Kitchen Cabinet Maker

1. Building Kitchen Cabinets

2. Making Doors and Drawers

3. Hinges and Hardware

4. Laminate and Countertops

5. Installing Cabinets

6. Cabinetmaking Projects

Existing Cabinet Tear Off Removal

Unless you’re building cabinets for a new home, you’ll be faced with tearing out the existing kitchen cabinets. And unless they are reasonably modem cabinets, you’ll most likely find that they were built in place.

Carpenter or stick-built in place cabinets depend heavily on the structural support from existing walls. Therefore, finding fastening devices such as screws and nails can sometimes be quite a challenge. I’ve seen every fastening device under the sun when tearing out existing cabinets. It can sometimes be very funny to see some of the support systems that have been installed.

Be very careful and take your time tearing out old cabinets. Electrical wiring is often hidden, plumbing is sometimes routed through cabinets and heating ducts may have been directed under the existing base cabinets. In the interest of safety, I suggest you turn off the water supply and electrical service to the kitchen area as well as other nearby rooms. This safety measure will help avoid accidents or damage should you inadvertently break a water line or cut a power cable.

Support the upper cabinets with blocks or a strong wooden box prior to removing screws or nails. The sudden weight shift downward when the last fastener is removed can be surprising. Always, if possible, enlist the help of someone to stabilize the cabinet as you remove the fasteners. Also, with respect to upper cabinets, remove all loose assemblies such as shelves so that the cabinet is as light as possible. You’ll also avoid the danger of having shelving fall on you should the cabinet suddenly tip. I often remove the cabinet doors prior to removal as well to further lighten the load.

Removing base cabinets can also be hazardous, even though they appear to be sitting on the floor. Rotten floor support systems or poorly connected toe kick platforms may cause the base cabinet to fall forward when the last screw is removed. Again, enlist the aid of another person to support the assembly when removing fastening devices. I’ve had a cabinet fall because I thought four screws secured the unit when only two were actually anchored into the wall studs. It can be quite a shock and potentially dangerous, so be very careful.

Installation Site Preparation

Site preparation prior to new cabinet installation is a very important process. Verify that water and waste supply lines are in the correct location and electrical service is sufficient and correctly positioned.

If you plan on moving the sink location, now is an excellent time to reroute supply lines. The cabinet system detailed in this book incorporates a full back board on both upper and lower units. Wall sheathing can be removed to allow changes in supply line positioning.

The same is true with electrical service lines. Verify that the outlets are in the correct location and at the correct height. Base cabinet must also account for the added height of the counter top back splash, which can often add to the overall base height. And if additional electrical service is required, now is an ideal time to have an electrician install new wiring.

Use a long level or straightedge to check the wall condition. You’ll never find a perfect wall, but a wall stud that has badly bowed out over time can cause problems during new cabinet installation. If you find a bad bulge in any of the walls, remove the sheeting and correct the problem.


Cabinet installation methods vary, depending on the installer. The primary difference is whether to begin by installing the uppers or the bases. Each method has its merits, as there is no absolute correct way of installing cabinets. Find a process that you are comfortable with to achieve the end result, properly installed cabinets. Icon Kitchens describe my method of cabinet installation based on our sample kitchen layout. Refer to the side profile drawing of a base and an upper cabinet for basic dimensions.

The Starting Point

There are some considerations that you should be aware of before proceeding. Often a room is out of square and walls are not perfectly plumb; This can cause a number of problems during cabinet installation. Plan on installing cabinets from a point where you wont get boxed in by badly built walls. In our sample kitchen, I would go through the process as described, checking the room dimensions for cabinet runs that are between walls. For example, the N to L base cabinet run is between two walls, so verify that your space requirements are correct as you install each cabinet. Its possible for the wall at L to be out of plumb enough that your cabinet will not fit. It’s best to test fit your cabinets prior to anchoring them permanently in place.

In our sample kitchen, the upper cabinet runs are both closed runs. This is typically the most difficult installation. In this situation I would start at cabinet E and work out to both sides, always checking my remaining distances to avoid any serious problems. It can be frustrating if you have to remove installed cabinets to plane a face frame because you’ve run out of space. This is probably the best reason to accurately measure the room dimensions during your initial planning stage.

