Professionals who install kitchens make the process look simple, partly because they have a lot of experience, but partly because they use special tools and techniques that make things easier.
Pros are concerned with not wasting time or motion. They generally have more tools -- for instance, one drill for predrilling holes, another for driving screws -- or more specialized tools -- like custom-made boxes to support wall cabinets -- than the average do-it-yourselfer needs to install one kitchen.
But some of their "secrets" are worth passing on.
For Baltimore contractor Paul Lidard, predrilling for every screw is essential for a smooth installation process. Mr. Lidard, who, with his wife Nancy, runs Lidco Construction Co., says the temptation, especially if you're using a screw gun, is to simply drive in the screws. But predrilling pilot holes will mean fewer mistakes -- and less chance of damaging the screw or the cabinet.
Mr. Lidard also advocates "working clean" and "working smart." Keep the work area neat; cardboard lying around can be slippery, can hide tools that may have staples or tacks that can mar cabinets or floors. Before you install anything, double-check the floor at your designated high point; after you start will be too late if there's any correction in the level lines you calculated from that point.
Once you're ready to start installation, keep your tools on your person, or very close, he says: "Once the cabinet is up in the air, you don't want to be looking for your tools."
Among Mr. Lidard's recommended tools are a high-quality level, a battery-powered drill (for predrilling) and a variable speed drill with a screw tip (for driving screws -- Mr. Lidard feels the drill offers more control than a screwgun).
If you take the doors off to make the cabinets lighter and easier to install, keep close track of the screws for each hinge. Mr. Lidard doesn't like to take doors off because he thinks it's too easy to lose the screws on a busy job site and because taking them out and putting them in repeatedly may enlarge the hole so they no longer fit. He clamps the stiles at the top and bottom, above and below the door.
Order a backsplash as a separate piece from the counter top, Mr. Lidard suggests. If it's one piece, you won't be able to adjust for any bulges in the wall. If it's separate, the backsplash can be molded slightly to fit obstructions. Then it can be glued in place and caulked at the bottom with clear silicone.
If you've never installed cabinets before, you might want to take a look at a new video from Fine Homebuilding, "Installing Kitchen Cabinets and Countertops with Tom Law." In the 45-minute video and an accompanying booklet of notes, Mr. Law, a Maryland-based carpenter and builder and a contributing editor for the magazine, documents all the stages of installation and offers his tips for professional results.
For instance, he suggests that if a run of cabinets ends against a wall and requires a filler strip, it's easier to install the last cabinet before the next-to-last. If the next-to-last cabinet is a tight fit, he suggests slipping waxed paper between the cabinets to help it slide in without damage. (Afterward he uses a knife to trim the paper flush.)
Mr. Law, who says he often works alone, installs base cabinets first, then uses a set of specially crafted boxes to hold up the wall cabinets, freeing his hands to screw them in. He makes the boxes almost the right height to separate the cabinets and uses shims to adjust the cabinets to the level line.
When it comes to tools, Mr. Law mixes modern and antique technologies. He uses an electronic stud finder to mark stud locations -- and an old-fashioned water level (basically a long piece of clear flexible tubing) to establish level lines at widely separated points.
Forty-five minutes isn't long enough to convey a complete course in cabinet installation, but Mr. Law's methods are practical enough to be helpful and eccentric enough to be interesting.
The cabinet video and other Fine Homebuilding "video workshops" are available from The Taunton Press, 63 S. Main St., Box 5506, Newtown, Conn. 06470-5506.
Next: What to do if there's a wall in the way of your design.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for 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.