Level Cabinets in Out-of-Whack Houses

A rowdy, no-holds-barred debate on whether cabinet installers should fudge square and level when the existing house is neither. December 20, 2005

After reading the huge number of posts to a previous thread about whether to install cabinets level or not in an out of level house, I just had to chime in.

In 35 years of building and installing cabinets, I have never regularly used a level for the purpose of installing common cabinets, such as in kitchens. What would be the point? To make your cabinets look good while the walls they're fit to look bad? Or vise versa? The point of fitting cabinets to walls is to make them part of the structure, to fit in and be integral. They cannot fit by being orientated to gravity, rather than to the walls they're attached to, unless, or course, gravity and walls happen to coincide. There's a name for cabinets which don't necessarily align with the structure they're placed in: "furniture".

As an example, to maintain level by having a base cabinet be 2" higher at one end of a 10' run than at the other would be an abomination, and look ridiculous. The measures of evaluation for the cabinetmaker should be squareness, straightness, and flatness, not levelness. Levelness is employed and measured by our structural cousins: carpenters, masons, etc., who build the structures we fit to. Our work can be, and should be, only as level as theirs.

To take the opposite point of view to a ridiculous extreme, would you install cabinets level in a ship which was listing? Obviously not. The room we install in is our ship.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor P:
Right on! I say ,"fudge it till it looks good, then screw it." I never had anyone come in with a level and start scrutinizing the levelness of the cabinets.

From contributor J:
The point is you're supposed to be a professional. Just because everything else is out of whack doesn't mean you have to follow suit. I have a 6', 4' and 18" level within arm's reach at all times and I'm constantly checking and rechecking... only takes a few seconds and I sleep better at night. Cabinet installs are finish work - you're supposed to be better than everyone that has come before you. The old "make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" thing.

From contributor R:
Level cabinets - what's the point? Well, let me see… I would not want my orange juice to run onto the floor when I spill it, or the dish water when I wash dishes. Even if the so-called professionals that come before us don't do their jobs right, that is no excuse for us not to do ours right. There is a practical reason for the countertops to be level.

As for the look of it, I think that is in the eye of the beholder. The example of a boat on the ocean is a poor one. Even the cabinets in a boat or ship were probably installed plumb and level at the time of installation to a reference line, which is by engineering standards plumb or level to the floating balance on calm seas!

From contributor H:
What separates us into good, better and even better? I leave out best, because on any given day, no one is. We do our job regardless of how lousy the guy before us did theirs. We do everything the best we can given the situation at hand. We level and plumb everything we install. But we don't get anal about it when the home is really out of whack. There is what we call "the realm of acceptability" in those cases. We have installed stairways in homes that have settled. We don't install the stairs to match the sloping floor. Many homes we work in are old historic ones. It is not unusual for the last riser to be trimmed 0-3/4" in 3 feet.

We should be whining about what the other guy didn't do right or how lousy the site conditions are. The other guy... he won't get called back for repeat business. Things like settling and age... we have to deal with it. That's why we get the big bucks :)

From contributor B:
This needs to be looked at subjectively. I both agree and disagree with all the responses above. To me, it is the final appearance and function that determine when a level installation is best and when it is not. Yes, countertops need to be level enough so that objects and spills don't roll over the edge. However, sometimes a compromise is in order when the rest of the room is totally out of whack.

Here in New England, we deal regularly with 100+ year old wood frame structures that are sagging in every direction. The first step in a cabinet installation on one of these buildings would be the same as anywhere else… establish a level line along the walls. However, the next step is to determine if that is indeed the best solution. It is not uncommon to have a floor drop 3, 4, 5 or more inches in the run of a bank of cabinets. To get it right, one needs to establish a compromise between perfectly level and perfectly good looking. Level does not work if the cabinets look out of level due to the room conditions.

From contributor A:
I can only imagine the owner coming home from work and seeing that I installed his $30,000 cabinets as cockeyed as his floors. They know about the faulty floor, and I'm sure they would expect leveled cabinets. Somewhere, the out of level look is prominent. I'd rather it be the toekick than the 18" between tops and bases, or the crown, or the cabinets against the wall, and so on. I sure hope you don't install the uppers as crooked as your bases. The floor can, and should, be leveled.

