Out-of-Level Floor Problem

A cabinet job for a new house with an out-of-level floor leads to a callback. Pros weigh in with views and technical advice. August 29, 2005

I am looking for some help about an installation I did recently of a set of kitchen cabinets that I built. It is a beautiful set of cabinets in a very beautiful house. I got a call from the homeowner who was upset because some of her cabinets were setting a little off the floor. I explained to her that I have to set my cabinets level for the granite to fit and I have to start from the high spot in the room, which happens to be in the corner. So as the cabinets move away from the corner, the floor drops off and I had to shim to get level.

It’s not a big deal on the cabinets that have toe kicks, but on two of the cabinets there are arched toe-kicks that are part of the face frame. I need some reassurance that I am installing them correctly (as I have been doing for some time). One additional note - the hardwood floor was not in at the time so I had to start up 3/4" on the corner so it could slide under the cabinet.

The homeowner suggested that I should have built each of the cabinets taller to accommodate the slope. Does anyone have any suggestions as to a solution? The toe kick cabinets are no big deal since the toe kicks will sit right on the floor, but the two arched toe kicks would have me baffled other than putting on a small corner round. I asked to meet with the homeowner, the builder, and the job foreman, and I want to make sure that I am on the right track before I stand my ground as to the cabinets being installed correctly.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor M:
You are correct, and modifications should not be at your expense. Stand your ground - if anyone is at fault it is the builder for not leveling a poor concrete job.

From contributor J:
Would it have been possible to set the cabinet elevation from the point where the arched toe kicks should sit on the finished floor? When I have bun or pedestal feet I usually set my cabinet height from that point. No way would I cop the attitude with the homeowner, or builder for that matter. Bringing the extent of the sloping floor up to the homeowner only raises flags as to the credibility of the builder and all of his subs. At this point if they were down for it, I would shoe-mould the kitchen at no charge, and write it off to experience.

I don't see you winning any argument with a homeowner or the builder for that matter. I'd see what I could reasonably do to correct the current situation, which the homeowner and the builder will appreciate. If I felt I was right, I would still fix it and pad the next project, and keep that to myself too.

What do you think sounds easier; running about 30' of shoe-mould, setting the cabinets at elevation from the feet, or removing the cabinets and hammering out the slab?

From contributor L:
To the original questioner: I deal with a lot of 18th century homes. The floors, walls, and ceilings are not even close to being straight, level, plumb, or flat. When I measure for a kitchen I bring in two tools - my ruler and my level. I check everything that a cabinet will touch and I assume nothing. The last job I did was a 7' x 12' pantry. The floor was out of level by 1" over the 7' direction, 1/2" over the 12' direction and the outside wall leaned in 1/2" from floor to ceiling.

I noted everything on my drawings and I built accordingly. The low side cabinets were built with a 3/4" taller toe kick than the high side. All of my cabinets are scribed to the floor. I will only use shims on the backsides of the cabinets where they cannot be seen. I know that this is not normal installation procedure, but an 18th century home is anything but normal. My clients always tell me that the cabinets look like they grew there.

If you went over to this home and took all of the measurements yourself (or your helper) then you should have realized and made accommodations for the sloped floor. If this was a specific job where you were given prints and were told to "build this" then you wouldn't have any clue as to the floor being sloped, and your actions were from standard installation procedures. There is no way you can build each of the cabinets custom to accommodate for the slope because you would have to have the bottoms of your cabinets on a slight angle to take in account for the angle of the slope, and for the customer to even think that shows they have no idea what goes into building cabinets. I think the better solution would have been to level them and then scribe to the slope of the floor and have the high side of the floor with shorter cabinets (because of the scribe), but then the client will want to gripe about that. It’s hard to win when the customer is always right. After two weeks they won't even notice it anymore.

From the original questioner:
I will by no mean cop an attitude with the homeowner or builder. The lady actually works for the builder. I want the builder there in hopes that he will come up with a solution or at least see that I did my part correctly. It is a new house so I would expect for the floor not to be too far out of level. It always is to some degree and I have not had any issues before with shimming.

I offered the solution over the phone of the shoe molding, which I already had made for the end panels and fridge anyway. She immediately said no because she did not think it would look good around the curve, and she might be right. I will have to do a sample. I have also thought about resetting the cabinets to the floor and have them sign something that states they know it is out of level.

From contributor M:
This is not about copping an attitude, you did everything right. If you correct their poor workmanship for free you will be expected to do it on all future jobs for free. The fault lies with the builder and he should pay for his mistakes just as he expects you to correct any errors you make at your expense.

From contributor J:
Not trying to bring on the flamethrowers, but where’s the rub in setting the elevation from the feet or arched toe kicks and let the toe kick be what it will? I've set cabinets exactly like this before, only to discover the feet where either 5/8" off the floor or needed to be cut off into the profile or had an appliance opening too short or high, and went back and raised or lowered the cabinets accordingly. Luckily I did that right after I just finished installing them the first time. Other than a bruised ego, it made a big difference in the job.

From contributor D:
You didn't mention if there are any under counter appliances in this run of cabinets. That would actually be the reference point to work from. Most appliances give you a little adjustment for height, so you can set a range for the height and try to lower the run to the very minimum you need for the appliances.

From contributor M:
When I go out to measure I could take levels and lay out the cabinets on the floor and spend two or three hours getting all kinds of measurements. I'm not compensated for that much time to measure a job. The fault of the poor slab is the concrete worker and the responsibility to correct it goes to the contractor.

