how to install kitchen cabinets

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets (and Make Them Too)

Do you want to learn how to install kitchen cabinets without hiring a professional to do it for you? Perfect – this guide is for you!

I know, the idea of installing kitchen cabinets might seem intimidating at first, but the techniques are actually quite simple. Believe it or not, the whole job should take you less than a day to complete.

A quick disclaimer before we get started: as with all of my how-to guides, this one is extremely comprehensive and detailed, so bookmark it for later if you won’t be able to read it all in one sitting.

Let’s get to it…

Here’s how to install kitchen cabinets (and make them too).

Tools Needed

1 – Wood
2 – Hammer
3 – Miter saw
4 – Screws
5 – Painter’s tape
6 – Wheel drill
7 – Cabinet jack
8 – Cabinet clamp
9 – Grinder wheel
10 – Safety goggles
11 – Safety mask
12 – Belt sander
13 – Cordless drill
14 – Measuring tape

Missing anything? Go get it on Amazon or at your local hardware store, and then move on to the first step.

1 – Preparing for Cabinet Installation

The first thing you need to do is have a design plan. It’s crucial to know how you want the cabinets to look and be arranged in your kitchen.

There are a variety of things to consider when planning and preparing for a kitchen cabinet installation job. Just a few of the ones you’ll definitely want to consider are: i) the type of wood you want to use, ii) what the proper measurements are, and iii) the overall purpose of the cabinets.

Here are some time-tested tips to help you plan everything out.

A – Identify the Purpose of the Cabinets

Before you even think about design, layout, or aesthetics: think about functionality.

What do you plan on using your kitchen cabinets for? Do you need them to be deep to hold a lot of bulky cooking equipment? Maybe you want to use them instead of a pantry for your cereals and similar food items. Do you need space for your cookbooks or do you have a bookshelf for them? You’ll want to have drawers for your utensils, but how many?

Knowing the answers to these questions (before skipping ahead to thinking about how they’ll look) will save you a lot of time and hassle in the long run.

Identifying the purpose of each cabinet you want to have in your kitchen ahead of time enables you to plan and construct a design concept. Likewise, it helps you get a better idea of what the measurements will be since you’ll know how many cabinets you’ll need and want as well.

After you’ve done this initial planning, it’s time to start measuring your space.

B – Identify and Measure your Space

measure your space for cabinet installation

Figure out how much space you have in your kitchen and how much of it you want to cover with cabinets.

Worth noting, the average cabinet has a height of 34 1/2 inches or 36 inches and a width of 30 inches or 36 inches (depending on whether it’s a base cabinet or wall cabinet).

To begin, measure out the available space you have in your kitchen. Based on those measurements, determine:

  • How many cabinets you can fit
  • How many cabinets you want to install
  • Where you want each cabinet to go

Next, take a ruler and pencil and start marking up your walls. Carefully draw out where each cabinet will go. Make sure to take note of where your electrical and plumbing spots are situated and to properly place your cabinets around them.

This wall design will serve as your blueprint for installation and will never be seen once the cabinets are attached to your walls.

Without these measurements and calculations, you run the risk of having extra or not enough materials to properly complete the installation.

Precise measurements and this penciled wall blueprint can be the difference between staying within your budget and overspending.

C – Identify the Type of Wood You Want to Use

Now that you’ve taken your measurements and have a design plan, you need to identify the type of wood you would like for your cabinets. Some of the factors to consider when choosing the wood include its grain, softness, hardness, color, style, and the availability of that type of wood in your area.

i. Hardwood or Softwood?

Hardwood is known for being easy to clean and maintain. It also has a variety of colors to choose from ranging from darks to lights. Hardwood tends be stronger and more durable than softwood, so choosing oak, for example, will ensure that they last the test of time.

Aside from oak, my favorite hardwood options are maple and hickory since they offer a beautiful and long-lasting cabinet that you’ll definitely be proud of. Hardwood is a great option, but it is more expensive than softwood. If you’re on a tight budget but still want to install some new cabinets that look great too, consider softwood options.

Softwood is a pretty versatile option since it is easy to cut and work with. Another advantage of choosing softwood is that it is readily available compared to hardwood.

My favorite softwood options for kitchen cabinets are cedar, spruce, and pine. They’re smooth with little grain indentations, easy to cut, and almost always cheaper than hardwood.

ii. Check Availability of Wood in Your Area

After selecting your type of wood, you need to determine whether you want to DIY the cabinets or purchase them.

If you choose to purchase them instead of make them, the process is even easier. You can find beautiful cabinets online or at your local hardware store perfectly in line with the measurements you took. All you need to do is order them.

If you’re buying your kitchen cabinets and won’t be making them yourself, skip to step 5.

