Scribing cabinets and Z clips

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Issues of overhang and attachment are discussed. February 19, 2002

Does everyone scribe cabinet uppers and lowers to the wall? If yes, how much overhang do you need on the back of the cabinet? Do any of you use Z-clips to attach the cabinets? Does it help with scribing?

Forum Responses
From contributor C:
It tends to be the higher end kitchens I install that get scribed to the walls. If it's production work, a scribe mold often is acceptable (the profile I use is most closely compared to door stop).

The custom shops I installed for typically provided 1/2 an inch of extended scribe material on the back of the cabinet, and this worked in most cases. Refrigerator end panels and the like were usually sized an inch or so over, and scribed.

During the first early walk-through for a kitchen, I'm always on the lookout for walls that are way out of plumb. For high-end kitchens, these unusually out of plumb conditions were accommodated in the shop by providing extra scribe material on the cabinets or end panels.

I like to bevel my scribe cuts severely (30 degrees) and cut them "heavy". That way, when I draw the cabinet up tight to the wall, the knife-like edge of the 30-degree bevel actually cuts into the sheet rock for a "blackout" fit.

Scribes for upper cabinets are generally used when it is high-end millwork. The average scribe is 1/2", but surveying the walls is the best way to determine the overall scribe.

Z clips are generally used in commercial work, although residential sometimes requires this. They are used for full height paneling and other applications.

From contributor B:

Not everybody scribes their cabinets - I have seen a lot of marginal work done by others. Some people just slam 'em in and go. It depends on the quality of work needed, I guess.
1/2" scribe is usually plenty for lowers and uppers; tall cabinets might need more. Check walls for plumb when measuring the job and that should tell you.

We use a version of a Z clip, which we make from 3/4" X 3 1/2" plywood. We rabbet one edge 1/4" high X 1/2" deep; we install 1 piece on the top back of uppers with the tongue down and away from the box. We then install the same piece on the wall with the tongue up and away from the wall, continuous and level. The uppers will then hang on the cleat and you can slide them around until ready to fasten. The slop between the 2 pieces allows for walls not being straight - sometimes we need to shim the wall piece when the walls are out a lot. No need for two men or a lift! (We build mostly Euro style cabs, but it works as long as you have a space at the ceiling to raise the cabs 3/8" or so.) This also adds extra screws supporting the cabinet, which aren't visible inside the cabinet.

Last week I tried a method I found in a scribing thread posted here a few months ago. I added 1/4" to the same cleat and screwed a 4" piece to each end of each cabinet. This brought me 1" plus from the wall at the top. I clamped all the cabinets together and plumbed them, then ran my router around them for a perfect fit. I had wanted to try this for a long time but just didn't have it down yet. What a pleasant surprise! The key was to carefully plumb the cabinets before scribing.

From contributor C:
The above post talks about hanging rails, and I thought I'd take a shot at posting some sketches of what I think he's describing. The first sketch shows the two hanging rails - one fastens to the cabinet, the other to the wall:

The second sketch shows the cabinet in place:

The third sketch is my best shot at illustrating what was discussed as a method to hold the cabinet off the wall for an "in-place" scribe.

Finally, this sketch is a variation on the rail design - where the hanging rails are beveled instead of rabbeted. One of the cabinetmakers I installed for used this design a long time ago, and as I remember, the bevel helped pull the cabinet tight to the wall.

From contributor B:
That last design is called a French cleat, I think. I was thinking more along the extruded aluminum type. It follows the theory of the French cleat, but is only 1/2" deep.

You got it all correct except that we put the rail flush with the top of the cabinet. That gives good fastening of the cleat to the cabinet all across the top, plus it is an exact line to work from when placing the cleat on the wall.

I have tried the French cleat, but walls here aren't very straight. If there is a hump or dip in the wall, the cabinet won't settle down on the cleat all the way. That is why I build 1/4" or so slop into the mating of the two cleats. The cabinet may pull away from the wall at the top, but a screw or two pulls it to the wall fine. A little room for adjustment is generally a good idea when working in the field, because conditions aren't always perfect. One shop I worked at used the French cleat; the installers usually turned the wall cleat upside down and used the flat edge up when walls were bad.

From contributor F:
I like the sloped 30 to 45% wall cleat system best for upper cabinets. After I've attached the wall cleat, I will use an 8' straight edge or jet line and shim it out. The next step is to attach the boxes to each other and plumb each end, next straight line the bottom of the uppers and shim as required and screw off. If scribe is added to the back side under the uppers, scribing would take place, as opposed to shimming, which I believe was the crux of this post and my insight is as follows.