  1. Determine Level and Plumb
    The first step in cabinet installation is to determine the level or slope of the floor and how much the walls are out of plumb. This is your biggest challenge when installing kitchen cabinets. In thirty years of renovation work, I don’t believe I’ve come across a room that had perfectly level floors and plumb walls. Fortunately, the adjustable cabinet legs allow for easier installation as compared to the constructed base support assembly system. And the overhang of the face frame allows room for ascribing cabinets to an out-of-plumb wall.
  2. Draw a level line around the room at a reference where the base cabinets are to be installed. Measure from the floor to that line at various positions around the room. Deter mine the highest point in the room. It will be the smallest distance from that level reference line to the floor. All floors have a slope—some are greater than others—and it’s important that the high point is determined. If you start installing cabinets in an area other than the high point, you may not have sufficient adjustment range on the cabinet legs.
  3. Install the Base Cabinets
    Install a base cabinet at the highest point in the room. If you cannot start at the highest point, be aware of the adjustment limits with the cabinet legs. Level that base cabinet and anchor it to the wall.
  4. Scribe the Stiles
    You may be required to scribe the stile if it isn’t tight against the wall, and you might have to use shims between the cabinet back board and the wall to fill gaps. Check the fit after leveling the cabinet and use a compass, adjusted to the widest part of the gap between the wall and stile, as your reference. Holding the point of the compass against the wall, draw a pencil line on the stile face. Use a sharp plane and remove wood up to the pencil line until you get a tight fit. You may find that a belt sander does the job when you have many contours in the wall.
    Plane the stile to the line and test fit your cabinet until you achieve a nice tight fit. You can make the fitting process easier by “back planing” the stile edge. That is accomplished by holding the plane or belt sander at a slight angle so that you create a taper from front to back on the stile edge. With this method, you make the front face of the stile the widest part, making wall fitting easier.
  5. Join Cabinets Together
    Place cabinet M beside cabinet N and ad-just the back legs so that the back of the cabinet is even with the cabinet reference line. Adjust the front legs until the cabinet is level, side to side and back to front. Temporarily remove the doors on the cabinets and clamp the left side stile of cabinet N to the right side stile of cabinet M with wooden hand screw clamps;
  6. Drill countersink pilot through one stile and partially into the other.Drill a hole slightly larger than the screw body thickness through the stile on the screw head side to allow the screw to rotate freely in that stile to prevent bridging, the effect caused when the screw threads into both pieces of wood being fastened, preventing the pieces from being drawn tightly together. Fasten the stiles together with three screws at the top, middle and bottom. Anchor the cabinet to the wall with screws through the back board and into the wall studs.
  7. Complete Base Cabinet Installation
    Install the remainder of the base cabinets in the same manner. With respect to the sample layout, set the stile-to-stile spacing between cabinets. This will provide clearance for counter top overhang on cabinets K and J and leave a space for the stove.
  8. Install the Counter top
    Install the counter top, ascribing and removing material if necessary, so that the counter top fits tightly against the wall. Overhang the small counter top on base cabinet on each side. Use screws in the brackets to secure the counter top in place.
  9. Install Upper Cabinets
    Mount upper corner cabinet E with four wood screws through the back board into the wall studs. The cabinet must be level and plumb, as its the reference point for all the upper cabinets. Verify your remaining space after installing each cabinet. Cabinets A and H will probably require stile scribing to get a perfect fit.
    Install the remainder of the upper cabinets with the spacer box as an aid. Level the cabinets, screw the adjoining stiles to each other and anchor the cabinets to the wall. The bottoms of the stiles must be even on the cabinets. Reduced height cabinets  should be installed so that the top of the cabinets are in line with the other upper cabinets.
  10. Install Under-Cabinet Veneer
    Install veneer plywood on the underside of all upper cabinets with either contact cement or brad nails. I have also successfully used a high-quality construction cement, which is easier than contact cement and much quicker to apply.
  11. Attach Trim Molding
    Cut to size and install trim molding on the top edge of the upper cabinets. Any errors in stile length cutting or gaps between the stiles can be left at the top of the cabinets and will be covered by the molding. Trim molding style is dependent on individual taste. I’ve installed everything from bead to crown molding to achieve different finished appearances.
  12. Cut Toe Kick Boards
    Cut the toe kick boards to length, install the plinth clips and secure the boards to the cabinet legs. Use butt joints where the toe kick boards intersect at right angles. If the floor is out of level, you may have to scribe the bottom of the toe kick board to get a tight fit. You can use quarter round molding, which is flexible, to fill the gaps between the floor and the toe board. Nail the quarter round to the toe board while holding it tightly against the floor.
  13. Install End Cabinet Molding
    Install doorstop molding around the perimeter on the exposed base and upper cabinet sides. Use mitered corners with the molding to form a perimeter picture frame. This adds visual depth to the cabinet ends. Any wall irregularities can be hidden, as the molding is slightly flexible and can be pushed into the contours of the wall.
  14. Install Cabinet Doors
    Install the cabinet doors, adjusting for plumb and equal spacing between doors on double-door cabinets. There are normally three adjustment screws on good-quality European hinges. You should be able to adjust the door gap as close as on two-door cabinets, and that gap must be equal from top to bottom. Humidity variances can cause the door gap to change, which may require occasional adjustments. The climate in your area as well as the control of humidity in your home will have an impact on how much change you’ll experience.
  15. Install Cabinet Drawers
    Install the drawers and check the operation. Drawers can sometimes go out of alignment if the base cabinet was twisted during installation. Proper drawer operation is critical, as this hardware is constantly in use. There’s nothing more frustrating than improperly operating cabinet drawers, so buy the best quality drawer slides that you can afford.
  16. Check Shelf and Cabinet Alignment
    Install the cabinet shelves and verify the alignment. Shelves should rest on all four shelf pins unless they’ve been thrown out of alignment because the cabinet has been racked or twisted during installation. If severely twisted, the cabinet may have to be loosened from the wall and aligned. Avoid twisting by making sure the cabinet is level and plumb when installed.

