Cabinet Installation: Preventing Problems

Careful preparation and knowledge of the site make cabinet installation much easier. February 9, 2001

by Carl Hagstrom

The Value of Site Visits
Cabinet making is an exercise in precision. Tolerances are minimal, and machinery must be kept in top condition to produce quality work. But what happens to these precision products after they leave the shop? They reach environments that range from ideal to absurd. In many remodeling projects, the only spot you'll find level or plumb is in the household dictionary.

It falls on the installer to adapt these products of precision to an imperfect world. Having the right tools and proper skills is important, but these won't always fix problems caused by other trades. The installer serves a crucial role in recognizing any site conditions that could delay the installation.

I remember showing up to install a kitchen, and discovering that all the switches and outlets were positioned too low, and fell within the backsplash area of the counter top. Then there was the time the plumber showed up after the base cabinets were in place to install the toe kick heater.

Fortunately, none of these problems were my fault. But unfortunately, everyone involved lost valuable time. These experiences, along with others like them, convinced me that a pre-installation site visit was a necessity.

Time Well Spent
I install high end kitchens, and the customers not only expect a quality kitchen, but quality service as well. In a major remodeling job, customers nerves tend to be a little frayed by the time the kitchen goes in. A delay in the installation because of unforeseen site conditions may be legitimate, but it can create some unpleasant, emotional friction with the customer. A site visit is inexpensive insurance.

The contractor on the job also benefits from a site visit because it will often reveal problems that can be corrected at very little cost. While responsibility for these issues is seldom that of the cabinet shop, you can potentially gain a solid ally (and repeat customer) by diplomatically pointing out mechanical errors, or other problems, far enough in advance that the other trades can alter them at a relatively low cost. If handled correctly, this approach allows everyone look good.

The site visit is also an opportunity to address any cabinet related issues. The cabinet designer I install for makes a point to accompany me during the site visit, and we schedule this walk-through prior to the kitchen design going to production. The goal is to recognize and resolve issues that not only make the installation easier, but also to make sure the cabinet layout is correct.

The cabinet installer naturally tends to view the kitchen from a different perspective, and recognizes how the existing structure can present installation problems. These issues can be minor changes, such as increasing the width of a scribe rail to help accommodate a wall that is severely out of plumb, or modifying a trim detail to disguise a soffit that is out of level. Or, they can be large problems that were somehow overlooked, like a pantry cabinet that can't be maneuvered through a vestibule.

The Importance of a Check List
It's easy to get distracted during a site visit. Often, you're talking to the contractor and the homeowner, and at the same time, petting the dog, and ignoring the kids (or is it the other way around?). Over the years, I've developed a site visit checklist that prompts me to thoroughly review the existing conditions. A checklist gets you back on track when a distraction derails your train of thought.

Listed below are the items I include on my checklist. Some of the items apply to remodeling work only, and others serve more as reminders to broach a topic with either the home owner, or the general contractor. Diplomacy is a part of doing business, and often times a potential conflict can be resolved if one party is reminded that the cause of the current problem was discussed during the site visit.

  • Vehicle access - How close can you get your truck to the work area? Remember, the conditions may change between the time of the site visit, and the actual installation.
  • Vehicle parking - Once you're unloaded, where will you park? Will your truck still be there at quitting time?
  • Door size/restrictions - It's tough to fit a square peg in a round hole. Tiny vestibules can be deadly for tall, boxy cabinets, and sawing a pantry cabinet in half before a live audience is one magic trick to avoid.
  • Work area - Locate one during the site visit, and reserve it as yours. It also helps to mention that certain trades (painters or floor finishers) will have a difficult time working while the kitchen is being installed.
  • Furnishings/belongings removed - A reserved workspace is of little use when it's piled high with furniture. If removing the existing cabinets is your responsibility, make sure someone empties them out before you arrive. I once arrived to replace a counter top, and spent the first hour and a half emptying out the cabinets.
  • Floor protection - Make a note of what type is needed.
  • Dust protection - This depends on the remodeling circumstances. I guarantee the homeowner will never fault you for being too careful about dust protection.
  • Power/outlets - How many, and how far away? There are a limited number of trades that can share a 20 amp circuit.
  • Keys - It's tough to work if you can't get in.
  • Job noise - In a major remodel, homeowner's nerves can be worn pretty thin by the time the kitchen goes in. Couple that with an owner who works a night shift, and you have a potentially volatile mix.
  • Working hours - Some owners like to wake up before the workers arrive.
  • Plumbing/electrical - These are critical areas. Check box heights and plumbing rough-ins. If rough-in hasn't been completed, go over the information with the appropriate contractor.
  • Level/plumb and square - I like to check all floors and walls, and then note trouble spots on the kitchen drawing. By spotting a particularly crooked wall ahead of time, we have been able to alter cabinets to accommodate the condition.

  • Heat - Is existing heat in the way? Are there plans for any toe space heaters?
  • Verify measurements - Double checking window locations and wall lengths/heights can head off some embarrassing problems.
  • Lighting - Look for conflicts between lighting locations and cabinet placement. Recessed lights that are positioned for 12" deep uppers sometimes end up directly over a refrigerator. Supply wiring for under cabinet lights need special attention.
  • Appliance sheets - If you don't already have them, now is the time to remind someone that you need them.
  • Kids/animals - If you mention this subject during the site visit, it gives the home owner time to come up with a plan.
  • Bathroom privileges - Find out where to go.

Consider calling the customer a few days prior to the installation. This will give you an opportunity to follow up on any items that were cloudy after the walk-through, and lets them know that you're concerned about the job.

Does this method guarantee you won't have problems? Of course not. But by scheduling a site visit, and using this checklist, you'll not only recognize most potential problems, but keep small problems from getting bigger.