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Installing A Recessed Cabinet
in Your Bathroom

Hooray!  Now we can get all the stuff off the toilet tank!

IMPORTANT: Be sure you understand what you have to do before you attempt to modify any wall in your home. You can cause severe damage to the house or yourself! This article is not intended to be a precise recipe for installation of a recessed cabinet.  I've tried to cover the most important issues and guide you in the right direction though my observations and suggestions, but you must have basic carpentry skills and a degree of common sense to keep yourself out of trouble with this job, since each job is different!

Please read the whole article before you begin. You will save yourself unnecessary hassle later.

Be ready for more work than you expected!

Installing a recessed cabinet, such as a medicine cabinet, wall safe, or ironing board, can be fairly simple and straightforward or may require the services of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, structural engineers, and, worst case... witch doctors! Let's walk this path together and see what we find!

Medicine cabinetLet me be frank (though I'd rather be NH)... there is more than a possibility that there will be a wall stud or other obstruction interfering with the installation of your recessed cabinet. In fact the odds are about 99% that you will have to choose between cutting a wall stud, locating the cabinet in a less-than-ideal spot, or ditching the whole project and installing a surface-mounted one.

The two most common obstructions are wall studs and plumbing vents.  Moving a plumbing vent is well beyond the scope of this discussion (and this website).  But you may be able to deal with a wall stud.

Before you think about cutting, ripping or otherwise destroying that nasty stud, you should learn a little about load bearing walls. These walls do double duty, acting as structural supports and as room-dividing partitions. Click HERE for a brief primer on the subject!  We'll wait for you to come back.

Plan the installation of your recessed cabinet...

Precisely mark the position of the cabinet. Draw a leveled rectangle on the wall that is about 1/4 inch larger than the cabinet recess in both width and height... there is no advantage in having the fit too tight.

You will need to view the inside of the wall by cutting a small "peep" hole in it. Use a stud finder to determine if there is a stud in the location you want to install the cabinet. If there is, you will have to cut a small hole on each side of the stud to look for obstructions. A 4x4" square or round hole should be plenty big. Make sure you locate the "peep" hole or holes within the marked cabinet location. Do not cut too deeply through the drywall. You don't want to cut wires or plastic pipes that may be inside the wall!

Is there is an immovable obstruction in the wall where you want to recess the cabinet? If there are plumbing pipes or vents, electrical wires, or heating ducts, these may make a recessed installation too expensive, truly impractical, or totally impossible. This is why God invented surface-mounted medicine cabinets!

If there is a stud in the center of your cabinet location, be sure there are no critical attachments to it. Is another wall attached to this stud, or a cabinet or hanging appliance like a microwave oven? These might nix both cutting the stud and recessing the cabinet, or at best cause lots of additional work for you.

If you have gotten this far, and this project is still a go, choose one of the following options:

  1. If your wall is not load bearing, or is load bearing without any wall studs in the way, click HERE!

  2. If your wall is load bearing, click HERE!.


If you have determined your wall is NOT LOAD BEARING...

IMPORTANT: If the wall is load bearing, but you can comfortably locate the cabinet between the existing studs, you're in the RIGHT PLACE!!

Completely cut out the wall opening for the cabinet... Cut out the drywall. I am assuming you have drywall... if you have plaster, you can do the same thing, but you may want to use a reciprocating saw with a nail-cutting blade to make the opening. I have used a drywall saw on plaster (the teeth are hardened), but it is not nearly as easy. The reciprocating saw will raise more dust, however. Now, you are probably looking at an ugly hole with a 2x4 stud in the way!

Make two cuts through the stud, one at the top of the cabinet opening, one near the bottom. The entire cut can be made with a reciprocating saw. Try to cut as squarely as possible. Don't pierce the wall behind and add to your repair job. Once the piece of the stud is free, bend it back and forth to pull any nails or screws through the back of the rear wall. If the wind is at your back, there will be no visible damage to the face of the wall behind. If so, so be it!

Install the nailers for the cabinet.... Most recessed cabinets attach to the wall by screws through the sides from inside the cabinet. So you will have to install nailers on both sides of the opening. Cut two pieces of 2x4 the length of the opening. Put some construction adhesive on both edges of the 2x4's and slide them into the wall between the drywall. Use drywall screws to secure them in place. Once the adhesive dries, they will be totally stable.

All that is left to do is to insert the cabinet, level it as necessary, and screw it into place!

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If you have determined your wall is LOAD BEARING...

IMPORTANT: CLICK HERE TO OPEN A GRAPHIC OF THE WALL DETAIL.

I am going to describe one method of cutting and reinforcing a stud in a load bearing wall. There are other methods of doing this, such as removing the vanity and installing full trimmer studs from floor to the sill, or do this through the back of the wall if there is adequate access.

