Corner cabinets and out-of-plumb walls

How do you deal with the gaps inevitably caused by less-than-perfect walls? August 25, 2003

We do a lot of corner cabinets with appliance garages, all one piece. Most houses are not perfect, and in installation I get the bottom edge to the wall but the top will be away from the wall 1/2" or sometimes more. Or it will have a gap at the bottom and be touching at the top. They come out like this after leveling the base cabinets. We have pushed them all the way to the wall and then shimmed the countertop up to the bottom of the garage, but this sometimes throws the rest of the adjoining cabinets out. Is there a good remedy?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor D:
I do run into this all of the time and I do primarily remods, so the walls tend to be out of plumb more often than not.

I always set the base cabinets first and build my countertops next. I then set the corner cabinet on the countertop and that way I know that it is sitting plumb and level and slide it to the wall.

If the wall is out of plumb, I handle it a few different ways. For my contractor grade cabs with applied 1/4" end panels, I just make it plumb and level, scribe the 1/4" ply to the wall and it is good to go.

On the top line units, I use 3/4" ply construction and leave 3/4" extra so that I can scribe it to the wall for a tight fit. I always make them with clipped backs and enough recess to fit in the corner without rocking.

Another thing I like to do is make the cabinets 15 inches deep x 27" wide and 3 inches taller than the other uppers. This allows more flex when it comes to lining up the cabinets that take off from the corner.

In the past, I also just used a scribe molding to cover any gaps by the wall. One thing I always do is make sure that if there are problems with the wall, that the cabinets are level no matter what. If a customer has a problem with how it looks, I can throw up my laser and show them that my work is correct as it can be. When I was new to the trade I installed a kitchen in a house and screwed the cabinets to the wall so that there were no gaps but they were out of plumb 1/4". They were manufactured cabinets and to me they looked better that way than with gaps and I was not supplied with molding to cover the gaps. The next morning when I arrived at the job, the homeowner lit me up for an hour about not having them perfectly level. In the end he was happier with the gaps in the wall so I had to redo all of them. It was then and there that I decided that I would use lasers and make everything level from that point on so if there were questions they could call the framers.

The cabinets above and the cabinets below should never be out of alignment, for any reason. If you run into this, it's because you did not measure the job properly. This time, you have to cheat it somehow, but next time bring a level and do a proper job of laying out and measuring. A stitch in time saves 9.

From contributor M:
Don't understand how measuring a job properly will plumb up the walls?

Some things you can't see until you install. For this reason, I build the appliance garages separate, and smaller than the corner cab. The appliance garage fits inside the frame of the upper and can move up/down up to 1/2" or so. I'll install it, bumped up as far as it'll go. Once the tops are in, just loosen two screws and let it slide down to the counter. I show the builder/customer how this is done to avoid paying me for a return trip. However, I include one return trip in price to install/re-install lazy suzans, adjust doors, etc. after painter gets done wrecking things.

I don't understand this… if you install all your cabinets plumb level square, everything should just go together no problem. In a corner cabinet I usually build my boxes with backs recessed so that I can scribe the gables to help plumb them up.

From the original questioner:
I know how to measure a kitchen! The problem is a level floor and a wall that leans out three inches at the top. I think contributor M knows what I am saying. Scribing is a way of doing it and I have made some slats of trim to hide the crack before when this occurs.

From contributor E:
Start building your garages in two pieces and most of your troubles will disappear. When I build framed cabinets, I settled on building my angled corner units (upper and garage) larger than normal, as contributor D described, when garages were specified. Now that I am building mostly frameless with flush bottoms, I prefer to build them smaller and plan for 18" space between top garage and bottom of upper cabinet, which gets a scribe molding after installation (garage resting flat on the counter) to hide the space above the garage. Garages are one of those cabinets that I am not too proud to use scribe molding where needed.

From contributor D:
Anybody else think that the appliance garages are overrated? What is everyone using for the door? Tambour or a hinged door? I use a hinged door on mine, as I think it looks better and is more reliable.

From contributor E:
Yes, but I think they are here to stay. Seems like the ones that don't have them want them and the ones that have had them don't care to order them for a remodel. I find the same true of pull-out shelves. I haven't built a pull out shelf in over a year as I've been able to convince customers that a drawer stack is more convenient, more practical, and a more usable storage. In fact, I sell a lot of drawer stacks, and have been for over two years.

I build them both ways but prefer to build them with a door for the same reasons you do.

Hafele has a kick a-- piece of hardware for an appliance garage P/N 372.42.700 Frontlift Swing up fitting page 3.115 in their catalog. As stated above, the people who have them don't want them, and the people who don't must have one, usually of the tambour variety. Tambour is great for manufactured housing, otherwise forget it. For the buck twenty five the swing up fitting costs, they can get the real deal. If the buck twenty five is a stretch (versus maybe 80.00 for the tambour and plastic tracks plus the pain in the ass to assemble/adjust/WD40/callback) we may need to forego the appliance garage. Same on the pullout shelves.

I build the tambour door style in two pieces also, and don't install the appliance garage until the countertop and backsplash are already in, cut to size and four screws they are installed. Then next year when the p.o.s. falls apart I can take out four screws, chuck the thing in the trash and they still have a nice set of cabinets and finished top and splash.

That's right - I never, ever attached to the counters for that very reason.

I'm with you. I had a chuckle with your characterization of an appliance garage as a p.o.s. - I hate the things. I install a lot of pre-finished high-end cabinetry and appliance garages just cause headaches.

Often there's a combo corner wall cab with tamboured lower section. The countertop installers hate it when they have to try to slip tops under cab, so they want you to install it after tops are in. So you install bases but have to come back later and install walls? Sucks.

Sometimes the appliance garage is separate and can be installed later, but usually the granite tops end up being more than 1.5" so you have to plane and sand without screwing up interior and exterior finish. Sucks.

Usually the plugs in the wall behind them are installed too high, so tambour hits halfway up. Blows! Usually the client's favorite coffeemaker or food processor ends up not fitting. Bites! Other than that, the things are super. Trash 'em, and buy some more of that nice tile for the splash.

I don't care for tambour either. So my corner garages have a 4" side. I build two doors for each side, with a 22 1/2 degree bevel where they meet at the corner. The outside door is hinged to the 4" side. The two doors on each side are hinged together with a piano hinge inside.

For high end jobs: a 3/8" bearing on a nut is mounted to a 3/4" X 3/4" block on upper corner of inside door. The bearing rides in a groove in the top of the garage, making it a controlled-close bi-fold. This gives a very wide opening. It means four very small doors instead of one or two, but it looks good and works great. Got the plans out of American Woodworker about 5-6 years ago and have been doing them ever since, though not many customers are willing to pay the money for that feature.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the feedback. Personally I like the way they look but don't like building them. I mainly use the regular doors instead of the tambour.