How to Install Kitchen Cabinets
Time Required: Over 1 day
Learning how to install kitchen cabinets might seem like a big task, but with some common tools and general do-it-yourself know-how, you won’t need to hire a pro to do the work. Calm any fear of the job by thinking of it as simply attaching some boxes next to each other along your wall and floor.
This guide will outline the tools and supplies needed to install kitchen cabinets, the preparations necessary to begin your installation and the steps to lay out your work to help ensure a smooth DIY project. If the kitchen makeover includes a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling and walls, consider doing that before starting cabinet installation. You’ll save quite a bit of time and effort by not having to mask off your new cabinets to avoid paint splatter.
Tip: Any DIY kitchen cabinet install will go more quickly and smoothly if you enlist a helper and review all the steps of the job before you begin.
If your new cabinets are pre-assembled, inspect them as soon as they arrive and check each piece against your order. Open the packaging for the assembled kitchen cabinets to ensure you have all of the pieces – cabinet boxes, shelves, doors and drawer fronts – and check for damage from shipping. Be sure any extra trim and filler strips that you ordered were included in the delivery.
There are many varieties of ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets. If the cabinets you purchased need to be assembled, now is the time to do that, but don’t attach the cabinet hardware, doors or drawer fronts yet.
The first step in how to install kitchen cabinets is finding the highest point on the floor. This is a critical step, because every part of your DIY cabinet installation relies on the reference point you make. Take your time and get it right.
Kitchen floors, especially those in older homes, are often not perfectly level and flat. Assume your floor also has a high point and locate it. Shimming up a cabinet to make it level and plumb is much easier than cutting the bottom to make it fit square and flush.
To find the high spot of the floor:
- Lay a straight 8-foot-long, 2- x 4-inch board on the floor against the wall and place a carpenter’s level on top of it.
- Shim the low end until you get a level reading. Place a mark on the floor to indicate the high end.
- Repeat the above process 24 inches out from the wall as well, running the straight edge / level parallel to the wall where the front of the cabinets will sit.
- Compare the high point on the front of the cabinets with the back, along the wall. Use whichever point is higher as your reference mark.
Start with marking off the measurements for the base kitchen cabinets in your installation.
- Beginning from the mark indicating the high point of the floor, measure up exactly 34-1/2-inches (the standard height of base kitchen cabinets) and mark the wall.
- Make a level line at this point on the wall and extend it everywhere in the room that the base cabinets will go.
- Dry fit the base cabinet boxes by arranging them, corner piece first, flush against each other according to your kitchen design.
- Measure, mark and label the location of each cabinet box on the wall. When making measurements and outlines on the wall, keep in mind that the cabinet face frames on the cabinet front extend past the cabinet box on either side so that when the cabinet face frames come together, they will yield a space at the back of the cabinets. Be sure to maintain that space when marking locations on the wall.
- Check measurements for dishwasher, sink and stove openings and also check that the cabinet doors, if pre-installed, open in the proper direction.
Tip: Cabinet boxes are much easier to install when drawers and doors are removed. Use painter’s tape to label shelves, doors and drawers with their corresponding cabinet. Move them out of your work area. The manufacturer's instructions will show you precisely how to hang cabinet doors once the boxes are installed, but you must match the doors to the correct box.
- Draw a level line 19 1/2 inches above the top line of the base cabinets that you drew in the last step. The 19 1/2-inch measurement allows a 1 1/2-inch-thick countertop plus 18 inches for a code-defined distance between the cabinets and countertops.
- Mark and label the position of all of the upper cabinets on the wall with a pencil and level to double-check your layout.
- Plan to install wall kitchen cabinets first. That way, the base cabinets won’t be in your way while you’re installing the upper cabinets.
Use a stud finder to locate the wall studs. You’ll want to screw the cabinets into them for secure installation.
- Mark the center of the studs with a pencil.
- Extend the lines up and down the wall with a carpenter's level, making sure you keep the lines plumb.
- Transfer the stud location marks to the back of the cabinets and drill a small pilot hole at the top and bottom of each cabinet. This will make it easier to attach to the stud.
Tip: if you’ve painted the walls and don’t want to mark them up with pencil marks, place painters tape at each stud location and make the centerline mark on it.
Along with the right tools to install cabinets, it is important to select the right hardware for your wall type.
Installation on the Wall Stud:
Mounting to a wall stud is usually the preferred installation. Use 3-inch #10 screws to mount to the wall studs. Several manufacturers offer special washer-head screws made specifically for this purpose. They are the best option here as they have a washer built into the head.
Use toggle bolts when mounting to drywall, but only when the cabinet cannot be attached to a wall stud. Toggle bolts require pre-drilled holes. Cabinets must also be secured to an adjacent cabinet.
An alternative option would be to cut away a a 6- to 8-inch band of drywall / plaster behind where the cabinets will fasten to the wall (below the line representing the top of the base cabinet, above the line representing the bottom of the upper cabinet and below the line representing the top of the upper cabinet). Install 2x6 blocking between the studs, then cover the area where you removed the wall finish with plywood so that it is flush with the face of the drywall/plaster.
When beginning a DIY kitchen cabinet install, always start in a corner where two runs of assembled kitchen cabinets will come together.
- Remove cabinet doors and set aside.
- Transfer the stud locations to the cabinet and start a screw in the installation rail(s) of the cabinet.
- Place the corner cabinet into position on the wall stud marking.
- Use a level to be sure that the cabinet is straight. If needed, insert a shim to make it level and flat to the wall.
- Mount the cabinet to the wall with hardware appropriate for your wall type.
- Once the corner cabinets are installed, work outward at either side for the remaining cabinets.
- Once the first cabinet is secure, use two or three C-clamps and attach the next cabinet to the first.
- Adjust and re-clamp the second cabinet until it is level and flush with the first one. Insert shim as needed.
- Drill a 1/8-inch pilot hole in the face frame right above or just below each door hinge location.
- Attach the second cabinet to the first cabinet using a 2 1/2-inch, #8 screw.
- Countersink the screw for an even appearance.
Tip: Never attach cabinets through the side panels. Cabinets must always attach together at the face frame.
Do not completely tighten mounting screws until all cabinets have been attached together.
- Drill a 3/16-inch pilot hole at the stud locations through the back panel and into the stud.
- Level and mount the cabinet to the wall with a 3-inch #10 screw. Insert a shim if needed to level.
- After all cabinets have been attached together, tighten all the mounting screws. Seat the mounting screws tightly against the back, but don’t drive the screw head into the surface.
- Check to be sure that all cabinets remain level after tightening.
After you install all of your cabinets and replace the doors, your DIY kitchen cabinet install is nearly complete. It may be necessary to adjust the drawer fronts, so they are all level.
- Loosen the screws holding the drawer glides to the frame of the cabinet and adjust the drawer vertically to align, then tighten the screws.
- Drill a 1/8-inch pilot hole through the second hole below the drawer glide and drive a 5/8-inch #8 screw to secure the drawer.
- Examine the cabinet drawers and doors from the front to check alignment.
These instructions are based on common cabinet installation methods. Read the manufacturer's directions on any cabinet installation project and use the recommended installation method for that product. This may include hardware or methods in addition to what is outlined here. The tools to install kitchen cabinets are fairly common for any DIY household. However, you can rent anything you might be missing.
If you are still considering new kitchen cabinets vs. refinishing old cabinets, know that cabinet refacing products are available for all kitchen cabinet styles, including kitchen islands, custom kitchen cabinets or ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinets. If tackling kitchen cabinets as a DIY project seems overwhelming, use our cabinet installation services and get professional help.