Kitchen Cabinets and Floors ó Which Should Be Installed First?

The decision affects both trades, and there's more than one well-reasoned opinion posted here. May 6, 2007

Given a choice, should base cabinets be installed on top of the finished flooring, or shimmed to floor thickness and install flooring as final step? I can see reasons for doing it either way. However, I lean to the installing flooring after because of reduced risk of damage during kitchen remodel activities, ease of replacing/repairing flooring at later date.

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor W:
If I were responsible for both the flooring and the cabs, I would install flooring first, and then protect with rosin paper and cardboard. Flooring goes in *so* quick (no fussy cuts) that it more than offsets the time to protect the floor. Plus, when you're a member of the over 50 club, avoiding working on your knees is a big issue (and the cardboard helps when you do have to kneel). If you're not installing both, installing the cabinets first is not being very nice to the flooring guy.

From contributor J:
I agree - I usually have the flooring in first. You need to have finished flooring under your stove, d/w, and refrigerator anyway, so it's usually just as easy to do it first.

From contributor M:
As a remodeler, I have to go with flooring last. Most floors are going to have to be replaced before the cabinets. If it's linoleum or vinyl, all you need is a good sharp utility knife to get it out. If it's wood, laminate, or tile, it isn't that easy. If it's carpet, no matter how hard you try, there are always little tufts sticking out from underneath the cabinets.

From contributor F:
Flooring last. Actually, the flooring guys like it that way too. Everything that falls or drops winds up on the floor and usually not without damage. Lastly, with so much floating flooring being put down, the floor is not as stable as the rigid subfloor. This will certainly lead to flooring replacement before the cabinetry needs to be replaced. This is especially true for laminates that degrade from moisture. We are most likely at this venue to be talking kitchen cabinets, and kitchens are high risk for floors of wood and wood products. Tile flooring could be a different story.

From contributor K:
8/15 #6: Kitchen base cabinet install on top of flooring decision
Flooring goes in last. Accommodate for the flooring thickness in your toekicks. If you are going to put in a hardwood floor and it is a total of 1 1/2" and you want 4" toe kick, then the kick should be 5 1/2" tall, and the cabinets should be 37 1/2" tall from the concrete. Once the flooring is in, you have 36" cabinets and a 4" toe kick.

From contributor D:
Depends on the type of flooring. There is no one good answer to the question. I'd never install on top of laminate flooring, but then I'd never use that material anyway. Pre-finished engineered with a thin wear layer? Probably last. 3/4" hardwood? Put it in before the cabinets. It will definitely outlast the cabinets.

From contributor L:
Flooring last... Don't level to height of flooring; level toe kicks and let the flooring butt into them - no base shoe and a cleaner look.

From contributor F:
Plan on 1/4 round or shoe if the floor is to float, but not if it's nailed or glued down. Laminate, as an example, needs expansion space if the homeowner wants that for a floor.

From contributor A:
Flooring last; it covers up any gap at the bottom of the cabinets due to an out of level floor without using quarter round. As a previous poster said, it looks better and wears better over time. Plus you have a level base to set the cabinet on and save money on flooring. Install the flooring in the fridge, dishwasher and stove area. We do several kitchens per week and never install over finished floor unless the floor isn't being replaced in a remodel.

From contributor U:
I'm sorry, but I just don't get it with the flooring last angle. First of all, as cabinetmakers primarily, you should be able to scribe the toekick faces to the floor cleanly. No moldings! I consider that cheating and it looks shoddy. Appliance openings also require a level floor.

If you are using linoleum or vinyl sheet flooring, then it is not even an issue. Wood flooring needs room to expand, thus requiring the dreaded molding. Tile and stone would need to be cut almost perfectly and have a grout line. Moldings and/or grout lines on your toekicks look terrible and reek of amateurism in my opinion. Why the big deal about installing the flooring first? Cabinets should go in last. I don't see why you would be worried more about damaging the floor than the cabinets you just made and installed. Put down some rosin paper and some masonite or door skins. You'd need to drop an anvil or something to damage the floor through that. Standard practice to protect the floor this way in So. CA.

From contributor N:
I have a question about this very subject. I have a kitchen in my shop right now that I have to install. The floor is not in yet. The builder said go ahead and install your cabs; the flooring guy will go around them. The cabs are 34.5" tall now. Do I need to shim them up the depth of the tile floor or just set them on the concrete floor? Will the appliances have enough adjustment to level out with the laminate countertops if I go straight on the floor?

From contributor F:
Drop a tool, dent a floor. Spill some paint, stain a floor. Move a reefer, scratch a floor. Pinch a floor, heave a floor. Dent, stain, scratch, heave, you buy it! If the base molding can go in before the floor, why not the cabinets?

From contributor T:
If you have a slab and tile is going down, you don't have to worry about shimming. Tiles are about a 1/4", so it's not going to be a problem. If you were on a crawl space, I would suggest to shim your cabs 1/2" because of the tile backer (DUROCK), which is 1/2".