It’s important that you avoid racking or twisting the cabinet during installation. Most walls are not straight; many have irregular surfaces and are not plumb. When anchoring cabinets to the wall, verify that the cabinet back is touching the wall; if there is a gap, use a shim to fill the space. I find cedar shims work very well because they are tapered. Always check the level, front to back and side to side, as well as the plumb of the cabinet before and after you anchor it securely. Racked cabinets will seriously affect the operation of drawers and the proper position of shelves on the shelf pins. It may also cause doors to be off level, affecting the operation and appearance.

All stiles on adjoining cabinets should be flush on the bottom. If there is an error because stiles were not cut the same length during construction, leave the error at the top of the cabinet. The tops of the stiles on the base cabinets are hidden by the counter top overhang and by the applied trim on the upper cabinets.

There are situations that will arise during cabinet installation, many of which cannot be anticipated. However, you can minimize the “surprises” by taking accurate measurements during the planning stage. Measure wall-to-wall distances at the top, middle and bottom. Use a long level on the floor and against the walls to determine the level and plumb of these surfaces. Review the installation process in your mind before you build the cabinets, checking for electrical wiring needs and problems, sink, water drain and water supply situations. And, most importantly, verify that door openings will allow you to bring cabinets into the kitchen area.

Tip: Build the upper cabinet support box out of softwood slightly smaller than the counter top-to-under-cabinet height. Use cedar shims to raise the upper cabinet into its correct position while it rests on the box. Be careful to support the cabinet during this process. Get someone to assist you at this stage; It’s best to cut and install one molding piece at a time to give you the tightest fit possible.

We Install Kitchen Applicances

Installing appliances is always challenging, particularly when there appears to be a lack of standards with respect to appliance dimensions. In reality, there are a few set standards that manufacturers follow.

  • Refrigerators
    Most refrigerators require space for proper installation. The majority of dishwashers require an opening. However, don’t assume theses dimensions are cast in stone. Verify your appliance dimensions before beginning the kitchen design process.
  • Ranges
    One common point of frustration in the kitchen cabinetmaking industry is with ranges. Most cabinetmakers will leave of space between lower cabinets for range placement. This allowance provides for counter top overhang on each cabinet side and clearance between the counter top sides and the range for easy removal and replacement during cleaning. Range hoods are exactly and look properly installed when there isn’t any space on either side.

