Installing Cabinets: Uppers or Lowers First?

Opinions vary. Here, installers describe how they go about installing cabinets, and explain why. July 3, 2006

Who out there installs uppers first and why? And if you install lowers first, what are your reasons? I always install lowers first and lately the question came up in the shop.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor F:
Either way is acceptable, but I think there are things that would influence my choice. Am I working alone, are there issues with the straightness of the walls that would force me to tackle the uppers first, did I bring my hard hat so I could do the uppers first? Any number of reasons to do one over the other. How's that for a noncommittal answer?

From contributor D:
Design factors would influence which way to go sometimes, along with floor and wall conditions, but the biggest advantages to doing uppers first are not having the two feet of space taken away from you by the lowers. Without the lowers in, you can handle the uppers better due to added leverage from not standing away from the wall you're putting the cabinet on. The other one is not banging the lowers up trying to put the uppers in. Drop a drill, hit 'em with a ladder, whatever. Not saying this is the best way, but there are two reasons for doing uppers first.

From contributor C:
I prefer to do the uppers first, unless... I only have the bases, have to get a measurement off the bases, the walls are in the neighbor's backyard, etc. The walls are easier without the bases, period. But just like my install today, walls first was not an option. If you get that perfect job, you can install it in the perfect order to maximize your profits. Otherwise, you just install it to the best of your abilities and hope that it is within your prices.

From contributor I:
I would prefer to install the uppers first, but more often than not, I end up getting the lowers in ASAP so the granite guys can template and start the clock ticking on their 2 - 3 week lead time. During this period, I get everything else done.

From contributor H:
I used to install the uppers first because it was easier to lift the uppers into place without the base cabinets in the way. All that changed when I went to a job and the installer was using a box that was 19 1/2" tall and setting it on the base cabinets, then setting the uppers on this spacer and screwing them in with much more ease and accuracy than I could. I tried it and up until I stopped doing my own install (which I think is very profitable for me), I liked it. It was way easier than holding the cabinet up with one hand and screwing with the other or paying a guy to hold that cabinet for me. So I guess my vote would be for base cabinets first.

From contributor V:
I prefer to install base cabs first because the floor determines where the bases will sit, and the bases determine where the uppers will sit. It is much easier to adjust the bases up or down slightly, or nudge a few to the left or right, get them perfect, and then install uppers on 19 1/2" prop sticks. That said, I recently bought a cabinet jack and it's twice as fast to install walls first. I use a combination of both methods now.

From contributor W:
I use a Gil lift, and this makes the decision a no-brainer... uppers first. I typically assemble a run of uppers while they're laying on their backs on the floor, tilt them up and set them on the Gil lift, crank 'em up and fasten in place.

Main reason uppers first for me is not damaging the base cabinets, and not having to do the uncomfortable reach of working over bases. Also, using the lift and uppers first really makes life easy if you have to fish under-cabinet wires through the backs as you approach the wall.

Downside is that you have to be on top of the layout, and you have to absolutely train yourself to stand up *very* slowly when working on bases (or wear that hardhat). As others said, though, at the end of the day, it all boils down to assessing the install before you start... There are times when I've done bases first, but that's not my first choice. If you're not using a lift, then get a life (or another trade). The only installers not using a lift are the ones too stubborn to recognize a time/back saver. The lift also serves as a dolly for moving bases around as well.

From contributor B:
Ditto. The GilLift and its dolly are the only way. One exception is if the layout includes a full height case, or one that sits countertop. This makes setting bases first pretty unavoidable. I always do uppers first if possible right down to cover caps, doors, shelves, and final cleaning, as it eliminates reaching strain and possible damage to lowers, and hey, it has to be done sooner or later. One thing that really helps here is using a laser level for both top and bottom.

From contributor R:
Become efficient doing both. The ability to apply your skills in different situations will only build your confidence. Always be prepared for different situations. Those who preach doing uppers first with a Gil-Lift may actually be the most stubborn. I prefer bases first, but will adapt if the job dictates. Flexible and efficient... repeat... Flexible and efficient... good... you're hired!

From contributor L:
Bases first because my uppers sit on my bases in places.

From contributor A:
If you install solo, then the bases should go first. That way, all you need is for someone to help you lift the wall cabinet and set it on a spacer that rests on the base cabinetry. No more grumbling, moaning assistants waiting for you to get the first screw into the wall.

From contributor M:
My Gil-Lift never grumbles or talks back to me and doesn't mind staying late.

From contributor Z:
I find it’s a lot easier to use an adjustable cabinet stand and install uppers first. It becomes a one man job. Unfortunately, my bases always go in first because the builder always wants to get the countertop template ASAP.

From contributor X:
Nowadays, it's acceptable practice to install cabinets either way first. Back in the l940's my father installed the bases first, then uppers, without help from others. In the 50's the practice continued. Guys were making their own lifts then. Some were good and others failed the tests. Speed was the moneymaker - the faster you could install cabinets, etc., the more money you could make. Tract houses were going up faster than ever then. This continued for many years. So lifts finally came of age, thus the change in installation.

