What Goes First, Flooring or Cabinets?

Chip Wade Answers the Age Old Question of Cabinets or Flooring First

Should you install kitchen cabinets or floors first? It’s a question that lingers in every kitchen renovation. Every contractor has their own methodology but if you’re managing your own remodel (or DIYing the remodel) you need real answers.

That’s where expert Chip Wade comes in. As a master craftsman and regular on home improvement television shows, he’s particularly attuned to the needs of the DIYer. We talked with Chip recently to find out what goes first, cabinets or flooring.

“Renovation goes a lot faster if you do it in the right order of operations,” Chip began. “Cabinets are the meat and potatoes, the sun in the solar system that everything else revolves around so it’s important to get them in at the right time.”

But, the answer isn’t as clear cut as you would wish. It depends on the category of flooring, the longevity of your design, and sub-surfaces. Here are a few things Chip recommends you think about before deciding whether cabinets or flooring goes first.

Person measuring white kitchen cabinets.
Home improvement and interior design concepts

Longevity

Chip puts down the floor first 90% of the time. “It’s a more straightforward start. It gives you a clean playing field. It’s safer to floor under everything,” he told us. Starting off right goes a long way to make a kitchen remodel successful.

Besides having a clean start, another big reason to put down floors first is longevity. Think of the future. You’ll run into more remodeling issues down the road if you put in the cabinets first. What if you need to change out appliances or you decide to do additional remodeling down the road? Putting down the floor before the cabinets makes for clearer sailing now and into the future.

Treat the floors under your cabinets like a permanent installation. They should receive the same treatment as the rest of your floor. Just because they won’t show doesn’t mean you can cut corners. The integrity of the floor now and any future plans will be best served by a 100% complete floor.

Flooring Category

Chip prefers to put down flooring before cabinets in most cases. But there are two instances when that all changes: floating floors and floor thickness.

Floating Floors

A floating floor is a tongue and groove type plank that comes in many different types like engineered hardwood, laminate, vinyl, etc. They are not secured directly to the subfloor. They “float” on top of it. They expand, contract, and move with the house. However, if you put cabinets on top of them, they can’t shift and there may be problems down the road.

Floor Thickness

One big problem with installing cabinets before floors is that it can become problematic to fit appliances in if your flooring is too thick. Even if you plan ahead and put in appliances before the flooring goes in, what if you need to replace it later? If you opt to install cabinets before flooring, be sure to use a flooring that is ½” or less to avoid problems retrofitting appliances.

Kitchen being remodeled.
Avoid Potential Damage to Floors

One of the big arguments in the cabinets first camp is the possibility of damage to floors as heavy countertops, paint drips, and appliance installation increase the risks. Chip recommends three remedies.

  • Work from top to bottom so the ceiling is painted before the cabinets or flooring go so overhead work doesn’t threaten what’s below.
  • Save finishes until the end. That way you won’t have to do it twice if something goes amiss in the meantime.
  • Protect, protect, protect! Cover the floors until work is complete. Put down cardboard when it’s time for appliances to come in.

Subfloor

Whether you put down floors first or cabinets first, it’s of the utmost importance to make sure you level up your cabinets. The subfloor may not be level to begin with so keeping things level as you go is a must.

Putting in floors first will give you a headstart on this but you still may find that a few well-placed shims are in order. Even if the floor isn’t level, you must have level shelves and drawers in your cabinets. Chip recommends the use of a four-foot level to get the best readings.

Even after all your work, you may find that the countertop itself doesn’t sit perfectly on the cabinets. The most important thing is to maintain a flat surface on the top of the counter. Use shims to fill in any gaps between your cabinets and the bottom of the countertop to achieve a level surface.

What goes first, flooring or cabinets? For Chip Wade, usually the floor. Whatever your particular specs and needs, follow his advice for a successful cabinet installation every time.

Need more on the right order for your remodel? Read on.

About Chip Wade

As an Emmy-winning television host and producer, Georgia Tech engineer, HGTV designer, and third generation craftsman, Chip Wade’s career is dedicated to helping people and businesses make educated and inspired decisions in the home and lifestyle category. Chip is the owner and lead designer of Wade Works Creative, offering services in video and digital productions, residential and commercial design, architecture, and building one-of-a-kind amazing stuff.

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