How to Install Kitchen Cabinets

Why pay to have it done? Here you'll learn how to install kitchen cabinets the way the pros do!

You'll find everything you need to know right here for DIY kitchen cabinet installation...

...including finding studs, how to deal with crooked walls, and an easy-to-make template for mounting hardware.

Things You'll Need

  • wood shims
  • power drill
  • screws
  • hammer and a nail
  • pencil
  • tape measure
  • levels - one small, one long (you can rent a 7' builder's level)
  • chalk line dispenser
  • blue painter's tape
  • jigsaw (OPTIONAL)
  • Elmer's glue (OPTIONAL)
  • at least one helper with a good attitude
  • some strength, determination and patience!

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Prep

Remove all cabinet doors, drawers and shelves. Number them and the cabinet they came from with a marking pen on pieces of blue painters tape.

Find your wall studs...not always easy! Here's the low-tech way that always works:

Measure out 16" from one corner. Hammer in a nail...if it "catches" you've found your stud. Do this where wall cabs will hide holes.

Come straight down from your nail hole. Draw a small vertical line on the wall - a little lower than the wall cabinets will go. These marks will be your stud location guide for installing both uppers and lowers.

Measure 16" from the hole and hammer in the nail to find the next stud. Studs are normally 16" on center, but not always! Keep going - measure, hammer, find the stud and mark the wall below.

Mark a level line for your wall cabinets. What height are they? Are you running them to the ceiling? If not, then start measuring from the floor up.

You need a minimum of 18" between the bottom of your wall cabinets and the 36" height of base cabs with countertop.

Measure up no less than 54" (36" plus 18") from the floor. 

Do this at both ends of a cabinet run (and on any adjoining wall where cabinets will go). Hold up a long level...if the marks are level, snap a horizontal chalk line. If not, use the higher measurement and snap a level line from that.

TIP! Some people like to attach a piece of wood to the wall to mark the level line and give support as you hang wall cabinets. You can do this but it may get in your way later when you're leveling cabinets.

If you DO want wall cabinets to the ceiling (or a soffit), check to see if it's level. If your cabs are 48", for example, measure 48" from the ceiling down at both ends of a cabinet run and mark the wall. For a long run, measure and mark the center too.

Snap a chalk line at your marks and check the level. If level, your ceiling is, too!

If it isn't level, then measure the shortest end. Mark the same measurement on the other end of the wall and snap a new chalk line.

What to do about a gap at one end between ceiling and cabinets? A little caulk will fill a small gap. Or add trim molding to cover a larger one.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Wall Cabinets

Begin with a corner cabinet if you have one.

Hold it up to the lines you've marked on both walls. Level side to side and front to back. Here's how:

Sit your level diagonally across the top of the cabinet. Adjust both sides of the cabinet so it's level.

Then position the level out from the corner toward the front of the cabinet. Reposition the cabinet to level it. Go back and check your across-the-top level again.

If it's good to go, screw through the nailers (top and bottom wood strips in back - some cabs only have a top nailer) with two screws in each, lining up with your stud location marks.

AT LEAST TWO OF THESE SCREWS MUST GO INTO A STUD - ONE ON EACH WALL! If you accidentally miss a stud, add another screw.

Check all levels one more time. If screwing it in changes the level, back the screws out a little and re-level the cabinet. Tighten the screws and check the levels again.

To level front to back, use wood shims between the cabinet and the wall at the top or bottom.

Mount the cabinet but don't screw it in all the way. Push shims behind the cabinet's outer edge (cab backs are recessed). Once it's level, the cabinet can be screwed to the wall.

TIP! To break off the excess shim, score with a utility knife and snap the shim. Make sure shims pushed in vertically don't stick out from the cabinet's side.

To level side-to-side level, adjust the cabinet slightly until all the levels work. Double check all directions for leveling and then screw into the nailer panels.

Stop and check your levels again just in case - you'll be amazed at how a few turns of a screw can screw up a level!

One of the biggest challenges when learning how to install kitchen cabinets... the up-again down-again process of lifting, leveling, adjusting. It will test your strength and your patience - but it must be done right!

TIP! In spite of the name "nailer," don't use nails to attach cabs - only screws. See below for what size screws to use where.

If there's no corner cab, start from one end. Level the first cabinet front-to-back and side-to-side. Shim as needed, and screw the cabinet in.

When mounting the next cabinet, hold it up to the first cabinet. Check the levels. You may need to shim it out so the face frames line up flush.

Then mount it to the wall and screw the first cab to the second. Do this through the sides, top and bottom, right behind the face frame just inside the door opening.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Base Cabinets 

These are a breeze compared to wall cabinets!

Check the floor to see if it's level. Lay a long level right on it, or measure up the wall from the floor from each corner and mark the wall.

Snap a chalk line and hold a level there.

If the floor isn't level, then start from the shortest measuring end to install your cabinets. Shim under the cabs as you go along to match the level of the first.