I'm of the old school and prefer to set the bases first. I also like having cabinets that fit the walls and are not pieced together in sections. Scribing a base cabinet to the wall takes a short time; leveled and secured takes even less time. One piece (length) construction is preferred, same goes for uppers. Now that I'm aged and weak, a lift will have to do along with some help. So things and times change as we go forth.

From contributor B:
Please consider one more factor in this debate. I assemble uppers on the floor, and crank the 6 to 12 foot long units up to height and roll into position all alone. When using jacks, as I did for many years, one must manually heave each box up and into place. How stubborn is that?

From contributor R:
Bending over assembling uppers on the floor… Yes, I will agree with you... that is stubborn.

From contributor K:
I generally do the uppers first if practical. There is very little bending over to assemble uppers on the ground if you assemble the bank on its side instead of flat on the ground. I just put a furniture blanket on the floor, put the first case on its side, stack the subsequent boxes on top and screw them together. I don't make the towers any higher than 6', which is the max run that I will install with the Gil lift.

From contributor R:
Jobsite propsticks... $0.00. Gil-lift… $600.00. Having the physical ability to lift a cabinet... priceless.

From contributor C:
Does that thing come with its own trailer hitch? Do you unpack it for even the 1-2 day installs? I use the 3rd Hand and it totes easily with the level, tool-belt, chopsaw, etc.

From contributor N:
I'm a one man band, and I found it easier to install the base cabs first. I can get them level to the floor and do all my scribes and appliance fitting first, since this will all dictate the positions for the uppers. Then do the uppers. I've built a jig that rests across the tops of the base cabs that I use for the install. It's 36" long, 26" deep and 19 1/2" tall. The assembly is only 4 panels rabbeted and screwed together so I can break it down and store it. With the jig in use, I simply set the uppers onto it and secure and anchor each one as I go. I've never dinged a base cab doing it this way, since I'm not having to muscle any cabs to the wall and hold position while securing them. And since my base cabs are already level and true, the jig makes the upper install a no-brainer.

From contributor P:
I install uppers first. My jig has two parts... I built two skinny sawhorses that have a hinge on top. I set them on either end of a run of wall cabinets. On top of those two horses is a beam, plywood, about 1 foot front to back and about eight inches tall. I level the top of that beam to a laser line on the wall for the bottom of the cabinets. I lift a line of cabinets up to that beam. I can kick the sawhorses to make them rise or lower, until the beam matches that laser line. Then I attach all the cabinets to each other and then to the wall. Works for me. I think the notion of a 19 1/2" jig on top of the base cabinets would serve the same purpose. I have a shopcart, lift but have never used it. I just hoist the cabinets up to the beam. I may try to use the lift next time.

From contributor G:
You guys that say you are installing wall cabinets first must be installing cabinets in apartment houses and tract homes. I would like to do that, but most of the time it's not an option and/or doesn't make sense. I typically install base cabinets first and level them. More often than not, I am working my way out of a corner to some sort of tall unit that is going to determine the height of my wall cabinets. If I install my wall cabinets first, it is too hard to get them at the right height to line up with the tops of my tall cabinets and keep the bottoms of the tall and base cabinet face frames lined up. Also, I often have a cabinet sitting on the countertop that I can't install until after tops go on. Which is another reason I install bases first, which, as someone else said, allows the countertop guy to get in and make his template ASAP because he is usually out 2-3 weeks. I then will just cut some 2x4's or something to stand up between bases and uppers. We always remove all doors, drawers, shelves (standard procedure) so we are not working over any of that and possibly damaging it and don't replace until after everything is installed. I really don't find it that difficult to work over the bases.

From contributor W:
"You guys that say you are installing wall cabinets first must be installing cabinets in apartment houses and tract homes."

No way - I can't remember the last time I did a low-end install, and I *always* try to find a way to install the uppers first.

"If I install my wall cabinets first, it is too hard to..."

Maybe installing uppers requires a little more layout savvy, but I'll take extra brain work any day if it makes things faster or easier.

"counters - cabs resting on counters ..."
There are times when I can't do the uppers first, but like I said, when I've got the option, it's the easiest way.

"We always remove all doors, drawers, shelves (standard procedure) so we are not working over any of that and possibly damaging it and don't replace until after everything is installed."

Like I said, I'll take extra brain work any day if it saves me time. Pulling, moving, storing, re-installing all those items .... yow ;)

From contributor Y:
Sounds like someone bumped his head once too often!? Base first in most cases, and I too do high end work.

From contributor P:
This is the beam/horses I use to install upper cabinets first.

Click here for full size image

From contributor O:
Nice planning! I enjoy the Blue Winch Tower for the lifting.

From contributor E:
I always install the lowers first. Most of the kitchens I install have a subzero or similar fridge. The height of the fridge sets the height of the cabinet above the fridge, which sets the height of all the other uppers. I also made a set of adjustable stands that adjust from 16" to 26" to set the uppers on once the lowers are installed. Also, I snap a line on the floor for my lower cabinets. Once the lowers are installed, I draw a line to the lowers and plumb up to the front edge of the uppers. Way I work, we hold all our cabinets 1/4" off the wall, so this is the only way to install our cabinets perfect, and perfect is really the only way to try to install, right?