The simplest way I’ve found to overcome the problem, and to have the upper and lower cabinets line up, is to each upper cabinet stile on either side of the over-the-stove cabinet. The upper stove cabinet, will allow installation of the range hood without space on each side. The added stile width on each of the upper cabinets to the right and left of the upper stove cabinet will force them in line with the lower cabinets. This added stile width is only on the upper cabinet’s side that butts against the upper stove cabinet; Counter top ranges, built-in wall ovens and microwaves don’t seem to follow any set dimensional standards. It’s best to refer to the installation instructions when designing your kitchen so that you are aware of the requirements.

Finishing Cabinets

To completely cover the art and technology of wood finishing in this book would be an impossible task. Fortunately, there are many books devoted entirely to this subject, and the majority are excellent. It would be worth your time to read through some of these publications before choosing the finish for your cabinets.

There are many areas that should be researched when looking for a finishing material, including the most important, safety issues. A good majority of the finishes on the market today are solvent based and can be very harmful if not handled properly. Read the warning labels and pay close attention to products that can cause allergic reactions. If a respirator is called for, wear it. If the manufacturer advises good cross-ventilation, then make sure you finish your cabinets in an area that is well ventilated.

Wood is finished to protect its natural beauty. Many airborne particles, particularly in the kitchen, can stain and discolor wood. Finishing protects and serves to stabilize the fibers as well as reducing the rate of expansion and contraction due to changing humidity levels in the home. A finish adds beauty to the wood, enhances the grain or adds a desired color. It is pleasing as well as protective.

Preparing for completion

Most important, prior to finishing, the wood must be prepared by sanding and cleaning. Sanding removes any of the power tool marks that occur during the planing and dressing stages of cutting lumber. You may also discover dents or gouges in your hardwoods that require repairing. Fill minor abrasions with one of the many wood fillers on the market and prepare the wood as instructed on the container. If the gouge is serious, I’d consider replacing the piece, as it may be more trouble to try to repair the damage. For most filling, such as nail holes and very small gouges, I use a colored wax filler that will match the final finish.


Begin sanding with a course paper such as 100-grit, move up to 150-grit and finish sanding with 180- or 220-grit paper. I use the 100- and 150-grit papers on a random orbital sander for most of my work, since it will leave very few sanding marks and can be moved in any direction. The final sanding is done by hand with 180-grit paper.

Remember to be very careful with glue on the joints, as it blocks the finish penetrating the wood and can leave a noticeable mark. It’s best to wipe the glue with a slightly damp sponge while it’s still wet.

Types of Finishing

There are many finishes available. They include paint and stains in any color imaginable, washed stains, polyurethanes, oils and varnishes. Most finishing products are very easy to apply and produce excellent results. However, check sample finishes on the type of wood you’ll be using for your cabinets and research all the properties, both pro and con. Check specifically for the product’s hardness, resistance to stains from oils and grease and its
life expectancy. The finish will be subjected to a good deal of abuse in the kitchen from heat, moisture and handling.

Using Clear, Natural Finishes

About 80 percent of my kitchen cabinets have been finished with a clear satin oil-based polyurethane. The majority of clients seem to prefer the naturally finished wood cabinet. I have also finished a few kitchen projects using the semitransparent washed stains, which are easy to apply and produce excellent results.

Large cabinet shops often use lacquer finishes on their cabinetwork. They apply the lacquer in spray booths with a paint compressor. They produce an excellent finish that dries very quickly, allowing a two- or three-coat application over a very short time period. The spray booth method requires a large space with special ventilation and is beyond the means and space availability of most woodworkers. There are shops that specialize in finishing, and you may want to use their services if one is local.

Wood finishing is an art that takes practice and experience. I have tried many finishes and methods over the years, only to realize that there is much to learn in this field. I have taken finishing courses and read many excellent books on the subject. Good sources of information can be found in woodworking magazines. You will find numerous finishing manuals for sale, as well as many excellent articles on specific finishing techniques in the woodworking magazines.

Applying Polyurethanes

As stated earlier, my preference over the last three years has been to apply the oil-based polyurethane with a good-quality brush. I normally apply three coats, the first coat being thinned, sanding between each coat. The clear satin polyurethane produces a hard finish that doesn’t readily show grease or fingerprints and is relatively easy to use.

Over the last two or three years there has been a move towards the safer, more environmentally friendly water-based finishes. Latex polyurethane is one of these newer finishes that is water based, quick drying and gives off very little odor. However, I find that some water-based finishes tend to raise the grain, as water will do on wood, and produce a slightly cloudy finish. Other cabinetmakers I have spoken with use nothing but water-based finishes, which shows that the use of different finishing techniques and materials is a personal choice.

