Cabinet Installation Guide: Should You Start with Upper or Lower?

Hey friends! Amanda here, coming at you with another home improvement post to help make your kitchen remodel dreams a reality. Today, we’re tackling an age-old question that trips up even the savviest DIYers – when installing new kitchen cabinets, do you start with the upper or lower cabinets?

There’s passion on both sides of this debate, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The proper order depends on your specific kitchen layout and cabinets. But never fear, I’m here to walk you through all the factors to consider, the pros and cons of each approach, and step-by-step guides for installing upper and lower cabinets. Grab your tape measure, and let’s get remodeling!

Understanding the Basics of Cabinet Installation

Before we dive into installation order, it helps to understand the basics of the process. Installing kitchen cabinets takes careful preparation and precision – these babies must be perfectly level and secure. Rushing in without the proper tools or know-how can result in shoddy cabinets that wobble whenever you open the spice drawer. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen!

The benefits of installing upper cabinets first

Tools You’ll Need

Here are the essential tools for cabinet installation:

  • Level – a must for checking cabinets are plumb and level
  • Stud finder – locates studs for securely mounting cabinets
  • Tape measure
  • Drill
  • Drill bits
  • Screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrenches
  • Clamps
  • Safety glasses

Ready the Space

To ensure a smooth installation, you’ll need to prep the space. Start by:

  • Clearing the area of debris, furniture, or anything else obstructing the workspace
  • Cleaning the floors and walls
  • Locating and marking studs
  • Checking for level floors and walls

Pro tip: Use a long level to check that the walls are plumb. Shim or use floor levelers if the floor is uneven.

Focus on Being Level and Plumb

I can’t stress this enough – accurately measuring, leveling, and mounting your cabinets is crucial. Nothing throws off a kitchen’s symmetry like uneven, tilted cabinets. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Use a level frequently to check horizontal and vertical alignment. Don’t assume things are straight!
  • Secure cabinets to wall studs for sturdy mounting.
  • Consider using furring strips if the walls are uneven.
  • Use shims during installation to level cabinets.
  • Avoid pulling cabinets too tightly together so doors and drawers align correctly.
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Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s first tackle the million-dollar question – upper or lower cabinets.

The benefits of installing lower cabinets first

The Great Debate: Upper vs Lower Cabinets First

The order in which you install cabinets comes down to personal preference, but some factors can help you decide which is best for your kitchen:

Installing Upper Cabinets First

The Pros:

  • Easier to get cabinets level without lower cabinets in the way
  • Prevents damaging lower cabinets with tools or debris
  • Allows more room for lifting and maneuvering upper cabinets
  • Provides clean workspace for next steps like installing backsplash

The Potential Cons:

  • Harder to visualize placement without lower cabinets as a guide
  • We may need to make adjustments after the lower cabinets are installed
  • We will need a ladder or scaffolding to seat uppers comfortably

Installing Lower Cabinets First

The Pros:

  • Lower cabinets create reference points for installing and aligning uppers
  • Provides a sturdy base for countertop installation
  • Allows use of lower cabinets as workspace during install
  • Easier access without the need for ladders or scaffolding

The Potential Cons:

  • Risk of damaging lower cabinets while installing uppers
  • It is more difficult to maneuver and lift upper cabinets over lowers
  • Potential demand for adjustments after uppers are installed

As you can see, there are convincing arguments on both sides. Next, let’s examine expert wisdom on which approach is best.

The Pros and Cons for each option

Expert Recommendations on Installation Order

Kitchen pros have mixed opinions on cabinet installation orders. Many recommend starting with lower cabinets for a few key reasons:

  • Easier access. Having lower cabinets installed provides better access to install uppers. You can work atop the countertop rather than precariously balancing on a ladder.
  • Leveling assistance. The lower cabinet carcasses offer a continuous base that makes keeping the upper cabinets level easier during hanging.
  • Safer lifting. Lifting upper cabinets over a countertop is less strenuous than raising them over your head to hang on the wall.

However, some contractors prefer installing uppers first. They argue:

  • Unobstructed access. You can stand anywhere convenient to install the upper cabinets without lower cabinets in place.
  • Precise leveling. Hanging upper cabinets directly against the wall removes any potential discrepancies from lower cabinets being out of level.
  • Protection from damage. Starting with uppers prevents dings, dust, and debris from the lower cabinet installation, damaging your new upper cabinets.

Deciding the Right Order for You

With credible arguments on both sides, how do you determine the best approach for your kitchen? Here are a few key factors to consider:

  • Kitchen Layout – Long galley or L-shaped kitchens allow continual access to hang uppers first. Consider lower cabinets first for U-shaped kitchens.
  • Cabinet type and features – Look at the design. For example, install glass-front upper cabinets first to prevent damage.
  • Countertop material – Fragile countertops like marble and granite do better with lower cabinets, providing a protective barrier during upper cabinet installation.
  • Personal preference – Factor in your experience level, stamina, tool access, and work style. If unsure, lower than upper is a safe bet.

Pro tip: Always check with your cabinet manufacturer for their recommended installation instructions.

Now that you know the factors in installing order, let’s look at the process step-by-step. I’ll provide guides for both, starting with uppers and lowers. Choose the one that suits your kitchen best!

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Lowe cabinets first

Step-by-Step Guide for Installing Upper Cabinets First

If starting with upper cabinets, follow these steps:

1. Prep the installation space.

Clear the area of any obstacles, clean surfaces, find studs, and check for level walls and floors. Refer to the basics earlier in this post for full prep details. Having an uncluttered workspace is vital for smooth installation.

2. Determine cabinet locations.

Use a measuring tape and your kitchen layout plan to mark cabinet locations on the wall. Mark stud locations for drilling pilot holes.

