Get The First Cabinet Right, And The Rest Is Fairly Easy


December 29, 1990|By Karol V. Menzieand Randy Johnson

Installing kitchen cabinets is hard work, but it's not too hard to get them right -- you just have to get the first one plumb and level. Then it's fairly easy to line up all the others.

But don't expect swift progress. Even the pros take their time, checking and rechecking at each step to make sure the cabinets are lined up correctly. You have to take the same care if you want a professional-looking job. If you haven't installed a kitchen before, you should consider doing so now only if the layout is simple and the materials easy to work with -- a straight-line or L-shaped design with made-to-measure laminated counter tops, for instance.

If you're ready to tackle the job, here are the steps:

*Collect the tools. You'll need: at least one level; a drill; a screw gun or another drill with a screwdriver bit (you could use an ordinary screwdriver, but it would be incredibly tedious); TC countersink bit; wood shims (a bundle of wood shingles works well); 2 1/2 - to 3-inch drywall screws; at least 2 C-clamps with padded jaws; plywood scraps in various thicknesses for larger shims or blocking; and 2-by-4s precut to help support the wall cabinets if you're installing the base first.

*Decide whether you want to start with the base cabinets or the wall cabinets. If you install the wall cabinets first, you won't have to reach over the base cabinets to work. However, you'll probably need a helper to hold the wall cabinets up while you fasten them. In some layouts, wall cabinets can make it hard to get the counter top in place.

If you install the base cabinets first, you can use them to support the wall cabinets (with those 2-by-4 spacers). That may mean you won't need as much help.

*Go along your level lines (the lines at 35 inches and 84 inches that guide cabinet installation) and mark where the studs are. If you framed the wall, you may know just where to look for them. If it's an old wall, use a stud-finder, which is basically a magnet that locates nails.

*Remove all the doors from the cabinets, and take out drawers and any shelves that come out.

*Install the first cabinet.

If you're starting with the base cabinets, the first cabinet should be a corner cabinet (in an L-shaped design) or the cabinet that goes at your previously established high point (if it's a one-wall design).

Set the cabinet in place and shim it at the floor so it is plumb and level and the top is exactly even with your level line. Use the level and keep checking back to front and side to side. Some people then take the cabinet out and screw the shims to the floor. The point is that the cabinet should be supported by the shims, and not by the screws that hold it to the wall.

*Once the cabinet is solidly in place and level and plumb, drill pilot holes in the top back support rails at the studs and install two screws in each stud. (If you framed the wall and used extra blocking at the 35-inch and 84-inch levels, you won't have to worry about finding the studs.)

If the cabinet doesn't touch the wall where the screws will go, shim it. You don't want the screws to force the cabinet against the wall; that could pull it out of square and skew everything you try to install afterward.

*When the first cabinet is in place, align the adjoining one with it and shim it into place so it is on the level line. Check the tops and fronts across both cabinets to make sure they're level.

*Clamp the face frames of the two cabinets together. (Face frames are what the doors close on. On traditional cabinets face frames may be an inch or more wide. On some Eurostyle cabinets the face frame is simply the front edge of the side panel; in that case, clamp the side panels.) Be sure the clamps are padded so they don't mark the cabinet surface. Keep checking level and plumb at every step.

*Once you're sure the cabinets are aligned properly, predrill holes at top and bottom, drill countersinks, and screw the face frames together. (Some face-frame screws can be installed behind the hinges so they don't show.) Shim the back of the cabinet as necessary and screw it to the wall.

*Keep repeating the last three steps until all the base cabinets are in place.

*You may have to install the counter top next, before the wall cabinets are in place. Whenever you install it, start by putting it together, if it's in pieces. Base cabinets generally will have corner blocks at the top with pilot holes. A traditional laminated counter top is installed with screws from the bottom, through the corner blocks. If you do install the counter top before the wall cabinets, cover the counter top with cardboard (salvaged from the boxes the cabinets came in) to protect it.

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