Consider this familiar scenario: You are doing a full-scale, rip-down remodel of your kitchen where everything comes out and gets replaced, including walls, cabinets, flooring, and appliances. After the demo, it's time to put in new flooring and cabinets. But which should be installed first—cabinets or flooring?
Typically Cabinets Come Before Flooring
In most cases, given standard flooring heights, you will install the cabinets before the floor covering. Floor covering, or finish flooring, is the surface that you see and walk on, not the subfloor (under the underlayment) or underlayment (between subfloor and finished layer).
The floor covering will be cut to size and almost butted up 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.
There are a couple of advantages to why you may want to stick with the traditional choice of putting in kitchen base cabinets before the floor covering.
You'll Potentially Use Less Finish Flooring
Installing kitchen base cabinets before flooring can be a money-saving advantage. For example, most of the costly finished hardwood flooring is usually placed sight unseen underneath the cabinets. Why pay top dollar for imported hardwood that remains hidden? To keep the floor flush, consider installing a different, cheaper type of flooring underneath cabinets and appliances, or even plywood risers.
The Potential of Mismatched Flooring
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.
You'll Minimize the Height of Flooring
Sometimes it is not necessary to gut a kitchen and remove the existing cabinets and appliances because they are in acceptable condition. Yet the flooring still needs to be replaced.
Consider installing thin floorings, such as luxury vinyl, laminate, or tile, which are possible to lay right up to the cabinets. The ragged edge of the flooring is then covered over with quarter-round or base molding. Thicker types of flooring such as solid hardwood present a problem because your cabinet counter may not be the standard height of 34 inches to 36 inches. This issue can be mitigated in two ways:
- Use 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.
- Lay the finish flooring straight onto the subfloor with no additional underlayment. An underlayment adds another 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch to the total flooring thickness.
One important measurement to watch is the height of the underside of countertop to the finished floor. Appliances such as dishwashers, under-counter ovens, and some trash compactors require a rough opening in order to slide in and out if they should ever need replaced. Too thick a finished floor could result in having to raise the countertop or remove flooring for appliance replacement.
When To Install Flooring Before Cabinets
If due to design circumstances (for example an odd appliance height or construction anomaly) your total flooring height will need to be elevated and finished higher than normal—two inches or more—consider installing flooring before putting in the kitchen cabinets and appliances. There's a good reason to do this.
If you were to first install those base cabinets and appliances straight onto the subfloor and then the hardwood flooring around the cabinets and appliances, the height of the cabinets and appliances will be all wrong. For example, it will be difficult to achieve the correct countertop height of 34 inches to 36 inches if everything is out of alignment. One way to correct this would be to put plywood risers underneath the cabinets and appliances. But the floor covering itself can be the risers, as well.
Dripping paint on kitchen flooring, such as textured or linen-look porcelain tile, can be disastrous because it's difficult to remove. Though you can more easily remove a paint drip on pre-finished wood, it will be difficult if it lands in a seam or if the paint pigment stains the wood. The bottom line: paint before floor installation.