Out-of-Level Brouhaha

Sparks fly when a cabinet installer goes with the out-of-level house for the sake of appearance. His story sets off a lively exchange of views. October 22, 2005

I'm in the middle of installing a high end custom kitchen where the house is grossly out of plumb. In the area of one of the main runs, the floor is out of level close to 2" in 12'. There is a 5' wide window above the kitchen sink area and this window is a good 3/4" out of level. I've been doing this kind of work for many years and I knew right away that if I put these cabinets in level, they would look bad. Normally I can cheat it out, but the upper cabinets go right to the ceiling with double crown moldings and if I installed the kitchen level it would look crooked in the window area, across the ceiling, and of course, across the floor. I decided to install the kitchen to the home. It flows nice and straight and everything is symmetrical. I have perfect measurements all the way around between the countertop and the upper cabinets. The reveals on my crown moldings all look consistent and the measurements around the window are all consistent where nothing looks uneven. The kitchen looks very well done and with the naked eye, you cannot see that itís not level.

I received a phone call today from the irate homeowner. Apparently, his electrician placed a level on it, and saw that the cabinets were not level. I've tried endlessly to explain to the customer that if I go ahead and make the cabinets level, which I am willing to do if he so chooses, they will look very bad. Iím looking for ideas on how to communicate effectively with a homeowner who just doesn't understand and refuses to listen.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor A:
Good communication helps a lot from the outset. I have called homeowners at their work before and made them come inspect this type of situation before I continued. However, knowing that this is not always feasible and some people are hard to deal with, I have a section in my contract that tells customers that the existing job-site conditions such as humps, areas that are out of level or out of plumb, may incur additional installation charges and may affect the final appearance of the job. Some people are hard to deal with, especially when another trade puts their 2 cents in. Did this not come up on the initial inspection and measuring of the job?

From contributor B:
I'd show the homeowner the degree of out of plumb and out of level, and the consequences of installing plumb and level to that. If they still insist on a plumb level install, insist they get the place leveled and plumbed first, then you'll be back. I probably would have mentioned it to the owner.

From the original questioner:
I agree with adding a clause in my contracts and will start doing so. I also agree with telling the homeowner to get the house fixed, but we all know that is not likely to happen.

I did point out the degree that the floor and window were out of level shortly after arriving on the job. I told the homeowner that I wouldn't be able to run the cabinets level. His friend, a contractor, was there and he also agreed with me that it was best to run them with the house. Now, after the homeowner had the discussion with the electrician, he has forgotten our conversation.

Incidentally, the electrician ran the wires for under cabinet lighting and brought them out in the wrong places. So apparently to save face, he decided to pick my work apart. The homeowner, his contractor friend and I will be discussing this further tomorrow.

From contributor D:
It is a big mistake installing cabinets out of level at any time. When something doesn't look right it must be fixed at the beginning or it will never look right. If I came in to the kitchen and saw an install 2" out over 12' it would unquestionably be the cabinets that looked wrong. You should fix the problem and the source of all the headaches first. If this is a high-end custom kitchen, why is there no budget for keeping it from being a low-end, tear-down house?

From contributor E:
I did a really nice cherry library two years ago with a horrid floor and ceiling. I brought in a water level and custom fit the bases of the casework to the concrete floor. I diagramed everything accurately and brought it to the shop where I built the work on temporary straight bases.

Something has to give in these kinds of situations. In this case, my beautiful Chippendale plinth molding at the cabinet bottoms had the shape of the floor on its bottom edge.It was amazing how the careful pre-scribing and templates I made of the floor made the furniture look like it grew there! As for the out of level ceiling, I told the client I would have to leave a space between the cornice and the ceiling.

From contributor F:
If the house is very out of level, you must go with the house. The naked eye is the judge. You split the difference, and go on to the next job.

From contributor G:
Your cabinets must be kept as level as you can. The floor, walls, window or whatever else is out of level is not your responsibility, but the cabinets are. Resist the urge to run out of level with the floor or ceiling. Use trim to cover up whatís left. Try to catch these problems up front, not at installation time.

From contributor H:
If a high end kitchen has that many issues, they should have been addressed and fixed prior to the measurement of the kitchen. That being said, I have run into these nightmares before and one of the things that can really help is to stagger the heights and depths of the cabinets to break things up. I had a kitchen about seven years ago that was off 4-1/2" in 13 feet and the walls bowed out of square 1-1/2" from the corner to the end of a framing square. This was compounded by the fact that they were u-shape designed, white cabinets in a filthy house. The corner cabinets had appliance garages and the uppers went up to the ceiling. Also, they put bay window over the kitchen sink and I had to hand form laminate tops in pure white that went out into the bay window seamlessly. The company I worked for budgeted for me to do it all in three days. I told the customer that there was going to be a lot of molding to make it look right.