From contributor N:
To make the decision, you must assume that you know the client's preferences. The safest business approach would be to ask.

From contributor W:
Just remember that if you don't put the cabinets in level, you are simply giving another trade a way out and possible liability for you. I can just see the plumber, painter, trim guy, countertop guy, electrician, floor guy, etc. saying to the customer, "well, Mrs. Jones, sorry about that, but uh, uh, yeah! It's the cabinets! They are not level. Yeah, that's what it is. You need to call the cabinet guy and have him fix it." It just gives the other trade a chance to pass the blame and to get the customer off their back. I don't want any customer, super, GC - anybody - to have a reason to call me back to a job which will take time and money from other jobs I need to be working on.

From contributor O:
Hmm... let's see. 10' of counter 2" out of level... that would mean the range is 1/2" out of level. If you're installing a kitchen for a serious cook, with a range 1/2" out of level, you're going to be in *big* trouble. The water next to the seamless sink in that 3 grand Corian countertop runs away from the sink... you're going to be in *big* trouble. Maybe on low end work you can get away with explaining your way out of a level install, but on moderate to high end work, you've gotta be nuts (or able to hypnotize your customers and subs) to install out of level.

From contributor L:
I work in 18th century homes which, on average, are totally out of whack. The walls tilt back more than a 1/2", the floors drop 2-3" over a 16' span, the floors frown and the ceilings smile. The antique wide board flooring is cupped and there is no straight, plumb, level or square. The only reference you have is your level. I agree, on occasions, the client may wish that the cabinets flow with the room, so as to not make it look out of sorts, but in general you need to make things plumb. The last kitchen I did had a 3" drop in the floor over 15 1/2'. Luckily, I was able to split up the cabinets and not have a straight run. When you look at the countertops going around the corner, it looks as though they dropped 2", but if you take a measurement off the floor, you would find that they were 36" +-1/2".

You have to take into consideration the appliances that will be going into the cabinets. I usually scribe down instead of shim up - this way, the cabinets look like they grew out of the floor instead of floating over it. My cabinets have extra length for scribing, so it makes it doable. The ceilings are another problem. Most of my clients want a 4 or 5" crown, and all you installers know that if the ceiling is out more than 1/4", it makes it a difficult install.

These ceilings were out by 2" and she insisted on crown. The ceilings smiled - had a bow in them that was lower in the center of the room and higher in the corners. So the solution was large tapered shims near the corners of the room. You paint them the same color as the ceiling and they blend in. In the center of the room, some of the meat of the crown was scribed off, making sure you didn't cut into the profile, just the vertical flat of the crown.

There are occasions where you need to put something in out of level/plumb, but it is your job to make the item as level/plumb as possible. That's what you do for a living, right?

Click here for full size image

From contributor G:
With euro cabinets, it's very tough to install without rack or twist without using a level.

From contributor E:
To the original questioner: I'm very curious as to whether you have, in those 35 years, set cabinets for the granite people to top off. I have, and the degree of accuracy expected (by various fabricators) was unforgiving. Same for solid surface.

From contributor I:
Contributor W, your comment about liability is a great argument if you’re working on a new home or addition, but who is to blame when the home is 40 or 50 or 100 years old? I agree that is most cases, the install should be perfectly level, but when you have an older home that's grossly out of level (not just the floor, but the walls, ceiling, windows and surrounding doors), you sometimes have to cheat it in and try to divide the difference. It's nothing to scribe and shim your bases perfectly level and hang your uppers level when the uppers are dropped a foot from the ceiling. When the cabinets are a foot from the ceiling, it's not that noticeable if the ceiling is out of level. But when you have 42” uppers that go to the ceiling and a few go from the countertop to the ceiling, and the floor is 2" or 3" out of level, and the ceiling matches it, it's going to look like shit if you try to place them level.

So, in some cases you need to run your cabinets with the house. In these cases, you need to point this out to the homeowner before you start the job. In a perfect world, it would be great if you could get the homeowner to pay thousands of dollars to have their home leveled. And as far as it needing to be perfectly level for granite or Corian tops, as long as your cabinets flow even, with no high or low spots, your tops will set just fine.

