If you’re considering remodeling your kitchen, bathroom, laundry room or any other area in your home that needs cabinets, modular cabinets can be a great time and money saver. Installation is well within the range of most moderately experienced do-it-yourselfers, and all the tools you’ll need are probably already in your arsenal.
Simple projects such as a bathroom or a laundry area may require only one or two cabinets, while a complete kitchen may need 20 or more cabinets along with a variety of accessories.
Either way, rely on the assistance of a designer at the store where you’re purchasing the cabinets to assist you with selecting exactly what you need, as well as completing a scale layout drawing and complete material list.
Prepping for installation
When your cabinets arrive at the job site, begin by sorting them out. Check each one against the layout and the packing list to make sure everything, including all of the accessories — fillers, toe-kick covers, crown moldings, and any other items you ordered with the package — have been delivered. Report any damaged or missing items immediately.
Next, gather all your tools and supplies. For a typical installation, you’ll need a drill or screwdriver; bits; 2-foot and 6-foot levels; clamps; flat-head wood screws in various lengths; a stud finder; step ladder; shims; framing square; and some standard carpentry tools.
Some installers begin with the lower cabinets, some with the uppers. My preference has always been to start with the uppers, working out from the corner on whatever is the longest wall. Locate all of the cabinets that will go on that wall, then check them again against your plan to verify width, height and door swing.
Unpack each of these cabinets, and remove the doors and shelves and set them carefully aside so they don’t get lost or damaged.
Installing the upper cabinets
Using your stud finder, locate and mark the stud centers on the first wall. Measure from the floor to the bottom of where the cabinets will be — typically 54 inches off the floor, but verify this on your plans — and mark this location on the wall. Mark a level line at this point with your 6-foot level, then attach a piece of scrap wood to the wall as a temporary support.
Modular cabinets are made in widths starting at 9 inches and going up to 48 inches or more in 3-inch increments — 9 inches, 12 inches, 15 inches, etc. Odd inches are made up using filler strips of matching material. Let’s say your wall is 109 1/2 inches long. Based on 3-inch increments, your cabinets will make up 108 inches of that wall, so you’ll need a 1 1/2-inch filler for the rest of it.
For best appearance, the filler should be equal at each end of the run, so rip a 3/4-inch filler for each end. Predrill the filler, then countersink your holes. Clamp the filler to the left side of the first cabinet in the run so that the face of the filler is flush with the face of the cabinet, and screw the filler in place.
With a helper, lift the first cabinet into place, resting it on the temporary support you installed earlier. Measure your stud locations, and drill and countersink the cabinet to receive the installation screws. Most modular cabinets have a wood strip at the inside top of the cabinet that’s intended to receive the hanging screws, so drill through that.
Make sure the cabinet is in the correct position, and screw it loosely to the wall. Your installation screws should penetrate at least 1 1/2 inches into the stud. Don’t tighten the screws completely at this time, but make sure the cabinet is snug.
Set the second cabinet in place on the wall, slide it against the first cabinet, and use clamps to secure the face frames together. Make sure the cabinets are exactly in line, and the face frames are flush. Once again, measure and drill the installation holes, and screw the cabinet loosely to the wall.
Now, drill through the cabinet stiles where you’ve clamped the face frames together. Be sure you drill pilot holes and then countersink your holes. Use flathead wood screws to secure the face frames together. Now, snug the cabinets against the wall. Check the face frames with your level, and use shims between the wall and the cabinet backs as needed to ensure the faces of the cabinets remain vertical. Repeat these steps for the remaining upper cabinets.
Install the lower cabinets
The lower cabinets are installed in much the same manner. Begin with a corner cabinet, especially if you have a Lazy Susan. Make sure the corner cabinet is shimmed so that it’s plumb and level in both directions. Next, set the first cabinets in place that are immediately adjacent to the left and right of the corner cabinet.
Clamp and then screw the face frames together. This will give you a long corner assembly to work from in the corner, which will help you align the corner accurately.
From there, work out in each direction to complete the runs. As with the upper cabinets, calculate the overall length of the run, and make up any odd inches with fillers, dividing them up so that they give the best overall appearance.
At the sink, you have two choices. You can carefully measure for each one of the pipes, and drill the necessary holes to accommodate the plumbing. Or you can cut a large, square hole in the back of the cabinet that will accommodate all of the plumbing at once, which makes installation easier; keep the hole symmetrical to the overall size of the cabinet for best appearance.
As you install the lower cabinets, constantly check and adjust them for plumb along the faces and level along the tops by adding shims under and behind the cabinets. Screw the cabinets loosely to the wall studs as you go, and use the screws and the shims to make final adjustments to the run before tightening everything down.
Complete the installation
The last step in the installation is to install any accessory items, such as roll-out drawers, wine racks and the like. Install crown moldings, toe kick covers and other trim, and then remount the doors. Most modular cabinets have hinge systems that adjust in three planes — vertically, diagonally, and in and out — so your very last step will be to carefully adjust all the doors for even alignment and smooth operation.