From contributor I:
To contributors D and G: I am really surprised to read your comments. In George Collings book, Circular Work in Carpentry and Joinery, which was first published in 1886, he stresses the importance of doing work to suit the eye in irregular situations as an important skill for a carpenter. I had to install a kitchen out of level last week (3/4" in 10'). It takes experience and skill to go out of the box (plumb/level). I do make sure to inform the homeowner in such situations and that includes having them agree to the decision. I think you made the right decision. Change them if they want but only if they pay you to do so.

From contributor D:
My install costs include my use of an expensive German level, at all times, since all of the subs before and after me rely on what is level, not what eyeballs well. The contractors I work with take responsibility for the conditions of the space before I get there. If something is way off, they either fix it and get paid for it, or let the homeowner know that it will look bad if they don't fix it. They never expect me to put my cabinets out of level to compensate. Also, in the literature on any appliance, you will always find a demand for level installation for proper operation. If the cabinets are out, then the appliances are also.

From contributor J:
Maybe you can re-case the window to make it blend better with the counter.

From contributor I:
To contributor D: I have to disagree. As a business man you have to know when to draw the line on a project. Some contractors or homeowners I work with prepare the space before I get there. Sometimes it's part of my contract to do so. Thatís all irrelevant because that is not the case here.

Sometimes a customer can barely scrape enough money together for that dream kitchen. Do we tell them we arenít going to make the job look good because they won't pay us an extra few thousand to rework the space? Sometimes setting cabs to the house makes perfect sense. As far as this affecting the appliances, it usually affects them less than 1/8" out of plumb in 34.5 inches. Being out of parallel or square is usually more of an issue. I will admit that there may be a problem with a built in sub zero or the like.

From contributor K:
As far as on-the-level cabinetry is concerned, I have one thing that sticks with me from my years in my trade. I believe that you cannot make cabinetry perfectly level and still retain the aesthetic value when either the crown and/or the base gives you vertigo! My advice is to split the difference, cheating as much to the side of level as possible without your eye picking up dimensions that are out of level. Even though a kitchen will look fine when built to the slope, it isn't right. If you split the difference it can be made up with a little dap at the ceiling and some creative scribing techniques.

From contributor D:
I've often thought that a useful method for getting the rough electrical and plumbing in the right spots would be to tack some layout strips across the studs before drywall (story poles), on each wall, with lines drawn on them representing cabinets. Then we wouldn't have stub outs landing in the edges of panels and in the wrong cabinets.

From contributor L:
Usually, buildings that are really out of plumb are older structures that have sagged or sunk, and you donít always have a practical way to correct it. You may be working on an original heritage floor or ceiling. Whenever I have to make a judgment call, I confer with the contractor.

From contributor M:
Everyone has been (or will be) in a bad situation. I've found that once something becomes a focal point, it is difficult to get past it. My suggestion is to ask the customer what would make him happy, and do it.

From contributor B:
Why isn't the out of plumb and out of level situation of the structure of this house not a focal point? Why are they OK with putting high end cabinets in a low end space? I'd let them say what they wanted, then do it.

From the original questioner:
First, I didn't measure this job myself, and even if I did, it still would not have been right as the window installation was not done at the time of measurement. Second, I do usually go and re-measure all jobs, but this job was 2 hrs. away and due to other commitments, I had to rely on the original measurement.. The measurements were actually good, but the window installation was not.

Regarding the communication, once again, I did talk to the homeowner about it when I saw the problem. As I said, he conveniently forgot the conversation, although his contractor friend was there during this conversation and agreed with me 100%. I did not get it in writing, unfortunately.

When we met to discuss this issue further on Friday, the contractor friend not only recalled the conversation, but agreed with me again. The homeowner then remembered the conversation, but stated he thought I was talking about something else.The contractor also admitted that it was his men who put the window in incorrectly. He stated he would personally re-install the window at a later date and I agreed to reset the cabinets. Now thereís a reveal on the toe kick that goes from 3" to 5" and the reveals on the crown moldings are uneven. But the counter top is perfectly level and the home owner is happy with that. Until the window gets reset thereís a distance between the counter top to the window of 6" on the left and 7" on the right and it does not look good.

I still have to go back and trim the window after it's reset and leveled. But I also sold him matching trim on two doors and archway in the kitchen for 1500.00 and his friend liked my oak screw bin and stand, so I sold him one for 400.00.

From contributor N:
In my experience, communication with the homeowner before you begin solves a multitude of potential problems. If you had informed this homeowner before you started, you probably would not have gotten a phone call, especially if you had him sign a handwritten waiver.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:
I installed cabinets in a small kitchen that was an L-shape, about 8 x 8. The floor was 2" out of level in the 8'. I told the homeowner the situation and we ended up putting them in level. I ended up cutting some of the toe kick on the cabinets starting out and making the toe kick taller at the other end. We did it that way so that the countertop wouldn't gain too much in height.