Q&A / 

How To Connect Cabinets Like a Pro

DEAR TIM: I’m on a very tight budget and remodeling my kitchen by myself. I’m having great difficulty connecting my cabinets together. After numerous attempts, there are gaps in between the face frames and the front faces of the cabinets don’t line up. What am I doing wrong? How can I get professional results? Also, what’s the best order to install cabinets, both wall and base cabinets? Amy M. Waterville, OH

DEAR AMY: Your question brought back strong flashback memories of my early days in the remodeling and building business. I clearly remember the first job I had installing kitchen cabinets. I was pulling my hair out having the exact same issues as you’re experiencing. Only through trial and error did I finally develop a system that produced professional results every time.

My guess is you’re having issues because you’re trying to hold the cabinets together with your hands as you drill the screw pilot holes through the edges of the face frames. No matter how hard you squeeze all seems well until you then drive the screw. As you tighten the screw, the cabinet face frames move out of alignment. Am I close?

To add insult to injury, my guess is you’re getting small shavings of wood from the drilling operation in between the cabinets. That makes it impossible to have a tight seam between the cabinet frames.

Using professional ratcheting squeeze clamps are a must if you want to expertly connect cabinets. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

Using professional ratcheting squeeze clamps are a must if you want to expertly connect cabinets. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

The solution I’ve used for years are ratcheting squeeze clamps that have hard rubber pads that won’t harm the cabinets. These clamps, when installed properly, temporarily hold the cabinets together stronger than the grip of Ironman™!

It’s imperative you have the cabinets shimmed to the proper height before you start the connection process. The cabinet face frames need to be perfectly aligned and touching with no gaps before you apply clamping pressure. Expecting the clamps to make up for an out-of-level floor or a wavy wall is asking too much.

I use two clamps to squeeze the cabinet frames together. I then drill the screw pilot holes. I put a minimum of two screws in each one about 1.5 inches from the top and bottom of the face frame opening. Cabinets 24 inches or taller always get three screws connecting the face frames.

Once the pilot holes are drilled, I create the countersink cavity for the screw head. Using my drill/driver or an impact driver I then install the screws. After all that, I remove the clamps. If you do everything right, the cabinets are locked into position and the seam between the two cabinets should look superb.

I’ve found it’s far easier installing wall cabinets first. You don’t have to reach over the base cabinets risking damage to them. Interestingly enough you’ll have other carpenters or builders tell you just the opposite. They prefer to put in the base cabinets first.

When I install wall cabinets that need to be screwed together, I don’t drive the screws holding them to the wall completely in. I want the cabinets to have a small amount of play in them so I can pull them together with the squeeze clamps.

If you have plenty of muscle power or a few helpers you can also do what I’ve done for years. Screw the wall cabinets together on the ground - as many as you can safely lift - and then install the solid mass of cabinetry as one unit. This same trick can be done with base cabinets.

You’ll have to have lots of help to do this and it really pays to do the math ahead of time as to drilling the holes in the back of the cabinets so the screws go into the center of wall studs or pre-installed solid blocking that’s hidden behind the drywall or plaster.

I also recommend removing cabinet doors, especially wall cabinets, when you’re trying to connect them. It’s mandatory if you need to screw together cabinets where the hinges connect to the face frames. The cabinet doors need to be out of the way for the squeeze clamps to grasp the cabinet face frames.

Removing the cabinet doors minimizes the chance of damage to them as you work. In the case of wall cabinets, it also decreases the weight of them as you lift them into place.

If you’ve never used a countersink bit to create the cavity for the screws, I beg you to practice. You want to discover the correct depth of the countersink hole so the screw head is flush with the inside edge of the face frame. It’s a precision task. If you drill to deep, the diameter of the countersink hole will be too large. Drill too shallow and the screw head will be proud of the cabinet frame.

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