Finishing is critical to the final product, particularly with wood cabinets. I would suggest that you start with the oil- or water-based polyurethanes and learn as much as possible about other products on the market. Document the finish used in each project file because you may have to duplicate the results when building additional cabinets.

The best advice I can give is to test three or four finishes on samples of the wood you want to use. Evaluate the results by viewing the test pieces in the room where the cabinets will be installed. It’s worth the extra effort, as it’s difficult to change an applied finish once the project has been completed.

Installing Cabinets

FIven though installation is the last major step in completing   your cabinet project, it should be one of the first things you think about. This chapter reveals tips for ensuring smooth cabinet installation. For example, even before you cut your first board, make sure your measurements are accurate and verified. Measuring methods vary between cabinetmakers. Some woodworkers prefer a story stick approach, while others simply use a tape measure and record measurements on a sheet of paper. I prefer to use both. When I’m back at my shop, I compare measurements while drawing my plans. Even though discrepancies may mean another trip to the job site, it’s better then rebuilding a cabinet. Secondly, before you begin building, always assume the room you’re installing cabinets in is out of level and out of plumb. Plan for it by adding a scribe allowance to the sides of your cabinets and counter tops. A third bit of advice is to give your cabinets some breathing room. We woodworkers pride ourselves on cutting joints that fit like pistons, but that will get you into trouble when it comes to fitting cabinets up to, or between, typical house walls.

Install Cabinetry and Shelving

Leveling, Scribing, Common Obstacles

Does the thought of installing a built-in cabinet make you queasy? You’re not alone. Many woodworkers skilled at building free-standing pieces balk when it comes to built-ins. In the workshop, keeping things square assures a good fit and a satisfying result. But in the world of built-ins, square things may have to fit into round holes.

Level, Then Scribe

In the old days, cabinets were literally built in place. Today, built-ins are usually brought to the site partly or completely assembled. They’re designed with extra material, called “scribe,” added wherever there is a visible joint between the cabinet and the wall, floor or ceiling. This means the stiles, cabinet sides and toe kicks are made extra wide and tops oversized so they can be trimmed. When necessary, one or all of these parts are left off the cabinet until it is installed.

Knowing where to add scribe material and deciding which pieces to leave loose are two critical design elements that are determined in the planning stage. Learning two techniques, how to level a cabinet and how to scribe pieces to fit, will prepare you for most installations.

First map out the location, checking for plumb, level, and square. Make a sketch with exact measurements. On it, indicate corners that are out of square and walls that aren’t plumb. Then design the project to fit inside this space, bearing in mind that the cabinet boxes will be installed first, leveled, scribed, and anchored. Pieces purposefully left off, like the top, are then scribed to fit and added, resulting in a neat, built-in appearance.

First Get Things Level

Map out uneven floors. In any house, old or new, it’s risky to assume the floors are level and flat. When installing cabinetry or shelving, it’s important to know both how the floor slopes and where the high spots are. Just imagine trying to install floor-to-ceiling bookcases built using a measurement that was taken from a low spot in the floor!

Here’s what to do: use level and straight 2x4s to find the highest spot on the area of floor that will be underneath your built-in. Level one 2×4 at the cabinet’s back and a second one parallel to it at the cabinet’s front. Find the highest point by leveling across these 2x4s front to back. Transfer this point to the wall and use it as a reference for further measurements.

Align each cabinet back with the reference line you’ve made on the wall, and use shims to bring it level side-to-side and front-to-back. Shims (right) are your best friends when installing built-ins. They quickly stabilize a cabinet and their narrow wedge shape allows for minute adjustments when leveling.

Level a row of modular cabinets using a reference line. On a sloping or uneven floor, trying to keep modular cabinets aligned as you level is frustrating and difficult without one. Mark the height of the cabinet on the wall, measuring up from the high point of the floor. Then draw a level line extending the length of the cabinet run.

Instead of leveling many individual modular cabinets, another option is to make a separate base that spans the entire run. That way you only have to level one unit. Fasten it to the floor after leveling side-to-side and front-to back, then attach cabinet boxes on top. It doesn’t matter what you use to make the base—after leveling, everything gets hidden behind a toe-kick made from 1/4-in. plywood. You can scribe this piece to the floor or use a quarter-round molding to cover any gaps.