From the original questioner:
For the last four or five years, almost all my cabinets have been topped by granite or marble. Honest to God, I have never touched a level in installing them, and I have never had a call back to fix them because the granite guy installed level on top of me and showed an uneven margin at the top of my face frame. I have noticed a couple of times on my own, however, that the rough top under the granite was showing up to 1/8" reveal at the front, but granite usually has so much overhang (at least in my market), that this little defect is never visible unless you go looking for it.

What I do take great pains to get right is straight bases on the top, even in very long runs, so the granite guy has no problem laying flat on my rough top surface. And I will scribe the back edges of all base cabinet partitions, if necessary, so that the cabinets don't lean much from front to back, due to the back wall being out of square with the floor.

The one dispute I do get into occasionally with the trades which follow me in the installation process, is with the granite guys, but for another reason. I always insist on using nominal 3/4" plywood rough tops instead of the 5/8" which they prefer precisely because they don't want any possibility of rough top edge showing below their 1 1/2" thick front edge (3/4" thick deck with 3/4" thick applied strip). I absolutely want a rough top to be thick enough to lay flat and to well support the granite.

To sum up, maybe I've just been lucky. Most of the homes I install in Southern California aren't over 50 years old and probably don't lean much. They do, however, get shaken around pretty good in earthquakes. I've never had a complaint about swaying cabinets, either.

From contributor D:
Both AWI and AWMAC installation standards require casework to be installed square, level and plumb. I can't imagine not installing casework level. I really don't give a $#&% what the guys who work ahead of me do or what the guys coming behind me do. My work is going to be done properly. If someone else's work looks bad by comparison, or because my work is done properly, it's up to them to fix their work, not me to hide their mess.

From contributor M:
I've seen some pretty awful floors and walls in my day. New England is full of houses that seem to defy gravity. I once had to shim a fridge with 3/4" plywood on one side. That same kitchen was out 3" in 8 feet. I try my very best to install my cabinets plum/square/level, but I design them with the space in mind. I will double or triple a typical scribe dimension or keep a crown a couple of inches off the ceiling, using crown aprons or soffits to hide the changes in the ceiling. I have had to tilt a few cabinets when absolutely necessary, but I always measure with a level in my hand and install with one, as well. At the end of the day, the customer will probably not notice unless you install it level and their house is falling over. But if your customer is a general contractor with eagle eyes, he might just tell you to get the hell out of his house and your check is in the mail.

PS: I build and install my projects with other craftsman in mind. The average Joe doesn't know what they are looking at.

From the original questioner:
It sounds like you have a lot of good tricks to install perfect cabinets into imperfect structures without making either the cabinet or structure look bad. For instance, to have a floor-to-ceiling cabinet be scribed to a side wall without having a margin on your face frame stile going from 1" to 2" wide in its length, you would tilt the cabinet to split the difference, right? I would.

A highly tapering margin would look like a glaring defect to the average homeowner. He wouldn't necessarily know if the problem was the wall or the cabinet, but he would know there was a problem.

But your general contractor might put a level on the cabinet and say that it's the problem, being out of plumb, even if to plumb it would make the margin problem bigger! I've seen that happen. Most general contractors I've worked for were able to put themselves in their customer's shoes, and to distance themselves from technical obsessions when overall aesthetics are involved. These are the contractors which make money.

From contributor D:
Some posters have brought up aesthetics as a reason for not installing cabinets level. The primary rule for aesthetics is that form follows function. A kitchen where the work surfaces are out of level and appliances have to be installed out of plumb to conform to the cabinets simply does not function properly. When you install your kitchen out of whack, what does that do to the trades following behind you? You have just created a nightmare for paperhangers and tilesetters. Visually, elements that are out of whack at eye level stand out more than those at floor and ceiling lines. Out of level countertops, and tapered tile backsplashes, casework installed out of plumb adjacent to plumb doors or windows, are much more noticeable than a tapered kick or uneven margin at the floor or ceiling. It's also easier to come up with a design solution to hide discrepancies at the ceiling line or kick. That's one reason for having crown moulding - you can hide a multitude of wall and ceiling problems with crown.

