Woodshop Wednesday: Installing Cabinets

It takes courage to install a cabinet. After all, you expect cabinets to carry a whole lot of weight over their lifetime – dishes and drinkware, cookbooks and flour bins – and you DON’T want things falling off the wall. But if you know what you’re doing, proper installation goes pretty fast… we’ve mounted the 26 major cabinets in our kitchen, plus a lot of trim, over merely three days. Here are some common-sense tips to follow.

Essential tools are a tape measure, a pencil, a level, and a drill, plus a stepstool or short stepladder. We’ve pretty much stopped wearing full tool belts to avoid bumping and denting finish surfaces. The abridged set of tools is scant enough to carry in our pockets, or we set things on windowsills until we need them.

Start with wall cabinets. Determine the height you want the top edge, and draw a level line around the room. Then figure out where your wall studs are. A clever way to do this is by looking for electrical boxes, which are almost always mounted to the side of a stud. Transfer the stud locations to the inside of the cabinet, making marks where you intend to place screws. Mounting your cabinet to studs is the single most important thing you can do to ensure it won’t fall down. A screw lodged in a solid piece of wood takes a tremendous amount of effort to pull out; a screw attached only to drywall is far less dependable (even if you use a drywall anchor).

Kitchen wall, pre-drywall. Note the stud-mounted blue electrical box just left of the ladder.

Kitchen wall, pre-drywall. Note the stud-mounted blue electrical box just left of the ladder.

Kitchen wall, post-drywall. The outlet is the same box as above, and tells Terry where the studs are.

Kitchen wall, post-drywall. The outlet is the same box as above, and tells Terry where the studs are.

OK, so you know where to put your screws. Remove doors, shelves, and drawers from the cabinet to lighten it. Then grab a strong friend. Your friend needs to lift the cabinet and hold it steady against the wall while you check its placement, drill a pilot hole through the back into each stud, and then drive a screw into each hole. You only need screws along the top edge of the cabinet. That’s because when you load up the cabinet, the top wants to pull out from the wall (tension) while the bottom wants to push in (compression). The compression isn’t a problem; the cabinet simply bears on the wall and the wall pushes back. Only the tension demands a screw connection.

Once your screws hold the cabinet solidly to the wall, your friend can relax and you can prepare the next cabinet. To hold adjacent pieces snugly together, you can install thru-bolts between the cabinet walls, tightening from both sides to close any gap.

Thru-bolting a wall cabinet to a trim piece.

Thru-bolting a wall cabinet to a trim piece.

Base cabinets work the same way (i.e. mount them to studs!) except they stand on the floor, eliminating the hold-it-in-the-air step. Trim isn’t too complicated either, but it’s really hard to make the finish look good, so I’d entrust that to the experts if I were you.

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