Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Q&A - Install Flooring Before or after Cabinet Installation?

There is a question about installing tile kitchen flooring over at Hometalk, a new and useful web site where you can get your questions about remodeling answered by other homeowners and pros. I would like to answer the question here; where I have more room, and others can benefit from the knowledge.

Here's a link to the question from Robert:

And my response:

On installing kitchen flooring first, under everything:

A great deal depends on whether you plan to go to the ceiling with your cabinets. If not - No problem...Ah well...a few.

If so, then you could run into problems with an 8', or less, ceiling and manufactured cabinets. Especially if your new flooring is thicker than the old (tile and floating floors always are). Flooring installers also often "level-up" your floors during installation. Or they add underlayment. These unknowns can impact your cabinet installation later on.

Manufactured cabinets come in standard heights. Most manufacturers make a 96" cabinet (such as a pantry or tall oven cabinet) 96" tall. 96"=8' folks. If you have an 8' ceiling the toekick of the cabinet will have to be removed to even stand it up in the room (Some manufacturers will ship the toekick as a separate piece).

In this situation there is no room in the equation for flooring underneath the pantry cabinet. The ceiling will become less than 8' and the pantry cabinet will have to be cut down in height to fit. Many cabinets these days have doors that fully cover the face of the cabinet leaving no room to shave it down on the job (also no room for crown or trim moldings). You CAN cut down the toekick, but too much there looks really odd.

That means cutting it down at the factory. You discover you are boxed in to semi-custom, or custom, manufactured cabinets at 50-100% higher cost than stock, just to get a 94" high pantry. Even if you planned to buy those anyway, most manufacturers charge an upcharge to make a cabinet a special height, so it'll cost more either way.

A solution might be to cut out the flooring where the cabinets will be installed, leaving flooring under the dishwasher, fridge and range. Better to plan ahead and do the flooring AFTER the cabinets are installed. Remember to allow for the necessary height (usually about 34-1/2") of your dishwasher between the finished flooring and the underside front edge of the countertop. Do the same for refrigerator enclosures.

The second issue is an out-of-level floor (very common - especially in older homes):

Cabinets must be installed level and plumb (straight up and down) to have cabinets that are square and doors and drawers that operate properly. That means the installer finds the high point of the existing floor at the walls where base and tall cabinets are to be installed and draws a level line from that point around the room to establish the baseline height of each base and tall cabinet.

In my 28 year career as a kitchen designer in the San Francisco area, I have seen floors out of level as much as 4" from one end of a run of cabinets to the other (any more than that and you'd HAVE to level up the entire house!). A 4" drop in level around a room means the installer has to shim up the cabinets 4" at the low point to bring them up to level with the ones at the high point. This results in a 4"H toekick at the high point and an 8"H toekick at the low point. All this is a heck of a lot easier to hide if he (or she) isn't dealing with a finished floor already in place.

The third issue is floor damage during cabinet installation:

Installing cabinets and appliances is hard work and the installer is often wrestling with big, heavy cabinets and appliances. He/she is also riding herd on helpers, plumbers, electricians, countertop fabricators, and other subs who have no responsibility for your finished floor. The chances are high that it will be damaged and require repair (if possible). Nobody will know who did it. Much better to have a nice dinged up old subfloor to work on until the very end, and then install the new floor, install the baseboards, and do paint touch-up (or even all the painting.

It's harder to compute the thickness of your finished floor while your kitchen is in the planning stages. It takes an experienced designer, or contractor/installer to do it. But the task is well worth the trouble to avoid the above problems. This is one of the many reasons to use an experienced designer and/or contractor/installer.

It's also one of the many reasons why I recommend that my clients make ALL decisions regarding the products and materials that are going into their kitchen BEFORE ordering anything or taking a crowbar to anything. Simply changing your flooring material thickness after the fact can throw a monkeywrench into the best laid plans.

I usually specify in my drawings that the cabinets be set at the finished floor height of the high point. Then I order the cabinets to fit. If I am dealing with stock cabinets on a low-budget project, then I have to be very careful about taking the floor thickness into account so that the cabinets will fit.


P.S. In my experience the only people who recommend installing flooring before the cabinets are the floor guys. Makes their job a lot easier;-D

P.P.S. I forgot to mention one thing that makes finishing off the junction between flooring and toekick much cleaner when installing the flooring after cabinets are installed. That is an additional, over-sized, 1/2" thick toekick cover panel that is installed over the flooring. I order it over-sized to cover any shimming done under the cabinets. It can be scribed to the floor and gives a great finished look. Most all cabinet manufacturers offer such material and it is well worth the additional cost.