From contributor L:

I don't think some of you have ever installed in a house that was way out of whack. In the houses that I do installs, the houses have sunk, bowed, twisted and whatever else you can think of. If you install things level, you will have tapered tiles, wallpaper, etc. I agree that when a house is out of level 1/4" over a 12' span, you should indeed do everything in your power to make it level. But how do you deal with a house that is 2" out of level within 7'? When the floor has been corrected and the ceiling was not? There are certainly situations where you would not want things to be perfect just for perfection's sake. There are always solutions to making the cabinets level, by breaking the sections up into smaller areas and not having a long, continuous countertop. I agree that appliances function better when they are installed level and plumb. But installing your cabinets level and plumb does not correct the floor that the 900 lb subzero is going to sit on. Obviously, you will have to shim the floor for that to happen.

So, for newer houses, I would say that it is a must for plumb and level, and for 150+ yr old houses, you sometimes need to make decisions that may or may not be plumb and level. Most of all, ask the customer what they expect you to do in their situation, and explain the different approaches to them. If the customer is happy, then you did your job correctly. AWI specs live in the world of perfection, and we installers live in the world of reality. So we have to deal with things that "shouldn't be."

From contributor B:
What seems most important to me is that everything look as level as possible when done. If you persist in hanging cabinets level in a kitchen that makes them look out of level, then it is you that ends up looking bad. Room conditions can easily make a perfectly level installation look as though it is slanting one way or the other.

100+ year old houses with slanting walls, etc. cannot always be corrected to square and plumb. Beams have long since set in their altered orientations. If the house condition makes your perfectly level installation appear as though it is out of whack, then it might be best to rethink the situation.

If the cabinets look out of level to everyone coming into that kitchen for years to come, then it is the cabinet installer that is going to get the bad rap. Most people aren't carrying a level around to see if it is the house or cabinets causing the problem.

From contributor K:
I've been installing for 26 years now. You must install level! Appliances, anyone? Stove must be even with tops. The list goes on and on. If a customer complains, put your level on the counter. I usually leave my level on the cabinets at the beginning and let Mr. and Mrs. inspect my work when they come home. Just because the house is wrong, you must be level!

From contributor V:
I cannot understand how level cabinets could ever look out of level? They either are level or they're not. When I stand back and look at my level cabinets, magically they look level. If I look at crooked and out of plumb walls, they look crooked, but my cabinets still look level. The problem comes when someone sees leaning walls and assumes first that your work sucks instead of the walls. People can't blame the builder from 20 years ago, so blaming you is what comes next. If something looks wrong and it isn't your work, it's not too hard to find the real cause.

From contributor L:
It is called an optical illusion. Your eye will take into account what it believes to be level and plumb and then apply it to the rest of the scene. I'm not saying that your work won't look level, just out of place. Just like when you scribe a cabinet to a wall with a slight curve in it. Your eye now sees that it is touching at all points and assumes it is a straight line. In some situations, level and plumb is not the best way for things to look right. Just out of curiosity, have you ever installed something in a totally out of whack house? Where the windows lean and the floor and ceiling are not even close to parallel? If you haven't, you should try it sometime. Then you will know what we mean by level not looking correct in the house.

From contributor T:
Does anyone build their cabinets differently to accommodate a house being out of square, level, or plumb? It seems to me if you are just installing factory cabinets, it might be very difficult to install them and make them look good. I have bid jobs where the homeowner has said that installers wouldn't bid the job because the house is too out of whack. I have built cabinets that are unlevel, not unsquare, to fit a particular application. I've also put on a lot larger rail than normal for scribe. I feel it is more difficult to see a 1/2" variation on a 5" rail than, say, a 2 1/2" rail. If you are building cabinets between two walls and the walls are not plumb, it has in the past posed a problem for me where I might be a little shy on my overall width, and I do as much as I can to avoid using scribe moldings. I like the looks of using a separate base for my toe kick, as it looks more like furniture and I am able to fit it more easily to the floor than the more standard toe. Anyway, I always do my best to make my cabinetry level, but I also do my best to make it compliment the rest of its surroundings.

From contributor L:
I am always building my cabinets to accommodate the space that they need to fit into, whether it is making a longer toe kick or wider rails for heavy scribing. My cabinets are also square and true, unlike the houses I put them into. I always make my cabinet installs level front to back, but lengthwise is determined by the house and the owners. It is always up to them whether they should flow with the house or be level or be somewhere in between.

From contributor X:
To see some cabinets that don't look level, back up to the pictured cabinets above. That's the worst mess I believe I have ever witnessed. I'd see the owner and get approval to fit the space, or pull off until they fixed that mess, and had it prepared for a plumb, level install.