Pro tip: Double check marks are level using a long-level tool.

3. Install corner cabinets first.

If your kitchen design includes corner cabinets, install them before the standard wall cabinets. This allows you to finesse the fit of the wall cabinets in between.

4. Hang the wall cabinets.

Lift each upper wall cabinet into place, drilling pilot holes and driving screws into studs to secure. Use a helper or lifting device for large cabinets.

5. Check that the cabinets are plumb and level.

Use a level tool to confirm each cabinet is plumb and level as you go. Use shims if minor adjustments are needed.

Pro tip: Don’t fully tighten screws until all cabinets are hung in case minor adjustments are needed.

6. Install filler strips and other specialty uppers.

Once wall cabinets are installed, add filler strips, glass cabinets, or other unique upper cabinetry.

7. Secure cabinets and complete installation.

Fully tighten all cabinet screws. Caulk along the edges and wipe away excess. Add finishing touches like hardware. I admire your work!

8. Install lower cabinets.

With your uppers solidly installed, shift focus to the base cabinets. Check out the lower cabinets’ first installation guide next.

And that wraps up installing upper cabinets first! Let’s look at starting with the lower cabinets.

Which option is right for you

Step-by-Step Guide for Installing Lower Cabinets First

If starting with lower cabinets, follow these steps:

1. Prep the installation space.

Clear the area of any obstacles, clean surfaces, find studs, and check for level walls and floors. Refer to the basics earlier in this post for full prep details.

2. Layout the cabinet plan.

Using a measuring tape and your kitchen design map, mark the floor at each corner and the door opening for the base cabinet locations.

3. Install corner base cabinets.

Attach any corner cabinets first since they create the footprint for installing the other base cabinets.

4. Install the remaining base cabinets.

Working left to right, set each base cabinet in place, shim if needed, then drill pilot holes and drive screws into studs to secure.

Pro tip: Don’t push cabinets fully tight together until all are set. Leave a gap for adjustments.

5. Scribe cabinet edges if needed.

Use a scribe to trace the wall contours onto cabinet sides for a custom fit for uneven walls.

6. Install filler strips and other specialty base cabinets.

Once standard cabinets are installed, add filler panels or custom options like a Lazy Susan.

7. Secure cabinets and complete base installation.

Fully tighten cabinet mounting screws. Caulk edges and install toe kicks.

Installing Lower Kitchen Cabinets

8. Install the upper cabinets.

With your lower cabinets firmly installed, the base is set to install the upper cabinets. Refer to the upper cabinet’s first guide.

And there you have it – perfectly installed lower cabinets ready for uppers!

Additional Tips for Seamless Cabinet Installation

To ensure your cabinet installation goes smoothly, keep these additional tips in mind:

  • Take your time, and don’t rush through the process
  • Have helpers available to assist with lifting and positioning cabinets
  • Use a cabinet installation jig for drilling perfectly aligned pilot holes
  • Work incrementally to check cabinets are plumb and level as you go
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for specialty cabinets like glass or angled units
  • Use wood shims when needed for adjustments rather than tapping or prying cabinets into place
  • Always clean up sawdust, dirt, and debris frequently to keep your workspace safe and tidy
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You can achieve a flawless DIY kitchen cabinet installation with careful planning upfront and attention to detail. Now that you know what to look for, are you Team Upper Cabinets First or Team Lower Cabinets First?

Cabinet Installation Tools and Materials Checklist

To ensure you have everything needed for smooth sailing on installation day, here’s a handy checklist of must-have tools and materials:


  • Tape measure
  • Level
  • Stud finder
  • Drill and drill bits
  • Screwdrivers
  • Wrenches
  • Clamps
  • Ladder or scaffolding
  • Safety glasses
  • Saw for trimming filler strips (if needed)


  • Cabinets
  • Cabinet hardware like hinges and drawer glides
  • Mounting screws
  • Shims
  • Filler strips
  • Caulking gun and caulk
  • Wood putty (for covering screw holes)
  • Touch up paint

Having all your supplies in order before starting will ensure the project timeline is smooth.

Installing Upper Kitchen Cabinets

Now, let’s look at some frequently asked questions about cabinet installation.

FAQs: Your Cabinet Installation Questions, Answered

I get lots of great questions from readers about the cabinet installation process. Here are answers to some of the most common FAQs:

What’s the easiest way for one person to install cabinets?

  • Invest in cabinet hanging rails or an installation jig to assist with positioning and mounting. Consider starting with lower cabinets for easier access.

How do I ensure cabinets are secure in studless walls?

  • Use hollow wall anchors or toggles designed for securing cabinets in drywall without studs. Follow manufacturer instructions carefully.

What should I do if my floors are uneven?

  • Use shims under cabinets to compensate for slight inconsistencies in the floor. For significant unevenness, consider leveling the floor first before installing cabinets.

Should I caulk before or after installing countertops?

  • Caulk along all cabinet edges and around the perimeter before countertop installation for a clean, finished look.

What’s the proper cabinet screw size and type to use?

  • 2-1/2″ to 3″ wood screws are ideal for mounting studs. Use drywall screws to attach directly to the wallboard.

How much space should I leave between cabinets and walls or ceilings?

  • A good rule of thumb is 1/4″ spacing between cabinet and wall for ease of installation and clean caulking.

Can I install cabinets independently, or do I need to hire a professional?

  • With proper planning and patience, DIY cabinet installation is achievable. But a professional may be worth the investment for intricate designs or unique kitchen features.

Have more questions? The comment section is open for discussion!

Let’s Get Installing Your Dream Kitchen Cabinets

Well, team, there you have my complete guide to installing kitchen cabinets – whether you start with uppers or lowers. All these tips help you nail the installation process and achieve stunning results.