It takes time and effort both in the shop and in the field to deal with scribe in this particular location. With the exception of extremely rare situations, it's a waste of time and money! Why? Let's count - extra work in shop, poor optimization of material, something more to get hung up and damaged in freight, scribing takes time and time adds cost. Besides that, no one can see under there and once the tile goes up on the wall and the under cabinet lights go in, who will notice?

I have installed both cabinets with 1/4" scribe attached and a system with a wall cleat with Z clip configuration that required scribe to be installed after the cabinets were installed (a ridiculous system).

From contributor B:
What about the end cabinet side? I agree the bottom is not an issue.

From contributor C:
I second contributor B's comment. The underside scribe may be an issue in high-end work, but the end cabinet side is the one that really gets the attention (second only, perhaps, to a full-length refrigerator end panel).

From contributor B:
The ends are what people see when we are done. The bottom usually isn't an issue, with some exceptions. If the ends fit well, we look good and they don't look for anything that doesn't show. So the issue is how do we make the ends fit to walls and still keep the cabinet doors straight and with the proper reveals.

My answer to this is to make sure the ends are plumb before any scribing takes place. Lowers are pretty simple - just level the cabs and scribe away. Uppers are a little tougher because they have nothing to set on, be it legs or platforms or whatever, like the lowers do. Same for refrigerator ends - they are all by themselves. If you can hold these things properly in place long enough to scribe them they will fit, first time and every time. First time is what we all look for. So plumb is crucial when scribing.

The method I recently found for uppers is to get them away from the wall enough to be able to shim the ends plumb by holding the top in place and shimming the bottom out to plumb. This includes putting all cabinets in a line together and shimming at each end and connections between cabinets until everything is plumb. Once that is done, you can scribe, but not until they are plumb. If it is right to begin with, you can't go wrong. The same goes for bookcases or any tall ends.

It doesn't make much difference if you are working with face frame or Euro cabinets or whatever - a box is a box and it needs to fit properly to look good.

From contributor T:
I have read all these postings 7 times and I am still not getting it! I presume you guys are discussing scribes on fixed cabinet panels which extend (usually -1/2") past the rear panel. Is the hanging rail just an aid to set up your scribe, and then removed for final installation? Or do you actually keep these in place as part of your installation? I don't see how the method would work for a line of several wall cabinets, fronts all being flush. Each cabinet would have to be scribed an equal amount and then pulled into the wall, which the hanging rail would prevent you from doing. Please explain a little more.

Also, what are bench marks and access lines?

From contributor B:
Yes, we are talking about scribing fixed finished end panels.

When using the hang cleats, the scribe dimension is added to the back of the cleat, which means the finished end projects from the cabinet back by 1" or 1 1/4" to make room for the cleat. The cleats stay in place after we are done installing and add strength, plus they can run all the way into corners so you can fasten to the stud in the very corner. That can help a lot when studs are 24" oc and you can only get 1 or 2 screws in a cabinet and can't reach that corner stud from inside the cab.

Using the cleat helps a bunch when installing because you can put all cabinets in a line on the wall and slide them back and forth, adjusting the scribe spaces at end walls or corners easily. Then fasten all cabs together, flushing the fronts as you go. Then plumb the whole unit before scribing and take down only the cabinets you need to work on.

To me, a bench mark is a level line made around a room which all trades can work from to install their own items, making a complicated job work out well.

From contributor F:
Contributor B, I somehow missed the response you posted regarding scribe at the end panels. Yes, I think a bit of scribe is a good idea in this location - it's only the underside that I object to. On commercial installations such as p-lam case goods, this type of scribe typically comes in a tube.

From contributor T:
Contributor B, I begin to understand a little bit better if, as you say, the cabinet finished end panels extend 1" to 1 1/4" past the back panel instead of extending 1/2" as some of the earlier posters indicated. But I am still stuck on a couple of things. Let me describe what I understand so far.

You start out with a hanging cleat that is 3/4" thick and attach to cabinet back panel and also to the wall. The cabinet was made with finished sides, which you say will project 1" to 1 1/4" past the cabinet back panel. The cabinet hanging cleats obviously will not mate up with the wall hanging cleat, so your trick is to add a 1/4" spacer and then another short piece of the same 3/4" cleat stock on the top corners of the cabinet. Then you plumb the cabinet up. So now the edge of your cabinet finished side panel is away from the wall 1/2" to 3/4". (If my math is right, I get 3/4" + 1/4" + 3/4" = 1 3/4" then minus the 1" to 1 1/4" dimension we started off with = 1/2" to 3/4".) Okay, so now what? You use your Quickscribe to route your scribe line 1" off the wall. This then trims 1/4" to 1/2" off the finished end panel and leaves the finished panel projecting 1" to 3/4" past the cabinet back panel.