From contributor L:
I'm assuming you're referring to my picture of the crown molding "adjustment." Welcome to my world. This is what I deal with most of the time on an install. The people that buy these houses buy them for the character that they have. In order to fix something like that, it would be get the $30k kitchen or get the $30k house repair. I've done repairs to houses like this and it doesn't come cheap. Jacking walls and repairing foundations and sills, you have to literally rip the house apart to repair it. They have walls that are 3" thick, solid wood and plaster with no space between inside wall and outside wall, the baseboard is part of the structure and the floors go down first and then the walls on top of them. It is nothing like today's homes. So I put my crown trim in and scribe my crown flat off, whatever it takes to make it look like it grew there.

And by the way, these cabinets were installed perfectly plumb and level per request of the client. If they don't look it, it is because of the wide angle lens on my camera.

From contributor X:
Would it be within reason to at the very least flatten, as in lath the ceiling and shim the laths to a flat, level plane? The builder or GC obviously isn't used to working on this type of project. To install anything to that mess is completely unnecessary and unreasonable. I understand your dilemma, working for people with obviously more money than good sense, or building sense, anyway. A little bit of imagination could go a long way on one of these projects. I can get on board with almost anything, but that passes my limit. Sorry.

From the original questioner:
I looked at the photo, and what I noted was that not only is the ceiling grossly out of level, but the corner formed by the ceiling and the side wall looks to be grossly out of square.

In other words, even if you ran your top moulding out of level and up to the ceiling, you couldn't make the top of the cabinet be in line with the moulding. You'd end up with a very tapering margin on your face frame above your doors. If you tried to scribe to the side wall to make the top line up, you'd end up with a very tapering side margin. There's really no solution here.

From contributor L:
The builder or GC on this house is dead 150 years past. If you mean me, the builder and GC of the kitchen install, I am very much alive. It would be very unreasonable to put that much plaster on the ceiling. The bow in the ceiling is about 2 3/8" from the low point to the high point. The floor to ceiling height is already low, only 90 1/2" (+ or - 1 1/2"), so you wouldn't want to lose another 2".

The people who buy these style houses expect things like this. The crowned floors and ceilings, the tilted walls and jambs, are what happens to a house that is 200+ years old. And to fix it would be eliminating the character of the home. So I deal with it the best that I can, I talk it over with the client and we figure out which way they would like to go. I've done houses that were far worse than this. A normal install guy would probably pass on this type of a job, but this is why I get hired, because I can cope with the imperfections in the 18th century world. When I go into a modern home, installation is just a cake walk. Straight lines, square corners, level floors and plumb walls. Barely have to take out a scribe.

From contributor L:
To the original questioner: There are two solutions. Run the crown on the ceiling and have a very tapered margin, or go for an equal margin. I discussed this with the client and she decided on the parallel margin, which is always my choice. The wall to ceiling squareness wasn't that bad (if you ran the crown with the face frame for equal margin) but the corner that is hidden by the cabinet was about 41º, and I had to use my entire (2") scribe to account for it. Running the crown along the ceiling would make it a living hell to cope the corners, too. I just try to make a bad space look as good as it can with my installs, and it sure does take time, but the client is always impressed when I'm done. I am still getting work from her, only have 3 more rooms to finish, and yes, they are all like this one, whackoooooooo.

From contributor V:
I do install in out of whack houses frequently. When I get there, everyone knows the conditions, but I am still expected to install level and plumb, as always. Again, the cabinets look level, and there is no optical illusion, because it is obvious what is whacked. Either the client spends money to fix it or doesn't. No illusion to them either.

From contributor Y:
I agree you should never leave home without your level or laser, if you can afford it. I laid out $700 for a self leveling laser. It paid for itself in a week. I install high end cabinets and take pride in my work. Homeowners do come in with a spirit level and check work. If I had paid $75k for my kitchen, I would want it level. Tract homes might be different due to cheap builders squeezing margins.

From contributor F:
Can't in my wildest dreams imagine installing anything, never mind cabinets, without a level. No matter how good your eye is. You shouldn't fudge your cabinets to complement out of plumb wall or out of level floors. Then there is the ethical responsibility as a contractor. Not to mention the liability. I would like to see someone in court accused of installing their work out of level because the rest of the house was out. Can't imagine a judge saying "well, then it was okay to hang them crooked." I use a level and sleep like a baby at night. I can also be proud of every job when it's done.

