Should You Install Flooring Before You Install Cabinets?

Young man removing flooring in domestic kitchen, side view
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Floor before cabinets or cabinets before floor?  Like turning a prism to the light, the answer to this question changes when the factors are different.  Consider this familiar scenario:

You are doing a full-scale, rip-down remodel of your kitchen where everything comes out and gets replaced:  walls, cabinets, flooring, appliances.  After the demo, it is time to put in new flooring and cabinets.  But which one should be installed first:  cabinets or flooring?

 

Bottom Line

In most cases, given standard flooring heights, you can install the cabinets before the floor covering.  Floor covering, or finish flooring, is the surface that you see and walk on, not the sub-floor and not an underlayment.

Floor covering will be cut to size and almost butted against the cabinets.  A minimal gap should be left between the flooring and the cabinets.  This gap will be covered by baseboard or shoe molding that is nailed to the bottom of the base cabinets.

Alan Ryner, founder of Ryner Homes LLC, which focuses on remodeling and custom construction in Washington State, weighs in on the question:

A lot of good points on cabinet, flooring painting sequence. Here in the [Pacific] Northwest we paint walls prior to cabinets or any other interior trim.

In doing this we are able to apply the PVA [PVA Interior Acrylic Latex Primer, a type of drywall primer] to all interior and exterior surfaces, the same is true of paint. Note that we do not pre-paint our millwork.

Cabinets are installed prior to flooring. Our thinking on this is no possible damage to the chosen floor covering. Also think of the future floor replacement. It is no fun to replace hardwood, tile or vinyl with the cabinets over the top. So it is not a cost issue...

This short answer works in most cases.  Now, consider different factors.

When the Flooring Will Be Excessively High

If total flooring height will be higher than normal--two inches or more--you may want to consider installing flooring before putting in the kitchen cabinets and appliances. Here are some reasons why.

If you were to first install those base cabinets and appliances straight onto the subfloor, and next the hardwood flooring around the cabinets/appliances, the height of the cabinets and appliances will be all wrong. The work surface of your countertops should eventually arrive at 36 inches high.

One way to correct this would be to put plywood risers underneath the cabinets and appliances. But what better risers than the floor covering itself?

Why Cabinets Before Flooring?

Factors that drive the choice to put in kitchen base cabinets before the floor covering.

1. You Use Less Finish Flooring

If you wish to save money, consider that all of that nicely finished hardwood flooring underneath the cabinets is wasted, at least in a visual sense.  It may serve structurally, as a type of riser, but why pay top dollar for exotic hardwood that no one will ever see?

While it is not common practice to install a different, cheaper type of flooring underneath cabinets/appliances, or even those plywood risers mentioned earlier, it can be done.  One downside of installing risers or different flooring is that you add a complication if you wish to change the kitchen footprint in the future.  Those materials would have to be changed out for flooring that matches the rest of the kitchen.

2. Minimize Height of Flooring

Sometimes it is not necessary to remove the existing cabinets/appliances because they are in acceptable condition. Yet the flooring still needs to be replaced.

As noted earlier, if you are installing thin flooring, such as luxury vinyl, laminate, or tile, it is possible to lay the flooring right up to the cabinets. The ragged edge of the flooring is then covered over with quarter-round or base molding. Higher types of flooring such as solid hardwood present a problem because of the cabinet-height issue mentioned earlier. This can be mitigated by:

  1. Using engineered wood flooring rather than solid hardwood. Engineered wood, a "sandwich" of wood veneer on top and high-grade plywood below, is slightly thinner than solid hardwood;
  2. Laying the finish flooring straight onto the subfloor with no additional underlayment. This additional underlayment, by itself, would add another 1/4" to 1/2" to the total flooring thickness--not something you can afford in this scenario.

    Is There a Danger in Installing Floor Covering Before Painting?

    One off-shoot of this question is whether one should paint the home interior before installing flooring or the other way around.  The occasional paint drip on pre-finished wood flooring, while no fun, can be peeled off with a fingernail.

    Dripping paint on carpeting--or flooring that is more plausible in kitchens such as textured or linen-look porcelain tile--can be disastrous.  And even that manageable paint drip on pre-finished wood will be difficult if it lands in a seam or if the paint pigment remains on the wood.

    In this case, the answer can go either way. It is impossible to get paint on your finish flooring if it hasn't been installed yet. As a do-it-yourself painter, you can really let loose when you don't have to worry about mess. Rather than taking the careful approach of working with a roller and brush, you can use a spray painter. Spray painters work faster but get paint on everything that isn't covered--it leaves no prisoners.

    But it's not not always possible to choreograph painting and flooring in this sequence. If the finish flooring is already installed, a good supply of dropcloths and a healthy respect for gravity's effect on wet paint should ensure that your house stays clean.  If professional painters insisted on only painting prior to installation of the floor covering, they would never get jobs.  They do this all the time, and the ones who get repeat business do it spotlessly.

    Short answer:  for all but the most precise DIY house painters, there definitely is a danger in putting in floor covering before painting.