Here come the questions:
1. If the finished side panel has now been trimmed to project 1" to 3/4" past the cabinet back, it may still not allow the hanging cleats to mate up, unless the panel is trimmed closer to being 3/4". This can only happen if we start off with a finished end which projects from the cabinet back by no more than 1", instead of projecting from the cabinet back by 1" or 1 1/4". Am I making sense? Please correct my logic.

2. Regardless if I have the math right or if I understand your procedure, all of this is good for scribing the outer exposed finished panel, but what do you do about the inner side panel of the same cabinet?

3. If we are starting off with a line of cabinets, say 3-4 in a row, all flush and all same height, are you scribing all of them the same way? Are they all made with the same 1" to 1 1/4" extended end panel? Or are just the end cabinet units made with the extended finished end panel?

4. If you try to install a continuous hanging rail on the wall, I presume you are notching each cabinet end panel to accommodate (except of course the outer exposed end panels). Do you do the notching in the field or does the cabinetmaker prep this for you?

5. When the cabinet is plumbed, you will end up with a big 3/4" or more gap on the bottom. Do you typically do anything about covering or filling this gap?

From contributor C:
In the interest of condensing the above questions… From what I can tell, the hanging rails will hold the uppers off the wall by approximately an inch.

I think the $64 question is: Are the cabinets made so the ones with "finished" ends (the ends that show at the end of a gang of cabinets) have extended sides, or are there loose end panels shipped that can be scribed and installed after the cabinets are up?

Ultimately, I think it all depends on the way the cabinets are made.

From contributor B:
I have a big advantage in that we make and install our own cabinets, so we have total control over what we get to install.

The only ends that extend past the back are the exposed finished ends. How much they extend doesn't matter as long as it is enough; you cut off what you don't need anyhow. The bottoms extend to the same line as the finished end unless we have a light rail, in which case they are cut the same as unexposed ends and tops; then we add a 1/4" loose bottom on the job from near the light rail back to the wall. It doesn't have to be tight to the light rail because you can't see there. They run from tight to the finished end to the wall or adjacent cabinet in length.

There is at least 1/4"+ slop cut in the hang cleats to allow for uneven walls. That also allows me to shim the top of the cabs away from the wall at finished ends when preparing to scribe. Shimming at the top results in the cab back being more than 1" away from the wall at the top before plumbing and when scribing. That way the ends will pull up tight to the wall after scribing because of the slop in the hang cleats. All the cabs are scribed at the same time while clamped or screwed together, making essentially a one-piece cabinet. How much you cut off varies from place to place, depending on what the wall is doing.

When we have an upper that has a finished end only partial ht., such as next to a hood, we rout the end extension off from about 1" above the adjacent cab (hood) up to the top. That way the end doesn't get in the way and the cleat on the wall can be continuous.

I have installed cabs made by others which were made with all ends routed for the backs, with no allowance for scribe at finished ends. Those were the biggest problem to install! I could not get the finished ends tight to the wall no matter what I did. All we could do is add scribe moulding or caulk. If anybody knows what to do with those types of cabs to make them work and look better, I would be real interested in knowing what.

I also build my own and install. Contributor T, you are visualizing every cabinet having finished sides. The way we build 'em, the only cabinet ends that are finished are ends that will be seen. So in your example of 3-4 in a row, all of the inside cabinets are simply hung on the French cleat and screwed to the adjacent cabinet. The cleat is completely exposed on the back of the cabinet.

On the last cabinet of the run, the cabinet is hung 1" proud of the other cabinets measured at the front of the cabinets. This is done specifically for the Quickscribe, which will remove enough material for the cabinet to be pushed back exactly 1" with a perfect fit to the wall.

It's a really neat system. I mount my finished end cabinets 1/2" proud of the adjacent cabinets and use a 1/2 block and pencil to mark the scribe, then use a block plane instead of the Quickscribe. Remount it 1/2" back and it's good to go!

What is a Quickscribe?

From contributor B:
Quickscribe is a new tool. It is an accessory that mounts to an offset laminate trimmer type of router. It consists of a spacer/mounting block with a wheel that is centered on the router bit. That is, the bit goes through the wheel and projects from the router base. The wheel rolls along the wall, guiding the router that makes the scribe cut. You can even turn the router as you roll down the wall because the bit is centered in the wheel. You do need to be able to pull the top or end you are scribing away from the wall to use it, so it doesn't work in every case. It makes the cut an inch away from the wall.

We use ours quite a bit; it saves us a lot of time and work when scribing and does a better job than most people do by hand. It also makes great templates of wall to wall conditions.