Then Scribe To Fit

Potential trouble lurks at any visible joint between a cabinet and a wall. Walls are rarely plumb or flat, so gaps between them and the cabinet are likely. Eliminate these gaps by transferring the contours of the wall onto the cabinet so you can cut it to fit. This is called scribing. For a precise fit, it’s important the cabinet is exactly positioned and leveled before you scribe it. After scribing, cut, plane, or sand to the line.

When the gaps are small, it’s easy to transfer the wall’s contour with a carpenter’s pencil. Its rectangular shape allows you to make a narrow scribe or a wide scribe, depending on which edge you hold against the wall.

For wider gaps, use a spacer block taped to a pencil. Make the block slightly wider than the largest gap and hold it against the wall as you scribe.

A compass is a versatile scribing tool because it can be adjusted for any size gap, although it’s trickier to use than a pencil. It’s important to hold a compass locked at the same angle as you scribe. Any variance can result in a poor fit.

When building a cabinet you’ll have to add extra material, called “scribe” or “scribing allowance” anywhere the cabinet will meet a wall. On face-frame stiles the scribe is the part that extends beyond the cabinet side.

Most of this material gets cut away when the cabinet is fitted. Scribes usually have a beveled or rabbeted edge so there’s less material to remove. Generally, designing one inch scribes into a project is a good idea. It gives you adequate flexibility when fitting and you can always cut it off, which is much easier than adding on!

A loose stile is the secret to an exact fit when a cabinet must be installed tightly between two walls. Leave one of the outer stiles unattached and fit it last, after the cabinets have been positioned, leveled, scribed, and anchored in place.

How to scribe a loose stile: Measure the greatest distance between the rail and the wall. It could be anywhere along the side of the cabinet. Mark the same distance on the loose stile, measuring from its inner edge. Clamp the stile onto the cabinet, using tape on both rails to position it squarely. Set the compass to span the distance between the wall and the mark on the stile, and scribe the line.

Scribing two adjacent edges to fit an inside corner is hard. If you scribe one first and then the second, the first no longer fits. Here’s a way to fit both edges at once, as shown on this cabinet top: make a pattern from three overlapping pieces, using scraps of thin sheet stock. Align the first piece with the outer edges of the cabinet. Scribe and fit the second piece to one wall and the third piece to the other. Position them precisely and fasten them together with hot-melt glue. Move this pattern onto the top, aligning the outer edges of piece with lines drawn to indicate where the top overhangs the cabinet. Transfer the scribed edges of the pattern onto the top and cut to the lines.

Use Moldings

Hide the gap at the top of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet with a two piece molding. Install the first piece level with the cabinet. Then butt the second piece to the ceiling. The vertical orientation of detail molding disguises the transition if the top of the cabinet and the ceiling aren’t parallel.

Sometimes ascribing is tough. Fitting a piece around two outside corners that pinch inward, as this one does, is almost impossible. It’s easier to roughly scribe to fit, then cover the gaps with a decorative molding.

Safely Dealing with Outlets and Vents

Most walls have electrical outlets or heating ducts in them. It’s easy to safely extend a floor vent. Just wear gloves so you don’t cut yourself. But electrical outlets must be treated with extreme caution. Always shut off the power at the fuse box or breaker panel before beginning work.

If an outlet is unnecessary and you plan to build over it, it has to be safely disabled first. You can’t just remove the receptacle and bury the spliced wires in the wall. To keep an outlet functional and give it a neat, built-in appearance, you’ll need to cut a hole in the back of the cabinet, mount the receptacle to its face and install a metal box extender. The extender protects the exposed area between the wall-mounted electrical box and the receptacle. If you are unfamiliar with electrical work, hire a licensed electrician.

Extend a forced-air duct to the front of the cabinet with a 90-degree bend and a short length of prefabricated duct, cut to length with snips.

Use a metal box extender to protect combustible material, like wood or plywood when there’s a gap between the receptacle and the box. Code requires it. The extender houses the receptacle and extends back inside the electrical box, protecting the exposed cut-out area of the cabinet. After it’s wired, two wraps of electrical tape around the receptacle will insulate the terminal screws from the metal wall of the extender.

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