One big complaint I've heard over the years from subcontractors is that the general contractors are not ready for them when they show up to perform the job. What's the breakdown here? What are the subcontractors to do with their time that was scheduled for the general contractor? This problem causes a huge loss in revenue, stresses business relationships, and is totally preventable.
This article is not only about some tips on installing cabinets, but also a discussion about the importance of performing a kitchen remodel well. Cabinets are the main focal point of any kitchen, but they also affect many other project components—like electrical, plumbing, flooring, drywall, countertops, painting, and most importantly, the tradespeople who perform these tasks. Project management is critical: Schedules, clear communication, and planning ahead are equally as important as envisioning the final look and installing your cabinets.
Project management and scheduling
Once a cabinet layout is secured for a remodel, it's important to identify what other project components they affect. Do plumbing and electrical need to be moved or added? Does drywall need to be opened up? What about flooring? You get the idea.
When I bid on a kitchen project, I go through a list that helps me to identify the scope of the remodel and which of my subcontractors I'll need. It's my job as the general contractor to think ahead and create my layout work before they arrive so that once the project starts, each subcontractor knows what's expected. I maintain a high level of communication with my subs and share the schedule with them because I realize they have schedules to keep as well.
Over the years I have fostered long-term relationships with my subs and have found cooperative effort essential to keeping my projects' quality high and on track.
The point is, cabinet layout will affect other aspects of a project, and it's critical that everything comes together in the proper location at the proper time. There's nothing worse than removing a bunch of installed work because the ball was dropped somewhere along the line.
Cabinet installation tips
Tip 1: Listen to the room
Rarely are walls plumb and floors level, and rarely are they in a straight plane. Houses settle and framing members bow, so always anticipate the humps and dips that will affect installation. First, the cabinets are always set from the high spot on the floor and high spots on the walls. A laser level provides a great reference line throughout the room; use one to find the high spot in the floor, as you will set the cabinets level from this spot. From that height, draw a level line on the walls around the kitchen that marks the top of the bottom cabinets, and a parallel line that marks where you want the bottom of the upper cabinets.
Now check the walls for plumb and verify if they are leaning in or out, especially at the corners. You must realize that the innermost point to the room is where the cabinets will be set from because if you have a refrigerator panel or stove and hood cabinet ends, the upper and lower cabinets need to perfectly line up with each other at these locations.
Measure from the innermost point of the wall from the corners to these locations and draw your vertical plumb lines. Also, take a 6-foot level as a straight edge and check the wall plane for humps and mark these. If you have a significant hump in the wall in the middle of a run, you may have to shim the cabinets down the run on either side of that hump.
Taking the time to lay out and understand what the room is telling you is all about solutions and solving problems before they ever occur. Take the time—it's well worth it!
Tip 2: Think in planes
Keeping in mind all the horizontal lines in a kitchen is important because they need to be parallel. If not, you'll be able to see the difference. If the cabinets go all the way to the ceiling, there will be a crown mould that should be parallel to the upper doors. If a backsplash is tiled, the horizontal grout lines should be parallel, etc. Being a little off can be made up, but being a lot off will be picked up by someone's eye.
I install a lot of cabinets in historic homes, and sometimes see the floors out of level two inches or more in as little as 12 feet! This means that all the existing trim and windows could also slope with the house, and so I have learned how important it is to visualize the install in planes. This helps me see where I can make compromises with the installation to help minimize anything significantly off that may be seen by the eye.
Tip 3: To set uppers or lowers first?
As a rule of thumb, I set uppers first—but not always. If there's a time crunch for the countertop template or if there are upper cabinets that get set on the finished countertop like an appliance garage, install the lower cabinets first. It can be done either way, but it's easier to set the uppers without the base cabinets in place. (It's not always practical if it's really crowded with boxes in the room or if scheduling the countertop install is tight.)
Tip 4: Setting the first cabinet
Always set corner cabinets first! Work out to the plumb reference lines drawn on the wall at layout located at the refer panels or stove/hood cabinets. The uppers and lowers at these locations must be perfectly in line with each other, especially if there is a floor-to-ceiling bulkhead.
Tip 5: Upper cabinet install
Use a temporary ledger on the wall at the bottom of the uppers to make it easier to set the cabinets. The cabinets can be attached together on the floor as one unit, or they can be attached together one-by-one on the wall. Either way works fine, but however you set them, they need to be straight on the face. So always keep in mind any humps or dips on the wall that you may need to contend with (using shims or by loosening the screws).
Tip 6: Lower cabinet install
Set the cabinets from the corners out to the plumb reference lines. Shim the bottoms, toe kicks, and back uppers to keep them set straight on the face and level out from the wall. There are levelers or different types of shims that can be employed for setting bottom cabinets.
Tip 7: Securing your cabinets
To secure cabinets together, first, remove doors and drawers. I like to use a good countersink and high-strength cabinet screw on the face frames. Just simply clamp together and install the screws. To secure the cabinets to the wall, a good 3-inch high strength screw works great. Lastly, I like to go through and fine-tune the cabinets by checking everything for plumb, square, lining up, appliance fit, door adjustments, etc.
Everyone I know seems to have a different approach to setting cabinets and project management, which isn't a bad thing. Sharing a little of what I've learned in my 30-plus year career may in some small way also help you!