From contributor P:
Consideration has to be given to where you want the error to show in any installation - running from the room's high point without consideration of the ramifications of the decision causes problems like this. Since the arched kicks are the most unforgiving part of this installation (I make mine 3/4" or so over height, then trim in the field), they should have been the point of reference that the entire room laid out from. To lay blame on the out-of-level floor is incorrect, assuming that the floor was in and checkable at the time that the project was measured. A quick check with a laser during measurement saves a lot of time and aggravation later on.

I try to spend a few minutes at the beginning of an install trying to figure out the plan of attack, noting my critical fits and problem areas. It seems like every time I try to rush the job, we end up doing a lot of annoying rework to fix a problem I should have foreseen.

Lastly, if I have any problem or concern with my work, or a judgement call as to where or how I handle a room error, it's communicated to the owner - 95% of the time they concur, and can live with whatever I've done - I just don't want them discovering something after I've left. Involving the client in a layout decision creates a partnership; willingness to spend the time explaining the issue and posing solutions is appreciated. Your mileage may vary.

From contributor T:
By the way, it is not a concrete floor it is a standard sub-floor. Next time I will approach it in a different manner. My thought process was to start at the highest point and allow for the hardwood to slide under. I anticipated a little variance in the slope and made small shoe molding that could go there if needed. I have never had a problem before with shimming. Who knows maybe the homeowner was just having a bad day and she will come around.

From contributor A:
If frameless cabinets with leg levelers were installed, the toe kick would have to scribed, what's the difference? The shoe-mold actually adds another detail which my customers always like.

From contributor G:

Are we to understand that you installed the cabinets before the installation of the floor? And you set the cabinets level and they came in later with the flooring? They don't have a leg to stand on (pardon the pun) and I'd tell them to call the flooring contractor. In fact, I'd begin certain legal activities to guarantee that I receive my final payment, if you know what I mean.

From contributor P:
I like to make separate bases that take up as much of a run of base cabinets as is practical. I make these shorter in height than needed and tack 1/2" plywood blocks underneath. If I run into a problem floor I can knock off some of the blocks to set into any high points. I make furniture bases as a separate piece when possible and always add a scribe. The more thorough you are in your initial site measuring and assessment, the more prepared you will be for those little surprises.

From contributor T:
The need to spend the extra time with the physical measurement is very apparent and should be taken much more seriously than it is. In fact, you are never going to find a level floor or ceiling especially with new construction in pre-stressed concrete slabs, which always have a bow similar to a flatbed tractor-trailer. I have found out over time that many companies cut corners when it comes to physical measurements, only to pay the price later. I believe this falls under the category of "I don't have time to do it right the first time but I have time to do it over". Using separate platform bases will save you every time in these situations and should be the norm.

From contributor I:
You need to find the high spot on the floor and then determine where the dishwasher or other under counter appliance goes. If the high spot is next to the appliance, then that is where you shim from. If it is on the other side of the room than make sure you shim or build up the thickness of the floor by the time you get to the appliance. This way you don’t pick the cabinets up the thickness of the new floor everywhere just next to the appliances. Otherwise you could end up higher than the new floor in a couple of places. If you end up with a space shoe molding looks good to. Never scribe down to the floor unless you planned for it. Of course you always put the cabinets in level or the counter guys let you have it.

From contributor C:
I am a cabinet installer and not a fabricator. I have installed on near perfectly flat floors or floors being out of level 1 1/2" in 30" of floor. You were hired to do a custom job. However your custom job was on a new construction site. With that you should be able to make certain assumptions, the floor will be level for instance. All of this should be reflected in your price.

Had it been in an old Victorian home you would know for a fact the floor would not be level, and therefore adjust you price for hours extra for measuring and perhaps constructing to compensate. One thing to remember is that the cabinets do not have to be level.

I do high-end installations. However, they can to a certain degree be out of level. They do need to be on a one even plane for the top to rest on. This can be tricky or not possible if there is an L in your run. Knowing how far out of level and keeping it consistent is tough. Use a digital level, or place a shim under you level of the same thickness in the same spot on the level to maintain a constant pitch.

For your current situation you should not have to admit any fault because it is new construction. However it doesn't sound like a big job, and keeping the customer and client happy means you get the next job, and that means more money. That may be worth a few hours of extra shoe installation.

From contributor B:
I install only. I set all base cabinets level with a laser, using the high point of the final finished floor as a starting point. On all my work, two things cover the gaps between the shim stacks. Rubber cove base on commercial, and toe skins on residential. Both go on tight to the floor, sometimes scribing the skins to a humped floor, and nobody has ever kicked about the gaps at the top. You would have to make an effort to see this, except at a finished end.

This is moot for me as I always use shorts of finished outside corner or scribe trim to dress off that termination. I can't speak to the fancy stuff with arches cause I've never done it. I have cut down cabinets to fit the floor, but besides the extra labor, you can no longer install under-counter appliances, a pain many of us know.

This recalls Contributor C's point about setting level. It's slow. These guys that brag about doing it by break time must not need a laser. I guess "they're as level as the house" covers that issue. So I ask you one and all, how much does being level matter?

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

Comment from contributor W:
Floor level problems require a floor leveler. You did your job properly. Ardex manufactures incredible self-leveling underlayments (K-15 is one of them. However, the substrate will dictate the material and possibly priming). The underlayments do not spall like a gypsum based concrete would. The products are engineered polymers.