on the visible fronts.

About the author: Michael Chotiner has a background as a general contractor and cabinetmaker. He writes for The Home Depot about DIY and home improvement topics such as "how to install cabinets." You can visit The Home Depot online to view a wide selection of kitchen cabinets.