Plumb, level, straight and square. Those are the most important words in cabinet installation.
A "plumb" wall is straight up and down. That is, if you put a level on the wall, the horizontal bubble should be exactly between the lines.
"Level" applies to horizontal lines. For instance, when a level is placed on the floor, the floor is level if the horizontal bubble is right between the lines. (Turning the level from vertical to horizontal brings a different bubble window into the horizontal. It's not hard to figure out, with a little practice, but installing kitchen cabinets should probably not be the first test of your skill.)
"Square" means that two surfaces meet at a 90-degree angle. If a corner is square, the angle between the walls will be 90 degrees. To check, use a carpenter's square or the old 6-8-10 method -- measure down one wall 6 feet, down the adjoining wall 8 feet, and the distance between the end points should be 10 feet. (It also works in 3-4-5 feet.)
"Straight" means lacking bulges, gaps, high and low points. To check, use a long piece of wood or metal that you know is straight.
The trouble with old houses is that they are rarely plumb, level, square or straight. Floors may slope enough to propel round objects and walls may have settled inches out of plumb. That's why a major old-house kitchen renovation is likely to involve a lot of wall framing. Floors don't have to be perfectly level -- and they're not likely to be. Imperfections can be accommodated, you just have to know where the high and low spots are so you can adjust for them. Walls are also likely to have bulges and dips; those too can be accommodated, if they're not too pronounced.
In new construction, there may be less of a problem, because builders work up from a level platform. However, we're pretty sure that by 2090, any 1990 house still standing will have settled and bowed and will need a lot of framing to even it back up.
Kitchen framing requires the straightest wood -- that is, dry wood that hasn't been stored outside in the open. Genuine kiln-dried wood may be OK even when it's wet, but the genuine article can be hard to find. If you're concerned about the quality of the wood, don't buy more than you can use in a short period of time -- say, a week at the most.
When you know roughly where cabinets and appliances are going to go, you may want to add "nailers," or extra framing blocks, in places that must support a heavy cabinet, like a pantry unit, or cabinets that will carry a heavy load, like a microwave cabinet.
Or, you may want to add a line of blocking behind all the base cabinet locations at 35 inches and behind all the wall cabinet locations at 84 inches to guarantee there's something solid to drill into when the cabinets are installed.
Figuring out exactly where the cabinets will go requires doing a lot of measuring and drawing a lot of lines. The more care you take at this stage, the easier it will be to get the cabinets in.
Use a level on top of a straight edge to find the highest point of the floor. Start at the wall. When you think you've found the high point, check with the level perpendicular to that spot to see if the floor slopes toward the center or toward the wall. If, for instance, it's higher a foot out, you'll have to adjust the high point accordingly. It takes a lot of measuring to find the true high point. Standard cabinets are about 2 feet deep; check your measurements at several distances away from the walls.
Start at the highest point and measure up 35 inches for the height of the base cabinets. (Check your cabinets specs before you start. Standard cabinets are 35 inches, but if yours are different, you'll have to adjust measurements accordingly.) Then measure from the high point on the floor up 84 inches, to establish the top of the wall cabinets. You may want to hang wall cabinets higher; just be sure the measurement is consistent.
Start at the 35-inch mark and draw a level line all around the cabinet walls. Keep checking to make sure it's level and that it's at least 35 inches above the floor. If you run into a problem, it's probably because you used the wrong high point. Go back to the level and the straight edge.
Then go to the 84-inch mark (or whatever you're using) and draw a level line around the walls. Again, keep checking to make sure it's level and to make sure it's at least 84 inches.
The more lines you draw, the easier it will be to determine whether the cabinets are right. Since these are large, heavy objects, you don't want to spend a lot of time hauling them around. Level lines at the bottom of the wall cabinet locations can be a big help; so can vertical lines defining exactly where each cabinet sits. Use your plans, and keep checking to make sure your lines are level and plumb.
Next: Fastening the cabinets.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.