Attaching Cabinets to Steel Studs

Cabinet installers share tips and tricks for hanging cabs in commercial buildings where the framing is steel instead of wood. January 26, 2008

We are residential remodelers/installers and very seldom do commercial, but we have one coming up with a fair amount of high end cabinetry in conference rooms, etc. I'm not that familiar with commercial construction, but I will be screwing into both interior and exterior walls. The interior will be metal studs, but will the exterior be more structural/heavier gauge? What do you use for screws into regular steel studs and possibly heavier gauge?

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor J:
Do a search for "metal studs" and you'll find a lot of information and wisdom. I've been down this road myself in the last few months doing lots of work in hospitals. We screwed the cabinets to the wall with 2 1/2" fine thread drywall screws. I'm not crazy about using those because they're more brittle than installation screws, but they will hold in the metal. My regular installation screws with Type 17 tips wanted to strip out. I'm not sure what the answer is for the exterior walls. If the building has a maintenance supervisor, you'll want to ask them. In these hospitals I've been working in, the maintenance crews have been more than helpful.

Perhaps it was my inferior stud finder, but I had a hard time locating the studs behind the 5/8" drywall (sometimes double layered). Luckily, all the installations were in rooms that had suspended ceilings. I pushed up the ceiling tiles and could see where the studs were. The drywall only went a few inches above the ceiling so I could shine a light down into the wall cavity to see where wires, pipes, etc. were as well. That was nice. All of these walls, so far, have been on 24" or irregular centers. In a couple of situations, with smaller cabinets, there was nothing to screw into, so we used toggle bolts to secure the cabs. Those were rare and only with base cabinets. Had it been wall cabinets, I'd have added a good bead of Liquid Nails to make me sleep better.

From contributor S:
I work for a mainly retail GC/subcontractor. From the get-go there should have been blocking installed in new construction for anything attached to the walls, either flat metal or recessed fire treated wood. Now welcome to the real world. Almost nobody has the forethought to install blocking even if there are pages of layout info about it. Typical framing is 24" oc but could be just about anything including complete randomness.

Our typical box install on metal studs is to use 2 or 2 1/2 drywall screws and to double them up at top of the box. Sometimes we may use beauty washers and zinc screws, or if the box has a solid 3/4 back, we might countersink and putty or vinyl sticker the heads. Up to about 16 gauge we tend to use regular pointed screws and for the heavy stuff we go with the self-tappers. The tensile of the stud, skill of the installer and phase of the moon may actually dictate which screw to use. I can get a pointed screw to go most of the time and prefer them over self-tappers because it seems that self-tappers strip out faster. Yes, the screws do seem more brittle and will snap, but I also think that they are a smaller diameter than most wood screws.

If you are designing the boxes from the get go, allowing for furring strips behind them is the best route maybe, and then the stud layout is not as important. Adding glue does give peace of mind but is not the cure all. Toggles or one of their cousins are nice too, but again, not the cureall. Sometimes you would be better off opening up the wall and adding blocking.

Installing a $200 box on a wall over a $20,000 copier with 20 cents worth of screws knowing that the box will be stuffed with reams of copy paper, is risky business. Blocking is the right way to go, and whoever makes the call not to install it should be the one to accept the risk.

P.S. Sometimes if the boxes don't go to the ceiling, we add a continuous angle or cleat at the top back of the run.

From contributor M:
I've been there! Check with the GC. It's possible that they put a 2x4/2x6/2x8 between the stud so that you can secure your cabs. If not, drywall screws might do it. If it's a heavier gauge, you're going to have to get some self-tapping screws (metal screws with a drilling tip). Be careful using drywall screws - they're not really the best thing to use. I would also use Liquid Nails just to make sure.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the feedback! Contributor S, I like the $200/$20,000/$.20/reams analogy (that ought to help me sleep at night). I bought some 2 1/2" fine thread drywall screws and some nice self-tapping flathead screws that I guess are used to attach plywood to steel studs. They look like they would work best for heavy gauge metal, but we'll see. Some good tips, like lifting the ceiling tile. I knew that one, but who knows how long it would have taken me to remember it. And of course good old Liquid Nails. I've used that one more than once over the years. I figure there is going to be a learning curve the first day. Fortunately, this is a T&M job, but I still like to give them their money's worth.

From contributor S:
You will get a feel for it. I do use two screws at the top rails, though, and one or two near the bottom of the box. Instead of trying to torque them all the way down in one shot you may find that you will strip and break fewer screws if you run one up snug and then install a screw a couple of inches lower to the snug point and then go back to the first and kind of keep walking them in. If one strips out, I back it out and then, using the same hole in the box, I will re-screw it at a slight toe nail to get fresh metal. Another funny thing about metal studs is that if you toe nail a bit with the screw, it seems not to strip out as easy, but it is harder to get the screw to start and self-tappers do not like to be toe nailed - they will skate like crazy.

For the Liquid Nails, I always insist that the walls be at least primed, because the glue doesn't stick to joint compound dust too well. Thinking about the box full of copy paper above the printer was a real life experience. A single 36" wide upper over a copier and two light gauge studs in the wall. You can believe I peppered the back of the box with screws and a tube of Liquid Nails and even considered adding some allthread through the ceiling to the bar joist for good measure. It's still there as far as I know.

From contributor E:
McFeelys has an assortment of cabinet screws specifically for metal studs. I've yet to try them, but they look a lot nicer than drywall screws and I'm sure they're a lot stronger. A little more expensive, but if it was my name on the line...

From contributor P:
Quickscrews makes a steel-stud installation screw, drill tip and fine threads, Phillips-drive only, unfortunately. They go in fast and hold like mad. California code (I think it's UBC, but not sure) requires a 16-gauge strap attached to the stud faces to attach the cabinets to. Anybody relying on drywall screws and the thickness of the stud material alone is taking a chance, in my opinion.

From contributor Q:
When I have to attach heavy loads to metal studs, I locate the studs with a magnetic stud finder. Then use No. 10 self-drilling truss head sheet metal screws. For added insurance, but a harder install, add some toggle bolts or moly screws.

From contributor T:
I have been installing commercial cabinets for ten years. To find metal studs we use a heavy duty magnet. We use a #10 self tapping screw at each stud 16" to 24" on center, one screw on top and bottom of cabinet. We never use Liquid Nails. I have put up thousands of cabinets and never had any come off the wall.