Use the marks you made for the uppers to find studs for the lower cabinets.

Begin with a corner cabinet if you have one. Level it side-to-side and front to back and screw it to the wall, and check the level again. Continue to install your bases in same way you did your wall cabinets.

TIP: Every time you install another wall or base cabinet, place your level across the top of it AND the last cabinet you installed to make sure they're lined up perfectly with each other.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Using Fillers

Fillers are straight pieces you can cut to size to fill gaps between cabinet and wall. Attach fillers to your cabinets before installation.

To cut a filler, cover the surface with blue painters tape. Then mark the line where you need to cut right on the tape. Trim with a jigsaw. The tape helps prevent tear-out from a sawblade and protects the finish.

Easy way to attach fillers? Elmer's Glue! Spread glue on the edge of the cabinet and clamp the filler flush to it with spring clamps. Let dry at least 30 minutes.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Crooked Walls

For a truly built-in look, cabinet sides must meet up perfectly with walls. How to install cabinets against crooked walls depends on how your cabs are constructed...framed or frameless.

Framed cabinets have a face frame with a small overhang (usually 3/16") on each side called a "scribe area." These give you a little room to cut or shave off a bit of the edge to fit a slightly crooked wall.

If you need more cutting than the scribe area allows, use a filler piece and scribe and cut it to fit.

Frameless (European style) cabinets have no scribe area. To fit these to an uneven wall, either caulk for small gaps, or scribe and trim a filler to fit.

For framed cabinets, hold and level your cabinet against the wall about where it will hang. Are there gaps?

If so, cover the edge of the cabinet with blue painters tape. Lay a pencil straight and flat against the wall and run it down the cabinet scribe area. It will mark exactly what you need to cut off.

Do the same scribe line on fillers. Cut the filler a little wider than the size you need and attach it to the cabinet. Cover with tape and follow the instructions above.

TIP! When you lay a pencil flat against a wall, there's about 1/8" gap between the point and the wall surface. To allow for that, cut just outside the line (the side toward the wall) with a jigsaw.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - What Size Screws?

To attach cabinets to the wall, use the 2-1/2"-3" screws that came with the cabinets. Sometimes these aren't long enough to hang cabinets securely. In that case, use 4" screws.

Screws that DON'T come with your cabs are the ones you need to attach cabinets to each other. Measure the thickness of your cabinets' side panels.

Frameless cabinets: use 1-1/4" screws (3/4" thick side panels).

Framed cabinets: use 1-1/4" screws (1/2" thick side panels), or 1" screws (3/8" side panels).

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Doors

Match up the doors and cabinets you numbered, and reattach with the hinge screws. Most cabs today have European hinges to make door adjustments easy. Just loosen or tighten the main center screw to make your doors hang straight.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Door Hardware

Decide where to place your door hardware. Make a template to install the hardware uniformly.

Use two pieces of wood about 2" thick for the top and side, and attach a piece of 1/4" plywood to the center of each with brads.

Measure the desired placement of your hardware from the bottom and the side of a door.

For a handle with two mounting studs (that the screws go into), measure the studs' distance from center to center.

IMPORTANT! Check this measurement for accuracy!

Mark your measurement on a piece of scrap wood, pre-drill with a drill bit slightly larger than the diameter of the SCREWS, and mount a handle to it.

If it fits fine, transfer the measurement to your plywood piece. If not, re-measure and try again.

Measure from the edge pieces as if they were the edges of your door, and mark the placement of your mounting studs. Drill through the plywood using the drill bit that worked on the scrap wood.

Now hold the template flush up to the corner of a door. Mark through the holes with a pencil. Then drill through the door (yep, same drill bit) and mount the handle.

The beauty of this template is you can flip it four different ways to use on uppers, lowers, right- and left-opening doors.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Drawer Hardware

Measure each drawer front, mark it, pre-drill and mount the hardware. Because there are so many variations in drawer sizes and hardware placement, a template won't do much good.

One way to protect the drawer fronts while you're figuring out your marks:

Cover the approximate area with blue tape. If you make a mistake in marking you haven't done anything to the factory finish...and, when you're ready, you can drill right through the tape.

How to Install Kitchen Cabinets - Toekicks 

Cut toekicks to fit, attach with nails. For a corner, cut the front piece full length to cover the cut end of the side piece.

You're now an expert on how to install kitchen cabinets. Congrats on that beautiful new kitchen you installed YOURSELF!

How to Tile a Floor     

How to Repair Drywall   

How to Install a Sink     

How to Tile a Backsplash

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Thinking of remodeling?

Keep a notebook or scrapbook of notes, clippings and ideas.

Kitchen magazines are expensive - look through them in the grocery checkout line. If you see pix of a kitchen you really like, buy that magazine.

Stop in at home centers and pick up any free cabinet manufacturers' catalogs.