What Is a Base Cabinet?

modern grey and white wooden kitchen interior
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Good kitchen or bathroom layouts flow effortlessly. Top and bottom cabinets either match or work well together visually. In kitchens, the lower cabinets are interspersed with the stove, oven, refrigerator, or dishwasher. In bathrooms, a lower cabinet, typically called a vanity, supports a countertop and sink.

The building block that ties all of this together is the base cabinet.

If you are unclear on the concept of base cabinets, you are not alone. Many homeowners, prior to remodeling, give little thought about the different classifications of cabinetry. In fact, if the cabinet system is performing well enough, you don't give it much thought; it just works.

Base Cabinets, Defined

A base cabinet is a cabinet built expressly for kitchens or bathrooms which rests on the floor and holds other items such as countertops, cooktops, and sinks. Kitchens are usually composed of both base cabinets and wall cabinets. Bathrooms tend to have only a base cabinet, though larger bathrooms may have a wall cabinet or two.

With a few exceptions, cabinet systems are mostly composed of two distinct types of cabinets: base cabinets and wall cabinets.

Base Cabinets

The true workhorse of the kitchen scheme, base cabinets sit on the floor and provide a base for other services and storage. Base cabinets also define the kitchen floorplan. They are considered to be permanent, attaching to the studs on the back wall. Base cabinets either have exposed legs or legs that are covered by a long strip of wood called a toekick.

Base cabinets tend to be 34 1/2 inches high. With a countertop added, the base cabinet rises to about 35 or 36 inches high. Bathrooms often have a type of base cabinet called a vanity that is about two inches shorter than kitchen base cabinets.

Wall Cabinets

A helper for some kitchen functions, wall cabinets are located above the base cabinets and mainly provide storage space. These attach to the wall studs with screws. Wall cabinets can be open (no doors) or with solid or glass doors. Often, wall cabinets mirror the arrangement of the base cabinets, but not always. Wall cabinets are rarely installed alone, without any type of base cabinets below.

Custom kitchen cabinetry can be any size. But semi-custom and stock kitchen cabinets, whether wall or base, come in pre-defined sizes.

Base Cabinet Functions

Acting as Bases for Counters

Base cabinets are called just that because they act as a base on which other things rest. Kitchen base cabinets are very much the workhorse of the kitchen, holding up items such as:

Providing Large Storage Spaces

Base cabinets are ideal for storing large items such as pots and pans, cleaning accessories, and canned and dry goods.

Sometimes, the storage area is just a big, open box (namely, under the sink). Most often, the storage area is enhanced by slide-outs, drawers, box-columns, and lazy susans.

Base cabinets are not the only storage place. Pantries are better for food that you use only occasionally. Wall cabinets are better for frequently used food items.

Large 48-inch base cabinets are good for pots and pans, and 12-inch cabinets are well suited for baking sheets, muffin tins, and other large, flat items.

Defining the Floorplan

The majority of kitchen layouts are really quite simple, forming either an L-shape or U-shape. Or they might be corridor or galley kitchens with cabinets on one or both sides. In any case, pre-determined shapes define most kitchens.

Other cabinets, such as pantries, do come into play. The refrigerator also is a major building block of the kitchen layout. For the most part, kitchen layouts are defined by base cabinets.

Generally, base cabinets will be the sole determining factor in terms of traffic flow, open floor space, and where you can place other items like kitchen tables.

Building Kitchen Islands

While kitchen islands are often built from scratch by custom remodelers or home builders, a majority of the time they are built by starting from kitchen base cabinets. Two or three base cabinets are joined (on the inside, invisibly) and a countertop spans all of these bases. Seams between the bases might be covered by molding, but often they look fine enough without the trim. 

Using inexpensive kitchen base cabinets is a classic IKEA hack. In fact, IKEA has pre-sized laminate counters that fit across their base cabinets. 

Base Cabinet Installation Considerations

  • Most kitchen base cabinets are installed by professional technicians. But with the influx of ready to assemble cabinets, homeowners have taken charge of cabinet installation.
  • Cabinets will need to be shimmed from below before attachment to the wall. This is one installation where absolute level is needed.
  • Freestanding cabinets often have legs that can be adjusted independently to gain level.
  • Quality cabinet boxes tend to be made of furniture-grade 1/2-inch plywood. MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, is another material often used for building base cabinet boxes.
  • Euro-style cabinet doors are also called frameless because there is no center stile.