However, if you’re the real DIY enthusiast I think you are, and you want to make the cabinets instead of spending a ton of money on them, don’t skip a single step. Keep reading.

2 – Building the Cabinet Carcass

Make sure to head over to your local hardware store and purchase wood directly from them. You can also go online to find wood, but I’ve always found it better to see and touch it before buying it.

Before you make your purchase, be sure to take into consideration the required size and shape of the wood you’ll need.

Standard Cabinet Dimensions

Before buying and cutting the wood to build your cabinet carcasses, you need to know what measurements to work off of.

Cabinet measurements are pretty standardized these days, so don’t deviate from them too much unless you really know what you’re doing and are going for a totally custom look.

Image Credit

Base cabinets should have a height of 34.5 inches, a width of 36 inches, and a depth of 24 inches. For each base cabinet, you’ll need two 34.5 x 24 pieces of wood for the sides, two 24 x 36 pieces of wood for the top and bottom, and two 34.5 x 36 piece for the front and back. The front piece will be cut down the middle and made into two doors.

wall cabinet measurements
Image Credit

Wall cabinets should have a height of 36 inches, a width of 30 inches, and a depth of 12 inches. For each wall cabinet, you’ll need two 36 x 12 pieces of wood for the sides, two 12 x 30 pieces of wood for the top and bottom, and two 36 x 30 piece for the front and back. The front piece will be cut down the middle and shaped into two doors. Also, for installation of a finished wall cabinet, place it 20-24 inches above your countertop.

Now that you have your measurements, go ahead and pick up the right size wood for the job.

Basics of Cabinet Carcass Building

Now it’s time to start cutting and building your cabinet carcasses.

Make sure to take into account the wall blueprint you made in pencil earlier on and be extra careful to construct carcasses that fit these measurements perfectly.

A – Cutting the Side Panels

Using the recorded measurements during the planning phase of the project, cut out the side pieces of the cabinet. The sides will not be visible to others, and you can use plywood for them.

Clamp two side panels together to add a toe kick and then use a jigsaw to cut a 3 x 5.5 inch notch into the corner of the panel. The resulting part is the bottom front corner of the cabinet.

B – Cutting the Bottom Panel

The bottom panel should measure 24 inches deep, but the width and height could change depending on the measurements of your kitchen. However, unless your a seasoned pro, just cut the bottom panel to the standard dimensions I noted earlier.

C – Cutting the Top Bracers

For this step, you’ll need to cut two pieces of the base panel every 1 x 6 inches and with the same width as the bottom panel. The top bracers will be used to cover the upper portion of the side panels. Before cutting the top bracer, it’s important to confirm the measurements from your cabinet’s template plan. The top bracers should also be visually appealing because they will be somewhat visible to people in the kitchen.

D – Cutting the Face Panels

Cut your face panels according to the standard measurements. The face panels will be the part people will actually see, so it is best to use solid wood that is visually appealing. Different sizes of solid wood can be used, including 1x2s, 1x3s, or even 1x4s.

E – Putting the Base Together

Now you need to line up the face of the base panel with the edge of the bottom panels. Then, line up the second base panel 3 inches from the other base panel to form a toe kick. Glue the pieces together, drill holes, and stick the pieces together using butt joints or screws.

F – Attaching the Side Panels

Now, take the base you just made and attach your side panels using screws, glue, or butt joints – your preference. Before attaching the side panels, align the bottom to ensure the toe kick notches match up with the edges. I cannot stress this enough: use a level and clamps to ensure a proper 90 degree angle when attaching the side panels to the base.

G – Attaching the Top and Bottom Braces

Take the top brace and secure it on top of the upper of the cabinet and ensure the flat face is flush with the edge of the cabinet carcass. Now, secure the bottom brace to the base.

H – Attaching the Back Panel

Clamp and cut some plywood based on the outside frame of the cabinet to form a back panel. After cutting the plywood, screw it into place to cover the back of the cabinet. Reinforce all parts of the cabinet using screws and corner brackets to make it more stable.

At this point, you should successfully have built your first cabinet carcass! Keep it up and repeat the process for all of the other cabinets you want to make.

Again, if you purchased cabinets already and aren’t interested in DIYing them, skip to step 5.

I – Inserting the Shelves

Now we need to put in the shelves. Measure the space for the shelves and mark shelf installation points with a pencil. Use a laser level to ensure that the marked locations are level. Cut pieces of wood to be used for your shelves. Then, install corner brackets for each of the shelves to rest on and slide the shelves in and secure them using glue and screws. It’s that simple.

