A cabinet installation can be a big job, but for all except the most involved projects, it’s nothing that any reasonably handy person needs to fear. There are just a few pitfalls and gotchas to watch for. With a little forethought and a few specialized tools and supplies, there’s no reason to expect anything but a smooth successful experience. Here’s a quick checklist of some of the most important considerations.
“Planning” is without a doubt the single most important word in a cabinet installer’s vocabulary. For the best chance at success, you’ll need to have an adequate plan for everything from plumbing rough-ins to under-cabinet lighting. In fact, before you start screwing the cabinets in place, it’s a good idea to know the installation space on an intimate level. Get out a tape measure, level and angle finder and spend some time mapping out the location of humps and sags in the floor and walls, the direction and degree of any slope in the floor or the tip in the walls and irregularities in the angles where walls meet.
The general rule of thumb is this: cabinets are straight; rooms are – by and large – somewhat crooked. The cabinet installer’s job is to find the best possible compromise between these two incompatible conditions. With an adequate understanding of the installation space, you’ll avoid unpleasant surprises and know ahead of time where to shim – and possibly even where to fudge a little on plumb and level – to make the best possible resolution of conflicts between the shape of the cabinets and the shape of the room.
With a thorough plan in hand, layout lines and stud locations marked off, and all of the measurements double checked, all that’s left is the actual work. Where should you begin? There are many strategies that could work well. In general, it makes the most sense to start a run of cabinets at one end, and work your way to the other. Runs that terminate in a corner of the room should almost always be started in the corner. If both upper and lower cabinets are involved, most installers would suggest starting with the uppers. That way, you won’t have to lean in over the deeper lower cabinets while you install the uppers, and you won’t run the risk of damaging the lowers in the process.
To get started, you’ll need some way of holding the cabinets in place while you level them and screw them down. Unless you have a crew at your disposal – or a couple of very willing and fairly strong friends – you’ll need a mechanical means of support. The T-Jak Support System is made for the purpose, and has a number of advantages over the typical quick and dirty shop-built cabinet jack. A quick release height adjustment mechanism makes it easy to get the support plate near the correct height, and the fine tuning height adjustment knob makes it just a simple to get your cabinets positioned exactly on the line. The T-Jak Support System also has a sturdy, stable upper and lower support plate, both of which are pre-drilled with screw holes in case you want to add your own larger or “custom” support.
The fastening process itself is fairly straightforward. You’ll need to attach the cabinets securely to the wall studs and to each other. If you’re working by yourself or with minimal help, a sensible approach is to begin by getting one cabinet shimmed, lined up as well as possible and screwed to the wall (remembering that mistakes in the position of the first cabinet tend to multiply as you add more cabinets to the run). Then move the second cabinet into position and attach it to first cabinet, before firmly attaching it to the wall. Doing things this way makes it easier to get the highly visible joint between cabinets to come out tight and accurately aligned.
Getting the cabinets attached to one another correctly, unfortunately, turns out to be one of the more demanding tasks in the installation process. To get a good joint, it is absolutely necessary to clamp the cabinets together in exactly the right position before driving in the screws. Doing so can be something of a challenge. For face frame cabinets, a set of Cabinet Claw Clamps is hands-down the best helper. These specially designed clamps hook around the back of the face frame and apply pressure both to the sides of the frames to hold them together, and to the front to bring the surfaces flush. They’re easy to operate with one hand and have the added feature of a drill guide for accurately centered pilot hole drilling.
If you’re planning to install only a few cabinets, and a set of dedicated cabinet clamps seems like an extravagance, hand screw clamps are the next best thing. This woodshop standard has a million uses, and works better for cabinet installation than other types of clamp – it’s also an excellent choice for frameless cabinets. The large wooden clamping jaws are easy on the cabinet surface while still applying enough pressure hold the edges tightly together. They’re also comparatively easy to operate with one hand.
For attaching solid wood face frames to one another, a standard countersunk wood screw is perfectly acceptable. Using a Lube Finished Screw with square or square / X drive will save on fatigue and make it easier to get the screws snugged down tight. If you don’t already own one, you’ll need a countersink as well. This is another common tool – one that you’ll use time and again on other projects, so consider picking up a good one. A Rockler tapered countersink will save you the trouble of drilling separate pilot and clearance hole, and is designed to produce the cleanest possible hole edges.
For attaching frameless cabinets to one another, and for attaching cabinets to a wall, standard wood screws may not be your best bet. Today – unless you’ve built the cabinets yourself – you’ll be relying, almost certainly, on a piece of particleboard or MDF to hold your heavy cabinets and all their contents to the wall, and for frameless cabinets, to hold one cabinet to the next. These man-made materials have many fine properties – unfortunately, standing up well to the stress produced by the head of a typical countersunk screw is not among them. In fact, it is surprisingly easy to inadvertently drive a typical wood screw well past the surface of these materials, leaving an ugly, ragged hole and a seriously compromised attachment point in your wake.
The large, flat head of a Powerhead screw distributes force much more sensibly for these types of materials, all but eliminating the chance of a pull-through. As an added feature, they have cutting nibs on the underside of their heads. When the screws are driven with an impact driver, the nibs cut away enough material to sink the screw flush with the surface of the material. The head can then be covered with a 9/16” self-stick screw cap made of either white melamine or wood veneer for a clean, finished look. For an even more refined look, the Custom Screw Cap Punch Kit lets you make screw caps out of any material you desire. The handy stopped counter sink bit that comes with the kit pre-drills a counter bore that puts the cap exactly flush with the surface of the material for practically undetectable cabinet fastening.
Of course, getting the cabinets set isn’t the entire battle. You’ll still have work to do installing trim and toe kick, choosing and installing knobs and pulls, installing lighting and so forth. But with a tight, clean installation to work from, and the bulk of the work behind you, the finishing touches will feel like a breeze.