From contributor Z:
I always try to install my cabinets level for all the reasons stated above. But... There have been times I have had to compromise to make things look level even when they aren't. In these cases, I discuss with the customer what I'm doing and why I'm doing it and get their permission.

I recently installed cabinets in the crookedest house I have ever worked in 30 years. The floor and ceiling sloped 3" in 12 ft (I swear I'm not exaggerating). It was not practical, or desired by the homeowner, to try and straighten things up. I had to build a soffit. I did it level and it looked ridiculous. After discussing it with the homeowner, we split the difference and only set the 1 1/2" out of level in 12'. If you didn't have a carpenter's eye, I don't think the average person would have noticed it walking into the room. We did some other things in the room to make things look level. Like I tell my guys, sometimes you have to do things to make things look level even when it isn't practical to do so.

From contributor S:
I can think of no reason to install cabinets out of level. I want to know how you can keep the sides plumb if you are out of level. Do you pre-build 12 ft of cabinets and then set them? Maybe you should build your cabinets out of square to accommodate the floor.

From contributor L:
You can't keep the sides plumb while having the tops not level. And why would you want to? That would defeat the purpose of putting them in out of level to match the house. I've done quite a few jobs in 200+ year old homes and putting things in level doesn't cut it sometimes. These houses have foundation walls that have failed over the life of the house. The walls and 9"x12" beams have slowly been bent, twisted and curved during this process. It gives the house character. The people who buy these houses have visions of old worldliness. If you put the cabinets in level, it erases this and makes the whole room look out of place. Sometimes you need to go with the flow of the house, whether you think so or not. It is up to the client how this should proceed when I do my jobs. Some want level, some want it to flow with the house. My cabinets are always level from front to rear. If you haven't worked in a house that has suffered from fallen foundations, then it would be hard to understand why you might need to do this.

From contributor Q:
I agree with going with the flow of the house, but if a cabinet guy showed up on one of my jobs without a level, he would be tossed. I, too, live in New England and have had to deal with very unsquare/unlevel/wavy floors, walls, etc., but the customer always knows that the cabinetry will be level. I have worked for several firms that regularly fabricate and install $100k+ worth of millwork and cabinetry and it is always level. I'm even talking about those projects we did with This Old House. Look at contributor L's picture. If he continued the smile of the ceiling, how would you compensate for the pie shaped gaps between the boxes? Filler strips? C'mon.

From contributor S:
If the sides of the cabinets are not plumb, than any opening (dishwasher, refrigerator) will have skewed sides. This will cause more problems. There are four things that I have learned that must remain constant - level, plumb, square and don't forget your wedding anniversary.

From contributor U:
To my way of thinking, the guy who is going to be in business, year after year, is the one who meets with the homeowner prior to bidding and goes over all the options (costs) to bring the room square and level. Most of us can do magic with an unlimited budget, but that is rare. And the hat is off to you folks doing 200 year old houses!

From contributor L:
The reason you are installing the cabinets out of level in the first place is because everything else is out of level, including the floor. So when you put your fridge or dishwasher in the hole, it is square to the floor. And then it will be parallel with the sides of the cabinet. The last out of whack house I did, I made the cabinets level and plumb. The customer had a heck of a time with the appliances because the floors were tilted and the cabinets were plumb. He had to use many shims to bring the floor to plumb so he could get the fridge in the hole before he could even start to use the adjusters on the fridge.

On some of the houses I work in, you would almost need an unlimited budget to get the rooms into plumb and square. They can be that bad. Still totally structurally sound because they are made from 9" sq posts that are oak or chestnut, but bent from the ravages of time (and poor foundations). When you try to straighten these homes up, it takes years, because you need to do it slowly so the wood can be bent back. Remember - it took 200 years to get to this point and you can't bring it back in a few days without ruining a lot of other things in the house (plaster walls, doors that have been trimmed to accommodate the leaning, etc). And some people actually like this!

You need the level. Not necessarily to use on the cabinetry, but it will be your only reference - seeing as nothing is square, level, plumb, straight or true.