J – Assembling and Installing the Face Panels

how to install kitchen cabinets

By using mitered joints, this step involves assembling face panels the same way a picture frame is constructed. Use mortise to secure the pieces together, and once they are attached, use glue to stick them together. Then, screw each unit into its place.

No doubt, building the cabinet carcasses is the toughest part of the entire process, and you don’t even have to DIY it if it seems overly complicated. If need be, go ahead and buy them. (I won’t tell anyone!)

3 – Kitchen Cabinet Fit Test

A fit test is basically a small evaluation and measurement of the built cabinet carcass and comparing it to the wall template measurements you made in pencil beforehand. The fit test also helps you better evaluate if you’d like to add another cabinet in case you end up with some extra wall space.

More importantly, fit testing is absolutely necessary because it allows you to see if you messed up along the way. If you made an error during the building of the cabinet carcass, you’ll know it when you try to fit it along your wall. This gives you the opportunity to fix the mistake.

4 – Painting the Cabinet Carcass

Now that you have your cabinet carcasses and know they passed the fit test, it’s time to paint them. Sometimes a coat of paint is all you need to improve the look of your cabinet.

With hundreds of colors to choose from, you can definitely second guess yourself. Some of the best colors suggested by interior designers for kitchen cabinets include a combination of white and dark grey with a matte finish – assuming your kitchen has a lot of natural light. If your kitchen does not have a lot of natural light, then crisp white is a good option as it is clean and reflects bulb light to brighten the kitchen space.

If you prefer to make a statement with your cabinets, go for a vibrant blue. It tends to create a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere when done correctly.

When you’re ready to paint, it’s best to use a small paint brush or roller to paint the cabinets. Truthfully, you could even get away with spray painting them, which is even faster and has great results.

Start the process by scrubbing your cabinet with a belt sander to get rid of any form of dirt on the cabinet. After, apply enough coats of paint to the cabinets until your are satisfied with their appearance.

Of all of the things to pinch pennies with, paint is not one of them. The last thing you want is for your paint to wear off and look awful after only a few months. Splurge for a high-quality paint that you know will be durable.

5 – Hanging Your Cabinets

kitchen cabinet install

Here we are! We either arrived here because we finished making our cabinets or because we bought them.

Remember, the bulk of the work has already been done when you marked up your walls. Now all you need to do is securely install each cabinet in the right place – almost like puzzle pieces (okay, massive and heavy puzzle pieces, but still).

Among the other tools used so far, you’ll need a cabinet jack and clamp to hang your cabinets.

A – Screwing the Ledger Board

Got your trusty cabinet jack and clamp? Good. Now we need to install the ledger board. A ledge board is a thick piece of wood about 3 inches wide that we screw to the wall to support the weight of the cabinet during and after our installation.

As with all of this stuff, make sure the ledger board is level. You don’t want to install an uneven cabinet. The ledger board should be fit just below the bottom end of the point marked for the installation of the cabinet. Use a hand-held drill to screw the ledger board to the wall, and move on to part B.

B – Hanging Your Wall Cabinets

Always start with your wall cabinets! Installing them first gives you ample space to move around, and you won’t have the base cabinets in your way if you start with the wall cabinets. It’s a rookie mistake to do it any other way.

That said, position the cabinets on the floor directly lining up with their point of installation. Now, take your cabinet jack and begin by hanging your wall cabinets with it.

Identify points where you’ll attach screws, and use a hand-held drill to pre-drill screwing holes. After pre-drilling, screw the cabinet to the wall. After the cabinet is screwed to the wall, check for gaps and spaces between the cabinet and the wall and use filler caulk or other adhesive to close any gaps or holes. Doing this helps prevent unwanted pests like rodents from finding their way into your home.

After you’ve securely hung and installed your wall cabinets, remove the ledger board, and fill the screw holes with filler caulk.

C – Installing Your Base Cabinets

The installation of the base cabinets is the same as installing the wall cabinets. Put your ledger board right below the bottom mark of the cabinet measurements. Then, screw in your ledger board. Position your base cabinets and use your cabinet jack to raise the cabinet as needed

After that, use a hand-held drill to screw the cabinet to the wall while spacing the screws at 3 inches apart to make it stable. Base cabinets tend to be used to store heavier items, so it’s crucial for you to ensure that they’re firm against the wall.

After installation, check for spaces between the cabinet and the wall and use your preferred filler adhesive to fill the gaps. If your cabinets have unnecessary overhangs, your can use a hand-held wheel drill to trim any excess material gently.

Wrapping Up

There you have it from start to finish! Now you know how to install kitchen cabinets and even how to make them yourself if you choose to.

Good luck out there!

If you’re serious about installing kitchen cabinets, check out my post: Must-Have Tools of the Trade for Home Improvement DIYers.

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