Replacing Kitchen Cabinets in Existing Construction
By Mark Clement
EHT shows how to hang cabinets plumb, level and square in rooms that aren’t.
Installing new kitchen cabinets is a snap, right? Blow out the old ones, pop a few level lines and screw new ones to the wall. Bang. Weekend. Done.
The truth is, that’s wishful thinking. Real kitchens—especially old ones that seem to have been built before the invention of the straight line—take more design skill and organization than it might appear. The good news is that it’s possible, if you take the right steps. So whether you’re managing a contractor or doing it yourself, here’s my approach.
Before we jump into it, however, I have one principle that I consider the key to the kitchen castle: organization.
Even simple kitchens have lots of pieces, parts and procedures—and they all build on one another. Being organized with tools, materials and process frees up my few extra brain cells to focus on the important stuff: Plumb, level and square.
Detailing the Design
All kitchen renovations start with a detailed design, usually in partnership with your cabinet supplier who should talk you through things like egress, moulding, code issues, finishes and the famous work triangle—and more. The cabinets shown in this article have a Butterscotch glaze, which took someone (my wife and remodeling partner) who can see the nuance of color to integrate it seamlessly with other finishes.
All kitchen renovations cause headaches. The older your house, the more you can expect. Few new kitchens replicate originals in old homes. So as true to originality as some want to be, there are certain design realities that should be addressed to even fit a modern, code-compliant kitchen in an old space. In our case, we had to remove and replace a window, shifting what I consider to be a kitchen’s prime focal point—the sink centered under a window.
To get this all started you need detailed measurements of the space for your designer. The basics are room height and width, door locations, window locations, width and thickness of trim (i.e. how far the trim projects from the wall; the difference between a 5/8 thick door/window casing and 1-1/4-inch trim can impact cabinet size, a drawer’s ability to open, etc., especially in tight spaces like galley kitchens).
With this information the designer specs and orders the boxes, mouldings and filler pieces, and together you’ll determine door style, species and finish.
Taking delivery of the cabinets is the first phase of an organized project, and the first bastion around my brain cells. The better I plan for delivery, the more bandwidth I have for concentrating on the stuff that shows forever, the cabinet installation itself.
If you simply take the boxes as they come out of the truck (randomly) you’ll not only not have room for them in your house, you’ll be tripping over yourself looking for specific cabinets. And, since cabinet boxes take up much more room than you may think, a clear path for them in a room or rooms adjacent to the kitchen space is vital. In my opinion, organized storage makes the important work of plumb, level and square 50 percent easier.
I’ve danced this jig before so I commandeer at least one large room, or parts of two if possible, and I work this out with the homeowner beforehand if it’s a contracting project. I then organize the cabinets in the order I need them: Uppers in the front, bases behind that, then trim pieces in back. A garage is an OK second best as long as the cabinets aren’t exposed to humidity for too long.
Framing and Flooring
Framing. For many kitchens, plumb and level starts with framing new walls. Again, the older the house, the more likely this is the best-case scenario for building out the space (plus you can insulate). If you’re framing new walls as we did, take extra care to frame them straight and plumb. For walls like this, I lay out for my top and bottom plates, fasten them, then install the studs individually in line with the existing framing. This could be a whole article by itself. Crown all your studs in the same direction (I crown then into the room), and make sure your corners are as square as possible.
If you do frame the walls or strip the wall cladding—add 2-by-6 (minimum) blocking between the studs along the top and bottom rails of the cabinet locations. This gives you a wide area behind the cabinets to screw into, so you don’t have to search for studs later. This can save hours.
Flooring. I like to install new flooring before the cabinets arrive. The main reason, however, isn’t because it’s easier (which it is) but because it eases the undulations in the lumpy sub-floors. Installing the floor also prevents mistakenly laying out base cabinets from the subfloor then, when the dishwasher arrives, discovering that it doesn’t fit under the counter.
Control Point #1, The Level Line
Once the flooring and wall cladding are in, strike a level line on every wall that gets cabinets. This line does not mark the location of anything; it’s an arbitrary control point from which all other measurements are taken.
Setting my laser level on my 4-foot step ladder gets the tool in a good location—about 51 inches above the floor—to shoot a line between the uppers and bases so I can measure from the line to both sets of cabinets without needing a tripod.