From contributor N:
Thanks. I have always installed straight over the tile or wood floor or whatever. Never a problem. But just wasn't sure about the clearance of appliances.

From contributor U:
I've been working with a builder/remodeler for about half a year and I like the system we have. Flooring guy installs the hardwood, but no sanding. I then hang doors, case, base and set cabinets. Then flooring guy comes back for sanding and finishing. I come back after him, for base shoe and toe kick for cabinets. Trips back for flooring and me, but general pays it and we schedule for it.

No worries for me about scratches, dropping tools, masonite or red rosin, and the flooring guy is good about not running his edger or drum sander into the cabinets. I don't even see any finish splashes on the base molding, but shoe would cover it anyway, and he's extra careful around any boxes.

The last high-rise condo I did, the flooring guy put down 1/4" cork, 3/4" ply and then 3/4" of hardwood. And to make up for out-of-level, some spots would have had to be shimmed up 2 1/2" for dishwasher to fit if flooring was not in first. And flooring guy would rather run a whole floor, rather than cut pieces around cabinets, islands, dishwasher and fridge - You can't swing a mallet onto a stapler with so little room and get it tight as fast as just running straight. I admit I haven't done a kitchen for 10 years with linoleum or vinyl going in; most are solid wood or stone (or ceramic) tile.

From contributor A:
We went out to one of our projects today to do some finish touchup as one of the final tasks. I noticed that the tile guy used a jamb saw and it looked great. Tile slid under the furniture style toe/base board, very little gap at all. Best looking tile/cabinet junction that I have seen in quite a while.

From contributor I:
How about no gap? Why not scribe that tight to the tile, no gaps, caulk, grout, etc.? Just came home from a 20.3 million dollar (spent so far) house in S. Ca. The cheapskate contractor decided to save a few bucks and not tile under the island. They laid it out wrong, so the island wouldn't cover the untiled space that they filled in with concrete. Oh, no problem, says the contractor, just move it over so it'll cover it. Problem is, the whole kitchen has to move to maintain the correct kitchen design detail. They end up moving all of the stub outs over to fix that problem, and then it ends up messing with one of the architectural details outside of the kitchen. What a mess. Hope the chump saved a few bucks on tile. I wonder what it cost to have the plumber and electrician back to rework their rough-in. Finish floor goes in first, wall to wall.

From contributor A:
Well, you would have to be lying on the floor to see the 1/32 gap left by the tile guy. Personally, even on a multi-million dollar house, I would be tempted to kick any idiot who got down on the floor to nitpick. We insist that the island be in before the tile so that the tile will trap the island so it won't move if a heavy person leans on it.

I am curious, though - most islands are set with three feet or more clearance for traffic. How is it that moving an island a few inches interferes with a kitchen design detail or architectural details outside of the kitchen? Posters need to remember that quality standards will vary with the cost of a project and a multi-million dollar home is rare in most parts of the country.

From contributor I:
The design detail is that the island countertop is in line with countertop along the wall that ends at a tall cabinet. Move the cabs on the wall over and the stonework that wraps around from the hallway beyond is not symmetrical at each end of the kitchen anymore. This contractor clearly blew it and ended up spending far more than he saved, and it is still wrong. The client could make him fix it if they realize the mistake, and think of what that would cost. All of this could have been avoided by simply installing the finish floor first. My quality standards remain the same regardless of the project. That is what I sell. I disagree with your approach because it takes quality control out of my hands and hands it off to a less-skilled tradesman.

From contributor E:
It is vitally important to shim the cabinets the height of the tile; 1/2" will make or break the appliances, and if they don't fit after the countertop is in, you don't want to have that problem. Just think about ripping it all out and trying to put it back after all the other work is done.

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

Comment from contributor B:
I have been at this for 20 plus years now. I used to say all cabinets in after floors, but not anymore. The laminate out there now will be replaced in 5 years but other than that the floor should go in first for sure. Fact is that even when the cabinets and floor are finished, you still have the plumber and electrician in there scratching everything up anyway so the floor could get damaged by someone at some point anyway. The floor guy could damage parts of the cabinet (and likely will) if he has to floor after.

It is almost impossible to find the correct level of the cabinets for appliance heights if the floor isnít in and could result from the dishwasher or fridge not fitting. You cabinet guys should be careful enough when you work not to damage a floor anyway. If you are doing a renovation, you donít always have these options and need to be careful - that is how you should work all the time. Donít put your belt sander on the edge of the cabinet. The floor is first most of the time for me. It only makes sense.

Comment from contributor C:
Either is fine depending on your preference, but make sure your cabinets have been shimmed to be 36" from the finished floor height, not the subfloor. If your cabinets are measured from the subfloor, your stove will be up to 1" higher than your countertops. Many drop-in stoves are designed for a minimum 36" counter height, so if you measure from the subfloor your stove will not fit no matter what.