IMPORTANT: No matter how you finally decide to do this, keep in mind that whenever you tamper with a bearing wall, THERE IS A RISK OF SAGGING. Because this site does not deal with major restorations and construction, you should seek out more information in the hundreds of books available today on home renovation and restoration. It is imperative that you start projects like this with as much knowledge as you can muster, and be prepared for the unexpected.

Draw two parallel lines for cutting the wall opening.

Draw the first line parallel to the upper cabinet line, 6" above it. This will allow space for the installation of the 2x6 header. Draw the second line 2" below the lower cabinet line. This will allow space for the 2x4 sill.

Extend both of these lines to inside edge of the nearest wall studs. Connect these lines vertically and cut out the drywall. If you are careful, you may be able to reuse this piece of drywall after constructing the wall reinforcement.

Make two cuts through the offending stud, one at the top of the opening, one at the bottom. The entire cut can be made with a reciprocating saw. Try to cut as squarely as possible. Don't pierce the wall behind and add to your repair job. Once the piece of the stud is free, bend it back and forth to pull any nails or screws through the back of the rear wall. If the wind is at your back, there will be no visible damage to the face of the wall behind.

You may also begin the cut with a circular saw. A standard 7 1/4" circular saw blade won't fully cut through the stud, of course, but it will start a very straight cut that will be easy to follow with the reciprocating saw.

Be aware that the saw may jam in the cut if the stud is under pressure!  If the blade gets jammed, make a new a cut with the reciprocating saw on a downward angle into the area of the original cut to free the stuck blade.

IMPORTANT: This is a critical cut. If the wall is under a heavy load, or if there is a seam in the top plate of the wall, the ceiling may sag slightly after cutting this stud. If this happens, you may need to jack the wall up slightly to release the pressure. This would be very unusual in a single stud removal, but you should be aware that it could happen. This issue is not addressed as of yet on the web site. If you want this information, you need to obtain a book on this topic fill in the gap. Before you spend $30 or more on a good renovation book, try the local library!

Make your header... Cut two pieces of 2x6 lumber equal to the distance between the exposed upper section of the two end studs. These pieces of 2x6 are assembled into a header by nailing or screwing them together with a piece of 1/2 " plywood between them. This produces a header that is the same thickness as the wall. Of course, if your wall is other than a nominal 2x4 wall (which is 1 1/2" x 3 1/2"), you must adjust the header thickness accordingly.

Install the header in the opening... Position the header level in the opening butted up against the cut stud. Toenail it into both the side studs and the cut stud.

Install the two cleats on the outside studs... Use construction adhesive to glue and then screw or nail the two cleats so that they are level across the top of the lower part of the cut stud. As shown in the graphic, they will be inserted inside the wall. The length of the cleats should be at least 12 inches, but can be as long as can be inserted into the opening. The ideal length would be long enough to reach the sole plate... the bottom board on the wall that is fastened to the floor.

NOTE: Hammering the nails almost all the way through the cleats before inserting them in the wall makes the nailing easier. Ditto for screws.

Measure, cut, and install the 2x4 sill... The sill helps to stabilize the two outside studs and also provides a nailer for the drywall. Glue and nail the sill to the cleats and toenail it into the outside studs.

Install the trimmer studs... Measure and install the trimmer studs between the header and the sill. They should fit tightly, be glued and screwed to the outside studs.

Install the nailers for the cabinet... Cut and install the 2x4 nailers onto the sill and header, toenailing them into place. Make sure they are vertical and spaced to allow at least 1/4 inch of play around the cabinet.

Install the drywall over the opening... If you were able to save the old piece of drywall, insert it into the opening and screw or nail it into place.

Cut the cabinet opening into the drywall... If you did your measurement correctly, and aligned the vertical nailers properly, the lines you made originally for the cabinet cutout should still apply. If you are off a quarter to a half of an inch, don't feel too bad, 'cause everybody does it! You know the old expression, "Close enough for government work!"

Now, if you are inches off, you are entitled to feel silly, cause your cabinet may not be positioned where you want it. Of course, you can always take the drywall down and move the nailers.!

Insert the cabinet into the hole to test for size and position. If it seems to be where you want it (hooray!!), pull the cabinet back out, patch, prime, and paint or wallpaper the walls.

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Jerry Alonzy, the founder of Naturalhandyman.com

Written by Jerry Alonzy

Jerry Alonzy, a.k.a. the Natural Handyman, has been an active handyman for over 30 years with experience in most areas of home repair and renovation.

As a do-it-yourself author and web developer since 1995, he has been featured in USA Today, the Today Show and on radio shows, magazines, newspapers and websites. His material appears widely on the web, but primarily on his website... The Natural Handyman. You can also find him on Google+.