My laser rotates and projects a line around the room. This works but the laser also shoots a dot, which I prefer. I shoot a dot into each corner and mark it with pencil, then snap lines between. I double-check the laser’s line with a spirit level.
In a contest, I trust the liquid in a good level over the laser.
Measuring the Floor’s High Point. With a level line, I can now determine if the floor is level (anyone laughing?). I measure from the line down to the floor every 3 feet or so.
The smallest measurement between the line and the floor is the floor’s high point. The floor’s high point is the control point for the next phase of layout.
Base Units. The standard height of most base cabinets is 34-1/2 inches. From the floor’s high point, I measure up 34-1/2 inches and mark it on the wall. That will be X-inches from the level line struck earlier. I then measure downward X-inches from my level line in each corner of the room, connecting the dots by snapping lines in between. This is the line on which the top rails of the base units are fastened.
Upper Units. 54 inches is the standard location for the bottom rail of most upper cabinets, and I measure this distance up from the floor’s high point. To transfer the mark around the room, I measure between the level line and the 54 inch mark. It will be
X inches above the level line. I then mark each corner of the room X-inches above the level line and snap a line in between. This second line represents the bottoms of the uppers. Note: Countertop thickness may tweak this number because you want about 18 inches between the top of the counter and the bottom of the upper. Standard countertop thickness is 1-1/2 inches, although they can be thicker.
Installing the Uppers
I find it easiest to install the uppers first because there are no base cabinets in the way. Other carpenters install the bases first and then throw a sheet of plywood over the top, using it as a work surface for the uppers. I’m too nervous of scratching the base unit’s doors with a ladder or my belt buckle. The risk/reward isn’t worth it.
Ledger. I screw a straight ledger board to my layout line. Shown is a piece of pine which I actually replaced with the straightest board in my shop—a piece of 1-by-6 Fypon PVC left over from a porch remodel.
Starting Point. Next I decide where to start hanging cabinets. This usually means working my way out of an inside corner (in other words, where a cabinet touches two walls).
Check for Plumb. Getting the first cabinet plumb front to back and left to right is crucial. Once hung, it is the control point for the remaining boxes. If it’s a hair off, that error is amplified through the remaining cabinets. In the short distance of three or four boxes your cabinets can run uphill, or down, by inches. So, with the cabinet secured on the wall I check again for plumb and level. It doesn’t take much imperfection in a wall surface to throw it out, either. Full Western Red Cedar shims are the best wedge to get behind the cabinet and nudge it where it needs to go.
Second Cabinet. The second cabinet is registered off the first one. I lift it into place, then fasten to the wall but I don’t snug the screws because the next step is to flush up and fasten the face frames.
Because the screws aren’t set tight there’s some wiggle room enabling me to get the face frames as flush as possible. Different carpenters work this differently (including removing all the doors and clamping the face frames with face-frame clamps). I typically clamp the carcasses’ top and bottom rails just behind the face frames.
Next, I predrill the face frame edges and then countersink the hole just slightly. A trim-drive screw snugged-up holds the face frames fast. Now the two cabinets are one. Note: If you have help, you can gang an entire run of cabinets on the floor and hang them as one single unit.
I double-check plumb and level and repeat the process until the uppers are done.
Base cabinets require basically the same process, except instead of resting them on a ledger, you register them to your level line on the wall and shim underneath and behind them as needed. Checking them in multiple directions—often—for plumb and level is crucial. Also, check that the face-frames are running straight by laying a 6-foot level on them. If they picked up a curve from the wall, the level will show it. It’s not uncommon to use three levels—at the same time—to check that a cabinet is plumb and level in all directions. And, trust me, sometimes you have to compromise one direction to get the other two in position.
For end units, plumb down from the uppers—especially those that stand alone, such as on the side of a stove or fridge. If the upper and base are offset from each other, you’ll notice.
I also double-check that the appliance will fit at the front of the end-units—especially stand-alones. It’s easy for the cabinet to project off the wall slightly out of square, and the result is that the stove or dishwasher doesn’t fit.
And the point, of course, with a new kitchen is that it does fit, that it looks like it’s always been there, but is also new and gracious and home.
Editor’s Note: Mark Clement is co-host of MyFixitUpLife, a licensed contractor, and author of The Carpenter’s Notebook.